I was a senior in high school, getting ready to attend the University of Texas at Austin, when I received my “award letter” from FAFSA with the terms of my direct unsubsidized student loan. I remember thinking, “This definitely does not feel like an award.”
In the last two decades, in-state tuition and fees at public universities have increased 211 percent. And each year, 30 to 40 percent of all undergraduate students take out federal student loans. I went in accepting the fact that I had to rely on student loans.
I had a good deal on in-state tuition at UT, but in four years, it had gone up nearly 10 percent. I graduated in 2020 with about $37,000 in federal student loan debt, about 30 percent more than the average undergraduate borrower. If it wasn’t for the scholarship I received from the local Rotary Club and the grant I earned to study abroad my senior year, my bill would have been much higher.
Then, I added another layer of debt with my first credit card. It turns out that this is not unusual. A study by Sallie Mae found the average college student’s credit card debt by 2019 was $1,183 — 31 percent more than in 2016, when I entered college.
Here’s how I got into debt, and how I’m getting out of it.
How I got into credit card debt
My 18-year-old self didn’t quite understand how a credit card was supposed to work. I wanted to live like a college student — and not the kind who eats microwaved noodles every night. That ultimately got me into trouble, financially. I saw my credit card as an opportunity to travel as much as I wanted, while I worked a minimum-wage newspaper gig that (spoiler alert) did not cover my credit card bill each month.
I knew what I was doing was irresponsible and that it would catch up with me. Yet I spent summers between semesters backpacking through Europe and Southeast Asia — and, you guessed it, throwing every purchase on my credit card.
At the time, I had one credit card in my wallet, the Discover it® Cash Back card. As soon as I took off for college, my parents encouraged me to get a credit card for all the right reasons. They wanted me to build credit — and they had the right idea. How could they know I’d end up globetrotting, courtesy of my credit card?
After college, I entered the job market with an egregious amount of both student loan and credit card debt. Oh, and it was May 2020: COVID-19 was disrupting everything. My credit card debt was the last thing on my mind.
Student loan debt became my primary concern
With lingering student loan debt, my card debt went onto the backburner.
In March 2020, the federal government announced the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which suspended payments on federal student loans through Sept. 30, 2020. I was six weeks out from graduating with my bachelor’s degree and a $37,000 student loan bill.
We didn’t even make it to Sept. 30 before the student loan relief measure was extended through Dec. 31, 2020, in early August, and then again through January 2021. When President Biden took office in January 2021, he extended the student loan relief measure without an end date.
With the federal deferment in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I started to think about ways to pay down the credit card debt I’d accumulated. For nearly four years, I’d been making payments barely exceeding the minimum amount due. I ultimately found myself with about $4,500 racked up on my Discover card. To make matters worse, I was facing a sky-high interest rate of 24.99 percent.
I began to grow frustrated with the small amount I was able to pay each month, and the compounding interest that continued to erase my progress. I felt stuck. I wanted to get my credit card debt under wraps before I even considered tackling my student loan debt. But I wasn’t sure how exactly that would be possible, once the federal deferment expired.
How I’m using a balance transfer to pay off my card debt
Instead of drowning in what-ifs, I started to look at debt consolidation options and decided a balance transfer was probably the best option for me. I knew my interest payments were going to eat me alive unless I could essentially pay my balance off in full, which I wasn’t quite prepared to do.
I decided to go with the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card. Three perks fit where I was financially: the $0 annual fee, the flat-rate rewards structure and the introductory 0 percent APR offer on both balance transfers and purchases for 15 months. I needed a strong balance transfer offer, and this card happened to offer a nice sign-up bonus too: 20,000 miles after spending $500 within the first three months.
Yes, I was intrigued by VentureOne’s low-hassle travel perks, even though I wasn’t looking for a travel credit card. As you can guess, since it’s how I got into debt in the first place, I love to travel. The VentureOne offers a boosted 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 1.25X miles on all other purchases — and that works with my long-term goals.
I applied for the Capital One VentureOne online and was promptly approved. Once I received my card, I initiated my balance transfer with Discover by calling customer service. My request for a balance transfer was approved and within a week my balance was transferred to my Capital One account. You can easily request a balance transfer online or through Discover’s mobile app, but because I had a few lingering questions, I decided to do it over the phone.
I now found myself with a $0 balance on my Discover card and a $4,500 balance on my Capital One card. Keep in mind, a balance transfer fee of 3 percent ($135) applied to my $4,500 balance.
With student loan forgiveness, I can prioritize the card debt
I knew that over the next 15 months, I would need to make monthly payments well above the minimum due in order to pay my balance off before the 0 percent APR offer ended. I started off by making two monthly payments at $150. My due date falls on the 27th of each month, so I was able to make biweekly payments in sync with the paydays from my job.
And then last month, President Biden announced a sweeping student loan forgiveness measure that erases up to $10,000 in federal student loan forgiveness for individual borrowers who make under $125,000 annually (up to $20,000 for borrowers who received a federal Pell Grant). I felt a profound sense of relief.
It isn’t even necessarily the dollar amount that makes a difference, it’s the fact that when the time comes to pay that student loan debt off, my monthly payments will be cut in half. Individuals with undergraduate loans only have to make payments that equal 5 percent of their discretionary income. Before this, I lived in fear that the sky-high monthly payments would completely disrupt any plan to pay off the card debt.
Now, I can focus on paying down my credit card debt and even increase my monthly payments, knowing my student loan payments aren’t going to bankrupt me next year.
How do you know what debt to prioritize?
At the end of the day, I’ve had to shift my financial priorities depending on what was costing me the most. Since I graduated into a “Covid economy,” my student loan debt was never at the forefront of my mind, because I knew it wasn’t costing me anything at that very moment. My increasingly high-interest credit card debt, on the other hand, was digging a hole in my pocket.
In any scenario, it’s in your best interest to consider what debt is costing you the most for the longest period of time. Look at the interest rates you’re paying, and calculate what they’re really costing you. If you’re in a situation similar to mine, the interest rates on your credit cards could lap your student loan interest rate a dozen times.
The bottom line
I am extremely relieved with the attention our nation’s nearly $1.75 trillion in outstanding student loan debt is receiving from the Biden Administration. Debt forgiveness will enable people like me to prioritize other debt that is proving to be more challenging to get under control. With the right plan — and, potentially, the right balance transfer offer— we grads can get our financial lives back on track.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t uncomfortable with my student loan debt, but I am not ashamed. It’s what I needed to do in order to put myself through college. Now, my credit card debt is another story.
I plan to pay my credit card debt off by March 2023, a few months before my 0 percent APR offer ends. When I do, maybe I’ll even upgrade my credit card and start to play the points game a bit myself. But I won’t have any room for error, because I will be working on tackling my student loan debt by then.