Michael McNamara, 27, is about to pay off his five-figure college loans — and he graduated in 2016.
How did he do it? A combination of in-state tuition, living off campus, help from grandma, and keeping expenses down to a minimum.
Millennials such as McNamara face a financial burden unlike any other demographic in the modern American era. There are 44.2 million Americans with student debt and the average student loan debt for the Class of 2017 was $39,400, according to College Scorecard data compiled by Zippia.com.
Pennsylvania had the second-highest median student loan debt, meaning that half owe more and half owe less, with a debt of $26,084. New Jersey ranked 31st with $22,697.
Many struggle to cover their monthly student loans while finding full-time work and moving out of their parents' homes. Some refinance, and others work two, three, or more jobs. Here are some of their stories.
Kasey Schram, 22, is paying off roughly $48,000 in student loans, split between private ($21,560.53) and federal ($26,708). She pays her $264 monthly on a standard repayment plan, says the Rutgers-Camden graduate. She's waiting tables while seeking full-time work in finance.
"I'm first in my family to receive a bachelor's degree, and first to deal with college loans and debt. Both my parents and brother chose the military, offering them the G.I. bill to get an education," she said. Through four years of college, "I lived on my own, funded my schooling and cost of living by myself. I often had to leave most office or hourly-wage positions to work in the service industry for quicker cash. It's much more lucrative, but doesn't provide the same experience I need to enter into the tight job market millennials like myself face."
After graduation, Schram encountered unpaid internships and entry-level positions with low salaries, which couldn't fully cover her $48,000 student loan burden.
"Unpaid internships can land you the job making $60,000 or $70,000. But my student debt burden is high, and it's difficult to predict what kind of salary I'm going to have over the next five years. I don't think my side hustle is going anywhere anytime soon," she said. Side-gigs include bar waitressing on weekends, where she can make $500 a night.
Colleen Farrington, 21, has $75,000 in debt — split between federal loans ($20,000) and private loans ($55,000) with Sallie Mae. She, too, was the first child in her family to go to four-year college, at Rutgers-New Brunswick.
"My mom cosigned my loans and currently pays off the interest for my private loans. A lot of the entry-level jobs pay between $25,000 and $30,000 a year," which can't support her debt burden on top of rent, bills, and other expenses.
Currently, she's worried that after the loans' six-month grace period, "I have to move back home in order to put money into my loans and not rent. I worked part-time jobs during school and during the summer and see myself still working weekends on a part-time job even if I get a full-time job soon," she said. She is seeking full-time work in human resources.
Joey Ramirez, 27, lives in Belmar, N.J., and after four years at three different universities, he racked up $133,000 in student loans. Sallie Mae requires a payment of $275 a month on his $42,074.28 loan, HESAA (N.J. Higher Education Student Assistance Authority) requires $500 a month with $62,447.44 remaining, and Nelnet takes $200 a month with $29,168.30 left. That's a total of $975 a month in student-loan payments.
Ramirez works six jobs, seven days a week, some seasonal work and some jobs that "want me to get my certification before continuing hours. But the cost of certification is $500 to $1,000. To get certifications costs money or time. If I had the money to pay for the test, I never had the adequate amount of time to study. If I had time to study, I didn't have money to take the test." His latest of several ongoing gigs is working at Bar Anticipation at the Jersey Shore, while seeking full-time work in exercise science.
Rutgers and Drexel MBA grad Grant Taylor, 25, works at L3 Technologies in Camden, and is paying off $33,000 in private loans at 4.5 percent annually. To pay for school, he worked for college event staff, and after graduation, "I had my loans consolidated through FedLoans PAYE (Pay-As-You-Earn) program. This reduced my loan payment from $350 a month to $50 a month," and he's currently paying just the interest on the loan. "This extra $300 goes a long way for me. I put this difference into an investment vehicle," his workplace 401(k) in a Fidelity index fund.
"Since I borrowed relatively cheaply, I get yearly average returns at around 7 percent, which beats 4.5 percent cost of borrowing. I do not intend to pay off my loans any time soon because the compound interest I receive in an index fund is much more attractive to me than paying off my debt," he said.
Sacelia Orsini, 22. went to Ocean County College in Toms River, N.J., to cut down on loans.
"I was fortunate enough to have a college fund account to help pay community college up front," which cost roughly $11,000.
She spent two years at Florida International University, and became the first in her family to receive a bachelor's degree. She now owes a total of $48,000 in Federal Parent Plus Loans which requires an estimated $560 monthly on a standard repayment plan.
"Before, during, and after college, my biggest challenge was figuring out my finances and dealing with college loans and debt. The first two years of college, I lived at home to save money. When I moved to Florida, I had to live on campus, which added $20,000 onto my loans. The last two years of college, I found myself struggling to pay for necessities, so I decided to bring my passion for jewelry design and traveling to selling on Etsy.com and writing about my travels on my blog, putting the money I was making from my jewelry in a savings account for my student loans. One thing led to another and I received many job opportunities from my travel blogging. Creating my blog, SandandSatin.com, has helped me mentally and physically with college stress and student loans. My number-one source of income is still serving, but blogging tops it off and helps find full-time employment in doing what I love."
McNamara, who works for a Big Four accounting firm in Center City, said he had part-time jobs during college that paid roughly $14 an hour, at a pizza shop, a hotel front desk, and as a data analyst. "I was able to save money that way. Then my last summer before senior year, I got a paid internship at $26 an hour," which continued through the first semester of his senior year. His grandmother paid for two years at California State University, and he borrowed the rest, at in-state tuition prices. After graduation, his total debt balanced out at $21,500 of federal loans at a 4.3 percent interest rate.
"I started payments right away. I'd saved $8,000, which I wrote a check for off my loans, and then didn't change my lifestyle even though I got a full-time job."
He prepared meals at home, ate out only once a week, and kept his rent around $600 a month. Rather than the minimum payments of about $100 a month, he paid $400 or $500 a month, depending on what he could afford. "In August, I'll make my last student-loan payment," he said.
Students also have the option of refinancing to get a lower monthly payment, said Christine Roberts, head of student lending at Citizens Bank. "We save consumers an average of $271 a month, or $3,200 a year. For many of them, that's a car, a bigger apartment or a house, or travel," she said. Interest rates for its Education Refinance Loan product start at the lowest variable of 2.62 percent and lowest fixed at 3.50 percent.
— Courtney Becker and Annabelle Williams contributed to this article.