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Balancing Student Loans, Debt, and the College Experience

Going away to college to get the “college experience” is a reasonable goal, but making smart student loan decisions is critical.

Written By: Michael P. Lux, Esq.

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For many students, the most cost-effective way to pay for school is to attend a community college for two years, live at home, and then transfer into an affordable four-year program.

The vast majority of college students don’t choose the most cost-effective option. Some choose a more expensive school because they think it is a better investment. Others want to leave the next to get “the college experience.”

Leaving home to go away to college has value. College years are often a time of self-discovery and personal growth.

Many people think experiences are more important than money. I’m one of them. Money is merely a resource that people can use to chase more important goals.

Unfortuantely, the price of college is extremely high, and the burden of student debt is often brutal. How do we balance the college experience and the realities of the student debt crisis?

Paying for the College Experience vs. Saving Money

If you prioritize making memories over having money, opting for student debt might seem like an easy decision.

The real choice is far more complicated.

After college, student debt forces many graduates to live at home. Student debt makes it harder to buy a house, and many borrowers delay getting married or starting a family because of their loans. The idea of a vacation is laughable to many former students trying to manage their debt.

Many high school seniors ask themselves whether they value money or the college experience. They should be asking, what experiences do I value most?

Nobody goes to college expecting to leave with debt that will influence nearly every major decision they make for decades. Sadly, every year, graduates regret their college choices.

This takes us to the fundamental question: how do I maximize the college experience and minimize the long-term financial risk?

Borrowing Responsibly

Attending school without the help of student loans is a privilege that most Americans don’t have.

Mistakes happen when students adopt an in for a penny, in for a pound attitude. Even if you decide that student loans are a reasonable option, it doesn’t justify unlimited borrowing.

The undergraduate loan limits for federal student loans are fairly low. If you are looking to avoid a student debt nightmare, sticking to federal loans is often the best route.

If you choose to borrow private loans, use extreme caution. Borrow as little as possible, and be sure to shop around to find the loans with the lowest interest rates.

Finally, when selecting a school, don’t fall in love. The United States has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to college options. Choosing to leave home for school might be reasonable, but leveraging your future to attend a “dream school” could be a huge mistake.

Sherpa Tip: Picking the right school is a huge decision.

This guide for both parents and students may help you find the best option to pay for school.

Making Smart Decisions During School

Picking the right school isn’t the only big decision for students trying to make memories on a budget.

Living Arrangements

Cost-conscious students often choose to live at home during school to save money. However, this isn’t the only option.

Opting to move out in search of the “college experience” could be a reasonable choice and an opportunity for personal growth.

However, picking the right living accommodations is essential. Many students choose to borrow large amounts of student debt to pay for luxurious housing. Borrowing to pay for amenities is probably a huge mistake.

I’d argue that living in a cheap apartment, dealing with multiple roommates, and eating ramen noodles is the quintessential college experience.

There is an argument for moving out to attend college. However, it is critical not to get carried away.

Balancing Work and School

Some students opt to work during school to reduce their borrowing. Others choose to focus on their studies.

Here again, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. Getting good grades is essential.

However, working provides opportunities to gain valuable work and life experiences.

Some students may choose to save money and attend an affordable school so that they don’t have to work during the semester. Others may opt to stretch their budget a bit and work to make the numbers work.

Spring Break Trips and Travel

A vacation with your friends is a great way to make memories and get the most out of the college experience.

Unfortunately, travel can be costly.

The good news for college students is that there are many ways to travel cheaply, especially if you are willing to get creative.

The fancy hotels and landmarks will still be around long after you graduate. If a vacation with friends is essential, find a way to have fun on a budget.

Final Thoughts on Using Student Loans to Make Memories

Think back to some of your most treasured memories and experiences. What makes these memories so special?

I’d argue that the best moments of our lives have little to do with how much money we spent. Great times come from being around people that you love and doing things that matter.

Prioritizing the “college experience” isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Valuing memories over money may even be wise. However, this mindset doesn’t justify racking up a ton of student debt.

Be smart and have fun!

About the Author

Student loan expert Michael Lux is a licensed attorney and the founder of The Student Loan Sherpa. He has helped borrowers navigate life with student debt since 2013.

Insight from Michael has been featured in US News & World Report, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other online and print publications.

Michael is available for speaking engagements and to respond to press inquiries.

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