It’s October of 2018 and, just over 13 years since I graduated from law school, my loans are finally paid off in full! I’m really excited about this, with good reason, so I thought I would share with you some thoughts on how I did it – both the good and (some) bad choices that I made over the years.
Even if you were lucky enough to get a full scholarship or have a rich uncle pay your way in full, I still think there are some good lessons you’ll take away my experience that you can apply to paying down other debt – mortgage, credit card, undergraduate loans, or anything else – that you still have on your books.
At a bare minimum, my experience stresses how critical it is to track your expenses and savings – and my family finances spreadsheet is a great way to start doing that.
Only borrow tuition and fees – not living expenses (if possible).
Through a graduate school loan program that was sponsored by my state, I borrowed the full cost of tuition for three years which, at the time, was approximately $20,000 per year. Thanks to the ballooning cost of higher education everywhere, this was significantly lower than law students are currently paying at my top-25 law school. So I got lucky in that regard, attending at the time that I did.
As I’ve mentioned here before previously, I also worked for two years prior to law school, and I was able to stash away enough savings to cover my graduate student housing, which was a few thousand dollars per year. In retrospect, it was a great decision attending law school outside of a major city – both for my finances, and to experience a change of pace and a different way of life.
Attend law school in a low COL location.
Not everyone can do it – and certainly if you get into a top 10 school in a major city it is probably worth the extra living expenses to take advantage of the opportunities that will come your way.
But paying full sticker to attend a lower tier law school in an expensive urban location is a recipe for financial disaster. Your dollars will go much further in college towns than they will in Boston, NYC, DC, LA, or Chicago. I cringe to think what my debt load would have been had I enrolled at an expensive private law school in a major city.
Unless you are attending a truly elite law school, make sure you consider cost-of-living aspects of the next three years of your life before making a decision on where to enroll.
Live at home for a while after you graduate law school.
I didn’t take out a bar loan but when I moved back home after law school and got ready to start my first law firm job I was staring at a $7000 credit card bill. At the time, I only had one credit card, basically living off of it during the summer studying for the bar.
Now, I don’t recommend that strategy for obvious reasons, but I learned a good lesson sending my entire mid-month paycheck during the first few months at the firm to Visa. That wouldn’t have been possible if I wasn’t living with my parents.
Again, not everyone has this option. But if you do, you should take advantage of it for as long as possible. (Spoiler: I moved out the following summer.)
Send half of any windfalls to paying down debt.
Everyone should be doing this regardless of whether they are paying down law school, undergraduate, credit card, or mortgage debt.
One of my personal finance mantras is to send half of any windfall – bonus, side income, tax refund, whatever – to paying down debt in this order: credit card, student loan, and mortgage. The rest I will invest according to my taxable account asset allocation strategy.
I will confess that I didn’t always follow this rule. But once I did, my law school loan balance started to go down much more quickly.
Paying off my law school loans was a great feeling! I hope you get there soon too, if you haven’t already.
As always, please feel free to share any other thoughts or tips on how to reach that goal in the comments below.
Next up for me – killing off some zombie credit card debt and trying to make a real dent in our mortgage in 2019. I’ll share some thoughts on this in a future article here at Dollar Barrister.