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How a Mother of 4 Racked Up $410K of Student Loan Debt

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Going to college is probably the easiest, fastest way to get into a ton of debt. You’re making an investment in your future, but you can just as easily lose that future to thousands of dollars in student loan payments or wage garnishment if things don’t go according to your plan.

Six-figure debt isn’t the norm — borrowers who graduated in 2015 have an average of about $35,000 in education loans — though the sum doesn’t have to be huge to be unaffordable. Of course, for some people, it’s both. That’s the story of Liz Kelley, a 48-year-old Missouri high school teacher and mom to four, who found herself buried under a massive pile of debt from college, grad school and her kids’ educations. Kevin Carey, who directs the education policy program at New America, recently wrote about Kelley’s experience and how she ended up with $410,000 of federal student loan debt for the New York Times.

It started with an undergraduate degree from a private college, and when she graduated in 1994, she had $26,278 in loans. She followed that with a stint in law school, for which she borrowed $37,000, but she had to drop out because of a life-threatening illness. Kelley combined the loans, by then totaling $68,518 with interest, at an 8.25% annual interest rate. She then decided to pursue teaching, for which she went to graduate school from 1999 to 2004. During that time, she borrowed federal student loans to not only cover her education expenses but also her living expenses, which included childcare. This added $60,700 to her principal balance and left her with $194,603 in student loan debt by 2005.

Over the next few years, she and her husband were hit hard financially by the recession, lost their home to foreclosure and divorced. Kelley deferred her student loan payments (which you can do for up to three years for economic hardship), but the balance continued to accrue interest. To help her kids pay for college, she took out a $12,000 parent PLUS loan. Still working on her teaching career, Kelley briefly enrolled in an education Ph.D. program (she withdrew) that added $7,458 to her loans. When her loan deferment expired, Kelley enrolled in federal loan forbearance, which further pushed off the payments. Eventually, that will end and Kelley will need to make her first student loan payment, more than two decades after she first borrowed. Her balance of $410,000 will only continue to grow as interest accrues through the remainder of the forbearance.

It’s not a particularly complicated story: Kelley just seems to be someone who wanted to set herself up for a successful career and take care of her family, but bad luck and the ease of borrowing made an expensive mess of those plans. That’s the sort of story a lot of people can relate to, even if they don’t have six-figure student loan debt.

It’s a situation that doesn’t have many great outcomes. She could find relief through public service student loan forgiveness, but even then, she doesn’t have much time or spare cash to save for retirement (she cashed out what she had during the recession). Who knows how all of this affected her credit score and how that will impact other aspects of her financial life.

Whether you’re dealing with $10,000 or $100,000 of student loan debt, you have to make a plan to deal with it. The options may be few and sometimes intimidating, but your education debt isn’t going anywhere, and as long as you owe it, it will affect your financial health. Contact your student loan servicer and research your student loan repayment options, as well as keep an eye on how your student loan debt affects your credit. You can check two of your credit scores for free every 30 days on Credit.com to see where you stand.

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  • JamesHayes

    Kelly has very poor financial literacy skills. If you do not make payments or do not even pay the interest each month common sense would tell you your loan is growing larger and larger. Kelly made some incredibly bad choices and we can all hope a majority of teachers have better financial skills and would not make similar bad choices. College is an investment. If you overpay it no longer brings a return on that investment.

    • Rob Jones

      Kelly surmised she would never have to pay the loans.

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