Do you spend your student loans on “living expenses?” Read this borrower’s advice.

I’ve been carrying some amount of student loan debt for over eight years, ever since I started my first graduate program back in 2007. Now, you might be thinking that I took these loans out to cover my tuition, which is a totally understandable assumption since the term “student loan debt” implies that the money was put directly towards one’s education. In my case, however, the situation is a little more ambiguous.

Like many graduate students, I spent the majority of my time in grad school teaching and/or doing research in exchange for free tuition and a stipend, which meant that I rarely had to pay the bursar’s office much of anything. There were a few exceptions — one or two individual summer courses that weren’t covered — but I think it’s fair to say that 80 percent of my student loan money went towards living expenses. And when you’re in grad school for a total of seven and a half years, as I was, living expenses add up.

What is considered a college “living expense”

Now comes the mysterious part. The thing about “living expenses” is that this term could refer to literally anything. Anything! If you A) are living and B) have an expense (i.e. you purchase something), then you can basically refer to these as “living expenses” and nobody is really going to question you.

It wasn’t that I used my student loan money to buy a pony or a yacht or a Lamborghini — I definitely didn’t. But on the other hand, I also didn’t make a particularly concerted effort to cut my expenses and be more frugal. The loans felt like free money, and I used them as such. Yes, some of them went towards rent and gas and groceries, but I also bought clothes and shoes and earrings and books — not just textbooks but also regular, old books to feed my regular, old book-buying habit. I went out to eat, I bought gifts for people, I traveled occasionally, and so on. Nothing crazy, and I remember thinking that I was doing a pretty good job of being careful with my money. In reality, I was acting like I had disposable income when, in fact, I did not.

Acknowledgement of being in consumer debt, not just student loan debt

This is humbling for me to write about. I admit that I’ve said to myself many times over the years, “Okay, yes, I’m in debt, but it’s student debt, and that’s a little different.” But the truth is that I had been using my student loans in much the same way that many people use credit cards. And while I am technically in “student debt,” it would also be accurate to say that I am, in a certain sense, in consumer debt.

Again, it’s a little ambiguous. I can do some mental gymnastics and argue that my loan money went towards rent and my stipend money went towards clothes and eating out. But no matter how I look at it, the truth is that if I had made a conscious effort to minimize my spending, I could have borrowed far, far less and would have far less debt today. And since my first graduate degree wasn’t particularly rigorous, I probably could have taken on a part-time job during that period to supplement my income instead of spending my free time watching House (I mean, House is great, but sheesh).

Reflecting on my spending habits

It’s hard for me to understand what I was thinking at the time — most of these decisions were made between 2007 and 2011, which is a while ago. But I’ll try to break it down. I think there were two components.

For one, having never tracked my spending, I had no idea how much it cost me to live from month to month and no idea how much I needed to borrow, and so I borrowed a fairly large amount, just to “be safe.” And once that money was in my bank account, it felt like my money, and so…I spent it.

Second, I didn’t think actively about how much of a salary I would need to make in a future job in order to pay off my student loans in a timely fashion. I had heard a lot of people say things like, “Education debt is good debt!” and “Don’t worry, you’ll pay it off in no time once you’ve graduated!” And I just accepted those statements at face value, figuring that the amount of the loans would pale in comparison to my future salary.

Note from iontuition: our ionMatch college selection tool allows you to compare your return on education investment, just like Sarah recommends. Check it out! 

I wish…

So, yeah. I wish I had taken that part-time job. I wish I had used a budget calculator and done the math. I wish someone at my school had forced me to do the math. I wish I had been more conscious about my spending. I wish

But wishing isn’t going to get anybody anywhere. I made the choices I made, and this is where I am.

So my goal right now is to try to have some compassion for my younger self. I really do believe that, for the most part, people are usually doing the best they can, given the resources and information available to them. And I think that was true for me as well: I was doing the best I could at the time.

But if you know any students or soon-to-be students who might be thinking of taking out student loans for living expenses…maybe send them a link to this post.

About Sarah

This post originally appeared on The Yachtless. Sarah is a recent graduate school grad working on paying off about $57,000 in federal student loan debt. Sarah has dedicated to become financially conscious and write about her student loan repayment journey on her blog, The Yachtless, as well as other topics related to personal finance. Follow Sarah as she navigates the financial waters, one wave at a time, on her blog, Twitter and Pinterest.