Two NGPF Interns Took On the Payback Challenge: Here's How They Did!

Oct 13, 2017
Paying for College, Savings, Student Loans, Activities


The first quality about this simulation that stands out is how it gives the user the opportunity to blend their real life choices and starting position, with hypotheticals, to know exactly how much future decisions will cost. I saw what my potential earnings would look like with the major I’ve applied for and saw how my GPA and school really affect how much debt I’ll need to withdraw.

I played this game 4 times to see how different choices led to different outcomes. 

Round 1: I used my actual G.P.A. and selected options most closely aligned to the decisions that I a making in my real-life. In the game, I inputted a G.P.A. of 3.0-3.2,  attended Community College, and chose a major of Liberal Arts. The tuition came out to $3,500 and I only received $200 in financial aid. Many of my choices were balanced between too excessive and too meager. One of the biggest decisions that I made in the game was to move out from my parents’ house which suddenly added $10,000 per year to my debt load. By the time I finished community college and was ready to transfer, I already owed $21,000. Transferring also gave me the opportunity to choose a new major at a four year college, which would give me more career options than at community college. I took on a part-time job while at college and one summer took an online course (so I could graduate on-time). Despite my cautious spending habits throughout the game, by graduation, I had acquired a hefty debt load.

Round 1 Results:

Major: Communications

  • Starting salary: $40,574
  • Unemployment rate: 13.5%

Debt: $54,570


I was surprised to see my debt was higher than my starting salary, since I thought starting at a community college would be the more prudent and economical choice. In terms of the impact of my decisions on my post-college lifestyle, I realized through the game that I would be paying a quarter of my monthly earnings towards my student loan payments. The main culprit: Living away from home during my community college years.

Round 2:  To test and see if that was the reason why my debt accumulated so high, I reran the game with the same choices, only living at home this time. That change alone saved me $20,000. I was ecstatic to see that at one point before my Junior year I actually had NO debt whatsoever. By the time I graduated in this round, I owed $20,835 in total debt, and was only paying 1/10th of my monthly earnings to my student loan payments.


What I learned is how much you can save with small, frugal strategies but in the end the most important decision revolves around my housing arrangements. While my major (Communications) isn't the highest paying, or in the greatest demand, if I choose a similar path in my life, I have to keep an even closer eye on my expenses, especially housing in the Bay Area. 

What I learned from Rounds 3 and 4: The Impact of G.P.A.

I played the game a few more times to see how different starting G.P.A. levels would shape the course of my experience (and my life). I played once with a 4.0 + G.P.A., attending a private school and another time with a lower G.P.A., where my only option was community college. It became clear how having a strong G.P.A. clearly provides a student with additional educational options and as I was about to discover, a lot more aid also. With a 4.0 I could go to any choice of school and had almost all my tuition covered by financial aid. With a sub 2.1 G.P.A. I would have to attend community college and would receive $0 in financial aid. That means with a 4.0 I would be attending the best university in the game paying only $6,400 a year as opposed to paying $3,500 in tuition for the least remarkable school, only twice as much! I ran each scenario to the end majoring in Communications both times.

While the simulations started very differently, they ended in very similar circumstances. In both games I chose to focus on my studies while keeping my expenses to a minimum. As a low G.P.A. community college student, I transferred but quickly accumulated more debt than as a private school student with the best financial aid package. Making cautious expenses in both games, I struggled to keep my happiness level up and was several times close to dropping out in the community college pathway. However the final results came up very close with the private school option owing a few extra thousand, both debts still far below my starting income.

What I demonstrated with these two contrasting yet similar playthroughs was:

  • Your GPA is important to your chance of getting financial aid
  • It really doesn’t matter whether you start at community college or the best private school
  • If you plan to take on more debt, select a major with a high-paying starting salary
  • The best ways to keep costs down are by forming modest but not frugal habits



As a soon-to-be freshman, Payback could not be more relevant. Although I have already gone through the real life process of picking an in-state public from the choice of an out-of-state public and a private school, this part of the game validated that I had made the right decision by choosing a school with a far lower net price. Too many educational resources about paying for college focus heavily on return on investment, how to lower your debt, and major choice. While these are obviously important, Payback uniquely explores three main questions:

  1. College is 4 years of my life. If I am miserably working to finish early and pay off my debt, how am I going to graduate with a good GPA or graduate at all?
  2. Connections are important in every aspect of life from finding a job to finding a partner. If I don’t spend money (within reason) and take some time away from academics to attend social events, then how will I ever build those vital connections?
  3. Major ROI is crucial but I should strive to find a major that achieves a balance between unemployment rate, future salary, and my passion for the subject. It all boils down to being able to pay back my debt: How will I pay off my loans with a major I can’t even finish and on the flip side, how am I going to pay off my loans if I am passionate in a major that I can’t even get a job in?

The level of granularity in Payback allowed me to stop thinking of these college decisions as conceptual and actually put myself in the mindset of a college student making financial decisions. For example, I have always wanted to rush for a frat, but I didn’t realize that it costs $2,000. In one round, I made the decision to join but made cuts in other social activities and started working 10 hours a week to offset the cost. I had to play the game many times to get it right. I would party too hard and lose my focus, study too hard and lose my happiness, or graduate with debt that was above my starting salary. My final winning combination couldn’t have provided a better roadmap for decisions I am about to make. I chose an in-state public school, a roommate, a normal dining plan, joining a fraternity, going out with my friends once a week, skipping some greek week and social activities, taking the bus, and getting a part-time job. I got out with $40,000 in debt. Not the best, but still under my starting salary. Overall, Payback delves into the idea of tradeoffs. More than anything, I learned there’s no one right answer in making decisions throughout my college career. 

About the Authors


Sid is currently a studying at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the former treasurer of the Palo Alto Youth Council and leader of the Youth Friendly Business Initiative. He enjoys playing lacrosse in his free time. His dad is a money manager, gifting Sid with an early love for investing and personal finance. Sid uses his attention to detail and organizational skills to help NGPF with product launches.

Tim Ranzetta

Tim's saving habits started at seven when a neighbor with a broken hip gave him a dog walking job. Her recovery, which took almost a year, resulted in Tim getting to know the bank tellers quite well (and accumulating a savings account balance of over $300!). His recent entrepreneurial adventures have included driving a shredding truck, analyzing executive compensation packages for Fortune 500 companies and helping families make better college financing decisions. After volunteering in 2010 to create and teach a personal finance program at Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto, Tim saw firsthand the impact of an engaging and activity-based curriculum, which inspired him to start a new non-profit, Next Gen Personal Finance.