A Sound Investment: : College Debt 101

Today’s college student is well aware: an education boasting a fancy degree comes with a price. But for the student pursuing studies in voice, with his or her sights set on sustaining a successful career in opera, college loans are just the beginning of a long and costly road ahead.

There are lesson fees, voice coachings, accompanist fees, audition and application fees, contest costs, Young Artist Programs, study abroad and language-intensive programs, pay-to-sings, travel expenses, concert attire, and musical scores—not to mention continuing education, if pursuing master’s or doctoral degrees. And, don’t forget other necessities, like living expenses.

“It’s true; this isn’t the cheapest career in the world,” says Adam Shelton, 31, a lyric tenor who recently completed his doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin. “That being said, anyone at the top of their craft is going to incur some sort of expense. Whether you’re an actor, singer, instrumentalist, hair stylist, or circus performer, you will have to spend money at some point to stay ahead.”

Why does the expense seem greater for classical singers?

“My only speculation is that we are steeped in tradition from day one in the studio, and it carries out into the professional world,” Shelton says. “This is the way the classical world has worked for decades—the ‘traditional expenses’ every classical singer must accrue.”

And the expenses only continue for young singers saddled with college loan debt, transitioning from the classroom to the concert hall.

“Being a young singer/young artist is extremely difficult,” says Eric Ferring, 21, a tenor who recently completed a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance at Drake University and who will be pursuing a master’s of music in opera performance at the Boston Conservatory this fall. “Unless you have strong financial backing from your parents or from a beneficiary, the mounting costs can be daunting. Even with scholarships, my loan debt for my undergraduate degree is in the five-figure range. Thank goodness my master’s degree will be free, but that’s not the case for many singers. These degrees, and the experience and connections that go with them, are necessary to continue in this field but are costly.

“YAPs and pay-to-sings are another necessary part of our education as young singers,” Ferring continues. “These experiences, learning roles and building connections, are crucial to moving forward but can be very expensive. Once you are able to move into an upper-level Young Artist Program, you are getting paid to do your job. Albeit, you aren’t usually getting paid terribly well, but it’s enough to offset expenses and save a little money for the coming audition season.”

But even auditions—the act for singers to simply put their voices out there in hopes to land a paying gig—ironically are often one of the toughest on the wallet.

“Unlike the sciences, graduate schools do not pay for your travel or housing,” Ferring says. “Singers have to absorb the travel, lodging, food and, often times, the accompanist fees for these auditions. It can be outrageously expensive, especially if you are doing numerous auditions. Add in auditions for summer and year-long programs, and you’ve spent all of your ‘fun money’ for the entire year. Don’t forget about rent, scores, food, new suits, shoes, socks, and shirts . . . and you’re in the poor house.”

So, what is an aspiring classical singer to do in today’s saturated and competitive market, with some opera houses offering smaller stipends?

The key is knowing your financial situation, having a smart money plan in place, and being honest with yourself about where you’re at, where you want to be, and what you need to do to get there practically.

Here are 10 tips to help you get a handle on your student loans and get a head start on smart money management throughout your singing career.

1. Get organized.
Many undergraduates can leave college with anywhere from two to a dozen federal and private loans, financial aid consultants said. And graduate students might rack up twice that amount. It can be easy to lose track of or forget student loans during the six-month grace period upon the completion of a degree.

FinAid.org suggests compiling a list of your loans, including the loan name, the lender’s contact information and ID or account number, the loan balance, the interest rate, and the date that your payment is due. (Check out FinAid’s Student Loan Checklist at www.finaid.org/loans/studentloanchecklist.phtml to get started.)

Add a reminder or set an alert on your calendar and know how you will make that first payment. Many financial aid lenders can arrange scheduled auto-debits from your bank account and, as an added perk, throw in a small interest rate reduction for doing so. Others might provide a payment booklet for borrowers to help them stay on top of their payments.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore or put off paying back your student loans. Borrowers who default often lose special privileges available to them—such as deferment or forbearance—should they ever suffer a financial hardship in the future. Defaulting on your student loans also can result in increased interest rates, late fees, and a negative impact on your credit score. This will only create bigger problems in your financial future when you try to secure a car, home, or other loans down the road.

2. Consider loan consolidation carefully.
While it might provide alternate and more affordable repayment options by reducing the monthly loan payment, consolidating your loans might not always save you money.

Interest rates on federal loans are based on the weighted average of each of the interest rates, preserving the costs of the loans, according to FinAid.org. This could end up costing you more in the long run in extending the term of the loan.

However, while you can’t consolidate federal and private loans together, if your loans are with the same lender, consolidation can offer the ease of unified billing, including one bill that lists or includes all of your loans in one payment, streamlining and simplifying the process.

3. Stick to a budget.
The further you progress in your post-undergraduate studies, the more money you might have to shell out to stay ahead. But just like having a plan in place for your education and career, you should set financial goals. Both financial experts and singers recommend setting a budget based on your income and sticking to it.

“Monthly bills, car payments, credit cards, mortgage, medical bills . . . the list can get quite long,” Shelton says. “These are the pressing debts that one must face, while college debt collects in the background. Don’t let debt get out of control while in school, otherwise you’ll have terrible problems on your hands when you graduate.”

Shelton boils it down to the following:
Know your monthly expenses and finances. “Do whatever you can to make more than that every month. The excess money needs to go into a savings account or to pay back any outstanding debts you have.”
Get a job that’s musically inclined. “Find a church job, create a church job, sing at weddings and funerals, teach voice lessons, teach piano lessons if your skills are strong enough, direct a choir, teach preschool music, perform benefit recitals, coach a rock band. There are countless possibilities. You must have money coming into your account.”
If a musically inclined job isn’t available, get a day job. “It’s not our favorite option, but use it as a means to justify an end. Always keep your eyes open for a musical job—and if you can make the two work in tandem, do it.”
Create a debt repayment plan and discipline yourself to stick to it. “The two most important words here are ‘plan’ and ‘discipline.’ If you’re inclined to put things on your credit card and not pay them off immediately, stop using those cards cold turkey. Lock ’em up if you must. Just say no.”
Connect with a support system. “Family, friends, an advisor, or even a support group (several debt-related support groups have popped up nationally)—and you need to talk with them honestly about your debt situation. Listen to them and figure out what’s going to help you get to where you want to be.”

4. Know when to say “no.”
It can be one of the hardest things to do as a young singer hungry for opportunities to bulk up the résumé and hone performance skills. But it’s essential to weigh each opportunity carefully and decide whether or not the cost is worth what you may or may not gain from the experience.

“I started noticing a pattern several years ago, while organizing my receipts for tax season, that application fees were increasing by about $5 at a time,” says Shelton. “Then, the fees increased dramatically while companies began to downsize. The time came to question if I should be applying for every opportunity.”

This can be easier said than done when deciding on continuing education options.

“In regards to transitioning into post-undergrad education, I think one of the general challenges is paying for it,” Ferring says. “Most singers have already accumulated a large chunk of debt from their undergraduate degrees and want to save as much money as possible when moving into their graduate degree. I’ve been told multiple times, if you have to pay for your graduate degree, don’t go. This is easier said than done. If an amazing school gives you a half-scholarship and a lesser known or less prestigious school gives you a full ride, how do you manage these decisions? This is huge, so the pressure continues to mount on young singers. This same sort of pressure occurs when deciding which YAPs to apply for. Singers must decide which YAPs they are qualified for and which may be too much of a stretch.”

At the same time, knowing when to say “no” should be balanced with knowing when to take well-calculated risks.

“It’s easy to turn down a job because it may not pay well or it isn’t an ideal situation, but you never know who you may be singing/working for and how they may be able to help you in the future,” Ferring says.

5. Have a good filter.
Hand in hand with having good money management skills as a singer is knowing how to filter feedback. And the further you get in your career, the more feedback—solicited and unsolicited―you will receive.

“Young singers have to have an extremely good filter,” Ferring says. “Every person and their mother will give you an opinion on your voice, your skill level, your look, your résumé, your website, and which programs or graduate schools you should or shouldn’t apply for. Singers need to have what Darren Keith Woods at Fort Worth Opera calls a ‘board of directors.’ These are people that you trust with your career and that will give you their thoughts when asked. Having a filter and people to turn to to make these decisions is crucial to maintain sanity in a very crazy world.”

6. Be honest. Do you have what it takes, and is this really what you want to do?
There’s comes a time in every career where you must ask yourself, “Is this really what I want to do?”

Bottom line: singing isn’t for the faint of heart.

“More and more, I hear young singers say, ‘I thought I wanted to do this, but I just didn’t know that making it as a singer would be so hard,’” Shelton says. “Or ‘It’s not worth putting myself into debt that I’ll never be able to [pay off].’ If you can see yourself happy doing something else, you should probably be doing it. You have to work hard no matter what in this career to make money, no matter where you are in the course of the career path. If you aren’t up for that, then step aside, stop wasting people’s time, and pursue whatever will make you happy. A defeatist attitude only leads to more defeat. Just as hard as you work in the practice room, you have to work at the business side of things, too, when you’re out of school.”

If you find that a career in singing isn’t quite what you thought it would be, try something else. Music offers several career options outside of performance, from education to arts administration and music ministry. In fact, aspiring performers likely will be maintaining other careers both in and outside of music along the way or even after they’ve landed steady careers in the performance world.

“I think jobs outside of the music field are crucial in building a well-rounded person and someone who is more attractive to employers,” Ferring says. “I worked for the office of residence life for all four years of my undergrad. This helped defray thousands of dollars in debt and has helped me develop many skills that I could use in the future. I think singers need to know exactly what their money situation is before deciding to pursue this career.

“Singing definitely isn’t a career you can just stick your toe into. You must put all your eggs in the basket in order to get the result you are hoping for. In a more practical way, singers must know two things: Do they really want this? And do they think they have what it takes to achieve whatever their ideal end goal is? Being honest with yourself is fundamental in having a successful, fulfilling career.”

7. Consider a beneficiary.
Whether it be family, friends, or those that love and support the arts, it never hurts to ask.

“[Benefactors] giving to individual singers, as well as to companies, is crucial to the survival and cultivation of young singers,” Ferring says. “The stress of paying for it all can be too much for singers and their families. If singers can find anybody to help alleviate this burden, the product is usually of a much higher quality come performance time.”

8. Understand taxes.
When tax time rolls around, understand what you can write off and how your college loans come into play. Most financial advisors and singers strongly recommend working with an experienced accountant that is familiar with tax law. While this might cost you a bit up front, it could save you from expensive errors or an audit.

“It’s very important for singers to go to a tax manager/accountant that has worked with artists before,” Ferring says. “There are many tricks to the trade in writing off work-related expenses, such as travel, food, scores, etc. You can save yourself a lot of money come tax time if you keep track of these expenses and write them off at the end of the year.”

9. Know what is important to you.
Is it a financial aid package? The scholarship? The school? The teacher? The performance opportunities? The location? Isolate what the most important attributes to your education and career are and then weigh those decisions with care.

“College debt is almost completely unavoidable now,” Shelton says. “Scrutinize your choice of schools and figure out what is most important to you. Ideally, your teacher should be the most important part of the decision, but finances rule much of the decision-making process. One school may give you a better financial offer than another or promise more performing opportunities, and only you can decide what’s most important. Don’t just take the cost of the school into account, though. Is the area affordable, too? Then when you graduate, you must be determined and disciplined enough to figure out how to repay the debt you’ve accrued.”

10. Is it worth it?
Despite the hefty price tag that comes attached to a singing career, you might be hard pressed to find a vocalist that’s sipped the sweet taste of success to express any regrets about pursuing the art form of which they’re so passionate.

“With or without the rising cost of this field, I think the experience has been absolutely worth it,” Ferring says. “Being able to share our love for the beautiful music of the past and our desire to support the music of the future is an extremely rewarding venture. Even if I’m not making the most money and am struggling to pay rent, there is something so wonderful about escaping into the vivid lives of the characters we play and to be able to share those with our loving audiences. Music is what people turn to in times of joy and in times of sorrow. If I’m able to help, even in a small way, the emotional life of an audience member, I know I’ve done my job well. I can’t imagine my life without singing and music and I hope I never have to in the future.”

Shelton echoes this.

“I love to sing,” Shelton says. “The more I learn about singing and classical repertoire, the more I want to continue the art form. I know full well that it will cost money to do the things I want; however, I am not gambling blindly with my money as I once did. I am making investments in my education and understand the risks I take when I do not apply for an audition or when I do. I live successfully within my means and have for several years now. Nothing makes me happier than singing and sharing my vocal experience with audiences. But financial stability doesn’t hurt, either.”

Megan Gloss

Megan Gloss is a classical singer and journalist based in the Midwest.