Cross Country Checkup

Faced with mounting debt, this newly graduated lawyer filed for bankruptcy — and still owes $120K

Single mother Kym Sweeny graduated law school with over $220,000 in student loans. Facing payments of $1,000 per month on a entry-level law salary, Sweeny made the decision to file for bankruptcy six months after graduation.

Kym Sweeny filed for bankruptcy 6 months after graduation

Nearly half of university graduates finish with school-related debt, according to 2013 numbers from Statistics Canada. (CBC News)

Kym Sweeny had two choices: she could continue living in the same "cycle of poverty" her relatives were trapped in — or, she could spend loads of money on child care expenses and tuition to advance her education.

The single mom chose the latter, and it came at a cost, as she covered those expenses by dipping into student loans and a line of credit.

With three degrees under her belt — including a law degree from Dalhousie University — Sweeny racked up $223,000 in student loans by the time she graduated in 2017. She completed all three degrees consecutively, starting in 2009.

"It felt like a heavy weight that I was carrying around with me all the time," she told Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue.

Student loan borrowers are thinking hard about their loans this week after the Bank of Canada announced the benchmark interest rate would rise by a quarter point. It's likely that those with government student loans and private lines of credit will see their interest payments rise as a result of the announcement.

Sweeny isn't alone in her post-graduation debt stress. Nearly half of university graduates finish with school-related debt, according to 2013 numbers from Statistics Canada.

Those with a bachelor's degree owe some $26,300, while master's graduates owe about $26,600. For doctorate graduates, that sum jumps to $41,100.

Borrowers like Sweeny with a combination of government and non-government loans carry twice the debt load.​

Despite earning a "competitive" salary articling for a large law firm in Halifax, Sweeny says she couldn't keep up with her loan payments, which totalled nearly $1,000 a month.

Facing a crisis six months after graduation, Sweeny claimed bankruptcy, which wiped out her bank-backed line of credit and credit card.

But under bankruptcy regulations, her government student loans survived.

"So, I am still carrying $120,000 of debt," Sweeny said.

An 'inevitable' feeling

Toronto-based certified financial counsellor and writer Jessica Moorhouse often sees cases like Sweeny's among those pursuing careers in legal or medical fields. 

In other fields, she says students' debt may reach between $25,000 to $50,000.

"Generally speaking, most millennials don't have anywhere near [Sweeny's] level of debt," she said.

Many of her clients have multiple debts between student loans, credit cards and lines of credit.

The millennial money expert says that many young people she works with believe debt is a normal — almost inevitable — part of life.

"It actually isn't, but if you're surrounding yourself with people that also have debt, where's the motivation to pay it off?"

When people come to her seeking help to pay their debts, they're often at a breaking point, Moorhouse says. A lack of financial literacy is often the culprit.

"Until they really start educating themselves about how finances work ... they don't actually know that they are in kind of hot water and that they need to really tackle this."

But Moorhouse offers some hope. If you have four or even six figures of debt, she says, it's never too late to develop those money management skills and return to the black.

"The question shouldn't be, 'How do I get out of debt?' but rather, 'How did I get into debt?'" she explains.

"Start from the beginning, identify what happened, then start crafting a solid financial foundation by making a budget, tracking your spending and net worth monthly, and make a debt repayment plan and following through."

Surviving bankruptcy

Even though Sweeny has taken steps to eliminate part of her debt, she's yet to begin repaying the sum she owes.

Though back at work, she's not required to make payments on her $120,000 debt. Government student loans often offer repayment assistance based on salary and individual circumstances. 

Her salary, while comparable to junior lawyers in Nova Scotia, is "still not that much."

This is something that I'm going to have to be dealing with a fairly long time.- Kym Sweeny

Filing for bankruptcy took a toll on the lawyer. She took time off from work due to depression and still struggles with the fallout from bankruptcy, like not having access to credit cards.

So, as Sweeny's career develops, she says she's been fortunate to lean on friends and community for financial support.

"They actually ran a crowdfunding campaign for me last year to help us make a few bills and get through," she said.

That support has been key to navigating the uncharted waters of debt.

"This is something that I'm going to have to be dealing with a fairly long time."

Written by Jason Vermes. Interviews produced by Mary Newman and Susan McReynolds.