You could have filled the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court with all the things I didn't know when I started law school.
Chief among them: A law degree is the second most expensive graduate degree in the United States. Law students graduate with an average $140,616 in student loans.
When I smiled for the photo on my student badge, I had no idea how much I was going to learn, not just about criminal procedure and torts, but about interest rates and loan balances.
1. It's easy to be in denial when you're still in school
I promise that I'm a reasonably intelligent person. I understand the basic concept that loans taken out must eventually be paid back.
But when I reflect on the choices I made during those three years of law school, it's clear that I was clinging pretty hard to the eventually part of the loan payback process.
I took out the full amount of loans allowable, and then I proceeded to ... spend it. I bought coffee on the way to class. I bought drinks at the bar. I went on a couple lengthy vacations. I bought new clothes.
At the time, I believed I was being frugal because I wasn't spending as much as some of my friends. It simply never occurred to me that I could choose not to take out the full loan amount or not to spend all the money at my disposal.
2. Student loans can impact your career choices
When I started law school, I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do with a law degree. I thought perhaps I'd try to enter academia or work in a small practice helping gay and lesbian families with marriage and adoption issues. After my first year, I decided I'd work for an environmental organization or the federal government.
By my second year, I'd accepted a position as a summer associate at a big firm and would eventually sign on to join them after I graduated.
I knew there were forgiveness programs for nonprofit and government positions, but those jobs were hard to get. Many said they wanted you to have a few years of BigLaw experience under your belt before you started because they couldn't afford to train you.
I was terrified of ending up without a job, carrying around hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. So I took the gig at a big firm. After 12 months, I decided I'd rather shoulder the debt than spend several more years at a job I hated.
But that choice had consequences, like a loan balance that kept going up.
3. Loan balances can get bigger even when you're making on-time payments
I was surprised to see my loan balance slowly increase over the course of a few years.
How is this possible? I thought. I've been making every payment on time.
Then I did the math. I was on an income-driven repayment plan while I worked in a relatively low-paying job. So even though I was paying a few hundred dollars each month, that amount wasn't enough to cover the amount of interest my loans were accruing. Interest that accrues gets added to loan balances ... so while those payments were keeping me out of default, they weren't moving me forward on paying off my loans.
4. Being in a "high-powered" profession doesn't mean paying off loans will be easy
Why did I think it was no big deal to take out all those loans and not give a second thought to saving?
Because I was going to be a lawyer. Obviously I was going to make heaps of cash and kiss that debt goodbye within a few years of graduating.
Unfortunately, I didn't want to spend a career making partner in BigLaw. And even if I had, paying off hundreds of thousands of dollars is easier on a $160,000 salary than a $60,000 salary, but it still takes discipline and planning.
Plenty of lawyers—good ones who graduated with lots of debt from well-ranked schools—make less than $60,000 a year. Except for the single year I spent working at a large law firm, I've been one of them for my entire career.
5. You may need to take out additional private loans after you graduate
You've probably heard about law students taking the bar. It's a single test that determines whether you can call yourself a licensed attorney or not. The pressure to pass is enormous, and most people pay for an expensive bar prep course and then spend three months studying full time for the test.
Those three months of studying generally begin quickly after graduation—when many new graduates no longer have student loan funds. Lots of students take out private loans to pay for their bar course, the bar itself, and living expenses for those three months—as much as $10,000 or $15,000.
6. Debt takes an emotional toll
When I realized my monthly payments were getting me no closer to being debt free, I felt like a bird that had just flown straight into a window. Here I'd been zipping along, thinking I was doing a good job, and BAM. I smacked into the realization that the loan balance was going up instead of down.
I changed my plan right away, but that sense of futility stayed with me for months. Even now, looking at the number on my computer screen can be overwhelming. I battle anger and shame that I have almost $100,000 in student loan debt—eight years after I graduated.
I would make different choices today. I would map out my financial future as a student loan borrower before I ever filled out a law school application. I would think honestly about what kind of job I want (and what kind of salary comes with it) after I graduate. I would make a budget and take out only the loans I absolutely needed. I would brew coffee at home.
But since I can't go back in time, I remember to be grateful for all the things I learned in law school. And then I use the student loan repayment calculator to motivate myself to put a little more cash toward this month's loan payment.
Thinking about law school? Check out our Student Debt Snapshot first.