You can’t help but notice the dire chatter surrounding student loans these days.

In fact, student loans are one of the hottest topics here at LearnVest, whether in LV Discussions, your comments or stories we write. Some are calling it the newest lending crisis, equal in scope to the subprime mortgages that torpedoed the economy in 2008.

No wonder–a record one in five households now holds student debt. Increasingly, this debt burden is altering lives, and not in the way students imagined when they first took out the loans. Enrollment in graduate programs has dropped, as students face mounting undergraduate loans. 44% of graduates are delaying buying a home, and 23% will delay having children because of their debt burden.

Defaults on student loans are at a record 13.4%, and there’s no clean slate in sight–student loans are rarely dischargeable in bankruptcy.

One NYU professor has even said that student loans are immoral.

This is a topic you’re passionate about. According to a nationwide survey conducted by LearnVest and Chase Blueprint, more than half of you have student loan debt, and you owe an average of $41,000. A quarter of you have more than five loans outstanding, and more than a third of you don’t think your student loans were worth it.

We wanted to show the faces behind these statistics, so we reached out to five LearnVest readers to share their own stories of naiveté, guilt and–in some cases–acceptance and triumph.

Do you recognize your own story in theirs?

Rebecca Harris, law student

Debt: $160,498

I came out of undergrad with almost $40,000 in student loans, and decided to go straight into law school. I wasn’t worried about taking on more debt because law schools all but guarantee that their graduates get jobs. The reality is that those numbers were inflated and manipulated. Students from my school who graduated two years ago are just now starting to get real jobs or picking up temporary work.

I’ve been adding to my loans for three years, and I now have an outstanding balance of $160,498 in federal loans (find out why federal loans are better than private), and I haven’t been able to pay down any while in school. My school requires 25 hours per week in legal clinics in addition to classes, reading and work, so there is little to no time for an extra job.

I feel extremely stressed out and overwhelmed. Recently I’ve been wondering if this is the right career for me after all, after getting a taste through clinic work. I want to find something that doesn’t make me stressed and anxious, and is more fulfilling. I’ve been researching other options, like working in HR or taking a management job that doesn’t require a law degree but would still make use of it.

Tiffany, public sector professional

Debt: $97,000

Even with a half-tuition scholarship, help from my parents and graduating early, I graduated from Boston University with $70,000 in student loan debt, then embarked on a career in the public sector in New York, starting at $30,000.

About two years ago, my boyfriend asked what the pay-off date for my loans was, and I had no idea. I read all the fine print and repayment terms and found I would be paying for nearly 30 years at the rate I was going! It felt like getting hit over the head with a ton of bricks.

I have since calculated my monthly payments so I will be paid off no later than December 2020. I allocate more to the higher-interest loans and take advantage of incentives such as lower interest if you enroll in auto-payment. I have a credit card that sends my cash-back bonuses straight to my private student loans.

“Even paying $100 a month while in school would have saved me $1,200 in accrued interest.”

I am grateful that the loans allowed me to go to the school of my choice. I just wish I understood capitalized interest and the terms of repayment better. I would have made an effort to pay at least something on my loans while in school. Even $100 a month, which would have been feasible with my college job, would have saved me $1,200 in accrued interest.

Now I’m back in school for my master’s in public administration and I’m looking at another $60,000 in debt, but this time with more knowledge. I chose a program that allowed me to continue working full-time and have paid off over $15,000 of my debt while in school. At work, I have been promoted, now earning between $50,000 and $60,000, and will graduate with my master’s in a much better position, both professionally and financially, than if I had attended a full-time program.

Diane Bitler, receptionist

Debt: $80,000

When I took out my student loans, I was young and did not have any clue about money, like the difference between lenders and good versus bad APR. My parents were new to the process as well and had no qualms about taking loans out. I wish my counselors guided me more, but instead I was encouraged to apply to any bank for loans.

I majored in Political Science at SUNY Albany. I chose my major at 17, and by the time I realized it didn’t appeal to me, I was a junior and it was too late to switch majors. Still, I figured I would graduate and find a job in six months (the time before receiving the loan bill). In reality, I graduated, and could only find part-time or extremely low paying jobs, none of which were enough to support myself and pay student loans.

For a long time I felt like a failure because I had no means of paying these loans. I tried the late payment rehabilitation program, but was two payments away when my work hours were cut and I could no longer afford it. My lenders continue to raise my interest and tack on late fees, which now accounts for the majority of my debt. Because my mom co-signed my loans, she’s been getting collection calls and harassment letters about garnishing her wages. Her credit is ruined along with mine.

“I’ve ruined my mom’s credit as well as mine.”

I went to a free financial counseling center in NYC, which helped me figure out how much I owe and to whom, but I am still at a loss as how to deal with these lenders. I’m trying to find a way to consolidate all my loans into just one bill.

I finally left Manhattan and moved to Virginia to find work. Now I earn $10 an hour, roughly $21,000 a year. I feel trapped. I could pay these off if I became a millionaire. Otherwise, I will be paying them until I die. I just wish I could file bankruptcy and start fresh.

I don’t understand how this could be done to the future of America.

Lily Engle, sales professional

Debt: $0

When I graduated in May 2009, I had a solid amount of student loan debt. While I know that $15,000 definitely isn’t that high, it was still a considerable sum to wrap my head around, and it lit a fire under my butt to find a job.

I work in sales, which isn’t my dream job (I had been hoping to find something in development or fundraising for a non-profit), but it has proven to be extremely rewarding and pays twice as much. So my happiness at work is one positive that came out of my student loans.

If I didn’t have these loans, I may have been more frivolous with my spending after college and would not have been able to create an emergency “savings cushion” like I have now. My loans helped me learn to budget and think about money differently. When paying down my debt, I always paid far more than the monthly minimum. As a trade-off, I chose to live somewhere where my rent was lower than the max I could afford. I also planned my budgets and spending around my salary, not my bonuses.

“My loans have helped me learn to budget and think about money differently.”

When I received my end-of-year bonus in March 2012, I used the entire thing to pay off the remaining $8,000. Because I didn’t incorporate my expected bonus into my budget, it wasn’t painful to say goodbye to it. I saved big on interest–I would have ended up paying an additional $800 or so over the life of the loan had I just kept on paying as usual, which would have taken me until 2015.

(Find out why she saved by paying earlier.)

Because of my loans, I can really appreciate the value of my education. Compromising on my education to avoid borrowing may have left me jobless post-graduation and given me no choice but to remain financially dependent upon my family. And being sure to pay my loans each month has given me good credit and solid financial footing as I prepare to take on additional financial responsibilities like homeownership or a family (eventually!).

Virginia Bosch, actor

Debt: $110,000

I was recently asked to fill out a survey from my private university, including the question: “If you could do it all over again, would you choose this school?” I answered, “Yes for the experience, but not for the money.”

I’ve wanted to be an actress since I was a little girl, but I also wanted to go to a school that let me explore other options and grow personally, so I chose to get a BA in the arts instead of going to a conservatory program. My university had the best theater program in the country … and was also named the most expensive college in the state. Originally we had more aid from the school and my parents were planning on paying more upfront. But since the market crashed when I was in college, our situation changed and the amount of aid the school gave me drastically dropped by the time I graduated (this was all told to my parents, not me).  So my parents took out more loans. I graduated in 2009 with $12,000 in federal and private student loans in my name, and over $100,000 in my parents’ names.

My goal is still to be an actress, but I’ve built up a swarm of freelance flexible jobs. I tried a steady administration job, but was miserable. So now I am currently an actor/babysitter/teaching artist/administrative temp/superstar errand-runner. (Find out more ways to make income on the side.) My income ranges between $1,000 to $2,600 a month. I’m back on track to paying my loans, and starting to formulate a financial plan.

When I graduated, the words “consolidation” and “interest rate” were foreign to me, despite the fact that I had borrowed so much money. When applying to college, I would have loved someone to sit me down and explain the ins and outs of loans. $50,000 in debt is very impractical as an actress. At my current rate, I will be able to pay off my portion of loans within the next five years, but I plan on taking on as much of the $100,000 in loans in my parents’ names as possible, even though they say they are willing to pay for my education.

Originally, my loans only produced guilt that I chose an expensive education, guilt that my parents were helping me, and primarily, guilt that I was pursuing my passion when I had this debt. I have been making peace with this, especially since guilt doesn’t pay the loans. And I’m so grateful for my parents’ support.

If You’re in Student Loan Debt or Considering Taking It on:

One good rule of thumb is to never take out more student loans than your anticipated first year’s salary. But we bet, now that you’ve read other women’s stories, you have more questions of your own about how to handle student loans responsibly.

We answer them all in LearnVest’s Knowledge Center. First, understand how student loans work with our complete guide. If you need loans, use our easy checklist to figure out how, and what type, to take out in the first place.

If you’re paying off student loans, use our checklist on how to pay them off, which runs through all the strategies and resources available to you to get a handle on your payments. If you’re struggling, read about your options here.

Want More?

By the Numbers: The Student Loan Crisis

Take Control of Your Money With Our Free Bootcamp

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