Guest Expert Kelli Space: I’m paying off $200K in student loans

Personal Finance
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We reached out to Kelli Space, a Northeastern alum with $200,000 in student debt, to provide Meghan with feedback and advice on her student loan situation. Here is what she had to say:

Meghan – you and I have a lot in common.

I, too, graduated with about $200K in student loan debt in 2009. Like you, I found my debt to be inconceivable – so I immediately panicked. I moved home, began the hunt for a full-time job in what was slated to be a difficult summer for recent grads, and worked 40 hours a week at a department store during my search. Eventually I found a full-time job in NYC, and worked both there and at the store for a while.

I’ve been there.

In my panic, I created twohundredthou.com asking for help with my student loan payments. After all, my $800 monthly payments were set to double! I was also unable to cope with the possibility that I could ruin my entire life by not acting quickly enough. Since that day in November of 2010, I have received $13K in donations, and have paid off a total of $70K of my student loans. I found my motivation in the response my website received; I was sent countless support e-mails, which I leaned on in stressful times. I also received tons of criticism, which I used as motivation.

Sticking your head in the sand, as you know, will not make your debt go away. It will prolong the inevitable, while the interest will increase the amount that you owe. Interest isn’t the only thing you need to worry about! Ignoring your debt could cause you to miss a payment, which can severely affect your credit score for the worse. That house you want to buy one day? You might not be able to. In fact, even renting becomes extremely difficult with bad credit.

Planning for your future is of the utmost importance. The worst case scenario would be if you decide you want to get married down the line, or have children, but don’t build those possibilities into your plan now. This is equally true for buying a home or eventually retiring, as well. It sounds like you recognize this, though, and that’s an important step.

You are absolutely right to think that high-interest debt and building an emergency savings account to cover several months of bills is worth tackling before your student loans, which likely have lower interest rates and more flexible payment plans than other debts. I also recommend negotiating as much as possible: call American Express and try to negotiate a lower interest rate, following some of Ramit Sethi’s tips. You can even call your student loan companies to inquire about any interest rate reduction programs or consolidation options. This can save you thousands over the life of your loans.

I understand that saving on the smaller things — lattes, subway, et al — feel like just small wins, and that you believe you’d have to restructure your life to make any sort of impact. And this is, in large part, true. But I think the way to compromise here might be to earn more now. Sure, you work long, weird hours – but there are opportunities to freelance doing whatever you enjoy doing. You can visit elance.com for freelance opportunities, and even Craigslist for any part-time virtual assistant positions. Paying more toward your loans today will pay dividends tomorrow; the higher your income, the larger your student loan payments, the faster you pay off your debt.

It seems like an impossible wall to climb now, but as your motivation grows, your debt will shrink. Best of luck to you.

Kelli Space is a student loan advocate and personal finance enthusiast. She is the Chief Marketing Officer for Zero Bound, an online platform that aims to help students and alumni pay off their student loans through sponsored volunteerism. In 2010, Kelli brought media attention to her own student loan debt experience by creating twohundredthou.com, a crowd-funding website. Using this media momentum, she has championed the cause of student loan debt reform and has partnered with financial education initiative Alltuition as well as signing on with ReadyForZero as a resident student loan blogger. She has a BA in Sociology from Northeastern University and believes more (affordable) education is in her near future.