Over the course of three degrees, Catherine Burger, 49, racked up around $97,000 in student loan debt. Burger first got an associate degree in nursing in 1990 and took 10 years to pay back the $28,000 she took out in loans.
While that experience made her wary about taking on more student debt, in 2008 she realized that the only way she could advance her career as a nurse was by getting a bachelor of science in nursing—which ended up setting her back another $32,000 in debt.
Fast forward to 2013 when she went back a third time to get a master of science in organizational leadership, which led to her current career working as a media specialist and contributor at RegisteredNursing.org.
While Burger stressed over going into debt each time, she also felt certain that her education would help her be more marketable and help her earn more money.
“Any time you add a financial burden to your family you add stress,” she said. “However, I knew my return on investment would be worth the debt.”
Her gamble paid off—allowing her to increase her income. By focusing on her debt repayment and leveraging her higher salary, her last two degrees took just three years each to repay.
Here’s what she learned from repaying her student debt:
Don’t Delay or Defer
One thing Burger regrets is not paying her student debt from her first degree back more promptly.
“I made a big mistake in repaying my student loans for my ADN by delaying or deferring several payments,” Catherine said. “I believe I maxed out on the number of delays or extensions I could take for the life of the loan. This seemingly short-term solution cost me additional interest payments.”
Consider the Cost of Your Additional Degrees
Burger was glad she attained her second and third degrees as a mature student since she was able to make more conscientious decisions about her education, which helped minimize her debt load and maximize her potential income.
“Being a more mature student helped me prioritize the value of my education and the importance of my overall credit. For example, I considered the cost versus value of several BSN programs before settling on the University of Phoenix,” she remarked.
Similarly, for her master’s degree she chose a program with a good return on investment. One of the biggest selling points of the program was that she could do it online, which allowed her to keep working full time and take care of her five kids.
Make it Automatic
One thing that really helped was making her repayments automatically—so she didn’t have to think about it.
“Having the loans on an automatic payment, plus a plan to make additional payments towards the principle, helped me repay the student loans most efficiently,” she said. “When either my husband or I earned a bonus, we submitted extra payments on the student loans in order to reduce the debt. When we recently sold our home, we used some of the proceeds to pay off the remaining balance of my loans.”
She believes that planning additional payments really made a difference.
“Even a small amount can make a big difference. Consider your overall debt and chip away at the highest interest-bearing loan amount first, then compound that payment to attack the next debt and so on until all debts are paid.”
Get Help If You Need It
Not everyone is great at handling money. After all, some don’t want to deal with it. If that’s how you feel, Burger recommends you ask for help.
“If you are not good at handling your money, find someone who is and ask for their help to get you on track,” she said. “There are companies that can provide this service, but most of us have a loved one or friend that would be happy to help us stick with a debt payoff plan.”
Prepare to Potentially Relocate
While Catherine was able to find her first nursing job out of school quite easily, she’s been seeing a number of younger nurses struggling to find work—something she knows will greatly impact their loan payments.
“Many graduating nurses nowadays are having challenges finding a job in nursing and therefore cannot afford to start repaying their loans. This is due to the requirement for nurses to have experience of at least six months in an acute care setting. There are many new graduate nurses who must relocate in order to find jobs that will accept a new graduate.
She Feels Great Now That She’s Debt-Free
While paying off her debt was difficult, it feels rewarding now that she’s debt-free.
“Now that we have no debt, there is tremendous relief of stress and financial freedom,” Burger said.
Still, she doesn’t regret her debt one bit. “The choice to incur debt for higher education is a worthy cause,” she said.