I’m a millennial. And like most millennials, I graduated from school with a ton of student loan debt – over six figures, in fact. Of course, had I had the insight I do now, I would have financed my education differently, I am confident that having lived through the experience ended up being a good thing.
I know, you’re probably thinking, “James, you’re crazy. It’s unfair that the schools get away with charging kids so much for an education.” Sure, I think education is overpriced; there’s a real need for us to re-think how higher education is funded. But here’s some things I learned from paying off that debt
1. I learned the value of a dollar – an education with 10 x returns.
I was lucky enough to grow up with parents that were able to provide for me. While I had jobs in high school and college, I didn’t really need them. My parents worked their buts off to put a roof over my head, clothes on my back, food in my stomach, and even gave me a car. Not so many people are this lucky. And for that I will always be grateful.
But what I never learned until I graduated law school with crushing debt was what a dollar was actually worth. I never understood what it was to pay bills and have the stress of thinking financially months and years ahead. When I woke up the morning after law school graduation drenched in sweat, I realized it was because I had a large monthly bill coming due and no light at the end of the tunnel.
Because of that fear, I decided to act. I devoted hours upon hours of reading about how to save, invest, pay down debt, and be smart with money. I also learned to abstain from frivolous spending and to live by a budget. And while it was painful, it was well worth it.
Perhaps I’m a few years behind many of my peers who started working years earlier or forewent graduate school. And maybe I don’t already own the house and fancy car that I dreamed of as a teenager. But I now see money different. I appreciate it more, and have learned to value what I have instead of dreaming of what I don’t. Due to this change in mind set, the investment (both financially and intellectually) I made in myself will have returns for the rest of my life.
2. It taught me that there are real consequences to my actions.
Sure, I was only a “kid” when I made the decision to take out a ton of student loans. And yes, I was told it was “good debt.” But it was “me” who made the choice. And it was “me” who received the monthly bills. My student loan debt taught me that just because I’m (young, uninformed, or name whatever excuse), it doesn’t matter. There will always be an excuse to make. My decisions have consequences, so I better take them seriously.
3. It taught me to focus on solutions rather than problems.
Indeed, there were times when I wallowed in self-pity. How will I buy a house? How will I start a family? How will I save for retirement? But despite the hard times, I realized that it was simply not productive to worry about the problems in my life. Instead, I needed to focus on the solutions. Taking it day-by-day helped. Chipping away here and there made a difference. And before I knew it I had a made real progress.
I’ve used this same philosophy in other areas in my life. As a practicing attorney, I realize that with most of my cases there are tons of problems. But wallowing in those problems doesn’t help. Instead I do my best to focus on how to fix the problems.
4. It taught me that I don’t know everything.
This is probably the best lesson I learned from my student debt. While I had people tell me that student loans were worth it, I also had people tell me to be careful. Of course these words of caution went in one ear and out the other – I knew everything. Until I didn’t.
I’m not saying that you should let negative people stop you from making real choices. To be successful, you will have to take chances and you'll have people telling you not to do this or that. What I’m saying is have the self-awareness to realize that more information is better than less. And actually, listen to different points of view – even if they aren’t what you want to hear.