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Paying for school when you're already in debt

College graduates

We all know it takes money to make money. But choosing to go back to school to help increase your earnings potential presents a catch-22: You can't make more without pursuing higher education, but school is really hard to pay for when you are barely making enough to get by.

Leslie is 26 and lives in Las Vegas. She has a chronic medical condition she was diagnosed with at age 17 -- when she didn't have health insurance. Now she owes $8,000 in medical debt. Plus, Leslie says that it costs her about $5,000 a year for medications, hospital visits, procedures, etc. And she has a few other small debts -- $2,000 left to pay on her car and some credit card debt.

She's wondering whether she should take on student loans with her medical debt.

"The problem I have with medical debt mostly is here in Nevada, when you get a hospital bill, it's not just one bill. You get a bill from the hospital, a bill from the doctor, a bill from the anesthesiologist -- you get a bill from everything," she says.

Frank works in the IT industry, and stands to make a lot more money (she's making just from $30,000 today) if she can manage to get a bachelor's degree. Earning nearly twice as much would also let her pay down that medical debt.

But while her job has a benefit that will cover about a quarter to half of her degree expenses, she says school still costs her about $1,500 before books per semester.

What should she do?

One suggestion personal finance expert Liz Weston has for her is to get the book: "The Medical Bill Survival Guide: Easy, Effective Strategies for People Experiencing Financial Hardship" 

"I would get that book and take a look -- see if you're doing everything you possibly can to get the bills down, to negotiate them as low as they can go and to deal with it going forward," says Weston. "It pays to have some ninja skills when dealing with medical providers because a lot of them won't offer help, but they have it available so you have to know how to negotiate these things."

Click play on the audio player above to listen to more of Weston's advice.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.
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I was shocked and saddened as I listened to your program on my way to work. I am a Registered Nurse. This young woman is twenty-six years old, under the Affrodable Heathcare Act aka ObamaCare, she is covered under her parents health insurance until the end of her twenty-fifth year. You should have advised her to look into what is covered now, all of Obamacare will be in place by 2014. If anyone will benefit, it will be this young woman, she will also benefit in receiving Pell Grants! I wish her well...her life will greatly improve!

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