Life / Money

What does B.C. student debt look like after graduation?

A communications major whose personal finance blog helped her scrape away $28,155 worth of debt in just two years.

An engineer who celebrated erasing $20,000 in student debt by taking friends out for dinner and footing the $500 bill on his credit card.

A graphic designer who feels so suffocated by her $67,000 debt load that she struggles to see a future involving home ownership or children.

Meet the face of student debt in B.C., the province where students go the deepest in the hole to fund their educations, according to an August BMO survey that pegged the average debt at nearly $35,000 compared with $26,000 in Canada.

As thousands return to Vancouver’s six post-secondary institutions, Metro spoke with former students to see how debt affects lives after school.

Still counting pennies

Cait Flanders, 28, vividly remembers peeling back the top corner of her credit card statements so she could just see the minimum and not the entire amount.

“I just didn’t want to admit to it,” Flanders said.

With one year left in university and $100 in cash to last six weeks, she started recording every cent she spent on a blog to keep herself honest. Two years later, the New Westminster resident behind “Blonde on a Budget” is debt free.

A big help was moving home for six months, but she still treated herself to occasional Starbucks despite the flack she got on her blog.

“You just have to find what’s pleasurable in cheaper ways,” she said.

 

Trying to stay positive

After spending nearly $70,000 to fund her education, freelance designer Chrissy Davey, 35, doesn’t want to give up on her field.

“It’s a tough thing in Vancouver because there’s a lot of competition in the creative industries,” Davey said.

She didn’t have the option to live at home while studying at Emily Carr nor could she afford an unpaid internship – something she wishes she had done to get ahead – if she wanted to pay rent.

She applies to about three jobs a day and is considering leaving the Lower Mainland for work. “It’s a lot of energy to try to remain positive through it all,” she said.

“There are people I know who travel places, or who are buying houses and having kids. I don’t see that happening for me right now.”

 

Getting an education was worth it

“I’m not sure if I’m just being naïve about it, but I think that student debt is a good debt,” said SFU grad Kelvin Claveria, 29, who works in digital marketing.

His mom was a single parent, so he knew he had to pay for school and doesn’t really stress about the $23,000 in debt he has remaining.

Crystal Kwon, 28, credits working during her degree to helping her manage money. She works in her field of public relations and erased her $30,000 in debt since graduating in 2007. And yes, she did an unpaid internship while living at home.

 

Stop stressing about having ‘less than nothing’

To celebrate the end of student debt from his UBC engineering degree, Misha Grebenyuk, 28, took his best friends for dinner.

“After you pay off $20,000, what’s $500?” he said. Grebenyuk counts himself lucky due to the job prospects from his technical degree, and is fantasy shopping for cars now that he’s debt free.

“For me, the biggest thing is just the mental aspect of just being above zero,” he said. “Debt was stressful. It’s not a good feeling.”

Financial tips for current students

Start financial planning early

Talking cash can “come across a bit on the dry side,” said Darran Fernandez, UBC’s associate director of enrollment services, but he recommends visiting your school’s advisors ASAP.

Advisors can help students be smarter with their money. Plus they can help find bursaries and scholarships.

 

Needs vs. wants

It helps to think in terms of fixed costs such as rent, tuition, textbooks and utilities vs. variable costs such as clothing, type of phone, food and cable, said Manoj Bhakthan, SFU’s director of financial aid and awards.

While there’s not much to do about fixed costs – unless moving in with parents is an option – “you don’t need the latest smartphone.”

 

Use your school’s services

The rec centres are nearly free compared to private gyms, the U-Pass is way cheaper than regular fares and some textbooks are available used or through the library, Bhakthan said.

 

Get a job

UBC has a work learn program that helps students find on-campus part time jobs, and SFU encourages co-op jobs during a degree.

 

Tax deductions

Save those receipts. Students get tax deductions for tuition, textbooks and moving expenses, or they can pass the deductions to family members.

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