As I was earning my master's in environmental management from Duke University, I knew that a large student loan bill loomed ahead. After all, I had borrowed a lot of money to cover tuition and other costs in graduate school, plus I still had undergraduate loans to pay off.
But I'd always been told that I should try to get the best education possible — even if it came at a hefty price tag — to set myself up for the future. I wanted to pursue a career in a highly specialized field, and Duke offered one of the best programs for it.
To me, it seemed worth the cost. So by the time I graduated in May 2011, I had accumulated about $160,000 in undergraduate and graduate student loans.
It was a lot of money, but I knew a lot of people who were in the same boat, including my now wife, Kelly, who was in the same grad program and left Duke with about $108,000 in student loans.
We knew that paying those amounts back would be a challenge, but neither one of us carried much "bad" debt — I graduated with only about $1,000 in credit card debt, and Kelly had none — so it wouldn't prevent us from meeting our future goals, right?
Wrong. And I didn't realize just how much of an impact that debt would have until we attempted to buy our first home.
First-time buyers in a tough market
A few months after graduation, Kelly and I relocated to Sacramento, Calif., because I found a contract position as a natural-resource specialist at the National Marine Fisheries Service. Kelly initially worked as an unpaid intern, then got a full-time, salaried position with the state as an environmental scientist about five months later. Combined, we made about $90,000.
To ease our way into paying down our loans, we took advantage of the six-month grace period and other deferment options available to us. Kelly deferred her loans for a year, after which she began an income-based repayment plan that started her loan payments at just under $500 a month. Because she works for the government, she also qualifies for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which means her balances will be forgiven after 10 years, as long as she continues to make her minimum monthly payments on time.
I got a three-year forbearance on all my federal loans. But the forbearance period on the private loans I took out for my undergrad days was up, so I had to start paying those back to the tune of about $350 a month.
Together, our loan payments were a good chunk of change but manageable. And as we settled into our lives together and started planning for the future, Kelly and I decided that we wanted to buy a home as soon as we could.
Kelly's parents, who didn't want us to "throw away" our money by renting, decided to help fast-track that goal by giving us $18,000 to put toward a down payment and moving costs. In November 2012 we began the hunt.
We didn't have issues getting pre-approved for a mortgage of up to $200,000. We intended to put only 5 percent down because we didn't want to use up all of our gift money, which meant we'd have to pay private mortgage insurance. But even with PMI, our potential mortgage payments would still be about the same as we were paying in rent, so we were O.K. with the added cost.
To say the market was competitive was an understatement. Home prices in Sacramento were heating up and investors were swooping in. Every time we'd put an offer down, someone would outbid us or offer all cash.
When one of our offers was finally accepted, we were ecstatic. We paid our earnest money and got as far as a home inspection — only to discover that there were serious structural and electrical issues with the home. We decided to pull out of the offer, but we made a rookie home buyer mistake and signed away any contingencies that would have returned those funds to us. So the seller ended up keeping our earnest money.
The bad news was that we were out $2,500. The good news: Another one of our offers was accepted on a newer home that was in far better shape.
The day student loans sabotaged our dreams
We were ecstatic. Our luck had finally turned around, and the nine months we had spent checking out dozens of properties was finally paying off.
The house passed inspection, so we thought we were on our way to owning our first home. But then came time to get our mortgage. Since we were putting down less than 20 percent, we had to apply for a loan through the Federal Housing Administration. We didn't suspect there would be any issues, given that we had been pre-approved.
But that's when we made rookie mistake number two: believing that a pre-approval for a mortgage guaranteed we'd actually get a mortgage.
Apparently, the underwriters determined that our debt-to-income ratio was too high to get approved. While we knew we still had a lot of student loans to pay back, it hadn't raised any red flags before, so we weren't sure what was different now.
Then our loan officer explained: Because I was a contractor, they weren't counting my income, which made it seem like our household income was about half of what it actually was. On top of that, they calculated Kelly's monthly loan payment as if she were on a standard repayment plan, rather than on an income-based one.
That made her payments appear closer to $1,200 — more than twice the $500 she was actually paying. We were told that banks often did that to account for the possibility that payments under an income-based repayment plan could shoot up every year, which could hurt a borrower's ability to pay the mortgage or be approved for future financing.
Our realtor suggested we try a different lender, but at that point we were drained. Kelly and I realized that even if we tried to buy a less-expensive home, we'd run into the same problem. We probably wouldn't be approved for a mortgage until we paid off more of our loans or started earning a lot more money.
Hitting the pause button on the American dream
Kelly and I have since gotten married, and we're now renting in a part of Sacramento where we would have wanted to buy. We still want to own a home, but we're being patient. We've crunched some numbers, and, based on how much we think our income will go up over time, we think we can try again in about five years.
Ideally, we'd like to get closer to a 20 percent down payment, but realistically, we'll probably put down only 5 percent again. Next time, however, we want to make sure we're fully qualified for a mortgage so we don't have to suffer a last-minute disappointment again. The wildcard is what my loans will be once my forbearance period is up. The rules for federal loan repayment seem to change a lot, so I don't know what options I'll have in the future for keeping those payments as low as possible.
We do have about $2,000 left of the gift money from Kelly's parents (the rest was eaten up by moving expenses, other costs for our new rental and some wedding expenses). Kelly diverts $50 a month from her paycheck into a high-yield savings account to further build up our future down payment. I also try to save about $50 a month.
She plans to boost that savings amount each time she receives a raise. And I'm hoping to find a non-contract, permanent position, which should help us when it comes time to apply for a mortgage again. We're trying to save in other ways too: We carpool every day, limit how much we eat out, and don't do many vacations.
We've never had dreams of being super wealthy. We just want the things that most people want — to be happy in our careers, own a home, and have kids someday. You know, the whole American dream. But I can't help but think that obtaining that dream is no longer an option for those of us burdened by student loans.
I don't want to make it sound like I regret attending the schools I did. School was where I met my wife, how I prepped to be competitive in my field, and where I met some of my closest friends. So I wouldn't change a thing about my education — I just wish it hadn't cost so much.
My generation, especially, has been given mixed signals by society. We're told to attend the best schools we possibly can — but then we're punished when we can't afford it.
*Names have been changed.
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