I Went from a Free College Degree to Being Almost 500,000 in Debt
Can that be true? As someone who’s been there, let me tell you: not only is it possible, it’s not even that hard. You can make what you believe are all the right decisions, work hard your whole life, and still make mistakes that leave you overwhelmed. I should know — it’s exactly what happened to me.
I got my bachelor’s degree on the house, absolutely free. I’d been a hard worker all my life, and I worked my way right into a full-time university job, where I was able to take free classes at night. It was an impressive feat for a kid from a small town like mine to get into college on anything other than an athletic scholarship. But I’d thought ahead: in high school, I opted into a secretarial studies track, learning practical skills like shorthand typing, record keeping, accounting, and the like. I worked hard at school during the day and at McDonald’s on the weekends. By the time I graduated high school, I had enough skill and experience to become a full-time secretary. I decided I wanted to try life in the big city, so I moved to Columbus and got a job at Ohio State.
For years, I worked as a secretary in the university during the day and took two night classes at a time. Eventually, the school told me I had to graduate — I’d loved school so much, I didn’t even realize I’d taken so many classes that there was nothing left to do but get my degree.
I loved learning, but I also loved to teach, too.
Early on, I’d taken the administrative skills I learned in school and started using them to figure things out on my own. This was before everyone was computer literate, and people in my community knew I’d learned to type, could use a word processor, had some basic Excel skills. They brought me all of their tech problems and I figured them out. I wasn’t afraid of systems I didn’t know; I just tinkered with them until I got them to work. I loved solving problems and then showing people how I’d done it. So when I went to school, I followed that love right into a business education degree, and then when I graduated I parlayed that degree into a position at Huntington Bank. My job was to learn the bank’s systems and then train employees internally.
I worked at the bank for a good long time, and I loved it. Eventually I moved on to a slightly better position at a new company — a small contracting firm employed by the Department of Defense. I was still training people, but now I was being sent all up and down the eastern seaboard to run trainings at military bases. I was getting to travel, doing what I loved, and working with fascinating people. I was happy, I was successful, and I was having fun.
It was my job under the DOD that led me to pursue my first post-graduate degree. My job exposed me to a lot of different people performing a lot of different functions of business operations. I was learning all kinds of different systems, and then running training programs to teach those systems in various departments across the DOD. I was particularly enthralled by the software developers that I met along the way, and I began wondering if software development might be a good industry for me. My job was to learn about various technologies and teach them to users; what if I could learn about what the users needed and translate it into technology? I spent more and more time with my colleagues, learning as much from them as I could. Finally, I decided that I was interested enough to pursue a degree in IT.
This degree, of course, was not free. I got a second bachelor’s degree from DeVry University for what is, in today’s terms, a bargain: I took out a $20,000 loan for tuition and a $20,000 loan for living expenses. I knew it was a significant amount, but I was already so ahead of the game—with no student debt from my first degree and a successful and burgeoning business career, $40,000 for the necessary learning I needed to further my profession felt like nothing. In fact, it felt like such a good investment that I capped it with a project management Master’s, just to be safe. After all, with all of this education, I knew I’d land in a high-paying position that would have my degrees paying for themselves in no time.
Catching My Stride
I was able to pick up right where I’d left off, except now with my new IT and project management training, I was no longer working with business analysts, I was the business analyst. All it had taken was some higher education and I’d gained entrance to the next level up. Who knew it was that easy? I took a few different positions at the project management level, but now that I knew how easy it was to climb the corporate ladder, I wanted to do it again. Project management was interesting, but I wanted to take on more. I wanted to work on the program and portfolio level, and for that I needed to know strategic alignment and financial management. And what speaks to that knowledge better than an MBA? So I signed up for a program at Notre Dame.
Sure enough, my MBA got me another job right away, at a large consulting company called WePro. But the job wasn’t all it had been cracked up to be in my head. They had me on the road constantly, never in one place long enough to feel at home. I hated it. I needed another change, this time in order to find a job that fit my lifestyle. So I went back to school again, and got a Master’s degree in human resources.
Unfortunately, this time I wasn’t able to jump straight from graduation into a job. At the time I finished the program, the job market was in the midst of taking a dive, and I couldn’t find a position anywhere. They say the best thing to do while unemployed is to keep updating your resume, keep learning new skills, keep preparing for the next opportunity. So I decided to get another Master’s degree in IT. The job market hadn’t improved by the time I finished that program, so I stayed and got another degree, this time in supply chain management.
I kept collecting degrees, believing that the next one I earned would be the one to land me a job that would help me pay off all of my accruing student debt. It took a long, long time for me to finally level with myself and realize that I wasn’t going to be able to educate myself out of my debt. After two bachelor’s degrees, five master’s degrees, and an MBA, I took a hard look at my finances and realized I had to make a change.
I’d been making my minimum payments throughout, no matter how slim my income got. But in the last three or four years, things got unmanageable. I wanted to keep meeting my minimums, but I had no income. Trying to pay my bills was like trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip — there was nothing there to pay with. I had $490,000 in student loan debt, which I was able to defer payment on by letting the debt collectors know I was in hardship. But I also had $96,000 in non-educational, unsecured debt…and these creditors were nasty, relentless, and breathing down my neck.
Finally, it got to be too much. I had to declare bankruptcy.
Here’s the funny thing about bankruptcy, though. It’s supposed to be a tool to help people who are overwhelmed with debt that they can’t pay, but in order to file the necessary paperwork, you need a lawyer — which can cost upwards of four or five thousand dollars. I didn’t even have the money to pay my credit minimums. How was I supposed to get the cash together to pay for a lawyer?
That was when I started googling around and found something that people were calling “the TurboTax of bankruptcy.” It was a software program online that would let me input my financials and then tell me which forms I needed to file — basically, what I would have needed to pay a lawyer to do, but for free. I use TurboTax every year, no problem; I figured if this was that simple, I could file my own bankruptcy, too.
I signed up with Upsolve and only had to wait five days before I had the paperwork I needed to bring down to the courts. As soon as my case was opened, the debt collectors stopped calling. I started breathing a little easier. My partner and I felt ourselves loosening up, relaxing at home. And I finally had the peace of mind I needed to sit down, take a focused look at my budget, and start the process of getting back on my feet.
I Went from 100,000 in Debt to Relief
Bankruptcy can only clear a person’s unsecured debt, so I still have a significant amount that I owe in student loans. But pressing the reset button on my unsecured debt – the money I took out to live on during those years that I was in school – has lightened my load immensely.
There’s a stigma associated with bankruptcy that people who need it are irresponsible, but in my case, declaring bankruptcy was actually the most responsible thing I could do. I think a lot of people are fearful of taking the ultimate step and actually declaring bankruptcy because they worry about what the world will think of them. But there’s no shame in being realistic and practical about where you are with regards to your debt and making decision that’s best for you. Plus, having a bankruptcy on your record isn’t public information. So you don’t have to tell anyone that you don’t want to!
Of course, there are things I would have done differently if I could do it all again. It took declaring bankruptcy for me to finally realize just how little I could live on; if I’d had this lean budget all along, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up in the position I did. But once it came down to it, taking the step of finally declaring bankruptcy was a much smarter decision than trying to continue limping along, dodging my creditors, and futilely attempting to scrape together minimum payments.
Progress is Progress
Bankruptcy does leave a mark on your credit, but it also makes it possible to start making a lot more savvy decisions that will ultimately lead to a net positive impact on your financial reputation. In fact, my credit score has already improved — just from “bad” to “not good,” but still, that’s progress that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise!
When debt collectors were hounding me from every angle, it was like I couldn’t think. I couldn’t find a moment of mental peace long enough to even consider building a budget, much less sticking to it. Instead of stopping to think about whether or not I could afford a treat, I bought things on impulse just to give myself a moment of distraction from the constant nightmare of my overwhelming debt.
When I declared bankruptcy, it’s like my life went from resembling a gridlocked highway to a quiet library. All of the noise and chaos went away, and I had a moment to breathe, reassess, and start strategizing ways that I could trim down my expenses and get back on my feet. My partner and I took steps to simplify our lives — we both got rid of our cars, stopped eating out, and focused on becoming better cooks together. We order a movie on Amazon, make a delicious meal, and have date night at home for just a couple of bucks. And slowly, we’re working on paying off what we owe.
I’m so grateful to be where I am now. Through it all, I never lost myself — I still have my mental faculties, my commitment to living my life well for myself and for my partner, and I’m still a good citizen. I’ve realized that, even with so little to spend, I’m still rich in all of the things that matter — my health, my partner, my education, my work ethic. And I have prospects for the future: now that I’m not so plagued with my own finances, I can concentrate on my job hunt and finding my next position at a place that’s perfect for me.
All told, declaring bankruptcy has cleared the way for me to forge a path in the direction of my future instead of continuing to try to limp along with no hope of ever improving my situation. It reinvigorated me and allowed me to dream again, and my hope is that anyone else who is now where I was before is able to find the tools they need to do the same. Bankruptcy, for me and so many others, is not a sign of failure; it’s the mark of a new beginning.