Nicole JacksonA Miami, Fla.-based attorney is stiffing Sallie Mae and Direct Loans. Nicole Jackson, 44, has been reimbursing a $186,000 student loan bill for more than 20 years. Even when her student loan payments were higher than her monthly mortgage payments, she didn’t see a decrease in her balance. So instead of spending the remainder of her life sending payments to loan companies, Jackson has given up on reimbursing them and focus on saving for her three teenage daughters’ college educations.

“The way I see it, I’m already screwed,” Jackson told Business Insider. “I’d rather make sure my kids are OK. Unless I start making significantly more money [my situation] is not gonna change.”

Jackson accrued her massive loan bill while pursuing her law degree at the University of Miami.

Business Insider reports:

At the beginning of her story, Jackson, a native New Yorker, was one of the lucky ones. Her father, a doctor, paid for a year of her undergraduate studies, leaving her free to dodge student loans for a while. And with a well-paying job at a Manhattan law firm, she had more than enough funds to finance the rest of her undergraduate studies.

But when Jackson decided to pursue her dream of becoming an attorney at the University of Miami, it became impossible to avoid taking on debt.

“My intention was to go back to work after my first year of law school,” she said. “[But] I did so poorly that I didn’t think I could [keep a job at the same time]. So that’s when I started borrowing money.”

It was a costly decision. Jackson took out about $26,000 in federal loans for each year of law school and then another $20,000 in private loans to keep afloat while she studied for the bar exam.

She graduated in 1994 with more than $100,000 of debt. Within three years, she had one daughter, a surprise set of twins, and was earning less than $50,000 per year.

“It’s always been a struggle,” she said. “I worked for the state of Florida most of my [career] and the most I was making was $50,000/year. With three kids, it wasn’t enough money.”

Jackson began reimbursing her private loans, but found she couldn’t afford it with her growing family.

The payments were only $130/month, but since private lenders don’t offer the same deferment options as federal, it was either pay or roll out the welcome mat for debt collectors.

Meanwhile, her federal loans ballooned. With an 8% interest rate, they appreciated even after she consolidated, growing from a principal balance of about $80,000 in 1994 to $186,000 today. Other than her home and a car payment, it’s the only debt she carries to this day.

Eventually, her debt drove her back to New York, where she moved her family and took a lucrative job at a Manhattan law firm. She was finally able to start making federal loan payments, but the move took a toll on her family life.

“I was making six figures, working 13/14 hour days, and my kids were sad because I wasn’t around,” she said. “I wanted the money but I didn’t want my kids to be miserable. They were babies.”

After two years, they packed up and headed back to Miami, where Jackson continued plugging away on whatever legal cases came her way. Exhausted with state work, she started her own firm in 2008 with the hope that she’d earn more and could finally begin chipping away at her loans.

Last year, she was able to enroll in an income-based repayment plan for her federal loan, a perk that private lenders don’t offer. Her monthly payments were reduced to $74, though the prospect of paying $74/month on a $186,000 debt hasn’t exactly made the burden seem any lighter.

Jackson’s tale is familiar for many students. The United States is struggling with a $1 trillion student loan balance. Jackson hopes her daughters don’t fall into the same trap she did.

Jackson has established a college-savings plan for all three children. Her eldest daughter will start college in 2015.

“I’ve stressed to my daughter the importance of not borrowing any money. If she doesn’t get a scholarship or there’s money that needs to be found somewhere, I’ll borrow it myself and I’ll deal with it before I let her,” she said. “I don’t want my kids going into life with this over their heads.”

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