By Avery Wilks
Chelsey Weirzbinski prefers her Netflix account to movie stubs and would rather host a brunch party than go out to eat.
A senior at the University of South Carolina, she goes to bed early and wakes up early. She carries a plastic water bottle to avoid spending money at vending machines around campus.
She spends Saturday afternoons crafting and seldom goes out for drinks.
Wierzbinski, 22, who is on track to graduate from USC in May 2016, doesn’t fit in with the mainstream media’s portrait of modern college students, one that paints them maxing out their parents’ credit cards on bar tabs and clothes.
In some ways, she’s a survivor of that life, someone who made a U-turn before she ventured too far down the debt-ridden path.
Like millions of college students, Wierzbinski had to take out student loans to pay for her education. She piled on credit card debt on top of that, with her total debt reaching $50,000.
When the weight of student debt and nagging credit card payments left her finances and emotional state spiraling downward and out of control, Wierzbinski needed a change.
She found her salvation in counseling and financial literacy.
A few early stumbles
A New Jersey native, Wierzbinski moved with her family to Columbia and spent her high school years here. She missed her New Jersey life and decided to spend her freshman year at Rutgers University, where she took out student loans to pay the hefty out-of-state tuition.
Wierzbinski transferred to USC after her freshman year and chose to live in an expensive off-campus student-housing complex – a move she now sees as one of her biggest early mistakes.
Cumbersome rent payments and utility bills added up, as did some smaller costs Wierzbinski hadn’t foreseen when she chose to move off campus. Costs of driving to campus and parking, as well as other living expenses – toilet paper, for example, doesn’t come free in off-campus apartments – took their toll.
Wierzbinski – a first generation college student – continue to accept the maximum amount of loans she was offered, a figure she now says is much more than she needed. She said her parents, unfamiliar with the student loan process, could provide little guidance.
Wierzbinski realized she was struggling financially by her second month at USC, but she didn’t adjust her spending, wanting to keep up with her friends. She got a new credit card just in time for her sophomore year and spent more money than she would care to remember on clothes and nights out with her girlfriends.
When she carried cash, it burned a hole in her pocket.
“If I had $20, I wanted to spend it in that moment,” Wierzbinski said. “It never occurred to me that that was $20 I would have to make back just to pay rent.”
Wierzbinski said she used her credit card on expenses she couldn’t afford, hoping each time that her next paycheck – she worked part-time in addition to attending school – would cover them.
When the paycheck came, it went first to rent and utilities – which Wierzbinski needed to pay to avoid eviction – and then to her minimum credit card payment. It seldom made large dents in her total balance, which ballooned to about $3,000.
The emotional toll
Within a few months, Wierzbinski had become emotionally drained as well.
She struggled to keep up with her friends’ pace, realizing she couldn’t afford to go out several nights a week.
“After a shot here or there, it’s your turn to buy the round for everyone,” she said, adding that going out for drinks no longer felt fulfilling.
And while Wierzbinski still struggled to interpret numbers like her credit score or student loan balance, her notion that she would be able to pay off her debt as soon as she graduated and landed a good job began to fade.
Around November of her sophomore year, she began having periodic panic attacks, usually brought on by an unforeseen bill or worries of where she would find the money for next month’s rent.
She tried brushing it off, but when her student loan overage check came in the next January, it offered a sour outlook on her finances. She was uncertain she would have enough money to last the semester.
She began receiving psychological counseling at USC, where she learned that her anxiety and oncoming depression stemmed mostly from her debt. She learned she wasn’t alone with her problems.
The counseling helped, offering brief periods of respite. But bills had to be paid, and her stress persisted.
She skipped classes to work that semester, needing money to make her rent and credit card payments. She never missed a payment, but her grades tanked as a result, and she was left with little living money.
“I was making so many payments that I was stressed out all the time,” she said. “Even when I was in class, I was thinking about making payments.”
In April of her sophomore year, she hit what she now calls rock-bottom.
Her grades suffering, Wierzbinski spent all day studying for an exam. She went to bed at 9 that night, hoping to wake up in time to review before the 10 a.m. test. Instead, she overslept, waking up well after the exam started.
“That was my body’s way of coping with the stress and anxiety, just to stay in bed and sleep,” she said.
Wierzbinski medically withdrew from her classes just a month before the end of the semester, taking time off to get her finances and emotions back in order.
“You just want to keep working because you don’t want to fail,” she said. “But sometimes, you just have to throw in the towel.”
Wierzbinski took on full-time hours at her part-time job and spent time mapping out her next semester, devising a schedule that would allow her to work plenty of hours without missing class.
The extra hours she worked helped her put a dent in her debt, giving her hope that she wouldn’t be trapped under it forever.
And the lessons she took from counseling empowered her to prevent her finances from dictating her emotions.
“I shouldn’t be stressed about money,” she said. “I should be able to take control over that.”
Steps in the right direction
The path to Wierzbinski’s financial turnaround came mostly through financial literacy, a concept she wishes all college students embraced.
That summer, she read “Personal Finance in Your 20s For Dummies,” a book she treats as her financial Bible. It taught her lessons about managing student loan debt and credit, as well as how interest payments work and which credit cards best suited her needs – things she never learned from high school guidance counselors or Economics classes.
She moved out of her student-housing complex and into a house where she pays half as much in rent.
She uses monthly folders to keep track of her monthly working hours and expenses and keeps an up-to-date Google spreadsheet of her budget, including everything from day-to-day expenses to monthly bills and net worth, on her iPad.
She casts a steady eye on her credit score and saves 10 percent of everything she makes, with much of that going to a high-yield savings account – another tip she learned from the “For Dummies” book.
Wierzbinski, who has shaved her consumer debt from roughly $3,000 to about $1,300, still makes every rent and credit card payment, but she’s become conservative with any money left over.
Wierzbinski refers to many of her old activities as “unproductive spending,” a term labeling the wasting of money on unfulfilling ventures like going out several times a week. Nowadays, she does everything she can to avoid it.
She opts to stay in and cook over eating out. She said she’s nearly phased out drinking entirely, going out roughly once a month and bringing just $20 in cash with her – vowing not to use her credit card.
She prefers her $7.99 Netflix subscription to a $10 movie fare and her refillable plastic bottle to purchasing a soft drink on the go.
She clips coupons, shops online and makes use of her Sam’s Club membership – constantly weighing costs with benefits and doing anything to avoid using the credit card that has brought her so much strife.
“It adds up every time you swipe that card,” she says, “but you just don’t see it.”
Finding cheap things to do around town has been important to Wierzbinski’s change. She scours Facebook groups, among other sources, for what’s going on, and she recently began filling her afternoons with crafting.
Wierzbinski is especially proud of a kitchen island she built with wooden pallets and topped with a mosaic she crafted from smashed plates. It took her a few afternoons, she said, but saved her hundreds she would have spent at a furniture store.
Wierzbinski said she is still learning, and it’s still sometimes a struggle.
She visited the Financial Literacy department at USC’s Student Success Center this past semester, looking for more tips to add to what she learned from the “For Dummies” book.
She still periodically goes to counseling, hoping to ward off any lingering effects of the depression that haunted her for 18 months. And she works a part-time job that helps her chip away at what’s left of her consumer debt.
Wierzbinski said that she was once worried about turning her friends down when they wanted to go shopping or downtown, but that they’ve accepted the changes she’s made over the past few years.
“But you have to find that balance,” she said. “It’s important that you have that balance and you make it work. Your friends will like you for who you are regardless of whether you go out and party.”
Now, those same friends want her to start a blog on her new lifestyle, including tips on how to save money and still have fun in college. She’s thinking about it, she said, but has other things to take care of first.
Things like knocking out her credit card debt entirely and keeping track of where she stands with her student debt – which she’ll tackle next.
“Now, I feel great,” Wierzbinski said. “Now, I’m prepared to graduate and take it on when I get out.”