Higher Learning and Student Debt: Is it Worth It?

During March, COMPASS has focused on “Managing Debt: Loans and Money in March,” including last week’s original live chat with Sandy Crozier. Today, I offer some personal thoughts and questions about student loan debt as we continue the faith and finances conversation, specifically this month about debt. 

Timothy and his wife Allison on the campus of their undergraduate campus where they met, Pacific Lutheran University.

Timothy and his wife Allison on the campus of their undergraduate campus where they met, Pacific Lutheran University.

Before leaving the Pacific Northwest to study and complete my first graduate degree, I was a bit nervous about the potential student loan debt I was about to commit to. I shared my thoughts with my former economics professor when I saw him at my undergraduate school’s bookstore. He told me, “Timothy, it’s just money. It’s just money. It’s an investment.”

However, the increasing cost of higher education—and the debt students are taking on to complete degrees—are causing some to reconsider if the investment is really worth it. According to the Wall Street Journal, 2015 US college graduates accumulated the highest average student loan debt in history, a base average of $35,000 per graduate school graduate and $23,000 per baccalaureate graduate. It is projected that 2016’s class will face an even higher total.

It is not unheard of for those earning professional degrees to graduate with six-figure student debt, including doctors, lawyers, and yes—clergy. Many institutions of higher learning—including seminaries—are trying to curb costs, but the numbers are daunting. With loan totals so high, it is mathematically possible that one might work their entire career and never do much more than pay off their student loan debt. A report by Goldman Sachs suggests avoiding “mediocre colleges”; steering away from lower-paying majors like arts, education, and psychology; and considering other forms besides college education to prepare for a vocation.

Nonetheless, my generation—the Millennials—have the highest percentage ever of college-educated persons, according to a White House study. In our household, my wife Allison and I hold 3 baccalaureate and 3 graduate degrees between us, and Allison is finishing her masters of divinity program this spring. We make our monthly payments, hope for some relief, and trust that in time, the costs will be worth it for our vocations and careers.

Theologian Frederick Buechner has written that “vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” As God’s people, I believe one pursues an education for opportunity and continued learning, and also to follow God’s calling or vocation. I believe that when one senses that they have gifts or passions for meeting the needs of the world, their neighborhood, or society, and when they most fully follow that call, it may lead to school or extended study. It is not always a call to become wealthy, sometimes far from it, especially if student loans are a part of the process. But if one is called, they are also called to trust that they will live in the abundance of God.

So when I think about my professor’s advice in the bookstore, I believe deeply that he was right. It hasn’t always been an easy path, but the investment has been and will continue to be worth it for me at least because it has led me to create connections, to learn, and to have experiences I couldn’t have dreamed about without the education I have been blessed to receive.

If you are looking for ways to reduce your debt—student and otherwise—check out the recording of the recent COMPASS Live Chat on managing debt led by Sandy Crozier, Stewardship Development Director for the Free Methodist Church in Canada.

What has your experience been like with student loan debt? How do you live faithfully while taking it on, or working to pay it off?

timothy headshotAbout the Author: Timothy Siburg is the Communications Associate for the Ecumenical Stewardship Center and focuses especially on the center’s COMPASS initiative focused on creating conversations and resources for faith and finances among younger Adults and Millennials. Timothy also currently serves as a congregational mission developer, among a few other roles and blogs regularly on his own blog as well.

This blog is a component of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center’s COMPASS initiative to engage young adults in conversations about faith and finances. Like what you see and want to know/do more? Visit the COMPASS web page and join the COMPASS community on Facebook.

Frugal Fall: A Financial Self-Examination

During October, the COMPASS blog is sharing thoughts, tips, and reflections about having a Frugal Fall. Today, we are happy to welcome back regular contributor Nicole Brennan, a Marketing Assistant at Barnabas Foundation. Nicole shares some important ideas and reflections about a “Financial Self-Examination.”

Nicole and her friends having some fun this fall, on their visit to see Pope Francis while he was visiting the United States.

Nicole and her friends having some fun this fall, on their trip to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia while he was visiting the United States.

There is an underlying pressure to make the most of the hot weather during the summer months. My days and evenings were booked trying to squeeze in bike rides, family outings, church fundraisers, date nights, and road trips. Now that autumn is upon us, it almost seems the slight chill in the air makes everyone slow down a bit. Take advantage of fall inactivity and whatever breathing room you have to assess your financial health!

I am very money-minded while travelling on a budget, but my “big-picture” finances tend to get a bit away from me. I have automatic withdrawal for all my bills and automatic deposit with my paycheck. Since everything is pre-programmed, it is very convenient, but the details (and my overall financial health) are sometimes lost. I recently asked myself these four questions to audit myself and see how I am doing.

Am I Following My Budget?

I use my credit card for everything- gas, groceries, clothes, and all the miscellaneous stuff in between. When the email comes saying “Time to Pay!” I look over the expenses to make sure they are accurate, maybe add them up if I have time, and spend my accrued points. If you haven’t made up a budget, a monthly spreadsheet in Excel only takes a few minutes to set up, and you can see your immediate monetary stats all in one place. If you already have one, now is a great time to update it, and make adjustments as needed.

What Do My Retirement Savings Look Like?

My financial advisor (aka- my dad) has always taught me to save, and it’s a value I hold near and dear. If you have a company retirement plan, take advantage of it! If not, then personally set one up ASAP! Your HR representative will be able to help if you are with a company. However, if you are an entrepreneur and/or don’t have company help, consult a financial advisor. (You can try to “go it alone,” but if you are unfamiliar with the financial world, it will be difficult. To get started, do some research about 401(k), 403(b), Roth and IRA options at IRS.gov.)This is a great calculator to help you understand what your projected retirement saving goals look like and where they need to be. It factors in rate of return, current and future salary, current age, age of retirement, and a few other factors. It’s fairly simple to understand, and there’s a handy glossary of common terms below.

Did I Use All My Benefits?

Most companies are re-upping for their health/dental/vision insurance and their HSA/FSA  (Health/Flex Spending Accounts) about this time of year. If you have these, have you taken full advantage of them? Have you gotten your annual physical and dental check-up, yet? If you have money left in your HSA/FSA, spend it! And speaking of your HSA/FSA, evaluate whether you need to add more or subtract some for next year.

Have I Donated to Charity and My Church?

During your self-audit, it’s very easy to adopt a “broke” mentality. “I’m so broke, I only have this amount in my savings!” “I’m so broke, I can barely stay within my budget!” “I’m so broke, I can only squirrel away a tiny portion towards my retirement!”  It also might be easy to deny tithing or giving to your church and charity, because of this mentality. The truth is we are abundantly blessed by God. We have enough, and the OPPORTUNITY for enough, to pay our bills, visit a doctor, and save what we can. It is an honor to bless those places and people when and where we can. There is a joy that comes from giving. Make room in your budget to experience that joy!

COMPASS resources explore the connection between faith and finances, so looking honestly at your financial health is an important spiritual practice. Deuteronomy 8:18 says, “But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.” (NRSV). It is essential to be wise with what God has blessed us with here on earth, and that means knowing and improving your financial situation as God gives you the ability to do so.

profileAbout the Author, Nicole Brennan: Hello there! I’m passionate about living a stewardly lifestyle, while being adventurous and frugal. I currently live in community with six other 20-somethings in downtown Chicago and work as a Marketing Assistant at Barnabas Foundation, a partner of ESC and COMPASS. In my off hours, you can find me volunteering at a nearby homeless shelter, enjoying live music with friends, or watching reruns of Parks and Rec. Email me at nicoletbrennan@gmail.com or tweet me at @BarnabasFdn.

This blog is a component of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center’s COMPASS initiative to engage young adults in conversations about faith and finances. Like what you see and want to know/do more? Visit the COMPASS web page and join the COMPASS community on Facebook.