This millennial has been paying down student loan debt for 10 years and owes more than when she started

This millennial has been paying down student loan debt for 10 years and owes more than when she started

This year marks 10 years since Keona Tranby graduated from college.

A major milestone, to be sure. But after a decade of slowly chipping away at her student loans, Tranby’s still paying for her education, and progress is painfully slow. Although the 32-year-old has paid off roughly $28,800 over the past 10 years, her total balance owed has increased to around $62,000.

Tranby, who works as a marketing director for a Minneapolis-based nonprofit, is hopeful she may get some relief in the coming months, thanks to recent reports that President Joe Biden is seriously considering wiping out $10,000 of federal student loan debt for qualifying Americans.

“Debt forgiveness is an emotional thing, to be honest with you,” Tranby says, adding that she’d still be left with a balance even with $10,000 in forgiveness. Cutting down her payment by a couple hundred dollars a month wouldn’t be fundamentally life-changing, she says, but it would alleviate some of the constant worry and stress she carries from her student loan debt.

“It’s like a more psychological burden would be lifted,” Tranby says. “And it would allow us to have more goals and do more things.”

More than 60% of student loan borrowers say their debt has negatively affected their mental health, according to a CNBC survey fielded in January. And roughly 7% of borrowers have contemplated suicide at some point due to student loan debt.

For Tranby, some debt forgiveness would provide her the opportunity to spend that money on other things like saving for retirement. During the pandemic, she’s taken advantage of the federal student loan pause to start investing in her 401(k) for the first time. “​​I’m only at $3,000, but it’s better than what I was at before—which was nothing,” she says.

“I’m fully aware that I am not in the worst position possible—there are people out there who struggle more than I do. I’m not trying to complain or say: ‘Oh, woe is me,’” Tranby says. “But I want people to understand that we’re working hard, we’re doing everything we can do—and it’s still a challenge. That’s why we need to reevaluate student loans and the structure of paying for education.”

Doubling down on debt to get her degree

Tranby, who was raised by a young, single mother, always knew paying for college would be difficult. But thanks to her grades, she was able to secure scholarship money that paid for about 75% of her tuition.

Her original plan was to work and take out a small amount of student loans—about $25,000 over the course of four years—to cover the remaining costs. Tranby worked full-time as a server on nights and weekends, which paid for her non-tuition expenses.

The plan went out the window when the Minnesota-based University of St. Thomas substantially increased tuition right before the start of Tranby’s junior year, she says. She was left scrambling to find the money to cover the higher costs since transferring at that point would have meant delaying her graduation.

She applied for more scholarships and even entered a business idea competition—and won, but it wasn’t enough to cover her increased expenses. Ultimately, her mother had to take out a $35,000 Parent Plus loan, which Tranby promised to pay. The increased cost of tuition doubled her debt load at the end of her four years, she says.

Tranby’s story is not unique—about 46 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, with borrowers between the ages of 30 and 39 carrying the highest balances. Most borrowers have between $25,000 and $50,000 in student loans, making Tranby’s debt load slightly higher than average.

The additional debt changed her career trajectory. “I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I went to college for it, but it was too scary. You can’t take those risks when you’re starting off in so much debt already.”

Instead, after graduation she moved to San Francisco and took a job in marketing for two years. But once her $500-a-month student loan payments kicked in, she couldn’t make the budget work long-term. So she ended up moving back to Minnesota.

Finding success in ‘sweat equity’

Student loan debt may have put her dream career on hold, but unlike many millennials, it didn’t stop Tranby from buying a home. And then another and another.

After a bumpy childhood—Tranby says she moved more than 10 times and never had stable housing—her ultimate goal was to buy her own home. She did that at just 21 and still in college.

Her first townhouse cost her nearly $75,000, but it was a smart investment. While she was in California, she was able to rent out the property to cover the mortgage payments. And after making some renovations, she sold it four years later for about $101,500, netting a profit of roughly $25,000.

After the success with the townhouse, she was hooked, and she bought her second property for about $234,900 at age 28. Again, Tranby fixed it up, adding a bathroom and legal bedroom—eventually selling it for a $44,100 profit last year.

That sale, coupled with the student loan payment pause, gave her breathing room to pay off the roughly $20,000 in credit card debt that Tranby racked up in her 20s because of medical bills and homeownership costs. She was also able to use a portion of those profits for a down payment on another home she and her fiancé purchased in late 2021.

Some might argue that she would have been smarter paying off her loans rather than buying homes. But Tranby disagrees: Investing in a place to live made more sense to her.

“I was still paying my student loans—and I didn’t see a value in putting extra toward them because they didn’t provide me anything. I needed a home, I needed a place to live,” Tranby says, adding that a mortgage was actually more cost-effective than paying rent in her area.

“I purchased a home so I had a place to live. Then I just happened to put in sweat equity and made a little bit of profit to be able to buy new homes.”

Brighter days ahead?

Secure in their new home, Tranby and her fiancé are taking their finances one step at a time these days. And that includes monitoring what will happen when the student loan payments restart and whether forgiveness will really materialize.

As of April, U.S. student loan borrowers collectively owe about $1.75 trillion in outstanding federal and private student loans. If the Biden administration forgives $10,000 per borrower, about 11.8 million of the roughly 46 million total current borrowers would have their entire balance wiped out, according to a recent analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Yet a lot of the details of this potential forgiveness program—like who qualifies—are still up in the air. The New York Fed found that limiting forgiveness to those making less than $75,000 created a targeted approach that was much more likely to benefit borrowers who are struggling with repayment.

Opponents of forgiveness are concerned about the price tag. The NY Fed estimates that knocking out $10,000 in student loan debt for every current borrower would cost about $321 billion. Implementing an income cap between $125,000 and $150,000 for individuals would reduce the overall cost, but that type of policy move would still cost at least $230 billion, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

The latest reports have Biden considering extending $10,000 in forgiveness to individuals earning up to $125,000. Since Tranby makes less than six figures, she isn’t concerned that an income cap would cut her out of the plan, but she is worried Parent Plus loans may not be covered.

If student loan forgiveness does happen though, Tranby says there’s no denying it would be helpful in lowering her monthly expenses—which could help a lot considering inflation has reached a 40-year high.

And it might also allow her to stretch her budget enough that she and her fiancé could afford to have a kid.

“We do fine together but again, that’s because we don’t have kids,” she says. “I hear all my friends and coworkers talking about how it’s $1,200 a month for day care. I don’t have an extra $1,200 in my budget. I don’t know how people do it.”

But even if forgiveness doesn’t become a reality, Tranby says there are other reforms policymakers can enact that would also help, such as dropping all student loan interest rates to 0% permanently. She doesn’t think the conversation shouldn’t stop at forgiveness.

“If this isn’t realistic to forgive it completely, then why don’t we propose adjusting interest or eliminating interest?” Tranby asks. Since the pause was put in place, borrowers are saving $1.5 billion per month not paying interest, according to a recent calculation.

While loan forgiveness might offer more immediate relief to the millions of borrowers like Tranby who have seen their debt load balloon despite years of steady repayment, at least with a 0% interest rate her entire monthly payment would be going toward her principal. Perhaps, she’d even be able to pay off the balance once and for all before her 20th college reunion.

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