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5 Lessons I Learned By Paying for College Myself

Enrolling in a form of higher education is a great thing for a number of reasons.

For starters, having a college degree under your belt typically qualifies you for more competitive jobs and salaries. Secondly, college is a unique experience all on its own; you meet new people, become independent, learn more about the world around you, and for traditional students, you learn to live on your own for the first time. Finally, college is wonderful because it’s a priceless achievement that you accomplished all on your own.

With pros to college comes some cons as well; most notably, the price tag on college tuition. College sounds like a great path until you look at the number of zeros attached to the dollar amount you’re responsible to pay for–that’s how many thousands of dollars?

Yup, I’ve been there, like most of my peers. I signed my name on the dotted line promising that I would repay the tens of thousands of dollars I would owe to graduate with a B.A. in Communication, minor in Sociology, and two semesters abroad in Europe.

It all cost me a pretty penny, which might resonate with you as well. As scary as it is to be responsible for repaying your student loans, I’m here to share five lessons I learned by paying for college myself. Hint: it was actually a really smart decision for me.

1. I learned that if I didn’t finish my degree, I would only hurt myself. 

I grew up in a middle-class family with two siblings. My parents were very clear with me that they believed that I needed to earn a college degree to set myself up for a successful career and financial future.

Even though they couldn’t pay for college for me, they assured me they would help me along the way. I lived at home all four years and commuted to a local state university to save money on room/board.

My parents didn’t charge me for rent, groceries, or anything else during my college career. Instead, they supported me by offering me a rent-free place to stay with guaranteed meals, laundry access, and a quiet atmosphere so that I could study and finish my degree.

While my parents couldn’t pay my tuition for me, I learned the truth: it wasn’t their responsibility to pay my student loans.

I wanted to go to college. I wanted to earn a degree. I was the one who was gaining a secondary education, so I had to finish my degree myself. If I didn’t finish college, I would still be responsible for the mountain of student debt waiting for me post-grad.

I pushed myself to finish school because I knew that I wanted something to show for the tens of thousands of dollars I owed back; a degree.

2. I learned how to budget.

The biggest surprise waiting for me post-grad was the necessity of establishing a budget.

Not long after I finished college, I found myself living in my first apartment, which came with a whole host of bills: rent, groceries, electricity, hot water, etc. Adjusting to living “on my own” for the first time (even though I was living with my boyfriend who shared these bills with me) was a huge transition.

Financially, I felt extremely limited on where I could allocate my income because my bills (e.g. student loans, rent, groceries, utilities, etc.) accounted for so much of my monthly earnings.

After a time, however, I did learn how to budget based on my monthly income and my monthly expenditures.

Having student loans in repayment reminded me that I couldn’t spend my money as freely as I pleased anymore.

Adulthood means being responsible, and it was during my early to mid-twenties that I realized how I needed to be financially responsible. I began budgeting my student loan repayment, retirement contributions, rent, car insurance, cell phone plan, groceries, etc.

Having a set amount of money I needed to put toward each of my bills helped keep me on a monthly track.

3. I learned how interest and principal work. 

One of the most stunning discovers I made post-grad was learning all about how interest and principal work in a loan.

I was surprised to learn that the first few months of payments I made toward my student loans were only actually hitting the accrued interest on the loans; not even the principal balance I owed!

It took me several months of payments before I actually began hitting the principal.

Moreover, I realized that it would take me a long time before I would get to a point where my monthly payments were mostly allocated to the principal, with only a small portion owed to accrued interest.

In short, learning about interest and principal balances in a loan made me very aware of where my money was going. It taught me the importance of paying my loan payments on time, so as not to accrue more interest.

4. I learned the value of doubling up on payments. 

Paying back the minimum monthly balance owed on your student loans is certainly reasonable. I completely understand that not everyone is in a financial situation that allows them to pay more than the minimum due.

However, if you’re like me and you could spend a little more on paying back your student loans now and a little less on takeout, coffee runs, and new clothes, then by all means do your best to reallocate your money.

I started doubling up payments on one of my students loans (yes, I have more than one and they’re all set at different interest rates) and I saw an immediate difference!

By doubling up on one of my loans, I hit the principal balance more and deducted larger chunks of debt.

By doing this, I will undoubtedly shave off a year, at least, of my repayment plan, which could save me hundreds of dollars in interest.

Even though spending my money less on social and recreational activities isn’t exactly fun, it is important to spend more money on my student loans now to reach financial freedom sooner.

5. I learned that paying for my own education made me feel like an adult. 

The term “adulting” is extremely popular these days and it never felt truer to me than when I began repaying my student loans.

Up until that point, I spent my money on inexpensive bills like car insurance and gasoline for my car. I did have a car payment in college, but in hindsight that monthly expense was only a fraction of what my student loans would cost to repay.

Paying for an education is an extremely expensive path for most of us. Tuition is hardly affordable and unless your parents have been saving up for you since you were a child, chances are high that you’ll have to apply for loans, grants, and/or scholarships to help deduct the cost of tuition.

Even with my scholarships, my student debt ended up stunning me when I went into repayment. It astounded me how quickly I racked up so much debt in only four years! Yet, paying it back month by month, year by year, has taught me one simple truth: even though earning a college education is expensive, it’s an invaluable achievement that no one can ever take away from me.

I earned my degree all on my own. Even with my family and friends cheering me on, I was the one up late at night writing papers. I was the one standing at the front of the classroom in a room full of my peers, presenting a topic on communication and sociology. I was the one taking tests and quizzes and conducting studies. I was the one who earned high honors, got inducted into an honor society, and graduated cum laude.

Even if it cost me my entire life savings and then some, I bought one of the most invaluable things in life: an education. So after all the interest is paid and after I payoff my principal balance, it’ll all be worth it. Little by little, I’m getting there. #adulting

Paying for college on your own is an extremely daunting path. It’s terrifying to be accountable for tens of thousands (or for some, hundreds of thousands) of dollars in student loans. As nerve wracking as paying back your student loans may seem, remember to be patient with yourself.

You won’t pay it all back in one lump sum (unless you’re really lucky). Take it in chunks and do the best you can. I’m three years into my ten-year note, but with my budget I hope to be paid in full sooner than expected.

If you can afford to pay more now, do it. You’re future self will thank you. Do what you can to reach financial freedom soon. And remember, even if it takes you a lifetime to repay your student loans, there are valuable lessons to learn from a very hectic experience like this! Don’t overlook all of the great takeaways you can gain from paying back your student loans yourself.

Are you repaying your student debt on you own? What lessons have you learned? Share in the comments!

About the Author

Rachael Warren (Tulipano)

Rachael is a University of Southern Maine graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and a minor in Sociology. She remotely works full-time as a Senior Content Marketing Specialist for Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. In her leisure time, Rachael enjoys traveling with her husband, finding the next Netflix series to binge, and taking too many photos of her dogs Jax and Kai. Rachael is obsessed with chapstick, favors the Oxford comma, and is a proud Mainer. You'll likely find her exploring New England + beyond.