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Student loans diverted to clothing, phone, survey finds

Most people know what it's like to be broke in college. When they might not know is that increasingly, students are using aid dollars to cover their lifestyles as well.

As student loan debt reaches a record $1.3 trillion, more students report using some of that money to pay for expenses not directly related to education, according to a survey by Student Loan Hero.

Two in 5 said they would use at least a portion to help pay monthly bills, including car payments and insurance; 15 percent percent said they used their student loans to buy clothing and 13 percent said they eat out on that borrowed money.

Additionally, current students were twice as likely to spend their loan cash on non-educational expenses as 2016 grads, according to the survey of over 1,000 of soon-to-be graduates conducted in September.

Without much oversight on how that money is dispersed once tuition is paid, "it's pretty easy to use your excess funds this way," said Jeffrey Trull, Student Loan Hero's content director.

As a freshman at Henderson State University in Arkansas, Cordell Reynolds, now 30, covered his tuition expenses with a partial academic and athletic scholarship but took out a student loan so he could purchase new clothes and go out with friends.

"I was very cautious about it initially — I didn't want to run into any debt issues — but I realized I didn't have the money and my parents didn't have the money to help me out," Reynolds said. His teammates were covering costs the same way and he followed their lead, he said.

By the time Reynolds finished college and graduate school, his loans totaled $104,000. He now works as a college planner and is on an income-based repayment plan. He cautions current students from racking up that kind of debt on "unnecessary expenses."

"The biggest piece of advice I give students is to prepare financially for college ahead of time."

Still, for Ronnika Williams, now 32, it was worthwhile. As a graduate student studying library science at North Carolina Central University, Williams' student loans allowed her to cover her travel expenses for weekend trips home to Benton Harbor, Michigan, as well as socializing with her classmates.

By graduation, Williams, who is now a digital archivist, was $55,000 in debt. "Maybe a few of those outings weren't worth it," she said, but "that was the lifestyle I chose."

Student on laptop
Getty Images

Even though borrowed money is readily available, financial experts caution against raking up too many loans in college.

"While sometimes it's unavoidable for students to use student loan money on necessities like housing, students need to be careful," said Shelly-Ann Eweka, a financial advisor with the financial services firm TIAA.

"When it comes to buying clothing and food, it's important for students to buy only what they need in order to avoid taking out more loans — both student and credit card — and therefore accruing insurmountable levels of debt," she said.

In fact, that college debt burden has far-reaching consequences. As a result of their financial obligations, nearly half of millennials said it prompted them to delay buying a house, according to a TD Ameritrade survey released last year of 1,000 adults age 18 and older. About 29 percent said they were putting off getting married and 38 percent said they postponed having children.

"If you can reduce the amount of loans for incidentals, it can make a huge difference in your overall debt when you graduate," Mary Johnson, vice president of financial literacy and student aid policy at Higher One, said in an earlier interview.

Rather than take out every single dollar that's available, shoot for as little as possible, said Bakari Miller, a workplace banking coordinator at Regions Bank. "That will lessen the financial stress down the road."

Miller suggests starting with a financial plan at the outset to set the expectation of what school expenses will be like. "College can be one of the best times in your life – you don't have to deprive yourself but you do need to brace yourself."

Then, get familiar with the terms of any type of borrowed money, including the interest rate, length of the loan and what happens when you miss a payment.

"If they're going to borrow money for nonessential purchases, at least know the ramifications and consequences," he said. "When students understand that, they make better decisions."

Also, underclassmen should take into consideration their future career and earning potential and factor that into their decision about how much they want to borrow, said Jimmy Lee, CEO of the Las Vegas-based Wealth Consulting Group. "That might get them to think twice about using that money for things that are not necessary."

And TIAA's Eweka advises students who find they are struggling to get by to look into work-study opportunities, which are often included as part of financial aid packages. "Having a part-time job can be a tremendous help when it comes to paying for living expenses," she said.