Higher education in the United States is expensive: 70 percent of college students graduate with student loans, and more than 44 million Americans currently hold $1.5 trillion in student debt. But paying for graduate school just got easier for 37-year-old Courtney Schlaud, who won $500,000 on CNBC's "Deal or No Deal."
When you come into a huge windfall, like if you win the lottery or , it can be tempting to spend your money on impulse buys, Schlaud tells CNBC Make It. A lot of people said "trips," she says, when contestants were asked during auditioning what they would most likely spend their money on if they won big.
Schlaud says her focus is different: "Because of the show, I'm in grad school for social work and excited to have that opportunity."
Before she wanted to become a social worker, though, Schlaud worried about going further into debt to get the degree, since she already had loans she was struggling to pay off. Now, however, she can.
While Schlaud had an idea of what she would do if she chose a winning briefcase, she had no sense that she would win half a million dollars.
But she did have a strategy going into the game.
"I played the [mobile] app. That actually helps conceptualize the odds— as different amounts are eliminated— what it does to affect the deal with the banker," she explains. "I'm sure there is a formula of sorts. So that … helped me with my decision-making, ultimately."
There was one thing, however, that she couldn't predict or strategize for.
At one point in the game, Schlaud turned to the audience to search for her parents. "I remember turning around and looking at my dad and … he looked very feeble to me. Something was different," she recalls. "It clicked in my head and then the game kept going."
The image of her father reinforced an idea she already had: to use a portion of whatever she made treating her parents well.
Afterward, about three or four weeks later, "we got the news," Schlaud says: Her dad had kidney cancer.
While she didn't end up with a $1 million briefcase, she struck a deal with the banker for a whopping $500,000. And she plans to spend a portion of the money on her parents.
She says she's grateful that her dad has good medical coverage and that "he's going through a really good hospital." She's also grateful her episode aired before her dad had his kidney removed.
"This whole time, we've been dragging our feet, waiting. In another parallel universe, we would be in a very dark state, going day to day waiting for this date to come. But here we are. We're enjoying the heck out of all of the ads. It's been a blast," she says.
"This show has given us extra light," she continues. "We haven't had to just be horribly sad leading up to my dad's cancer removal."
Overall, Schlaud says, the experience has brought her family closer.
Her advice to anyone who comes into a windfall is to take some time between collecting the money and making any big spending decisions, which is advice money experts offer, too.
"We're not going to go splurge. No gambling. We'll definitely doing a financial advisor before we do anything," she says. "Like, I know I have student loans, but what's the best way to pay [them] off? Do we just take the chunk of money, put it to the side and let it accrue interest?"
Before she makes any big decisions, "we are definitely going to get guidance," she says. After all, an advisor can give you "the tools to make sure you're not making a stupid move."
Rich Ramassini, a certified financial planner and director of strategy and sales performance at PNC Investments, says an advisor can help you prioritize your needs, create a budget and advise you about the related to your winnings.
"Think of this person as the quarterback of your advisory team," he says. "He or she will review your new financial situation and help you establish " and determine how to allocate the remainder to meet your financial needs.
Schlaud says she's "grateful there is a pause between the outcome of this show and the money, because you won't make stupid new money decisions like that shiny vehicle that you don't need. It's given us a chance to ponder," and to decide what's truly important.
What's important to her, aside from completing her degree, is her family: her husband, who is currently away in the military, her young daughter, and, of course, her parents. "I can't wait to do for them, after they did so much for me," she says. "I can't wait to spoil them."
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Video by Helen Zhao