I was the first in my family to graduate college. It was a happy time for all of us, as they cried watching me cross the stage, accept my degree, and start my career as a journalist. And I was one of the lucky ones: Even in the midst of the recession, I was able to find a (low-paying, part-time, sort of in my field) job right out of school.
But getting into school brought my family into some unknown territory. We didn’t have enough money to pay for school and I didn’t get as much as I needed from scholarships, so we turned to student loans to help get me through.
My mom helped me apply for the loan, nearly $16,000 worth. I was told I wouldn’t even start paying it back until six months after I graduated, so I put it all to the back of my mind — so far back that when it came time to start paying it back, I didn’t.
Default, defer, and all that debt
The United States is suffering from $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, and according to the American Association of University Women, ladies hold nearly two-thirds of that. As more women are enrolled in college and they continue to earn less than their male peers for the same job, student loans disproportionately affect women more than men.
I was lucky to get a part-time job straight out of college. I kept my waitressing job a few months after graduation and then started freelance writing for a couple of local publications along with my low-paying day job. When I started to get notices about my loans, I ignored them. If I don’t read them they don’t exist, right? But really, I didn’t have the cash to even fathom paying it back, so I thought I had more time before I needed to. Then I went into default and my wages were garnished.
Because I didn’t know what default or deferment or forbearance or wage garnishment was at any point in or right after college, I had no idea what would happen to me if I didn’t pay back that money on time. My low paycheck would’ve helped me qualify for temporarily halting payments or reducing what I owed. All I had to do was talk to my loan servicer early on about my issues. I didn’t.
Default is what happens when you don’t make a payment for more than 270 days. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the government watchdog that protects consumers (even student loan borrowers), didn’t exist when I was entering or even graduating school. Neither did studentloans.gov, the Department of Education’s massive help center for students and families who are clueless when it comes to student loans.
The ignorance hurts for years
That’s the thing about money: If you don’t get how it works, you literally hurt everything around you. I thought of myself only in the moment. I just barely paid my bills. I had a broken-down car that I kept feeding any money I had into repairs for. When it finally took its last breath and I went to get a new one, I couldn’t even be on the loan as a co-signer because my credit score was that low. I thought it was because I didn’t have any credit; it was really because my student loans crumbled the only credit history I did have.
My credit tells everyone how responsible I am with money — that I can borrow money and pay it back in full, on time, and sometimes, with interest. I didn’t have that proof, which meant getting a new car — to get me to and from my job to earn money that would eventually pay back loans — had hit a massive road block. Eventually, your student loan debt will crush your financial future through your credit score and history.
Why women suffer more
The American Association of University Women study shows that the increase in women in higher education is on par with the increase in student loan debt.
“The number of women enrolled in postsecondary institutions has increased dramatically within the past 50 years, and during that same period there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of student debt amassed by the students enrolled in college,” the study says. “Women have achieved equity in postsecondary attainment at the exact moment it became commonplace for college students to amass large amounts of debt.”
According to the AAUW, women are borrowing more. In 2012, women getting bachelor’s degrees were borrowing nearly $21,000 while their male counterparts were borrowing just over $19,000. As a whole, expected family contributions are less for women than they are for men: $7,529 versus $8,888. Women get less help from families even though they make up the majority of enrolled students nationally (in both graduate and undergraduate levels).
“Women have taken on more debt than men for more than a decade, and do so regardless of degree level,” the study says.
Women have less family help, take out more in loans, earn less while working in college and after graduation, and take longer to pay back loans once in the workforce.
Don’t be like me
It wasn’t until I got that new car that I was able to work out a budget. Two and a half years after graduation, I moved up to a full-time position at work, started to make regular payments on student loans and my car, and stashed some cash away at a job-sponsored 401(k). It shouldn’t have taken me until my mid-20s to start solid money management. I learned the hard way.
But today, my credit score is in the mid-700s. I consolidated my loans, I have a low interest rate, and I set up automatic deductions from my bank account every month so I don’t need to worry about it.
Women in the workforce that are ignorant to basic money management or don’t have the tools to repay so they end up in default (or both), must face hardships that their male counterparts face at half the rate. It shouldn’t be this hard to pay for school, and it shouldn’t be this hard to climb back out of debt. I know women can handle it — but none of us should have to.
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