The Price of NOT Borrowing Student Loans — And Why It Can Be Worth It

Image credit: Laurelei Litke

If you’re looking to avoid student loans, consider the case of Laurelei Litke.

Litke did everything she could to earn her degree without resorting to debt — only to realize that she paid a different price in the process.

“I worked extremely hard to avoid any form of student loans, but my stress level was not great for my mental health,” the Class of 2017 graduate said. “It’s taken a few years even to reevaluate who I am because I spent years barely being able to see family or friends.”

In retrospect, Litke doesn’t regret her decision not to borrow — but she does wonder how she could have done it better.

Prioritize savings when it comes to college

Some of Litke’s family, including her parents, are still paying off student loans. Knowing she wanted no part of long-term debt, she recalled scoffing at college award letters that detailed loan packages prescribed by schools.

“I always felt as though the school was trying to trick me into taking the less cheap option,” Litke said. “This could have something to do with the fact (that) I started (working) in sales when I was in high school, so I could always tell when I was being sold to.”

It wasn’t until halfway through her bachelor’s degree program at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, that it hit Litke: Her unannounced goal was to skip student loans altogether.

“I realized that every decision I’d made thus far had led me to being debt-free,” she said.

She unwittingly — and later, purposefully — used a handful of college cost-cutting strategies, including:

  • Extra course credit: “I took a college English class during my senior year of high school. I had to pay $50 for the class and $50 for the textbook. I already felt that this was pricey, as it was basically one week’s worth of pay for me, but I knew it would pay off to not have to take it when I was actually in college.”
  • Staying close to home: “When I started looking at schools, I was looking out of state. When I realized how expensive that was, I started scaling further and further back, until I was within a 15-mile radius of my own house. The cheapest option was, in fact, right down the road from me. So I went to community college.”
  • Multitasking the commute: “When I attended the small state (university), it was an hour drive from the town in which I lived (and) worked. Luckily, my boyfriend would often commute with me, and I would study while he drove.”
  • Working through it: “When I started community college, I was working 30 to 35 hours a week in a clothing retail store as a sales associate … The store I worked at was right by a mall, so many of my dinners were spent walking the food court for samples.”

The gap between Litke’s tuition and fees and the free aid she received was filled in two ways: savings that her grandfather started accumulating when she was 8, and earnings from her in-school, part- and full-time jobs.

Later, she found that her frugality and hard work had taken an unwieldy toll.

Balance the present and the future to avoid burnout

During Litke’s last two years in college, she coupled 40-hour weeks with 12-credit hour semesters. Certain days were reserved for attending class, every other day for work. She’d punch out of a nine-hour shift ending at 11 p.m., then return home to study for the next day’s exam.

“So, though I was living at home, my family didn’t see a lot of me,” said Litke, now a digital marketer for HealthLabs. “I was definitely holding off on a lot of needs. I didn’t have a regular sleep schedule, eating schedule or recreational time. My thoughts were pretty much consumed with school and work.”

Besides burnout, Litke also just missed out.

“I regret pushing myself too hard at times — I could have taken fewer classes at a time, and saved up slower, with fewer work hours,” she said. “I could have gone to more family functions and made more friends … My little sister was 8 years old when I began college. She’s now 14, and I feel as though she’s just now getting to know me.”

While she doesn’t regret forgoing student loans, Litke allowed herself to imagine a reality where she would have borrowed them. Loans could have afforded her more breathing room, perhaps allowed her to take on an unpaid or low-paying internship that would have furthered her career.

“My biggest regret of working full time is that it was in a field not related to the one that I was working toward,” she said. “I sold clothes, counted tills, managed people and resolved customer issues. These were all soft skills that can be transferred to any facet of life, but had I taken (out) loans, I may have felt freer to put that same amount of effort into something that could have taught me hard skills.”

To borrow or not to borrow, that is the question for you, too

Often, we highlight the success stories of people who borrowed student loans and fought them off. Litke is a success story because she fought off the very idea of borrowing in the first place.

But if you’re wondering whether to follow Litke’s path, remember that paying for college is a zero-sum game. Borrow now, and you’ll pay loads of interest later. Avoid borrowing, and you’ll pay with your time immediately.

“I feel that borrowing for college increases a student’s dissonance from their present to their future,” she said. “They see that they won’t even have to begin payments until they graduate and they go, ‘Wow, that (is) so far away,’ but it’s really not,” she said.

“I’m happy to know that the savings I have don’t have to go anywhere, and I don’t owe them to anyone. I look at my life as a big blank slate, and not something bogged down by the fact that there are certain bills that I will be paying for decades.”

If you’re leaning toward borrowing federal or private student loans anyway, perhaps to enjoy the college experience you always wanted, at least consider Litke’s lifestyle these days. She doesn’t have to budget for loan payments, and she also doesn’t have to affix her career goals to earning an income that will allow her to make those payments.

Litke struggled in school so that she wouldn’t have to struggle after graduating.

“I am grateful now that I was able to accomplish my goal of graduating debt-free, and I am very aware of the toll student loans take on most people my age,” she said. “While the frustration and difficulty really affected me for a very short amount of time when I was younger, the rest of my life looks a lot brighter.”

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