Being an adult sucks. Can I be 18 again?
September 30, 2009 5:44 PM   Subscribe

Help me/us gain perspective about working while in school, please!

My husband and I have been going back and forth about what to do about school and work.

The boring background information: I worked full-time while I put myself through my first degree. My grades were good enough to graduate with honors from a state school, but they weren't stellar. I believe in accruing as little debt as possible while in school. When my husband attended college (he didn't finish) he was in a very time consuming program and only worked at his college radio station one night a week. He essentially didn't work and took out a loan to get by. We only recently paid off that loan.

Now: We are both going back to school and both have eyes on very competitive programs. My husband in struggling balancing school and work. We both have about 50 hours of school work left until we can apply to our professional programs. We have our two school days off, but the problem lies in the rest of the week. We both work in the retail world and could be scheduled anytime between 7am and 11pm. Simply to keep these jobs, we must maintain very open availability. The job market here is poor and most job moves we could make would be laterally in pay and in requiring open availability.

My argument: It's better live off your current wages and take out loans for tuition only. No point compounding loans when we can just take out as minimal as possible. Caveat, I know that once we get into professional school we will definitely take out loans. The question lies in the undergraduate and prerequisite courses.

His argument: School loans are among the cheapest/best type of loans to take. It is better to do your very best in school to get into the best programs then to just get by and get into an OK program (if you get in at all). We could power through school faster and with the "good jobs" we could get with these degrees, the loans would be easily paid off. We could scrape by living simply for years.

Further financial details: We own our car and we rent an apartment. We have some credit card debt and we are actively paying it down. My husband receives some grants for school, which cover most of his tuition. I have 5k in bonds set aside for emergency, some of which will mature soon. In 2012 we will receive the proceeds from a moderately sized annuity which we had earmarked for a down payment for a house. I have decent health insurance through my job, for which I need to maintain full time status. Neither of us could support both on one paycheck.

What to other people do? Do most adults work through college? What about when their spouse in attending school as well? How common is it to live off loans?

Sorry if this is rambly, we'd just like some outside prospective. We've been going back and forth about the loan situation for months.

If it matters, I'm going into pharmacy and he's going into law
posted by lizjohn to Work & Money (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I do the "loans for tuition only" thing. I have little trouble balancing full-time work and school because my work hours are flexible and a four year old could complete my Master's program... My undergrad psych degree was much more difficult academically. I would say if your school program is easy enough to do while you work, then do loans for tuition only. If school honestly requires every ounce of your being to do well in, you may have to revamp the employment situation. Good luck.
posted by ShadePlant at 5:50 PM on September 30, 2009

We could power through school faster and with the "good jobs" we could get with these degrees, the loans would be easily paid off.

Sure, that could happen. Or, alternately...

(he didn't finish) ... We only recently paid off that loan.

...could happen.
posted by Methylviolet at 6:16 PM on September 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

I agree with you, especially since he's off to law school, and from what I understand, there are tons of unemployed lawyers dragging around six figure debt loads in major metropolitan areas. A pharmacy degree, I understand, can probably be obtained inexpensively. Also, I think a lot more well-paid pharmacy-related jobs are to be had than lawyer gigs now, so I would tell you to power through school and live on loans while he go part-time to a less expensive law school (though that might hurt his opportunity for decent jobs -- if there are any left) and pay his way through.
posted by anniecat at 6:21 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

And check out the possibility of getting health insurance through the university. It's been a while, but I remember getting pretty decent coverage for a few hundred a semester.
posted by mareli at 6:26 PM on September 30, 2009

I'm with your husband: if you qualify for them, take all the student loans you can get or need. If you're willing to take on loan debt next year anyway, you might as well take it on now and be less stressed about it.

They have the the best interest rate and kindest terms you'll ever see for the rest of your life.

I have a now-professional friend who ran up more than $200K in student loans because she was getting too worn-down trying to work at the same time. She doesn't regret it.
posted by rokusan at 6:27 PM on September 30, 2009

Loans for tuition only. I found it a lot easier to manage my time and focus on my school work when the time I could spend on school was limited by the need to feed and house myself (and that taught me to be more efficient in every aspect of my life, up to and including post-uni work). Reduce your expenses if you feel that the course will bring you enough benefit in the long-term; hell, reduce your expenses anyway, but the current credit crunch should teach you that minimising debt of any kind is preferable.

Good luck - I hope you both get into the program of your choice!
posted by goo at 6:28 PM on September 30, 2009

I worked through both my engineering and law degrees. I completed both full time, while working part-time. Engineering had so many class hours that it was like a full time job (about 35 hours a week), so I used to work nightshifts on weekends. Law had far fewer class hours (though you are supposed to spend many more hours studying), so I crammed all the classes on to two days (or some night classes) and worked a part-time office job the rest of the time. I graduated from both with honours. I agree with goo above; being busy makes you more focussed than having all day, every day to get things done.

However, I am in Australia. To be honest, I am not sure that in Australia you can actually get a loan for living expenses while at university (besides fairly small loans for emergencies, or perhaps buying a computer). Certainly, I think most people here would see it as incredibly indulgent to do so (the government does pay a small amount to full time students, but would be very difficult to live entirely off that amount and not everyone qualifies).

I got the government loans for tuition and probably have a significantly higher debt for that than many people (in Australia) because of the two degrees I did. Although the repayments and terms are reasonable, I would far rather I wasn't paying them and it makes me a bit cross that I didn't think much about whether I could have also paid for my tuition at the time. I would be more annoyed with myself if I had loans for living expenses, especially if I didn't finish.

You are still going to have to pay the money back at some point. Even with very good loan terms, that could also be the point where you would rather be buying a house, or having one person stop working to have a family. You also don't know that you will definitely end up getting into the best program, or that you will end up wanting to stay in that career. From my point of view, smaller loans will give you more flexibility in the future.
posted by AnnaRat at 6:59 PM on September 30, 2009

My graduate school financial aid was a combo of scholarships, work study and loans which included tuition and living expenses. I have no regrets about a bit of additional debt because it allowed me to enjoy a decent life while in graduate school. Grad school is hard enough without living a "Please, sir, I want some more." existence. Luckily, by second year, I had a decent paying internship.

Not everyone does well on a ramen noodle standard of living. I'm one of those people. If I'd have been barely scraping by then my grades would have suffered.

That said, 9 months is a long time to debate a topic. Would you consider meeting with a financial planner to help you sort out the issue? Professional programs are difficult enough without an ongoing disagreement about how money is handled.
posted by 26.2 at 8:11 PM on September 30, 2009

AnnaRat, you have some excellent points but student loan situations in the US and Australia are vastly different - like $50 000 for grad school for something that would be an undergrad degree in Australia, such as pharmacy or law, with basic living expenses paid through Austudy/YA. The American system is almost beyond our comprehension (high costs plus credential creep meaning postgrad degrees for entry-level qualifications).
posted by goo at 8:28 PM on September 30, 2009

Keep in mind the ABA restricts the amount of hours a law student can work in law school--I think it's 10 or 20 a week.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 9:03 PM on September 30, 2009

Goo, that may be true (although the JD degrees are certainly going the US way at about A$75K!), but they are asking about whether they should be giving up their current retail jobs while they finish off the schooling they need to get into the professional programs. They are saying they will definitely take out loans for the professional programs (fine, that's what has to be done.

I just think that while they are finishing whatever these prerequisites are, that they should be able to keep up their jobs and their study.

They are going to end up with plenty of loans to pay back as it is - it is easy to say "Oh well I'll have such a big debt anyway, it doesn't matter if I throw a bit more on it", but every single dollar has to be paid back somehow. Better to have less to pay back, as you do not know what the future may hold.

Sure, it is a bit harder to work and study, but it is not forever. I never subsisted on ramen either. I was too busy working and studying to spend much money.
posted by AnnaRat at 9:09 PM on September 30, 2009

(Sorry in advance. This is probably tl;dr. It's mostly for my wife, though)

Hi. I'm the husband of the OP. I want to clarify some things. I think wifey missed a giant significant factor in all this. I won't fault her for it, as I don't really talk about it with her as much as I could.

I'm not too thrilled with the idea of having undergraduate debt either. It's a hell of an achievement to graduate debt-free like Mrs. Potate. I just don't see that happening for Mr. LizJohn. It seems like a pretty good fit for me to suck it up, take out a loan, get rid of a pretty shitty job, and continue to give myself a chance do well in school.

It would help to give some perspective on each of our perspectives (meta-perspective?): I "married up," academically speaking. Where she was the valedictorian of her graduating class (graduating a year early, no less), I was only mildly successful in high school. Where she had a full-ride academic scholarship to fund her tuition, my first trip to college was mostly due to excelling in something (music) that, with the benefit of hindsight, was little more than a hobby. I was a textbook case of being a slacker. I dropped out of music school after a two-year slow burn.

I have ADHD that was diagnosed just over a year ago. Looking back on my childhood, it probably should have been diagnosed about twenty years ago, but, as I found out a little over a year ago, my mother actively blocked any such action for fear that I would be "labeled." That's a different topic altogether.

Anyhoo, I've been diagnosed, and after some trials and temporary success with other medication, I think I'm finally settling on an effective medication that has some long term sticking power. My last semester at school before this one was, seriously, my first really good semester in close to 20 years. I got all As in my academic classes! That's probably no biggie compared to Mefites' standards(I hate how pathetic it sounds, honestly), but I was pretty fucking stoked about it. I've found an area of study (philosophy) that I'm pretty damn good at, with which I am fascinated (I read philosophy and law books for entertainment!), and I could conceivably carry into a career.

This semester, I'm at a new school, and, for the first time in my life, I'm working while in school. I don't find the classes terribly hard, certainly easier than the semester before, but more work-intensive. I'm having a lot of trouble just getting shit done. I know the "not-enough-hours-in-the-day" problem is pretty universal, but it's new to me. Before I was on Adderall, I probably wasted close to half of every day spacing out. So, here I am now, having gained a good portion of every day to fill up with doing stuff, and finding I'm still running out of time to get everything done. I guess, even now, I'm not yet accustomed to doing stuff fast. Today, I withdrew from my first class in the week, not because it's difficult, but because I stayed up too late after work Sunday night studying for the test I ended up sleeping through on Monday.

I find it frustrating I had to do that, especially after it felt so good getting some successes behind me.
posted by The Potate at 9:12 PM on September 30, 2009

Having written all that, I realize it might not reflect the best possible use of ask.mefi. Prune if necessary.
posted by The Potate at 9:28 PM on September 30, 2009

Obvious solution: OP continues to work and pays her way through school. Husband quits his job, uses his spare time to do extra work around the house, and shoulders most or all of the responsibility for paying back his loans.
posted by embrangled at 9:30 PM on September 30, 2009

(This is actually the ideal solution anyway: trust me, your household will fall to pieces if you are both working and studying. The OP should be happy to have half a stay-at-home husband to make the whole nightmare more bearable.)
posted by embrangled at 9:32 PM on September 30, 2009

Hi, The Potate. I really hope you're talking to your wife as you're talking to people on the internet! This is a discussion you need to have with her, and working through uni is a common and natural occurrence.

AnnaRat, the difference is you don't need a JD to practice law in any of the Australian states, just an LLB (funded through HECS of far less than $75k), so the situations aren't analagous. But yes I totally agree with your point that postgrad will be one of the hardest, busiest, poorest times of your life. It doesn't last long, and if you can minimise your debt and living expenses you will be far happier in the future.
posted by goo at 9:39 PM on September 30, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your responses so far.

I really hope you're talking to your wife as you're talking to people on the internet!
Not to put words in his mouth, but we've been talking back and forth for quite a while. This isn't a major disagreement. We just feel we need some perspective. How does the rest of the world do it? Or maybe I should say, how do people in the American university system do it? Not to pick on any Australian mefites :) All our friends who attended college did so right out of high school. We don't know anyone currently going back to school later in their twenties.

trust me, your household will fall to pieces if you are both working and studying
Don't I know that already! We have different standards of keeping a house, but that's for another question.
posted by lizjohn at 10:34 PM on September 30, 2009

His argument: School loans are among the cheapest/best type of loans to take. It is better to do your very best in school to get into the best programs then to just get by and get into an OK program (if you get in at all). We could power through school faster and with the "good jobs" we could get with these degrees, the loans would be easily paid off. We could scrape by living simply for years.

From my experience, both as a student for the past six years and a college instructor, it's not true that those who attend school full time without working graduate first. The key in any situation is good time-management skills. To really do well, you need to be exceptionally on the ball about things like studying--leaving it until the night before is leaving it for too long, setting yourself up for failure. Now, granted, the ability to juggle courses and work successfully does partially depend on having a job that allows you to balance it with school. Have you and your husband filled out the FAFSA? Have you explored work/work study opportunities at your school? These jobs, though usually not well-paying, sound like they're much closer to what you're looking for--flexible, often easy positions. Also: full-time staff positions at many colleges offer tuition remission for at least a few classes. Both colleges I've worked for allowed employees to make their schedules around class time. And had surprisingly good benefits (dental!).

How does the rest of the world do it?

I took out loans for dorm/living expenses during my first three years, and wish I hadn't: I quickly accrued about $40,000 in debt. My second semester, onward, I worked in offices in the college. In my junior year, I was able to get a job at the college writing center, which was well paying ($12/hr, much better than I could have done in retail) and allowed me to do schoolwork when things were slow. I moved back home my senior year to save money, and though I gained an hour commute each way, I had almost no debt from that year. Then I worked and lived at home for another year following college, paid down my loans a bit, and headed off for graduate school. In grad school, we were given fairly challenging, time-consuming TA positions which covered living expenses here in Gainesville, which has a very low cost-of-living. I took only the lowest-interest government subsidized loans and used them only for tuition purposes. My current debt is around $50,000, and my minimum payments are around $400 a month. Many of my graduate school peers ended up taking out that much just for grad school (for a creative writing degree--yikes!) with no job guarantee. I make regular payments--and often overpayments--on my loans, but not having my loans would give me so much more flexibility as to my life choices. SO has no loans. His mother helped him pay for college, and he also worked full time during his tenure in school.

Normalization of debt runs rampant in people our age, but that doesn't mean it's the best choice you can make for your life. Frankly if there's any way you can avoid it, you really, really should. This?: "We could power through school faster and with the "good jobs" we could get with these degrees, the loans would be easily paid off." Not guaranteed, in any way. I have a friend who just got out of a law school with a hundred thousand dollars in debt and is working in Applebees. You guys know that the job market sucks, right?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:14 AM on October 1, 2009

How does the rest of the world do it?

The answer to this question is that most of them don't, or at least not in the way that you're trying to do it. Out of the cohabiting people that I know in their late twenties/thirties, the ones that are going back to school are married/committed to people who are working. Instead of trying to do this all at once and killing yourselves and possibly your marriage in the process, why don't you stagger it? Why can't one of you finish a degree, enter the workforce, and then the other partner finish his/her degree?
posted by crankylex at 6:15 AM on October 1, 2009

My bias is pretty far on the "you should always support yourself with a job" side--I worked full-time while getting a graduate degree, and I am extremely thankful to not be saddled with $50K in loans like many of my colleagues, who did school full-time and didn't work--but reading over your financial situation and the jobs you're talking about, I really think you should seriously consider taking out a small loan for living expenses, so that your husband can quit his job. You say that:

My husband receives some grants for school, which cover most of his tuition. I have 5k in bonds set aside for emergency, some of which will mature soon. In 2012 we will receive the proceeds from a moderately sized annuity which we had earmarked for a down payment for a house. I have decent health insurance through my job, for which I need to maintain full time status. Neither of us could support both on one paycheck.

I'm actually surprised that you're thinking about a down payment on a house while struggling to work crappy service jobs in order to put yourself through school. Owning a house is a worthwhile goal, but you don't have to do everything all at once! (Ye gods, I'm tired just thinking about it.) It sounds like your husband is starting to think that working while in undergrad is jeopardizing his ability to actually get decent grades, which could shut down opportunities for good grad schools. All in the name of not-very-well-paying retail jobs that aren't getting you good experience or any sort of resume boost. AND, if you're currently in an area where the job prospects aren't great, why in the world would you want to buy a house? Especially if you want to go on to professional programs in a few years--you could end up facing the choice between taking a loss on selling a house or going to the perfect program. Don't put yourself in that situation.

My vote: if *you* are doing okay balancing work and school, and you are the source of health insurance, you keep your job. Your husband quits and focuses on school, and also picking up the lion's share of the day-to-day cooking and grocery shopping stuff that there's never enough time for when you're working and studying full-time. Maybe he keeps his eyes open for one-off opportunities like mowing lawns, babysitting, dogwalking, or whatever that works with his schedule but that can be worked in where he has time. He or you both take out a small loan to cover the gap between your pay and living expenses (after all, his tuition is mostly covered, right?--that's a huge achievement right there!), which you will pay off once your annuity matures. You put buying a house on the back-burner until you have a better sense of where your careers will take you; saving for a down payment should be much less difficult once you have well-paying jobs.
posted by iminurmefi at 7:30 AM on October 1, 2009

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