More money…more problems? Lessons learned for managing finances and student loans.

I’m sure everyone has at least once in their life had thoughts about how they were going to afford university. For me, I had this thought hundreds of times. Let’s just say I didn’t grow up in the most financially stable home, but that’s a story for another time.

I’m here to talk about three particular instances. My first time was during my senior year of high school as I was preparing to go to university the following year for my undergraduate degree. I would say I – as well as any other high school senior – had it easy this round as it seems most schools generally take some time out of the year to educate their students about ways to gain assistance with college. I mean after all, not everyone’s mum and dad are Doctors right? 


Scholarships, federal student aid (FAFSA), work study, you name it. I learned it all. The following week I was signing up for all of these websites to send me scholarships for me to apply to, as well as doing my own research. Here I was thinking I was doing the right thing being proactive and getting ahead of the game. What really happened was I became overwhelmed with all of the emails being sent to me and eventually wound up unsubscribing in 3 months. It was a great relief that FAFSA alone was able to cover me. Yay for going to a local university! Lesson learned. Don’t take on more than you can handle.


My second time involved me going into my certification programme to be an Occupational Therapy Assistant. There was about a year and a half gap between receiving my Bachelor’s degree and going to my certification program, in which I was working full time. I eventually came to the realisation that I would have to leave my full-time position to make time for university.. How was I going to pay for university if I wasn’t working full-time? FAFSA wasn’t applicable this round. I had heard horror stories about taking out loans, which I just was not willing to do. I wanted to pay for university and not have to worry about paying back the government. A couple months prior to starting my programme, I had received a big boost on my credit line from being a customer so long with my bank. I thought that’s it! Also, it pays to be loyal. I felt I had a good relationship with them. Why not? felt that by going this route, I wouldn’t be worrying about government spies tracking me down with their crazy interest rates. Instead, I would pay for university in a way that was feasible since I was not working as much. Little did I realise, again I was young and naïve, that higher charges in the card meant higher monthly payments. So did I really help myself? Lesson learned. Do your research.


Now why would I put myself through this for the third time? Because I got this crazy idea to pursue a Masters Degree. Average tuition for graduate school in Texas can range anywhere from 12,000-20,000 dollars, but that’s just tuition. You look at books, commuting, food, it all adds up to anywhere from 30,000-40,000 dollars. Yikes. See previous lesson learned: Don’t take on more than you can handle. 


I was still going to be working full- time, but that wasn’t enough. I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice, but how do I do research? What do I research? I wound up seeking advice from a friend who was pretty knowledgeable in all the lingo. Interest rates, APR, repayment, etc. Being the visual learning I am, I had him write down everything for me. I looked at FAFSA, private bank loans, different loans from major companies and did a comparison. Through process of elimination, and a little leap of faith, I eventually chose FAFSA, given they had the most affordable interest rate and least scary repayment plan. Lesson learned. You have options.


Don’t take on more than you can handle. Do your research. You have options. These are my three keys to financial aid when it comes to education. Gaining higher level education should not feel impossible and finances should not deter you from achieving your goals. It always makes me sad when I hear stories of people who gave up their dreams because they felt they couldn’t afford it. Why should someone be stopped when there are countless resources around you to make those dreams a reality?


What seems to deter folks the most is the fear of repayment after taking some sort of assistance. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life paying back student loans”. Unfortunately, this is a sad reality for many individuals. Now this isn’t to tell you it’s a bad idea to use financial aid because, in reality, you are in control of this situation. Maybe not the actual facts and figures, but your actions now can set the stage later. Which brings me to today.


Here I am, a full time worker and student in graduate school. How am I getting by? Remember I don’t have a wealthy mum and dad to help me, nor am I making six figures (yet), so what am I doing? I learned the art of living below my means. I’m all for structure and keeping myself accountable, so the the first thing I did was create a monthly budget. There are several apps out there, so take your pick! I happen to be using the Mint app. I allocated a certain amount of money every month based on my income to go to what’s essential, such as food shopping, bills, and what’s for pleasure, such as dining out and shopping. If I’ve met the budget for a category, then I wait until next month to buy it. I always happen to find the cutest pair of shoes when I have to wait. So that’s fun. I’ve also given myself a safe number for my bank account in which I could live off after making all of the important monthly payments. Whatever is left between that amount and my safe number goes to the student loan. We tend to make ourselves feel safe with this “cushion” of money in the account, but is that really helping you in the long run? By all means have a savings, but don’t put yourself in a situation where that savings is going to student loans. By sticking to these practices, I can say that I am almost done paying off my first year of university…before even finishing the first year!


So here’s my final piece of advice…a little sacrifice now can take you very far later.


Author: Shama Mukles

Bio: Shama Mukles is a COTA working in geriatrics in Houston, Texas and is a second year student who attends UT Tyler’s MOT program.

Twitter: @yayy_shama


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