Friday Financial Foul Ups: Signed My Life Away at Age 17

This week’s Friday Financial Foul Up will feature a guest post by Stephanie from Poorer Than You.  Stephanie has always been very open about her financial mistakes and her financial situation (click here to see where she ranks on the Wealthy Blogger List).  She is an active twitterer (@Stephonee) and really is one of the fun young voices in the personal finance blog-o-sphere.  She has been featured in J. Money’s Blogger Showdown vs. Squawkfox, and I am really happy she has taken the time to participate in the Friday Financial Foul Up Series hosted here. Enjoy her story and her foul up at the young age of 17.

When I was in high school I knew that I would go to film school for college. I had been writing movie scripts since I was was very little, and coming up with great movie ideas with my friends all the time. I even got in trouble in middle school because the topic of my latest film idea (The Attack of the Killer Sewing Machine) was too dark to discuss on school grounds. So when senior year of high school rolled around, I visited a few college campuses and decided on the film school that I knew in my heart was right for me: Rochester Institute of Technology.

Everything about the school just fit right: the feel of the campus, the caliber of the film program, and the fact that it was only 40 minutes away from my house! There was only one problem: it was a very popular and selective film program. And although I had pretty good grades and knew I would rock the essay portion of the application, I was still scared. There was no way I was going to let myself get rejected from this perfect school!

I applied “Early Decision,” a program that lets you apply before most applicants (increasing your chances of getting accepted, if you qualify), but also locks you into that school if you’re accepted. It’s basically a deal that says “I really want to go to your school, so if you accept me, I will absolutely go here.”

I got accepted. Elation! Happy days! Joy joy joy!

The Situation

A few months later I received my financial aid offer. The problem with applying Early Decision is that you don’t necessarily get to see how much money the school is going to offer you. And, well, no one told me that before I applied. The financial aid offer I now held in my hand wasn’t bad – in fact, they did what they could to play up the scholarships and grants they were giving me, and downplay all of the federal loans they were signing me up for.

At the time, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. I mean, everyone who goes to college and isn’t independently wealthy has student loans, right? My older siblings had student loans. Most of the adults I knew complained about their student loans… I was under the impression that student loans are just a part of life. So I signed the financial aid packet and sent it back. After all, nothing in this world was going to stop me from attending the film school of my dreams – not even a little debt.

Five years later… I have my Bachelor’s in “Film Production and Business Studies,” and $42,546 in student loan debt. It took me five years to get my degree because I had to drop out during my third year to fix my financial situation. I hit an upper limit on what I could borrow on one of my student loans, and suddenly I didn’t have enough money for tuition, room and board, and to pay for my film projects. (Yes, in film school, you not only have to pay the regular costs and for textbooks, but then you also have to go out and fund your own short independent films for class!)

Where I Fouled Up

First and foremost, I should have visited the school’s financial aid office before applying. Yes, I know that sounds like a no-brainer now, but at the time, I figured my family was so broke that they had to help me out! That, coupled with my good grades, probably would have been true, had I not applied Early Decision. Early Decision takes away your bargaining power. It locks you into an agreement that’s really hard to get out of. The financial aid office has no reason to help you out, because “I can’t afford this with the financial aid package you’re giving me!” is not considered a valid reason for breaking an Early Decision agreement.

$42,546 in student loans, at my current interest rate =

$74,615.81 over 25 years

What I Learned

The unfortunate truth of learning lessons about student loans is that you’re not given much of a chance to apply those lessons again! Sure, I could go for my Master’s degree… but with all that debt hanging over my head, and a degree in Film, do you really think I can afford to? But I did learn a few things:

Film school is not for poor kids. Most of my classmates did not understand and could not relate to my financial situation. Some of them, yes, but most came from upper-middle class or flat-out rich families. After telling one of my classmates “I have reached my limit on student loans,” he replied, “Well, that’s what parents are for!”

Early decision is not for poor kids… unless you have a solid financial aid package in hand, first.

Don’t use credit cards to bridge the gap between student loans and your cost of attendance. Right before I dropped out, this is how I was paying for my films and for Ramen noodles to eat. If you’ve reached this point, warning signs should go off in your head, and you need to reevaluate your entire college situation.

Student loans are debt, and no, they’re not “just a part of life.” Thanks, 17-year-old me, you’ve got me paying off student loans until I’m 48! You little brat!


Do you like this series?  Check Out The Previous Foul Ups:

Foul Up #3 – Deliver Away Debt – How I Wasted Over $10K and 11 Months
Foul Up #2 – Brian (MyNextBuck) – Quick Fixes to Weight Loss
Foul Up #1 – Brian (MyNextBuck) – How I Didn’t Earn $3000 in Free Money

15 Responses to Friday Financial Foul Ups: Signed My Life Away at Age 17
  1. Jeff
    October 9, 2009 | 7:07 am


    Great point about really looking at the costs ahead of time. My wife did the same thing as you. She was accepted to a great school a jumped at the chance to attend. Her choice was made well before she could figure out how to pay for it. She attended a great privite college but could have saved a TON by going to a great state school instead. She is now a stay at home mom and we are paying off the tail end of the student loan debt. Although on the debt scale people believe student loans to acceptable, they are still a cost that continues for many, many years.

    Thanks for sharing your Foul-up

  2. Brian
    October 9, 2009 | 7:37 am

    I get a lot of crap from people about being too forward thinking. Its with everything in life for me and always has been. However, i did apply early acceptance to a school, and a situation like this didn’t even cross my mind. Of course, my 17 year-old-self wouldn’t have cared about money the way I do now.

    I think Stephanie’s story has a lot of value for those with kids that are looking at getting into schools via early acceptance. I hope a handful of people learn from her situation and apply that knowledge to their own lives or the lives of their children.

  3. mapgirl
    October 9, 2009 | 7:50 am

    I got one up on ya. I signed for a student loan at 16 for my junior year of private high school. It was for $1K with the rest of the aid package in grants. I am probably one of a small number that walked INTO college admissions with student loans already in hand.

    I was lucky that my folks paid it off for me before I finished college, so I didn’t have to add it to the $20+K loans I had for that. (Of course, I also went to a school that was not my first choice due to familial pressure to take the best aid package. I do sort of regret that. At least you majored in something you wanted. So another one to me, but in a very sad sort of way. It’s not to one up people on this sort of thing is it? BTW, I’m probably 10+yrs older than you so college was cheaper then. I think if I did it now, I’d probably also have about $30-40K in loans. Why is it so damned expensive?)

  4. Stephanie PTY
    October 12, 2009 | 5:49 am

    @Jeff: yep, I’m not at all surprised that I’m not the only one who made these costly mistakes! I think it’s a lot to ask 17 and 18-year-olds to decides and manage, even if they have a little help from their parents, but especially if they don’t. Suggestions that teenagers travel, work, or volunteer for a year to gain some perspective seem a lot smarter now that I’m on the “hindsight” end of it.

    @Brian: thanks for letting me share my foul-up. I feel like it’s a story that gets swept under the rug a lot, but it needs to be said if we’re ever going to prevent it from happening to more and more college kids.

    @Mapgirl: why of course it’s a competition! Heehee! Even though I majored in something I wanted, it came back to bite me in the end when it ended up not being what I ultimately wanted. Film credits don’t really transfer into any other major! People told me to just get the degree, because most employers don’t care what your degree is in, just that you’ve shown you can complete the large project of “college.” This recession has shown that to not be so true…

  5. J Money
    October 14, 2009 | 3:28 pm

    I’m glad you finished and got your degree!!! Most won’t even try if they have to pay for it themselves – so good job :) Now more importantly, where can we watch your movies?! I SO want to see a killer sewing machine!

  6. Stephanie PTY
    October 15, 2009 | 11:07 am

    Ah, Killer Sewing Machine never made it past script form 😉 But a few of my college films almost sorta made it onto my YouTube account. Someday, I should really find a way to get all of the good ones up there.

  7. Financial Samurai
    December 12, 2009 | 10:52 am

    Steph – Let us know when you produce your first film and others! I’ll be sure to support it! Will check out your Youtube link :)

  8. hey
    February 21, 2016 | 12:08 pm

    Pretty! This was an extremely wonderful article. Many thanks for providing this info.|

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