5 Mistakes I Made That Racked Up $70,000 in Student Loan & Consumer Debt

It was 2014, I was three years out of college with no real sense of direction or purpose. I decided to move back home to Chicago and go back to school for interior design, a once-upon-a-time forgotten passion of mine that never came to fruition in the real world. Within six months of returning home I enrolled in grad school to pursue my masters in art and landed a job with a large, high end residential firm that was nationally recognized. I started at the very bottom and was promoted several times making my way into a design position in two years time, right after I graduated. Dream come true, right?

Not exactly. I was lucky. I had a connection that helped me land the job. I worked my butt off full time while attending evening classes. I had wonderful mentors, made great connections and developed skills that will help me move forward in the design industry. But I was riffled with emotional and financial debt that I’m still dealing with today, nearly four years later.

Going into debt is not inevitable nor should it be considered a ‘normal part of life’. It’s not like getting braces, having an awkward first kiss or getting a pimple. Instead, our financial choices can last much longer than our awkward teenage years.

Deciding to take on debt should hold more weight than it currently does and it’s something you need to seriously consider before signing up.

Let me put the disclaimer out there as I know many of you may be thinking it: Is a Masters in Interior Design really necessary? That depends what your goals are and where you want to work. A design degree was required at my firm to hold a design position and it enabled me to later sit for my licensing exams; benchmarks that significantly increased my earnings. In my mind, at the time, it was necessary.

Regardless of the need I felt to earn a degree in design there were ways I could have gone about it to significantly reduce the amount of loans I took on. Here’s the five mistakes I made that accumulated $60,000 in student loan debt and another $10,000 in consumer debt:

1. Independent City Living

Initially, I lived at home in the suburbs with my parents for six months but quickly moved into a studio apartment in the city once school and work were in full swing. I wanted the convenience of being close to the office. I wanted the freedom of independent living. I wanted the experience of city living. After all I was 25. In the prime of life, so I thought. Not only did I live on my own but I chose an expensive area. Forget paying for school books or technology I wasn’t even “barely scraping by” on my bills. I was going into the red to just live the life I wanted. My parents would have housed me throughout my grad school but I declined.

2. Using My Credit Card To Cover My Basics

That’s right. I racked up 10 grand in consumer debt for things like groceries and my gym membership. I relied on a line of credit to keep food on the table. I resorted to the same thought cycle “this is what it is and once I’m out of school and get that raise I’ll be able to pay this off in no time!”

3. Full Time School

I’m always of the mindset to just get it done. It’s one of my greatest assets and downfalls. But there’s a balance to getting it done and strategically getting it done. A full time course-load plus my living expenses were impossible to pay for on my own.

4. Unwillingness To Sacrifice My Lifestyle Habits

Grad school was the first real “purchase” I was responsible for on my own. Yes, I worked and purchased things prior but always managed within a small amount of money. I didn’t know what it meant to plan and be responsible for this kind of financial decision. A decision that would, for most people, involve sacrifice, humility, hard work, and commitment. I certainly didn’t behave like a broke college kid. I took European vacations, frequently purchased organic foods, still held my gym membership and several other subscription services, socialized often with friends over expensive dinners out and lived in an expensive neighborhood. It was called Gold Coast for crying out loud! I wanted to live my life the way I envisioned it and was unwilling to put that on hold to pay for grad school or, at the very least, not go into consumer debt.

5. Lack of Research & Investment in My Well-Being

I’m referring to my lack of research and time in the design industry prior to taking on debt and my inability to foresee how full time work and full time grad school would affect my well-being. Internships or informational interviews could have helped guide me in the right direction. Maybe I would have decided against the interior design industry. Maybe I would have heard some great advice and attended school part time instead, limiting the emotional and financial burden. Maybe I would have researched more scholarship opportunities. Maybe I would have taken on a second job to help pay for school as I went. Or maybe I would have chosen the same path regardless. Who knows. But investing the time and research into your decision to take on debt is imperative. I didn’t give it a second thought when I agreed to take out $60,000 in student loans.

Shortly after the whirlwind of grad school and my promotion to designer at the firm I finally had a moment to stop and take a breather. While the stress of full time grad school and full time work subsided I now had another anxiety churning in my mind: how am I going to pay all of this debt back? The consumer debt was worst of all, I had racked up about $1,000 in interest charges alone. I felt like I had been dropped in a deep, dark hole with no light and no way out. I had no bearing, no financial understanding, and no experience on how to deal with this. I became so obsessed with money. Constantly checking my balances. Tracking every penny that came in and out of my account. Somehow thinking that maybe today will be different than yesterday. Maybe some of that debt will magically disappear – that it was a technical error in the system. But that didn’t happen.

I spent the next two years with increasing anxiety over money. Crippling at times. I had this constant feeling like I couldn’t dream of any kind of future because nothing was attainable with this debt. A downpayment on a house? No way. A luxury beachside vacation? Forget it. My thoughts were consumed with money. It crept into my social life where I was constantly conflicted about spending money to keep up with friends but wanting to save more. I was ashamed of how little I was making compared to the debt I had. I was, essentially, upside down on my financial life. I had more debt than I made in a given year. On top of that my emotional stress started to impact my physical well-being causing hair loss – yes, true story (more on that later).

So, do I regret the decisions I made? Eh. There’s no use dwelling on any of that. It is what is. However, I wish I knew ahead of time the emotional debt I was getting myself into as coping with that has been far more challenging than gaining control over my finances. It’s not difficult to pick up a book or read a blog to understand how to manage your money. The lessons and mindset I’ve extracted from this experience are some of the most valuable ones I’ve learned in my 30 years so far. But I’m only now just starting to emotionally heal from the anxiety and stress I endured while trying to get a grip on my financial life. There’s no real rule book or objective advice on how to deal with emotional strain, making it much more difficult to overcome.

Take my advice and think on it before you take out student loans. Do your research. Understand how your repayment plan will work. Can you afford it with the job you expect to get and the salary you expect to earn? Can you apply for scholarships? Get a second job? Make a lifestyle change? Live at home? It takes all but 15 seconds to sign the paperwork granting you money for school but potentially 15 years to pay it all back and at the sacrifice of your emotional well-being. Debt is not normal. It is not inevitable. And it is certainly not a requirement in life. There are always ways around it or ways to significantly reduce the amount of loans you need for school. Don’t take a backseat to your finances. Park your ass in the driver’s seat and avoid the same mistakes I did.