Courtesy of Heather Shasa
- Heather Shasa used $175,000 in federal and private student loans to become a registered dietitian.
- For more than 10 years, she’s worked 60 hours a week to pay off her student-loan debt.
- She says she regrets not learning more about student loans and plans to pay it off in six years.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Heather Shasa, a 37-year-old registered dietitian who owes more than $100,000 in student-loan debt. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
By the time I was 26 years old and starting my career, I had $175,000 of student-loan debt. Ten years later, I’ve been able to pay off $163,095, but I still owe $123,158 because of interest.
When I was 13, my father passed away from a heart attack — nothing prepares you for the loss of a parent. My mom did the best she could to stretch her $500 paycheck and survivors benefits. She even had to dip into my dad’s life-insurance policy to hold onto our house and provide for us, but when it came time to graduate high school, I knew the next step would be to get a college degree because it was something my parents always stressed the importance of.
After I graduated from Rutgers University, I pursued a master’s degree in nutritional science at Saint Elizabeth University and completed my dietetic internship so that I could officially become a registered dietitian.
I’ve been owing this debt since 2013, and it infiltrates every thought and life decision that I make, so I’m determined to pay off these loans in the next six years.
I didn’t know what I was doing when I took out student loans for both of my degrees
I decided to study nutrition science at Rutgers to help people who might be struggling with heart disease, like my father did.
Since money was tight, taking out student loans was my only option for attending school. I did everything I could to keep costs low, like picking an in-state school, living on campus, sharing a car with my sister, and working while getting my degree.
I took out a federal student loan to pay for graduate school, but while I was in graduate school the $84,266 in private loans from my undergraduate degree became due.
I had to start making minimum monthly-payments of $560, which mostly just covered the interest. To do that, I started working part-time as a personal-nutrition assistant at a local hospital. I worked at least 20 to 24 hours per week on top of school but would often pick up an extra shift or two.
I work extra jobs and consolidated my debt
After grad school, my first full-time salary as a registered dietitian was $53,480. Unfortunately that income wasn’t enough to pay for my living expenses and student loans, so I started working per diem at other locations (like hospitals or rehabilitation centers) to pick up 20 extra hours a week to pay my $1,500 monthly loan payment.
In September 2021, I started my private practice in honor of my dad. My business is virtual and insurance-based with a focus on helping men with heart disease. I still work part-time at my retail dietitian job and continue my per diem work, but now I’m a full-time entrepreneur.
I also decided to do debt consolidation, which takes your multiple loan payments and merges them into just one or two payments. While this helped organize my loan payments, it didn’t bring down the interest rate or change the amount that I owed.
I also refinanced my student loans and applied for income-based repayments
I refinanced both my private and federal loans, which means I took out a new loan to pay off one or more existing loans, in order to get a lower interest rate — from 7.53% to 5.3%.
With my federal loans, I was able to participate in income-based repayment, which determines the amount you owe every month based on your salary and marriage status. I was able to apply for it every year and it’s helped me make my federal student-loan payments a little more manageable.
However, with income-driven repayment plans you could end up paying more in interest over the long term because you’re taking longer to pay off your loans. You might also be required to pay income tax on any forgiven amount if you still have a balance remaining at the end of your repayment period, according to current IRS rules.
I live on a strict budget
Because I’m paying more than $1,000 a month in student-loan payments, I’ve been doing what I can to save money. I moved back home to my mom’s house three years ago, I stick to a strict budget when I buy groceries, and I use coupons whenever I can.
I own a used car but pay attention to all the trips I take to make sure I’m not wasting gas. I also studied different financial methods to understand how to properly split my income every month to cover personal expenses, credit-card payments, and of course my outstanding loans.
I’m trying to better understand personal finance as I’ve gotten older, but I still have a long way to go and a lot to learn.
If I could go back in time, I’d do so much differently
I’d try to save more while in college, take on more side hustles, attend a community college, and live at home for the first few years of undergraduate school. More than anything, I’d spend time trying to understand more about the loans I was taking out at age 18 by speaking with a financial advisor or guidance counselor.
I wish there was more education and transparency around what it means to take out student loans when you’re a teenager. At 16 years old, I was given a mandatory driver’s education class — what about a student-loan class? Both driving and student-loan debt can cause catastrophic damage if not handled properly.
When I’m finally able to pay off all my student loans, I’ll be happy that I don’t have to work extra hours every week just to make these payments. I want to spend that time with my sister and my niece and continue to build up my business.
There’s nothing new or fancy I want to buy when these loan payments are over. I just want to buy back my time and everything that comes along with it.