The $50 Week : Your Financial Road to Ruling your Federal Loans

The $50 Week : Your Financial Road to Ruling your Federal Loans

A few weeks ago, I watched on Facebook as a number of friends—none of whom were connected to anyone else posting on the same topic—griped about their student loan payments.

It’s a scary thing to see, especially when most of my pals have solid work, live modestly, and still struggle to make monthly payments. A few scholarships and a significant Social Security subsidy due to a personal situation got me through an in-state education without leaving me in the hole (and for that I thank several higher powers every day). But as the economy worsens and the cost of living rises, students entering college now—whether it’s undergrad or post-grad—are staring down a formidable dragon. And singers, unlike Zuckerbergs, are better off getting at least a bachelor’s degree than sidestepping higher education.

Scholarships help to an extent, but as Jill D’Amico, who worked with the New England Conservatory of Music before moving to American Student Assistance (a nonprofit geared toward consulting students and graduates in all things debt) notes, music conservatories are often self-sufficient.

“With a Harvard or even a Boston College, you have alumni go out and some of them make a lot of money and almost always give back and contribute generously to their alma mater,” she explains. “With a music school, most people aren’t going to go out there and make mega-millions performing their art.”

As such, non-loan-based financial aid is often tight. D’Amico has in her experience seen it tied to ego—but while your talents may not qualify you for scholarship funds, it often has little to do with aptitude if your school needs orchestral students more than it needs singers.

That, however, doesn’t mean that they don’t need you as well. And going into the arts doesn’t mean that you can’t afford to pay for your education in that field. Read on for our plan to get you through higher education on a fiscal high note that will leave you prepared to take on the world.

Before Enrolling

At any point that you elect to go to—or go back to—school, you should be aware of what you want to accomplish by graduation. You don’t need to have specific plans, and you should understand that those plans will change with experience in time, but you should at least sit down with a pen and paper and plot the next few years.

Once you know what and where it is you want to be—apprenticing at an opera company like Santa Fe or Glimmerglass, working as a choral teacher in a public school system close to where you grew up, or performing contemporary music in New York or Chicago—these goals should be articulated, and the tools you invest in should ultimately get you to those ends.

You’ve probably thought of this already, scouting out schools with specific teachers on their rosters, but consider every facet of the program. If you’re leaning more toward choral music, studying in a geographical area with numerous opportunities to that end is going to offer you more in addition to your private studies.

“It’s more than just paying for the private voice lessons,” says D’Amico of her time working at the New England Conservatory and its bustling Boston setting. “Our feeling was that it would be good debt; it wouldn’t be a waste of money.”

Likewise, it’s helpful to look at the whole of your education, rather than the first or final year. The loans you take on in year one will double, triple, or quadruple by graduation. It may be hard to pinpoint an exact number in theory without practice, but setting a baseline for your finances before the first day of classes will keep a number in your head that can be called on—like a talisman in Inception—when other financial opportunities present themselves.

Better still, think of Calixto Bieito. Bavarian tenor Vincent Wolfsteiner—a devotee of the iconoclastic, and at times downright controversial, director’s work—longed to work with him at some point. Knowing, however, that Bieito had a proclivity for nudity in his productions, the tenor dropped over 100 pounds to be in fighting shape. He kept a photograph of Bieito on his fridge, a literal eye on the prize, and starred earlier this year in the director’s interpretation of Der Freischütz at the Komische Oper in Berlin.

Find an image of where you want to be in your career—whether it’s the interior of a concert hall, the image of a beloved conductor, or the album art for an opera—and tuck it into your wallet, preferably where it would be seen each time you open it. Like Wolfsteiner, you still may open up and indulge, but you may be surprised at how the overt visualization of your end goal can help keep you on the straight and narrow.

First Years

Whether you’re in a two-year graduate program or completing your BA in a four-year setting, being a student means living like a student. “In order to graduate from college debt-free, students have to accept the fact that they are in college. Their lifestyle and expenses need to reflect that fact,” says Hona Amer, author of Smart Work U.

Claiming the lifestyle of a poor student (we’re talking the Bohème side of Paris rather than the Traviata side) seems clichéd and unexciting, but it doesn’t mean that you have to live like a monk. What it does mean, however, is that you do have to consider your lifestyle in relationship to your financial assets. Knowing exactly how much college will be setting you back upon graduation is a daunting idea as a freshman, but it’s an essential perspective to keep—especially if you’re transitioning from a small town to a large metropolis, where the temptations of regularly eating out, taking cabs, and getting your fill of entertainment are constant.

But perhaps I don’t have to be telling you all of this: according to D’Amico, who also has experience with non-performing arts college financial aid, the students at NEC were less likely than their non-conservatory peers to request more than their allotment for loans.

“I did work in other programs where it was clear that students never made the adjustment from living on their parents’ dime to living on loans. It’s a very hard transition to make,” says D’Amico. But perhaps something about the prescient understanding many music students have about the fiscal realities of their career means you’re already ahead of your peers in other majors. And when it comes to nonnegotiable expenses like books, lessons, and travel for breaks or auditions, there’s a whole backlog of “$50 Week” columns on to help you with the nitty-gritty.

D’Amico advises that you should check in with yourself each year—even each semester—to make sure that you’re on the path you want to take. When it comes to taking on the debt to enter a program of higher learning, D’Amico has noticed that some students will be gung-ho in their first year but more doubtful by their third year. Don’t make any decision to drop out or transfer lightly, but if you are contemplating a move to another school, keep in touch with those feelings to make sure no money is lost on a semester where you’re just not that into it. No one wins in that scenario.

Finally, if you’re in a liberal arts program that requires you to take core curriculum courses that are beyond your field of study, you may want to consider CLEP Exams. Short for College Level Examination Program, Amer recommends them as a way to bypass a science prerequisite or required economics course. “Compared with tuition rates, CLEP tests can save you time and money,” Amer says. It’s also how she earned her MBA by age 22. It’s hard to turn down any opportunity to learn. But if you’re taking on a significant amount of debt for your degree, now may not be the right time for an extra literature course. You can always take a continuing education course later on.

Final Year

Remember how I told you to visualize your overarching career goals and to check in each semester? Keep doing that. In fact, checking in with yourself and where you’re at professionally should just become part of your working life if it’s not already.

That being said, as you’re on the final countdown toward going out (or back out) into the real world, there are some additional considerations to factor into your planning. If you’ve been living in dorms, the rent on an apartment is going to be a major anvil that you can prepare for by searching for roommates, setting aside money on a weekly or monthly basis for fees like first-and-last months’ rent or brokerage fees, or finding where the nearest IKEA will be in order to get a $100 bed and a $25 desk. Whatever cash you can set aside before you have to go into this brave new world will seem like a luxury down the line, much like taking deep breaths at the beginning of a yoga class to prepare for breathing in sensitive or contorted positions toward the end of a session.

Before you graduate, take a measured look at your financial situation as it stands and how it has stood over the past four (or three, or two) years. Have you been working a part-time job that will carry over once you graduate? Do you have your next step secured in, say, a YAP or an additional degree? And, most importantly: Where do your other debts lie?

“I have always made it a point to pay things that are more expensive first,” says D’Amico. “I hate having to pay money on money.” D’Amico points out that most student loan interest rates fall below the cap of 6.8 percent, whereas credit card interest rates can be four times as much. With that in mind, target your highest interest rates first, paying above the minimum balance to save on those interest rates, while making the minimum payments on other lower-interest debts like student loans. Once those beastly cards are taken care of, take the money you were using each month on their payments and channel it into your next-highest-priority debt. If this is something you can do throughout college—or avoid entirely—so much the better.

Knowing how your future ties into your debt can also help you save. Most financial aid departments offer exit counseling for students. The downside to these sessions is that they usually occur in the ultra-charged months of March, April, and May—but take copious notes even if your mind is struggling to stay in one place pre-graduation. In addition to the obvious deferment that is offered on loans if you’re going into graduate school, D’Amico adds that teaching in public schools can qualify graduates for loan relief. Working a low-income job or actively looking for work—any work—will also be taken into account by the government.

“As long as you’re actively looking, there are deferment provisions for the unemployed and underemployed,” she says. “There are rewards for the effort.”

Olivia Giovetti

Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.