Sep 17, 2019
Podcast: How to Tackle Student Loans and Other Debt with Anthony ONeal
Guest Anthony ONeal talks about why college may not be for everyone.
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Maybe you don’t have to go to college after all. In this episode of Teach Me How to Money, financial expert and author Anthony ONeal shares his experiences of getting into—and out of—massive college debt. Now, he advises most young people to think carefully before taking out those educational loans, and explains what the other alternatives are.
What is financial literacy?
The ability to take stock of your financial situation so you can make smart decisions about money regularly.
Since 2003, Anthony ONeal has helped thousands of students make good decisions with their money, relationships, and education to live a well-balanced life. He’s the National Best-Selling Author of, “Graduate Survival Guide: 5 Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make in College,” and travels the country spreading his encouraging message to help teens and young adults transition into the real world. You can follow Anthony on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and online at anthonyoneal.com.
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Jeremy Quittner: Hi, welcome to Teach Me How To Money. I’m your new host, Jeremy. We’re really excited to have you joining us this season. We have a great lineup of guests. They’re an amazing group of personal finance experts with terrific advice and we also have people who have interesting stories to tell us about their experiences with money. This season we’ll be discussing a broad array of topics such as how women do finance differently, ways to tackle debt, earning passive income, and understanding how money can be pretty psychological. This season we’re also going to shake up our format a little bit. We’ll start each podcast with a short segment on a financial concept, we’ll call it: Jargon Hack, so we’ll define a term to help you learn along with us. Then, as we always have, we’ll move into our guest interview and we’ll also take some time at the end of the show to answer listener questions about investing and money. So thanks for joining us, we’re really glad you’re here.
On this week’s episode, we’ll be talking with financial expert Anthony ONeal, but before we get going, our term of the week is: financial literacy. It’s a term that’s tossed around a lot and it’s a really important concept to grasp. In a nutshell, financial literacy means having the ability to take stock of your financial situation to make the right decisions about money on a daily basis so you’re not wasting your cash or getting yourself into debt or taking any unnecessary financial risks. It also means budgeting, planning, and saving, and it means having goals for your financial future, which should include creating an emergency fund and putting money away regularly for retirement. Try to make it a goal to become financially literate by reading books and articles and blogs that teach you about money and also talk openly with your friends and family about money issues. It will help you become financially literate. So that’s our jargon hack for the week.
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Now let’s get to the interview. Today we’ll be speaking with Anthony ONeal, a financial expert who works with the Dave Ramsey network of financial advisors. He has a compelling story about college, student loans and getting into and out of some pretty serious debt. He’s also focused his professional life on helping teens lead smarter financial lives. We will be speaking with him about all of that. Plus, we hope to get some insight about what to do if you’re broke and trying to pull yourself out of debt. Welcome Anthony!
Anthony ONeal: Jeremy, thank you so much for having me on!
Jeremy: It’s my pleasure. So, briefly tell us your story. You got into the college of your choice. You took out loans, you were having a really great time, but then your situation changed sort of dramatically. How did you become homeless as a teenager and wind up living in your car from there?
Anthony: You know, when I think about that question, I look at the answer from my perspective of, it was a lack of education when I was a child. Before I graduated high school, my parents didn’t teach me anything about money. So when I got into college, you know, I’m like, “Hey, I’m a grown man. I got this. I’m gonna make all the right decisions myself.” But I was really making all the wrong decisions. I remember getting my first credit card and that first credit card, I maxed it out within not even 24 hours.
Jeremy: How much was the max out there?
Anthony: It was $500 and I only spent it on three things: $150 at Red Lobster, $150 on flowers that I sent to some chick, I don’t even know what her name is today, and I bought her a purse, a Dooney and Bourke purse for like $200 bucks. So it’s, maxed out. So I do exactly what the common American individual will do and that is, they will spend all this money, but then they’ll make the minimum payment. So my first payment was $35 and 68 cents I think it was. And so I make that payment, send in that payment. A month later the bank says, “Hey, we see that you’re a college student, and thank you so much for making your first payment on time. We’ve upped your limit from $500 to $1,000.” So I’m like, “Well, that was easy. I spent a lot of money I gave a little bit back and they gave me more money.” So I said, “Hey, let’s go on ahead and figure this thing on out.” And I just applied for more credit cards. I applied for a lot more. And before you know it…
Jeremy: How many more did you apply for?
Anthony: Oh man, I don’t want to embarrass myself like that. Let’s just say I applied for every single credit card I could get my hands on. I got approved for like honestly eight of them. And so six months into me being into college, I’m $15,000 in student loan debt and not to student loan debt and credit cards. $10,000 in student loans. And then I took out another $10,000 at a particular buy here, pay here furniture company. It was one of those companies that just robs you of your money. And so I’m 18 and a half, $35,000 in debt. I participate in something with a particular fraternity and I make a bad decision by participating in hazing. And because of that, all of us got kicked out of school.
Jeremy: Oh wow. I didn’t realize that…
Anthony: So yeah, we got kicked out of school. I lose my scholarship, I lose my father’s GI bill. I lose my job that was attached to my school.
Jeremy: Is that a work-study kind of job?
Jeremy: And the GI bill was from your father which is his to pay for your education?
Anthony: Exactly. So, I had everything paid for, so I didn’t even need the $10,000 of student loans that I took out. I just wanted it for my lifestyle.
Jeremy: So that led to a downward spiral, all that debt?
Anthony: Downward, very downward, because I didn’t have the income coming in. I couldn’t pay for my apartment. My parents are very spiritual. They’re in a pastoral position, and so they were very disappointed with the decisions that I’ve made. So because of those decisions that did not allow me to come home.
Jeremy: So it’s kind of like a tough-love sort of thing. Like, “you need to learn this lesson on your own.” How did that make you feel?
Anthony: I felt abandoned. My parents are saying I can’t come home, all of my friends who I tried to impress with the money, with the fake leather that I bought at the house, that they could sit on, none of them returned my phone calls, none of them offered to even say, “Hey Anthony, you can just come sleep on the couch here.” Or, “Hey man, you can least come by and get something to eat or take a shower.” So everyone who I tried to impress left me hanging.
Jeremy: It’s kind of like the fair-weather thing, where it’s your great when you had the money to spend on things. And as soon as you didn’t, the other face was shown to you.
Anthony: It’s a hip hop song, “When I was hot, they were all on me. But when I’m on the bottom, they ain’t really fooling with me.” But I’m grateful for my father for saying, no, you can’t come home. Because that was the lowest point in my life, as far as sleeping in the back of my car. No friends, it was just me. And it made me face every decision that I made. It made me have to really step back and say, you know what, I can’t blame my parents because, no, they’re not rich, but they’re not broke. But they taught me how to live my life and be comfortable with who I am. They also taught me, I don’t need to impress my friends. I’m a good solid young man. And so for a while, I was blaming everyone saying “man, this is their fault. This is their fault.” But really it was about me, because I’m a young kid and I didn’t take every decision, every choice that I made seriously. And that’s one thing that I’m teaching today to millennials and especially young adults across the world, that the caliber of their future will be determined by the choices that they made today.
Jeremy: How did you begin to turn your situation around then? That sounds very dire, but there must have been certain steps that you took to get out of that situation. Can you describe what those were?
Anthony: Absolutely. The number one step that I took is that I had to acknowledge that I was the reason that I was in this position. And so when I acknowledged that, “Hey, you know what, I put myself here.” That was the very first thing that turned my life around. I was able to go back to my father and apologize for the poor decisions that I’ve made. After that, I got a job.
Jeremy: So number one is not blaming someone else for your own situation.
Anthony: Acknowledge that, you know what? I put myself in this situation. If you’re broke right now, you can’t blame the government. You can’t blame your skin color. You can’t blame your friends. You’ve got to look at yourself, look at the decisions that you’ve made. And that’s the very first thing that I did.
Jeremy: What job did you get?
Anthony: Man, I like you, Jeremy. You ask some good questions on this podcast.
Jeremy: We try, we try.
Anthony: The first job that I got was working for ARS. It was a collections company.
Jeremy: Seriously? Did you ask them if there was something they could do about your own debt?
Anthony: No, they didn’t even know I was in debt. And here’s the thing we were collecting for a particular, I can say this. We were collecting for Citibank, and I owed Citibank. That was my first credit card. So every time I’m hitting the next name to call them and say, “Hey, you owe money.” I am sweating bullets because I’m thinking my name is about to come up next.
Jeremy: That’s amazing. You must’ve learned a lot about why people get into debt by making these calls. What are some of the things that you’ve learned from people when they shared, or did they share their stories with you at all?
Anthony: I mean, some of them did. You get the stories, especially that older individual that maybe just lost her husband and he was the primary income earner and she wasn’t, so now she has that debt. College students who just jumped into it and just didn’t have a job. And then all of a sudden now they don’t have it. I learned so much to actually relate to them. But honestly, when I look at everything, everything always led back to decisions. And I felt sorry for, I remember this one lady very vividly, she was 83 years old. She only owed like $250 on a credit card. But her husband had passed and he didn’t have any life insurance and she didn’t have the money and I promise you, every time her name came up, I just skipped over it. Because I just felt so sorry for her. But that was my first job, ARS and then I also got another job, I was just washing cars on the side. Because I really wanted to attack my debt and attack everything that I had borrowed and just get rid of everything.
Jeremy: How long did that take? How long was that?
Anthony: It took a while. It took, maybe about three-four years to really aggressively go after it because when I got out of the debt the first time I went and financed a car and I was like, “Oh, that was just dumb. Anthony.” So I had to pay off that car. But it took a while and it took a lot of determination. I even lost some friends during that time because, you know, they’re like, “Hey, let’s go out to Hawaii or let’s go over here.” And I’m like, “No man, I don’t want to go back to the back of my car.”
Jeremy: Right. So you had to say no to things that would’ve cost you money.
Anthony: Absolutely. I said no to friends and some of them won’t talk to me today because they said I was an arrogant guy, that I was trying to be different. And I was, I was trying to be different so I can make a difference in my life and in my future family’s life.
Jeremy: Right. So gradually you worked yourself out of the debt. And then, I’m imagining at the same time, you started developing a focus about the sorts of larger things that you wanted to do with your life, did that include going back to school? And then, when did you start becoming someone interested in financial literacy and helping other people make sure that they’re not making the same kinds of financial mistakes.
Anthony: So when I was getting out of debt, something that just really birthed in my spirit and my heart was a nonprofit called Young People Succeeding. Our schools are doing a great job of teaching our young people how to read, write, process information and add, but not really teaching them how to be successful when it comes to life skills, like budgeting, money. What is credit? What is a debit card? How do you balance this? I mean even how to change the oil, they’re not really teaching them life skills. So I said, let me start this young people succeeding organization. And it just really started blowing up and my heart from money started right around 22-23 years old because I really wanted to teach young people how to avoid the mistakes that I’ve made. And so with that being said, I believe that college is not for everyone. It’s not. I do believe that education is for all of us. We should be learning every single day, but I do believe that college does not need to be the route for everyone.
Jeremy: That’s an interesting point and it comes up a lot. You hear this a lot, that’s maybe a concept that originated in the 60s that everybody, as a path to the middle class, how to get a college education, et Cetera, et cetera. So many people don’t think that these days particularly because it’s gotten so expensive. So, can you describe a little bit more about that? I mean, part of it is related to your own experience, but, what are options for people who are not going to necessarily go to college or don’t want to take on the debt and you would say don’t do the debt?
Anthony: Absolutely. I want you to run away from student loan debt. We have a student loan crisis on our hand right now and it bothers me, it scares me. And it’s something that my team and I are aggressively going after. When we look at the current status right now, there are currently 8 million student loan borrowers in default. They’re also saying that by the end of this year, there’ll be another million. So this means every single day, every single week of every single month, every 28 seconds, someone’s going into default. They have estimated by 2050 that 18 million people will be in default. And so for me, it’s scary and I get it, young people always hear this saying they know it to be successful in today’s day and time, you gotta have some form of a college education at the minimum, a bachelor’s degree. And again, I believe college education is important. If you want to be a doctor, if you want to be a lawyer, you need to go to college. But if you want to be a hairstylist and own your own hair salon, you do not need to go to college. If you want to be a podcaster or an influencer, you don’t need to go to college. Maybe you can go to a community college, which on average is about $3,000-$4,000 a year right now. So you can cash flow that, get a little bit of education to learn some good trades and go from there. But I always say there are, great options. You have a four-year university, you have a trade school, you have a community college or you could be like me and just get into the workforce and just really learn and just really apply yourself and go hard. But education is important. Every single day I’m learning something, every single day, I’m reading some article, I’m growing my mind, I’m making sure that I am aware of what’s going on and teaching myself. With YouTube today that our parents didn’t have in the past. You could learn a lot of things and still be a smart young man or young lady.
Jeremy: You actually lead me to a really interesting question that I’ve been thinking a lot about. People say, or you know, there are a lot of studies that suggest there’s a financial literacy crisis in this country and you’re talking about that just a moment ago with that it’s not really addressed in school. School teaches you other kinds of things. So, what about that? Where’s this coming from? How can people address that? You know, is it YouTube? Learning from articles and blogs or what? How could, if someone was listening to this podcast and wanting to learn to be more financially literate, what are some steps that they could take to do that?
Anthony: The very first step I recommend to anyone if you really want to get the basics of money and really want to just completely turn your life over when it comes to money. I suggest one book, “The Total Money Makeover” by my mentor, Dave Ramsey. It gives you everything that your school system is not going to teach you. Now when we flip it over to the young people, my team and I, we have a team called Education Solutions and we actually have a high school and middle school curriculum in about one out of three every schools in the United States of America. And this curriculum is absolutely amazing.
Jeremy: What are some of the things, the curriculum dives into?
Anthony: Everything. We talk about budgeting, we talk about investing, we talk about what is a car loan. We talk about, what is insurance and different kinds of insurance. We go through the basics of money.
Jeremy: So these are things that people in their general financial lives need to know about to live their financial lives.
Anthony: Absolutely, yes. And we’ve learned that if they take this course, nearly 40% of them come out doing much better when it comes to their finances when they graduate high school, much better. And so for me, I wish I had this curriculum when I was in high school because I would not have made the mistakes that I’ve made in college if I would have had some form of curriculum teaching me the basic life money skills.
Jeremy: What do you think the major mistakes young people are making with regard to money today are? What are those mistakes?
Anthony: Number one, student loans, credit cards, number two and three, not having a budget and not having a vision for their life. I’m saying stay away from student loans. Stay away from debt at all possible. I had a student text me, just yesterday saying, “I’m gonna get a credit card for emergencies.” No.
Jeremy: What do you do for emergencies?
Anthony: We have $1,000 in our emergency funds, what I recommend for any college-age or higher, if you’re in high school or lower…
Jeremy: So have the cash?
Anthony: Have the cash, $500 a minimum if you’re in high school, if you’re in college, I’m okay with $500, but I asked you to stretch it to $1,000. So that way you can get home in case something happens or if you have a flat tire or cell phone breaks or something, you have the cash on hand. You’re young so you’re not gonna really have that much of a huge emergency. But when it comes to this younger generation, let’s say in their twenties or thirties, one: $1,000 emergency fund, two: get out of debt, three: which I think is so important, is to have at least a good solid three months of your expenses set aside in an emergency fund that you do not touch. But I think one of the things that I’m seeing with this generation is that they don’t have a vision for where they want to go.
Jeremy: What do you mean by that? A vision in terms of, the conventional vision might be to buy a house, have your weddings, have your children, save for retirement, that kind of thing, or something else?
Anthony: Conventional wisdom, that’s the wisdom that was downloaded into our brains. I’m talking about what do you want to do? Where do you want to go? If someone asked me today, what’s your vision? My vision is just not to be a Ramsey personality training people. No, I want to be the best man for my wife. I want to be the best father for my children. I want to leave them with wealth. And how do I accomplish that? Is this vehicle, I’m a Ramsey personality partnered with a great guy, to help spread this message and it’s providing income to accomplish that vision. And so I always tell everyone, go deep down into your stomach, into your gut, into your soul, and really cast what do you want to accomplish? What do you want to be known for? Then work your way back from that. And then once you have that vision, nothing can stop you. I would never get into debt because I do not want to pass debt down to my kids.
Jeremy: So I wanted to dive a little bit more into your student loan message. I might say it’s sort of an anti-student loan message.
Jeremy: I think this is important and I want to talk about it a little bit more because I wonder what are some of the alternatives? Are we talking about trade school, school of life, other kinds of things? And you know, if you’re dead set on going to school, no loans ever? So what do you do?
Anthony: Yeah, Jeremy. No loans, man.
Jeremy: Okay. So let’s take the first example. If I wanted to go to college and I don’t have the money to go, then, what do I do?
Anthony: If you don’t have the money to go to college, you could still go to college. All right, let’s just address that right now. You can go to a community college and let’s say, for example, if you’re in the state of Tennessee, you can go to a community college actually for free for the first two years as long as you maintain a 3.4 GPA. So you’re in college. Now, is it as attractive as going to like the big four-year university that your peers may be going to? No, but technically you’re smarter because in the state of Tennessee, let’s say if you were paying for it, you’re going to spend about $3,500 a year to go to college, but to go to an in-state school, you’re going to spend about $9,000. So you’re saving yourself, right about $5,500 a year just by going to a community college. You can cash flow, you can get a job working for about 20 hours a week and you can pay $3,500 a year for that. Now you may be living at home, which I suggest. You may be driving, and you will be driving, if you rocking with Anthony ONeal, a paid-for car and all your money is going towards your education, then we can look at a trade school opportunity. The average trade school is going to run you, depending on the career field you go into in between $10,000 and $40,000 for the program.
Jeremy: Let’s talk a little bit more about this, because I think it doesn’t get enough press or, you know, mention. This is extremely important. We’ve lost a whole class of people who are tradesmen over the last 20 or 30 years you could argue. So what kinds of trades can people learn and how much cheaper is that for someone to go and attend a trade school and is it a shorter amount of time that they can just sort of walk then with a profession that will pay them?
Anthony: One of the trade school programs that a lot of my kids went to out of Jacksonville, Florida was welding. That welding program was about $45,000 for that particular program. But then they were also guaranteed a job making about $80,000-$90,000 coming out of the program. And so a lot of my kids, I would say 80% of them paid for it all cash with to help with their parents. The others had to go through the program very slowly, which is something that I tell people all the time. I would rather you move slowly in the beginning rather than get through it fast with student loans and then it’s taken you a very long time to pay them back. And so one of my kids, it took them about a good year and a half to finish the entire program because he had to cashflow it. But it was worth it because when he got out of the program, he was making $82,000 a year. To me, your 20-21 years old making that kind of money, that is amazing. Now, you’re on your feet all day, you’re using your hands, you’re traveling a lot, but you’re making good, solid money and you’re not in debt.
Jeremy: What’s the best way to get out of debt? I know that’s a really complicated topic and it relates to each person’s individual situation, but what worked for you?
Anthony: Two things worked for me, I think there are two ways. One is your income, so there’s two ways to look at your income. You have an income that you can go get another job, another source, or lower your spending, change your lifestyle. So I always tell people, look at your lifestyle. How can you cut your lifestyle down to generate more income? Or can you get another job to get more income? Once you have more income coming in, I want you to use the debt snowball method, I want you to line up your debt from smallest to largest. And then I want you to stack the funds and making minimum payments and then just stack all the extra income onto one.
Jeremy: Anthony, thank you so much for speaking with us. So we have a listener question. “I have a ton of student loan debt. How do you pay off student debt while still saving for retirement?” Do you have any thoughts about that?
Anthony: Yeah. My very first thought is I want you to do the baby steps. And the baby steps are you gonna first 1-3. You’re going to do those all in that order. Number one: $1,000 in an emergency fund, number two: get out of debt. Number three: you’re going to set aside 3-6 months. Please note: that there’s no investing in those. So what I want her to do is, I want you to focus on getting out of debt and stop investing. Now I’m not saying take out what you’ve invested and put it towards the debt. We’re going to leave that there. I just don’t want you investing into it. I don’t want you to invest into a 401(k), no Roth, nothing. Okay? Leave it there and just put all of your financial resources inside of the debt snowball and wherever those student loans land, once you get to them, you aggressively attack them.
Jeremy: So you have a book coming out this fall called the “Debt-Free Degree.” What is that?
Anthony: I call it for short: DFD—Debt-Free Degree. And what we’re simply doing with the book is teaching parents how to get their kids into college and through college 100% debt-free. There are currently 44 million student loan borrowers right now and this is a student loan crisis that is just frustrating and I do not want to see another generation go through this. So this has to stop right now. So inside the book, we are literally teaching parents what to do as early as in the 7th grade, throughout the 12th grade, what to do with the ACT when to start practicing for the ACT.
Jeremy: Sorry, the ACT is like the SATs?
Anthony: It is just like the SATs. SATs, are just like the ACT.
Jeremy: So like pre-college testing?
Anthony: Pre-college testing to get them into college and so we would teach them what are the classes that get when it comes to your GPA. What are the classes they need to be taking their ninth-grade year, their sophomore year, their junior year. And this book really came from, because I remember sitting in, it was the last week of my junior year and a college professor came up and said, “Hey, if you haven’t started preparing for college, you are already too late.” And I was shook, because I haven’t talked to my counselor at all. I haven’t talked to my parents and I didn’t know what to do. My Dad had his GI bill and it was like, “Hey, if you have a GI bill, if it doesn’t cover it and if you don’t get a scholarship, we’ll just take out a student loan.” And so after graduating, going through my issues and going throughout my failures, I said I want to teach parents how to help get their kids to college and through college debt-free.
Jeremy: Anthony, thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure talking with you today.
Anthony: Oh, thank you, man. All right, this is a great show. Can I come back?
Jeremy: Yes, please do. Please do.
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