Personal Finance

The student debt squeeze: A look at 3 people's budgets

Key Points
  • Student debt is consuming an ever larger share of household budgets.
  • A handful of people with student debt, from a copy writer in Morehead, Kentucky, to an English professor in Yakima, Washington, provided CNBC with a breakdown of their monthly expenses.
  • Examine their budgets and see the sacrifices and anxiety student debt leaves people facing for years, often decades, after they've left school.
Anastasia Usenko

Student debt is consuming an ever larger share of household budgets.

Today, more than two-thirds of college graduates have student debt, compared with less than 50% in the early 1990s. And, back then, the average balance was $9,000 – now it's $30,000. The typical monthly bill is nearly $400. Americans are more burdened by student debt than they are by credit card or auto debt.

For many borrowers, it's a challenge to keep up with payment after payment.

That's because as student loan bills have climbed over time, incomes haven't. The average hourly wage in 2018 had no more purchasing power than it did in 1978, according to the Pew Research Center.

As a result, people are paying off their student loans at a slower rate. The typical borrower takes 16 years to emerge-debt-free now, compared to less than 14 years in 2013.

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People are also finding it harder to purchase houses, amass savings and start families.

"There's just a lot of uncertainty in my future," said Travis Margoni, 39, who owes around $80,000. A quarter of people with education debt say they couldn't come up with $2,000 in the next month, according to government survey research analyzed by Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of SavingforCollege.com.

A handful of people with student debt, from a copy writer in Morehead, Kentucky, to an English professor in Yakima, Washington, provided CNBC with a breakdown of their monthly expenses.

Examine their budgets to see the sacrifices and anxiety that student debt leaves people facing for years, often decades, after they've left school.

"It feels like a giant mountain on top of me."

Brittany Whitstone is a 33-year-old tutor and writer who lives in McKinney, Texas. She has around $115,000 in student debt.

Brittany Whitstone (C) with her parents.
Source: Brittany Whitstone

Monthly take-home pay: around $2,500

Student loan: $190

Rent: $925

Storage: $125

Phone: $93

Car insurance: $122

Life, health and dental insurance: $130

Eating out: $100

Groceries and gas: $200

Credit card debt: $300

Old tuition bill: $200

Left over each month: around $100

Whitstone has a bachelor's and master's degree in English from Abilene Christian University in Texas. Those two diplomas left her with more than $100,000 in student debt.

She started but never finished a PhD program, in part because her existing student loans weighed on her. "One semester, I wasn't able to finish paying for the costs, so I couldn't register for future classes," she said.

Today, she holds multiple part-time jobs, and often works on weekends. She's a writing tutor, SAT instructor and author. In all, she made around $35,000 last year.

Because she's on a repayment plan that caps her bill at a share of her income, she pays less than $200 a month toward her student debt. That also means she has two decades of payments ahead of her.

And, like many other student loan borrowers, Whitstone has other debt, too.

She racked up a credit card balance in 2018 when she needed an emergency root canal. She isn't currently saving, she said, because "the credit card is priority." She also is still paying off a tuition bill from the PhD program she left.

"Living without savings is so precarious because any one unexpected expense can put me in the hole," she said.

There are longer-term anxieties, too.

A few years ago, she stumbled on a book about apartment gardening; she soon began to grow stone fruit in her one-bedroom rental. She said it was an "otherworldly experience, ... nothing like the cardboard you get in the grocery store."

Since, she's dreamed of buying a house with a yard. She'd grow peaches, melons and plums, she said. "Gardening is very grounding and satisfying."

But her six-figure student debt makes homeownership feel impossible.

"Thinking about how that'll never happen is stressful," Whitstone said.

"No matter what path I take, the debt plays a role."

Travis Margoni is a 39-year-old English professor who lives in Yakima, Washington. He has around $75,000 in student debt.

Travis Margoni
Source: Travis Margoni

Monthly take-home pay: around $4,500

Student loan: $635

Rent: $800

Car payment and insurance: $415

Spotify, Netflix and Microsoft: $30

Utilities: $250

Phone: $130

Gym: $45

Food and gas: $500

Left over each month: around $1,000

Margoni grew up in a working-class family in Crystal Falls, Michigan. "My father's union job was the only thing that kept us above the poverty line," he said. "My parents did not have savings for me for college."

He worked two jobs while he pursued his bachelor's degree, but he still graduated in 2005 from Northern Michigan University with $50,000 in student debt.

After college, he wanted to move out west, saying that the "mountains and ocean just drew me in." His monthly student loan bill made living in a city like Portland or Seattle, where he had hoped to spend his 20s, unaffordable. Instead, he settled into "tiny Winston, Oregon," where he taught high school English and made $28,000 a year.

He soon learned that "as a high school teacher with no master's, you hardly make enough to survive on rural Oregon salaries." And so, in 2007, he enrolled at Oregon State University to get his master's degree in English. Awards covered his graduate school tuition but he still had to take out another $25,000 in student loans to cover his living expenses, including rent and groceries.

Today he's an English professor at Yakima Valley College in Washington state. On top of the courses he's required to teach, he said, "I work an overload of classes or administrative duties every quarter, and I teach every summer to supplement my income" and to cover his more than $600 monthly student loan bill. He makes around $75,000 a year.

Still, his student loan balance hasn't budged much: He still owes approximately $75,000 because his payments just go to interest. He hopes his job at a community college will eventually qualify him for the government's public service loan forgiveness program. If it does, he could be student debt-free by 2022.

Even so, he said, the loans have left a permanent mark on his life. He wasn't able to start saving until 38 and he still needs to work more than 50 hours a week to keep up.

"I don't have a relationship; I don't have kids," Margoni said. "I've never been able to buy a house."

"I'm paying the living expenses of me 10 years ago."

Josh Rahn is a 40-year-old copy editor who lives in Morehead, Kentucky. He has around $50,000 in student debt.

Josh Rahn
Source: Josh Rahn

Monthly take-home pay: around $4,500

Student loan: $2,000

Mortgage payment: $470

Car payment and insurance: $350

Utilities and internet: $240

Phone: $55

Groceries and gas: $450

Entertainment and gym membership: $130

Business expenses: $150

Left over each month: around $600

Rahn puts almost half of his take-home pay ($2,000) each month toward his student debt, even though his bill is closer to $800.

That's because he's eager to move on with his life, he said.

For more than a decade, he's been paying off the loans he took out for his bachelor's degree from Morehead State University and master's degree from the University of Kentucky.

In the meantime, other areas of his life have suffered.

"My retirement savings are not where they should be," Rahn said. The two bathrooms in his house are in need of repair, he said. "The upstairs bathroom looks like it's from the 80s."

His social life has dried up because he needs to work so much, he said. On top of his full-time job as a copy editor, he works another 20 hours a week on writing gigs. "'Side gigs' are just a cutesy term millennials came up with for another job," he said.

One day, Rahn said, he looks forward to a life that isn't just dictated by debt. He'd like to take a vacation and put more time and effort into finding a partner.

"I'll be less obsessive about money," he said.

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