Don't Let Debt Make You Regret Your College Years

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Student loan debt is a reality for many U.S. adults. Estimates suggest Americans owe approximately 1.75 trillion dollars in student debt. Around 62% of 2019 graduates left school owing an average of $28,950.

For many, taking out student loans is often the only way to afford higher education. Even so, it isn't uncommon for many people to look back and wonder if college was worth the debt they acquired to pay for it.

While it is normal to look back and wonder if you might have done things differently, you don’t need to let your debt make you regret your college years. Even if hindsight tells you that you might have made different choices if you were doing it again—whether that would mean borrowing less, attending a different school, or earning a different degree—you can still appreciate the lessons and experiences you gained from your college experience. 

If you find yourself regretting the college debt you have, there are a few things you can do to help ease your mind. Going to school was an investment in yourself and your future. Putting things in perspective can help you focus on finding ways to manage your current debt without regretting your college years.

Impact of Student Debt

Debt can have a variety of negative effects on a person's life. These can vary depending on factors ranging from an individual's financial resources to their coping abilities.

For many, the toll that debt takes can be serious. Research also suggests that student debt contributes to worse quality of life, emotional exhaustion, burnout, and depression.

Debt can contribute to many people's feelings of regret, stress, anger, and anxiety. Such feelings are often more pronounced when people are struggling to make payments. 

According to the results of one survey, 81% of adults with student loans had to delay important milestones such as buying a home, saving for retirement, investing money, getting married, or having children. This is perhaps why 54% of adults reported that student loans were "not worth it."

The survey also found that 62% of adults reported that their student loans negatively affect their mental health. This detrimental impact on psychological well-being becomes more pronounced the less an individual earns.

Evidence also suggests that student debt can ultimately affect the financial trajectory of a person's life. Young college-educated adults without student debt have a net worth seven times higher than those with student loan debt.

College debt can also contribute to feelings of shame and isolation. For some people, this means trying to hide their debt from others out of feelings of embarrassment or guilt. Others may cope by trying to ignore the problem, which can then contribute to other problems. Rather than dealing with the realities of debt, avoiding it can lead to poor money choices and contribute to mental health issues.  

Factors That Contribute to Regret

There are many reasons why people may find themselves regretting their college years when faced with the burden of student loan debts.

  • The amount of debt: The amount of debt a person has, their monthly payments, and how long it will take them to finally pay off the debt is another major cause for regret. For many people, it represents a financial burden that can make it hard to achieve other life goals, including buying a home or putting money aside for retirement.
  • Owing money on an unfinished degree: People who are left paying off debts on a degree they didn't finish may feel particularly frustrated. Every payment they make acts as a reminder of an unfinished goal. 
  • Owing money on an "unused" degree: Another common frustration is paying off loans for a degree that isn't directly related to a person's current line of work. As a result, they might look back and wish they had put that time, money, and effort into pursuing a degree in a different field.

No matter the case, paying off such debt well into adulthood often means looking back on choices made when we were younger, less experienced, and often less aware of what we want out of life.

How to Deal With Regrets

For most people, there’s no quick and simple solution for dealing with debt. It takes time, and many people may find they need to take steps such as making extra payments, refinancing for lower rates, or finding additional sources of income to pay loans off faster. 

One thing that you can do to manage feelings of regret is to reframe how you think about your college years and the debts you acquired during that time.

Remember What You’ve Gained

Remember that your college education is an investment in yourself. College is often about more than just earning a degree; it is also an experience that provides important critical thinking skills that are important for both work and life.

It will pay off in the long run, including personally, financially, and in terms of your career opportunities. 

Even if you are not working in the field, you originally went to college for, your college years provided you with a wealth of experiences that likely continue to serve you well today.

One factor that may help people avoid regretting their college years is that experiences typically lead to less buyer's remorse than material purchases. Research has found that when it comes to experience-related regrets, people are more likely to regret what they didn't do rather than what they did.

Don't Be Too Hard on Yourself

It's easy to get caught up in the moment and think about how you could have avoided taking on debt, but it's important to remember that everyone's situation is different. 

It may be true that you would not make the same choices today that you made in the past, but it’s important to remember that you were not in the same position and did not have the same knowledge and experience you have now.

You were doing your best and making the decisions that worked for you at the time. Show yourself a little kindness rather than beating yourself up for those choices.

Make a Debt Repayment Plan

Lack of financial planning can make college debt regret worse for some people. According to one survey, the majority of borrowers under 40 regret not spending more time planning how they would manage their student loans.

Be proactive about making payments on your loans. The sooner you get them paid off, the better you'll feel about your college experience overall.

But if you're struggling with college debt, remember that you're not alone. There are resources available that may help you get on track financially.

Speak with your financial aid office or consult a financial advisor to develop a plan that works for you. In many cases, you can get your college debt under control and start enjoying the benefits of your degree.

Look for Loan Forgiveness Opportunities

While the status of potential federal loan forgiveness remains up in the air, some programs offer loan forgiveness for some borrowers that meet specific conditions. 

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program offers forgiveness on federal student loans to encourage people to enter public service. Other programs include the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program, military service, or an Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plan.

Other options may help include switching to a different repayment plan or consolidating multiple loans into a single loan. In some cases, you may be able to apply for a deferment or forbearance, allowing you to temporarily reduce or delay your payments.

Use Effective Coping Strategies

When dealing with financial stress, it isn't uncommon for many Americans to turn to unhelpful tactics. One report by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that millennials dealing with financial stress spend time online, watching tv, eating, drinking alcohol, or smoking as a way to cope. 

Such tactics might take your mind off your stress and regrets temporarily, but they don't support your well-being in the long term. And over time, relying too heavily on such unproductive or unhealthy distractions can lead to other serious problems, including substance misuse.

More effective coping strategies you should try include:

Recap

It is important to use effective coping strategies when you are dealing with financial stress. Caring for yourself means you'll be more resilient and better able to manage stress without slipping into rumination and regret.

A Word From Verywell

It’s important to remember that regretting the past won’t change the present. Even if you do wish you’d done things differently, it is important to avoid letting those feelings color all of your good memories of your college years. Instead, look for ways you can use what you have learned to make financial choices that will serve you well in the future.

Educating yourself about your options is a good place to start. Talk to a financial professional and look for steps you can take to deal with your debt effectively. You can’t change the past, but you can take steps to ensure that you feel fewer regrets going forward.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Student Loans Owned and Securitized.

  2. The Institute for Student Access and Success. Student Debt and the Class of 2019.

  3. Ulbrich TR, Kirk LM. It's time to broaden the conversation about the student debt crisis beyond rising tuition costs. Am J Pharm Educ. 2017;81(6):101. doi:10.5688/ajpe816101

  4. CNBC. CNBC/Momentive poll: "Invest In You" January 2022.

  5. Pew Research Center. Young adults, student debt and economic well-being.

  6. Rosenzweig E, Gilovich T. Buyer's remorse or missed opportunity? Differential regrets for material and experiential purchases. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012 Feb;102(2):215-23. doi:10.1037/a0024999

  7. Citizens Financial Group. More than three quarters of former college students with they had a "do over" for their student loans and were unaware of options to restructure via refinancing.

  8. Federal Student Aid. Student loan forgiveness (and other ways the government can help you repay your loans.

  9. American Psychological Association. Stress in America: Paying with our health.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.