This is a guest post from A.J. Clark, a long-time lurker at Get Rich Slowly. A.J. is a potential Staff Writer for GRS. He is a recent college graduate who writes software in the financial services industry, while trying to find his financial footing in the Real World.

$76,133.53 — I owe this total to various lenders, who decided four years ago that trusting an eighteen year old with this sum of money was a good idea. However, the original amount of money I owed was much greater ($107,822.33) and even I am amazed with the amount of debt ($31,688.80) I have paid off during my time in college.

Following my heart
A little over four years ago, as I was preparing to graduate from high school, I was in the midst of making a life-altering decision. I needed to choose between attending a public school a few hours from my home in Florida, or my dream school: a private institution in New York City, a school that I fantasized about attending ever since I was a child.

I would be the first person in my family to attend a traditional four-year college or university, and I wanted to make sure that the degree would allow me to live a better life than my parents, and someday achieve financial independence. I was worried that the public school that I had the opportunity to attend would not provide me with the proper set of life experiences that I needed to be successful in life, and I knew that the school in New York City would be able to give me a unique college experience, and put me in a strong position to succeed.

Putting the financial ramifications of my decision in the back of my mind, I decided to follow my heart, and go to New York City. However, I did not fully understand the financial impact of my decision until years later.

A baseball analogy
I liken my current situation to that of Chien-Ming Wang, who is a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees.

Wang had an atrocious beginning to his season, giving up over twenty earned runs during his first three starts. In each outing, Wang lasted no more than two innings or so, and by the time the Yankees decided to put him on the disabled list, Wang had an ERA of over 35.00.

Note: For those of you unfamiliar with baseball statistics, ERA stands for Earned Run Average, and describes the ratio of earned runs per nine innings pitched. Most pitchers have an ERA between three and five, so having an ERA of thirty-five is pretty extreme.

In order to lower his ERA to an acceptable level, Wang would need to pitch a lot of scoreless innings. In fact, during a game earlier this season, an announcer made a comment that Wang would need to pitch sixty or more scoreless innings just to bring his ERA down to his career average of 4.16; needless to say, that feat would break many records.

My financial earned-run average
In a sense, my ERA is my collection of student-loan debt (the composition of which will be a topic for another post), which is barely manageable. In order to bring my debt down to a manageable level, I need to have five or more years of “scoreless innings.”

As many personal finance bloggers can attest, consistently completing scoreless innings is a difficult thing to do — one life emergency is able to impair one’s ability to “compete” financially going forward in life.

  • Build an emergency fund?
  • Contribute to a 401(k)?
  • Be more frugal than a broke college student?

Starting so far in debt to begin with makes it difficult to do these things, though I’m trying to put my best foot forward in my quest for the elusive state of financial freedom. In fact, for the last six months, I have been devouring any and all information that I can find on personal finance, and have learned more or less what I need to do in order to achieve this goal.

Choosing to start behind
However, one thing that has become readily apparent is that unlike Wang, whose high ERA was not intentional, I chose to start behind. I chose to attend a private school in New York City. I chose to incur over a hundred thousand dollars of debt.

Although I am starting with a significant amount of ground to cover before I am able to reach a point where I am debt-free, attending college in New York City, albeit at a high cost, has provided me with many unique opportunities.

For instance, during my sophomore year of college, I was able to obtain an internship with a prestigious firm within the financial services industry. Since I went to college in New York City, I was able to work part-time at the firm during the school year, which ultimately allowed me to begin a full-time job there immediately after graduating — something that is relatively unheard of in this economy.

Much to learn
Growing up, I was taught that some things in life do not come easy, and that money is not the ultimate source of happiness. Although I believe I have a strong working knowledge of the personal finance arena, I know that I still have a lot to learn, and paying off my student loan debt within the next four to six years will be a difficult, if not daunting, task.

Given the opportunity, I would love to chronicle my journey towards finishing ahead (or more immediately, getting to the starting line) here on Get Rich Slowly, and share with the readers the personal finance knowledge I gain along the way, as well as any life experiences that I have relevant to the discussion. If anyone has any questions for me, feel free to leave them in the comments section, and I will respond as soon as I am able.

Chien-Ming Wang photo by Keith Allison.

This article is about Choices, Debt, Education