What Matters Most?

Paraisia Winston prepares to tackle a mountain of bills

Paraisia Winston is weighing a life-changing decision: “Do I do what matters most, or do I take a six-figure job at a law firm working 13-hour days?” In considering her future employment options and what they might mean for her financial success, one of her primary goals is to get rid of debt.

Winston is a second-year law student at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, and after earning her degree, she expects to have added more than $150,000 in student loan debt to the $29,000 she already owes for her undergraduate degree. “I sometimes wonder if I’m in over my head,” Winston says.

But come graduation, Winston is counting on her education to begin bearing financial fruit. She was recently offered a job that will pay an annual salary of $145,000-which, no doubt, would quickly begin to cure what ails her finances-but she is also considering pursuing criminal defense work in the public sector, where she would earn much less.

While education is priceless, that doesn’t mean it comes without a price tag. In addition to her student loan debt, the 24-year-old has a little more than $20,000 in credit card debt. It’s

a sizeable amount that, at the moment, is offset by an annual income of only $26,000. Winston works part time as a law clerk and as a substitute teacher in Chicago’s public schools.

Before attending law school, Winston spent a few years working full time as a development coordinator for a nonprofit social service organization in Evanston, Illinois. With her earnings, she was able to buy a one-bedroom condominium in Chicago for $160,000 with a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage at 5.75%. While working full time, Winston made progress in paying down the credit card tab she had racked up as an undergraduate. However, once she went back to school and began working part time, she turned to credit cards to bridge the salary gap-using her cards to pay her cell phone bill, car insurance, and medical bills not covered by insurance. She also admits that she charged trips, such as one to Las Vegas to see her grandmother, and other activities that weren’t emergencies.

In terms of additional assets, she has more than $2,000 in an IRA, nearly $4,000 in savings and checking accounts, and $9,000 in a money market account. Winston thought about tapping into her money market funds to pay down some of her debt, but with a mortgage to pay and only a part-time job, “I have to hold on to my safety net,” she says.

Winston says debt is stifling her financial growth. Though she contributes $30 per paycheck to her money market account, she would like to save at least $200 a month. But her mortgage, combined with $600 monthly credit card payments on her four credit cards, hampers her ability to save. Student loans, part-time jobs, and scholarships have not been enough to meet her financial needs.

Winston is debating whether she should try to find yet another source of income while in law school to help

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