This essay is from a finalist for the 2019 Student Loan Planner Scholarship.
My car was making a weird noise, so I upgraded the radio. I remember the noise clearly- it was a high pitched whine when I accelerated to get onto the highway.
It seemed to be accompanied by a shake, and I think it might have gotten worse at higher speeds? I don’t really know much about cars, but I know that you can do a lot of good for a problem by ignoring it completely.
Over time, the slight whine turned into a louder whine, and the shake turned into a shudder. My upgraded radio was nice, but you can only listen to a podcast so loud before people think you’re either deaf or crazy.
I finally broke down and took my car into the mechanic (he was highly recommended on Yelp, so there’s no chance he could rip me off).
I spent all day at work nervously awaiting a phone call with “the damage,” as I nervously described it.
The mechanic finally called and said, “Sean? The one with the ‘05 Accord, right?” I don’t know why, but I pictured him cleaning oil off of his hands during this entire conversation. That’s what mechanics do all the time, right?
“Yep, what’s the good news?” I responded, with a burst of optimism that came seemingly out of nowhere. “Yeah man, you need a new serpentine belt. It’ll be around a hundred bucks and it’ll take me an hour. No big deal.”
Taking the Cheap Way Out
No big deal? I’d sat on a problem for months for no big deal? On one hand, I’d dodged a bullet. On the other hand, this episode got me thinking about some of the other things in my life I’d been putting off, other issues that I’d been “turning up the radio dial” on.
The car was a symptom of a bigger issue – I was a new grad Physician Assistant in a low paying job who was taking the cheap way out on a lot of things in my life.
I lived like a king during grad school. I drank name brand beer and had bought two window air conditioner units for my tiny apartment in Boston.
I took out the maximum loans, using that sweet monopoly money from the government to buy luxuries like Polar brand seltzer water (don’t come at me with that Wegman’s trash), and I even took a Bolt Bus to New York City for a weekend with my girlfriend one time. Clearly, I’d lived the high life during PA school.
Eventually, the Bill Comes Due
Now it was time to pay the bill for such luxuries, and I had no idea what to do. I made a spreadsheet on Google Drive with a rough monthly budget (rent in LA costs how many kidneys per month?!), and I was barely breaking even despite the fact that I was working full time as a PA.
My loan payments were astronomical, and I was drowning.
Now, full disclosure, my dad taught me a thing or two about taking the cheap way out when I was a kid. He loved to buy the cheap brand to save a few dollars but hated it when his cheap solution blew up in his face almost immediately.
One time he bought a pair of Walmart special tennis shoes when he decided to take up running, only for them to fall apart (literally) during his first 5k. My mom and I thought that it was hilarious, but Barefoot Bob (alliteration makes a nickname catchy) didn’t see the humor in the episode.
I know that this sounds like a side rant, but trust me, it makes sense. When I sat down to actually design my budget, I realized that I was taking the cheap way out. I was trying to cheap out on many parts of my life (see my Accord) instead of actually taking a hard look at my finances.
In my effort to make my meager earnings stretch out, I had turned life into a series of cheap shortcuts – just like Barefoot Bob taught me.
Getting Serious About Paying My Debt
Now here comes the part where the 80’s music montage plays and the story turns around. This is the part in every cheesy movie (usually around 1-2 minutes long) where the main character very briefly works on their issues before everything turns out great and the movie ends in a tidy two hours.
Imagine the part in Rocky where he drinks egg yolks and then runs up a flight of stairs to “Eye of the Tiger.” You know what, go ahead and play “Eye of the Tiger” because my financial turnaround is gonna blow your mind.
Just kidding. I’m still very much in debt and I still have the same Accord (the radio’s fine, and I’ve even been getting oil changes like you’re supposed to).
Here’s what I did that makes me confident enough about my financial situation to write an essay about it: I got some per diem jobs – I’m on staff at 3 places right now, and I’m trying to double pay my loans each month with my per diem money.
I also changed up my repayment plan, switching from a nice but interest-heavy 20-year plan to a higher monthly balance 10-year plan. I’ve been absolutely abusing the Student Loan Planner calculators, and I like to plug my situation into the calculator when things get tough.
I also cut way down on my monthly expenses, prioritizing things like car maintenance over luxuries like new clothes.
It’s not really sexy or cool, but I’ve made it my goal to throw all of my free money at my loans. I’m constantly looking for ways to maximize my income, and I’m planning on making some sacrifices to get these loans paid off.
It’s not really the motivating turnaround that the movies will show you, and I haven’t drunk any egg yolks (I did take the stairs one day when our elevator at work was down though). I broke my big problem into a bunch of bite-size solutions, and I’m content with that.
My strategy can always be changed up if I stumble upon a better way to handle this, but I’ll take this over ignoring life’s problems until they snowball.
Hopefully, this rambling rant was motivating. It was fun to write it all down, and I’d love to throw an extra $500 at my loans. $500 isn’t a lot to the hungry beast that is Nelnet, but I’ll gladly add that to my monthly repayment. Looks like it’s back to the prepayment calculator!