[1.) What is the most you've taken out for your education?]
A bit under $20k
[2.) Did you have a difficult time getting a lender to give you more for your cost of tuition plus cost of living?]
They had a formula to determine how much I qualified for, and I took that amount (or less some semesters if I felt I didn't need it all). I don't think they'll give you more than their formulas indicate you need/qualify for. I could be wrong tho...
[3.) For those of you with big loans, what kind of monthly payments are you looking at now?]
Mine were $190/month but a few years ago interest rates were much lower so I 'refinanced' (after shopping around for the best deal and waiting for the rates to finish dropping). I dropped from ~8-9% interest (mine were taken at a relatively high point) to ~3%. The refinancing extended payback time, so now I'm down to $112.
[4.) Are there better options for lenders other than federal loans or your typical bank student loan?]
Other than scholarships/grants, I'd stick with federally guaranteed loans (tho parts of your federal loans may not be guaranteed, if your needs exceed the guaranteed amount). I avoided private bank student loans, I've heard they can be problematic (higher interest, fees, etc.).
[5.) If you did take out a sizeable chunk for living expenses while in school full time, did you take out everything you needed up front? Or did you borrow it one school year at a time?]
I got the money one semester at a time, but I applied year-by-year.
[I'm looking at starting nursing school and clinicals full time and won't be able to juggle any decent sort of job. I just want to hear from others if this can be reasonably done.]
I'd do the math on:
-your chances of getting hired (nursing is generally in good demand for the forseable future - can't outsource it!)
-the pay range you expect
-how much you'll be able to borrow and how much monthly repayments would be
...then see if it's doable for you. A good loan officer would be able to give you an idea on how much you can borrow and repayment amounts.
Be cautious of school loan officials. Some schools get "kickbacks" from student loan sources so the schools push what makes the school the most money instead of what's best for you.
Some "private" schools that deal only with certain fields are really more businesses that academic institutions, and their advice may be tilted to their best interest, not yours.
The University (Iowa State U.) I went to had a guy that represented students (he was separate from the student loan office that gave out the money), so I trusted his advice for refinancing to take advantage of lowered interest rates about 4 years ago.
If your school doesn't have someone like that you could try another school (you may have to imply you're thinking of going there, but it would be worth it).
You may also wish to check out local credit unions, they usually are cheaper than banks and they may have someone there familiar with this stuff.