The last time I cried in law school, it was the day after my last exam of 1L year. I had just left the Financial Aid Office. It was my first trip to see them, I had no idea what I was doing, and I wanted some information before taking out my first ever loan. It seemed like a reasonable request to someone paying full cost for the most expensive law school in the country.
I expected, probably naively, to be ushered into the office of an advisor, to have the entire loan process explained to me in detail, and to have all of my questions answered in detail and with a smile. I left the office shortly after feeling dejected, condescended to, and without much additional information. I never did get to talk to a financial aid advisor about my specific situation.
So began my journey to better understand the law school finance game. There are so many resources available for personal finance, especially paying down debt, but most of the resources I found giving advice about what to do before taking on $300,000 in debt were vague or unhelpful (“Don’t do it!” wasn’t going to cut it).
My personal favorite bit of unhelpful advice came from an e-mail sent to all law school students by the Financial Aid Office. It contained these exact words – “Tuition and fees will not be finalized . . . until mid-June”. The next sentence was “It is important that you budget carefully and borrow only exactly what you need.” Never mind the fact that tuition is the single largest expense for just about anyone pursuing higher education, coming in at a whopping 68% of total expenses for Columbia Law students for the 2015-2016 year.
The deadline to turn in our paperwork to the Financial Aid Office was May 15th – a Sunday (the office is closed Sundays) and 2 days after the Spring Term ended – not a lot of time to seriously consider the hundreds of thousands of dollars for which you’re about to ask. When a friend of mine called the office to inquire about the Sunday deadline when the office was obviously going to be closed, he told me that they said it was a fake deadline. Cool.
Don’t get me wrong – I am incredibly thankful for my experiences and education at Columbia, and I do think that CLS is worth the price in the end. All of this complaining is really just to say – debt is scary and intimidating and stressful, especially now that student loan debt is no longer dischargeable in bankruptcy. The best cure to such stress is knowledge and a plan of action. This 3-year 2-year (Woo 2L!) jaunt I am currently on is probably the second most expensive thing I’m going to buy in my lifetime (and let’s be real, am I ever really going to buy a house? I’m about to have plenty of debt, thank you very much), and I want to make sure I’m setting myself up for financial success as much as possible.
Side Note – Discharging student loan debt in bankruptcy is not impossible, you just practically have to be 65, living off of $13k a year, and exhaust all of your retirement and any other savings. No thank you, please. Let’s work on avoiding bankruptcy altogether, mkay? Okay, great.
I am proud of the fact that I paid out-of-pocket for my first year of law school without touching my retirement savings. I was incredibly lucky and privileged to have amazing parents that paid for my (also absurdly) expensive undergrad (thanks, Mom and Dad!) and to have landed a pretty high-paying job right after college, but it also took a lot of work saving and investing right from the start to be able to pay almost $100,000 for the first year of law school.
I’ve always had an interest in personal finance (fun, embarrassing fact: when I was little I used to balance my Mom’s checkbook for fun), I have an accounting degree from one of the top BBA programs in the country, and I once held an informal personal finance session for co-workers at my last job discussing things like 401k contributions, Roth accounts, and good investment strategies. I thought I had this whole paying-for-law-school-in-a-smart-way thing in the bag – but it turned out to be a lot more complicated and confusing than I thought.
I’ve already made a bunch of mistakes in paying for law school (applying for law school and financial aid late in the process, forgetting about capital gains taxes on the money I took out of the market to pay tuition and rent, not standing my ground in the Financial Aid Office and demanding to speak to an advisor, the list could go on), and I know I’m going to make a ton more along the way. But I’ve also done a couple of things right, like saving more than 50% of my income before law school so that I could pay for the first year in cash and not touching my tax-deferred retirement savings. I’m hoping that over the next few years my wins list will be longer and more impactful than my mistakes list.
Enter this blog. I’m not an expert on law school loans yet (or blogging, or . . . anything, honestly), but I’m super excited to continue this journey of learning here, and hopefully grow the community into something where we can learn from one another about paying for higher education and personal finance in general.
If you’re interested in learning how to pay for higher education, the process of debt accumulation, paying off student loans, or even personal finance more generally, this blog is for you and I hope you’ll contribute to the community with all of your amazing knowledge along the way!