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Dear Penny: I’m a broke law student. How do I catch up on bills?

You have more options than you might realize.
Young Latinx woman sitting at the desk in her Los Angeles apartment, doing her studies, going through books until late. (Getty Images) [Getty Images]
Young Latinx woman sitting at the desk in her Los Angeles apartment, doing her studies, going through books until late. (Getty Images) [Getty Images]
Published Nov. 25, 2019

Dear Penny,

I’m in law school and I’m only allowed to work 20 hours per week. With the job I have, I typically get between 10½ to 15 hours per week at the federal minimum wage.

I get paid once a month, usually a little over $260. I survive on student loans. I took out enough at the beginning of the semester to pay all of my bills and be able to eat and pay for gas and about $300 for emergencies.

Last month, my car had a lot of unexpected issues that cost me about $3,000. I’ve already built up about $2,000 of credit card debt paying for food and gas and some of my bills.

Now I have two months left of school, about $1,350 of bills, and $200 to my name. I can't amend my student loans for next semester, so I'll have the same approximate amount of money with $2,000 in credit card debt.

I feel in over my head. How can I pay for my bills this month and next month and not put myself in the same situation next semester?

-B.

Dear B.,

You have two goals here: The first is simply to survive the next two months. The second is to avoid sinking further into debt next semester and beyond.

The first thing you should do on both counts is make a date with your school’s financial aid office ASAP.

Your school may have options that can get you the short-term help you need to survive the next couple months.

Some schools have emergency funds that give small, one-time grants to students dealing with unexpected expenses. It’s unlikely that these grants would cover $1,350 worth of bills, but they may provide some relief.

Schools also sometimes offer emergency loans to students. These will usually need to be repaid in a relatively short period, but if this is an option, it could buy you some time to catch up.

Your financial aid office may be able to help you with some longer-term fixes, as well.

While you can’t reapply for aid at this point, you may be able to get what’s called a professional review, where you ask the financial aid office for more money based on your circumstances, according to Leslie H. Tayne, a New York-based debt relief attorney who is founder and director of the Tayne Law Group.

Keep in mind that a professional review is more likely to be granted after a life-altering event, like a death in the family, job loss or major illness, but it’s still worth a shot.

“Getting a professional review for these less extreme circumstances will be more difficult, but it’s certainly worth bringing the situation to the attention of the financial aid office,” Tayne said. “You’ll never know if they can do anything for you if you don’t ask. Be prepared for how you’re going to ask and bring supporting documentation to help make your case.”

Another solution may be taking out a private student loan. You can take one out midyear, although Tayne cautions that receiving the funds could take several weeks or more.

Yeah, I get that private student loans come with major downsides. But if you’re falling deeper into credit card debt and are just one unexpected bill away from disaster, there isn’t a perfect solution.

After you’ve explored your financial aid options, look at your budget for any areas you could cut back on. It doesn’t sound like there’s much fat to trim. But maybe you could go to a food pantry for groceries and take public transportation to save on gas.

Ultimately, you may need to use your credit card to stay afloat on bills while only making minimum payments for a couple months. That’s not something I say lightly. It’s also not something I’d suggest unless it’s the only option. But doing so need not doom you to long-term credit card debt.

Try maxing out the 20 hours you’re allowed to work and/or finding a job that pays more than the minimum wage. Find a paid internship or job during the summer. Put your extra earnings toward what you owe.

It sounds like you’re being appropriately cautious about taking on too much debt. But when you apply for aid next year, consider taking out a little more so you can withstand an emergency. Taking out a student loan doesn’t mean you need to spend it.

Stay focused on borrowing only what you need, even if that amount is a little more than you first anticipated. Then you can put your energies toward your No. 1 job, which is finishing law school.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder and the voice behind Dear Penny. Send your questions about debt to AskPenny@thepennyhoarder.com.

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