RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's graduation season. Across the country, millions of young women and men are finishing high school and college, and they're turning their thoughts to money - money to pay the rent, if you're graduating college; to handle that first credit card debt or bill; to continue their education. It's a time of new beginnings, and harsh realities.
All week long, MORNING EDITION looks at the financial know-how of young Americans and the choices they face, in our series "Money Counts." For many of them, life's first big decision will be how to pay for college loans.
NPR's Cheryl Corley kicks off our series.
CHERYL CORLEY: Let's start with 24-year-old Brandon Smith, a journalism student. He first attended community college in Ohio, transferred to a four-year Ohio university, and then moved to Chicago, where he attends Columbia College. In all, it meant six years in school. For the past couple of months, Smith has worked part time at a downtown Chicago sandwich shop.
Mr. BRANDON SMITH (Student): I'm a barista. I'm a cashier. I'm a prep cook. I work in catering.
CORLEY: Although he's worked some of the time to finance college, Smith depends mostly on loans, both government-subsidized and private.
Mr. SMITH: I watch the interest rates of the loans I take out. It's not like I have an option. If a student loan company wants to give me a loan at 10 percent, and there isn't any other company that will give me a loan, I have to take a loan at 10 percent.
CCORLEY: Smith says he didn't learn much in school about personal finance. At home, the emphasis was on minimizing debt. But when it came to education, the message was get the best you can, and a good job will follow. Pay the loans off then. So after recently checking his credit report, Smith found out he's mired in student loan debt.
Mr. SMITH: It's sitting at 98,000. By the time I pay it off, it'll be much more than that.
CORLEY: And Smith says he really doesn't know what it will take to pay it off.
Mr. SMITH: So I have no idea what the future holds, and that's scary.
Ms. BRITTANY LANGMEYER (Student): My name is Brittany Langmeyer. I am 23 years old, and I am a double major in theater and journalism, and a double minor in political science and dance.
CORLEY: Langmeyer is from Indiana, and she just graduated from Loyola University in Chicago. This past school year, she lived off campus with three roommates.
Ms. LANGMEYER: We are all penny-pinchers.
CORLEY: Langmeyer says she learned how to keep utility costs low after she boosted the heat during cold winter nights and was shocked by the subsequent bill. She says she and her roommates work to keep each other in line.
Ms. LANGMEYER: We talk about, OK, we can't go out this weekend because we went out last weekend. We already spent that money, you know. Or let's cook pasta and share it, and you buy this and I'll buy that - and we'll eat that for the next two days.
CORLEY: Even so, Langmeyer just recently started to budget, and she'll leave college deep in debt. Her mix of private and federal school loans totals between $60,000 and $70,000. Plus, her father took out about $50,000 in loans on her behalf.
Ms. LANGMEYER: And my mom has always said, you know, Brittany, paying a student loan is just a way of life. You just get used to it.
CORLEY: Langmeyer hasn't figured out how many years it will take to pay off her portion of the debt. She plans to work that out with her dad. But she says she didn't begin thinking about the consequences of her finances until late in the game.
Ms. LANGMEYER: I feel like I started to really be concerned about, oh, my gosh. I have to pay these loans. How many loans do I even have, you know? And I don't know. I just don't know why I never took more interest in it early on. I think it made me really nervous.
CORLEY: At Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, 20-year-old Skyy Calice lives with three of her sorority sisters in a house off campus. She says as a freshman, she relied heavily on her parents for money.
Ms. SKYY CALICE (Student): So I was - any money that I made on my own, I would spend on what I wanted to. And then I would, you know, go back to them and say, oh, I need this for a book, or I need this, and they were OK with that.
CORLEY: But Calice says when she decided to move off campus her junior year, her parents said she was on her own.
Ms. CALICE: So I had to get my act together financially.
CORLEY: Calice is a double major, in criminal justice and sociology. She says when it comes to finances, she knows the basics. Living on her own has taught her to budget, but she has made some missteps.
Ms. CALICE: I actually got caught up spending a little too much, doing a little extra shopping when I should have been paying bills. I've never been in any serious financial trouble. I don't have any credit cards or anything, just because I don't want to take that path.
CORLEY: And at this point, Calice says her school loans are enough to think about. Each year, she received $24,000 in scholarships and grants, and funded the rest of her education in loans. Her loan debt, when she graduates this December, will be slightly more than $30,000.
Ms. CALICE: I've talked to other people, and their loans are that in one year. So I'm glad that it was such a low number.
CORLEY: And while dreading the loan payback, Calice says she'll manage. She has a job now at a juvenile detention center, and later plans to become a police officer.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.