The Definitive Guide to Student Loans

This veterinarian owes $517,000 in student loans she'll never be able to pay

Here's where students have the hardest and easiest time paying off loans

On Wednesday's episode of the WNYC podcast "Death, Sex and Money," Dr. Alyssa Savage reveals to host Anna Sale that she owes more than half a million dollars in student loans, a debt she feels she'll never be able to repay.

Savage is a practicing vet in Pennsylvania who took out loans to go to school and then more to cover her bills after a divorce. Her total now comes to $517,000.

"It starts to feel like Monopoly money," she says. "$350,000 in debt and $400,000 in debt — it starts to just feel a little unreal. Of course now I think about the shame I feel."

Part of that shame, she says, comes from knowing she's privileged, that she makes a great living and seems to be doing well: "I earn more than 90 some percent of people in this country and here I am going, 'Oh my gosh, I'll never retire,' or, you know, 'I'll never be able to buy a home' and who am I to think that having a fulfilling career is that important?"

When I think about my future, I don't think about buying a house and I don't think about buying a car. I just think about paying off the student loan debt.
Student loan debtor
"Death, Sex & Money"

Host Anna Sale knew that the subject of student loans would be fraught when she proposed doing an episode or two of her WNYC podcast, "Death, Sex & Money," dedicated to "Our Student Loan Secrets." But she had no idea quite how inundated she would be with stories.

Young professionals tell Sale that, because of loans, they're putting off or foregoing getting married or having kids. One listener says, "That's money that we're not setting aside for a rainy day or our emergency fund or saving for retirement." Yet another says, "When I think about my future I don't think about buying a house and I don't think about buying a car. I just think about paying off the student loan debt that I've accumulated."

"Nearly 7,000 people so far have taken our quiz there to see where they fit in student loan stats," Sale tells CNBC. And that was before the first episode even aired.

Her team put together an interactive map that allows you to read individual stories based on location and to which you can add your own. There are currently over 1,400 data points, each of which represents a different unique experience.

Like Savage, another debtor, Leo, also tells Sale he feels shame in conjunction with his burden of $87,000 in loans. "Every day costs me $14" in interest," he says. "That's pretty shocking. But it's not only a financial stressor." Because of the embarrassment, he says, even though his life looks good from the outside, "I don't feel legitimate."

The podcast team created animated shorts to better tell two of the stories, including Leo's.

Across the country, Americans carry a student loan burden worth $1.3 trillion. On average, an individual under 35 puts 20 percent, or one-fifth, of every paycheck towards that debt, according to Citizens Bank.

Some celebrities, including former President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama and GOP Senator Ted Cruz, didn't pay off their student loans until they were in their 40s. And the situation has only gotten more dire as tuition has continued rising sharply. Sale reports on her show that "the average amount of student loan debt for graduates of four-year college last year was $37,000 dollars."

Now student loans are a primary reason given why millennials would like to buy homes but cannot afford to.

And although there are plenty of success stories out there — individuals who are able to start paying down, and even eliminating, their debt — the people confiding in Sale aren't optimistic. "I got myself into over 6 figures of loan debt as a teenager," one tells her. "Even at that time that number didn't feel real. It was so large that I couldn't comprehend it." And: "I honestly don't see the way out right now."

Listen to the full episode here.

This couple paid off their student loans in 54 days