Here in the United States, it's tax season. I finally completed my taxes for last year (as well as 2010 and 2009). Yeah, I'm late. I know it. Actually, my dread of paperwork in general and financial related paperwork has been on my mind a lot lately. (Did you see last post? Tackling student loan debt – Serve your way out of debt). Well, I'm warning you. I'm not done obsessing over money and student loan debt. Not by a long shot.

I love science. I loved school. I took out a lot of loans, but only in grad school. I had no loans for undergrad. My bachelor's degree was paid for first by my Army ROTC Scholarship (Yes! I was this close to joining the Army. Heck I even got a nomination for West Point. I was serious about getting a college education. I was a blue collar kid with no money. I pursued every option) and later by my Speech Team Scholarship. My Pell Grant and Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation awards plus those 'full ride scholarships' had everything covered. My alma mater, Tennessee Technological University was a tuition-free school for state residents. In-state students only had to pay maintenance fees, which were ~$800 a semester when I started college, 20 years ago. When I graduated that fee increased to a little less than $1000 a semester. I was able to attend college full-time, stay on campus, get a meal plan, and had enough money left over to buy books, supplies and posters for my cinder-block dorm walls for about $4700 a year!

Those golden days of funding and affordable rates are over. 12 years later (a full academic generation) my sister considered attending the very same university and the cost of attendance was $14,000! That's insane. The cost of high education has skyrocketed and has far out-paced the financial aid options to help students cover these costs. This is worth a few posts, too - another time.

When I started taking classes for my masters I paid for it out of my pocket, with a little help from a slot machine jackpot. Student loans were just not on my radar. Other students in the department had Assistantships and were taking out loans. I was living at home with my folks so I didn't comprehend their stress. That all changed my third semester. Things got tough and I had to pitch in so as to keep a roof over my head (and that of my parents and younger siblings). Suddenly, I understood what it meant to need student loans to in order to live so that one could concentrate on his/her studies.

I moved to St. Louis for my doctorate program. I was an old vet to student loans by now. And I used them, gladly and happily. I understood/understand that I have to pay ALL of that money back, but I was sure that it would be ready when the time came. How? I don't know. I didn't figure out the details. As I neared the completion of my studies and the realities of life started coming into focus, I started praying for a miracle. I'm still praying.

First and foremost, I recognize that I am my dearest enemy in my fight with finances. I put off paperwork. I put off sitting down and working out repayment solutions. So, here I am, two years out of school and paying Federal taxes - for the first time ever! Add to that the violation I suffer every month from student loan repayments. I defaulted. I get that. I am now rehabilitating those loans. So, I'm now getting it together.

But...

I'm feeling as exasperated and filled with a sense of lack like I was in graduate school. After being a full time student since kindergarten, and being teased by everyone for being in school forever, I finally have a job, a real job! So, I can enjoy it, right? I can start saving and socking away for emergencies and retirement and buying a house. Right? Why am I still eating Ramen and living in an apartment?

Because I didn't prioritize my financial goals. Shoot, now that I think about it. Did I make any financial goals? That was a really bad call on my part. So, I'm offering my life as a lesson to students out there.

1. Tenaciously pursue non-loan options to pay for your undergraduate education. Parents and students, start as early as possible learning the financial aid landscape for your post-secondary education student. Even as early as middle school, apply for every scholarship program you qualify for. Essay contest, children of employees of Whatever organization, summer programs and learning internships. Visit this blog for a list of various scholarship opportunities.

2. Seriously, assess your interests and commitment to post-secondary education. I think college is great, but it may not be the right choice for you/your student or the timing may not be right. Be honest with yourself. You only get so many semesters to get federal financial aid so don't waste it. A few bad grades early on can really weigh your GPA down and it's a shame to run out of money just when you get the hang of studying and found your academic passion. Don't get me wrong. You will need some sort of post-high school education if you want any kind of stability in your adult life. However, it doesn't have to be a 4 year college education. Two year college or even 6-12 month certificate programs are perfect entries into the workforce. And to be real, plumbers, electricians and many engineering and science technicians make more than I do. So, don't sleep on the range of options out there, even in STEM.

3. The good news is that in STEM, acceptance into graduate school (for the PhD and for some Masters programs) comes with a funding. So you don't need a loan to pay for school. Assistantships pay modest monthly stipends (and thanks to the pressure of the NSF and NIH the pay has gone up substantially since I started grad school), so you shouldn't need loans. However, that depends on the cost of living where you are and how you live. Think about this. There are pluses and minuses: get a roommate, live alone, have a family, neighborhood dynamics, etc. It all adds up. And in the end, you need to have some peace of mind so that you can actually concentrate on your studies.

4. For graduate school, be very clear about what you are there to do. Only get as much education as you need for the job you think you want. Having a Masters or PhD is great, but no one pays you a bonus for having those degrees. You might end up with a bachelors job to pay off those student loans you got while pursing those advanced degrees.

5. Finally, don't put off making arrangements to pay off and consolidate those loans.

Mo Money Mo Problems by Notorious BIG featuring Mase and Puff Daddy)

My more money are those Student Loans and my more problems are the collectors like Sallie Mae.

Right now I'm quite glad that I don't have any extra mouths to feed. I'm thankful that I'm in good health and have had no major set backs. Because the truth is, I'm living hand to mouth and it sucks. Sucks more to acknowledge my own culpability. It also sucks because I'm not alone. Way too many post-docs, junior faculty and especially adjuncts are living the exact same life. Something has got to change.