Approximately 60 percent (12 million) of the nearly 20 million students attending a four-year college or university in the United States on an annual basis take out student loans to cover their costs. 37 million borrowers who currently are, or were, students have an outstanding loan balance, with federal and private student loan debt looming at or more than one trillion dollars. The amount of loan balance outstanding per capita is a little more than $24,000, with 1% owing $200,000 or more; 3% owing between $100,000 and $200,000; 10% owing between $54,000 and $100,000; and, 25% of borrowers owing $28,000 to $54,000.
Student loan dollars are typically sent to the financial aid department of a college or university and used to offset the cost of tuition, fees, room and board and other associated costs. If the amount borrowed exceeds the amount needed to meet your expenses as a student, the remainder balance will be given in the form of a check. This may take place either at the beginning of the year in a lump sum payment or at the beginning of each semester, as funds are disbursed to the institution.
The Student Loan Conundrum
The problem with the way student loans are disbursed to you as a student is that it creates a false sense of wealth. Imagine an 18 to 19 year old student who has never seen a check for $1,000, $5,000 or $10,000 dollars. It becomes tempting to use these funds to invest in a new wardrobe, killer shoes or a brand new entertainment system for their dorm room. The unfortunate downside to this type of use of excess student loan money is the negative effect it will have on your future financial habits and your ability to qualify for other types of loans, such as home and auto. What is the true cost of those $99 shoes and did it lead you to become a member of “Generation Debt?”
Typical Student Loan Expenditures
With their newfound wealth, where is the money from student loans going if it isn’t being used to pay for school or being invested for the future? For some borrowers, excess student loan money is being used to fund a lavish lifestyle and the excess of youth, without regard to the future and what may come. Cars, parties, vacations, starting a business are some of the more typical expenditures made by students with their excess funds. Such spending is well within the rules as there is no current monitoring performed by the U.S. Department of Education or a school’s financial aid or bursar’s office once these funds have been distributed to the student.
The Cost of Student Loans
Resisting the temptation to use your student loan money in a frivolous way can result in major savings in the long run. Here is a simple illustration of how saving a portion of your excess student loan funds can save you on interest alone:
You borrow a total of $50,000 toward your education costs to fund a 4-year bachelor’s degree (which took 5 years to obtain) at $10,000 per year. You only needed $5,000 toward your education costs, yielding a windfall of $5,000 each year you worked on that degree. You begin to repay the loan at the end of the fifth year under a standard loan repayment schedule of 10 years. You will pay back the $50,000 borrowed, plus an additional $16,600 plus in interest (at a hypothetical 6% loan interest rate). In addition to this, add a 6% interest to all purchases made with your loan money (or, an additional $60 in interest for every $1,000 worth of purchases).
Now, pretend that you set aside half of your newfound money ($2,500) each year in an interest bearing account (at 6.5% compounded monthly) over the five years before you start paying back the loan amount. Instead of an interest payment of $16,600, you have a lump sum amount of $15,247 to apply toward your loan balance, lowering the balance to $34,000 and some change and a total interest of $11,547. You trimmed your interest costs by nearly one-third by setting aside merely one-half of your excess distributed funds. It goes without saying, but using money earned from a part-time job on extra purchases (rather than loan money) will eliminate the need to pay of interest on those expenditures.
Making Wise Choices with Student Loan Funds
Making better choices about student loan funds and how to use them will make life easier for you and improve your financial future. There are great tools that can help you determine how much interest you will pay, the amount of loan payments you will make and counseling programs that can help you avoid the pitfalls of generations before you. Consider this: those with the most student loan debt currently are those who can least afford that debt. Information from the Pew Research Center and Federal Reserve that 58 percent of student loan debt outstanding is held by households with a net worth that is less than $8,500.
Understand that learning about money and the cost of money are important life lessons to learn as early as possible. Regardless of whether you are a person who comes from financial means or who has never been exposed to large sums of wealth, poor finance decisions may provide an immediate benefit but become a lifelong detriment. Instead, take the time to educate yourself about your loans and the consequences of your spending—it’s a move that your future self will surely appreciate.
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