When I realized my $68,000 in student loans dictated my whole life, I knew I couldn't wait any longer to pay them off
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- When I had to leave New York City because I couldn’t afford rent plus student loans, I was crushed.
- Even living frugally on the other side of the US didn’t make a difference — I had to do more.
- Unable to reduce spending further, I grew my income and made a dent in my loans for the first time.
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About a month or so after graduating from New York University with my Master’s in Performance Studies, I signed up for a popular budgeting app. At that time, I still had $68,000 in student loans despite making minimum payments for five years already. Seeing how much my debt increased made me panic, and shortly after, I deleted my account.
As I write in my book, “Dear Debt,”I went for months trying not to think of the financial burden of the loans, enjoying the grace period, and trying to figure out my employment situation and life.
But when my grace period was up in December 2011 and I saw that my minimum payment was $900, I realized I just couldn’t swing it financially. What I was earning at the time teaching theater part-time would not be able to cover rent and student loans.
Moving made things even worse
I reluctantly decided to move to Portland, Oregon. I had personal reasons to move there as my then-partner was there, but I wasn’t ready to leave New York yet. I felt I still had so much to do, so much to experience, and it was getting cut short because of my debt.
I moved to Portland at the start of 2012 and thought things would be different. But the economy was not great, especially for jobs in the arts. I found temp work making $10 to $12 per hour and was on food stamps for several months. It was not how I thought my life would turn out at all, and I was miserable.
To make it worse, I didn’t love Portland, either. Being in this situation made me realize how important it is to be free from debt and to have a solid financial foundation. I felt my choices were not mine to make anymore. I have a very low tolerance for debt, and owing money makes me very anxious. So I decided I had to figure out a way to tackle my debt.
I wasn’t earning a lot, but I wasn’t spending a lot either. My half of the rent for a shared studio was $400, and I went without health insurance, cable, or a car. My frugality ceiling was pretty low, so I quickly hit a plateau. There was no other way to cut back. After reviewing the numbers and my situation, it became clear I had only one option, and that was to earn more.
I was finally motivated to make a real change
During this time, I was making $12 per hour working as a study abroad advisor for high school students. On nights and weekends, I found gigs on Craigslist, TaskRabbit, marketing agencies, and through the people I knew.
I helped one woman move at the end of the month. I assisted another woman with planning her husband’s 40th birthday party. I worked for one family three years in a row, only on Halloween, as their coat check person and server.
One time, I worked an overnight rave and sold water bottles. I pet sat for coworkers who were out of town. I worked as a brand ambassador and promoted goods for companies at stores, festivals, concerts, and on the street. I worked as a mother’s helper.
I helped a guy clean his house and put the wrong soap in the dishwasher and nearly flooded his living room (the not-so-fun part of side hustling). I also was an event assistant at a Jewish congregation. Not being Jewish myself, the congregation was happy I could work holidays without a conflict. In other words, I did almost anything I could do to earn money on the side and it became a quest for me. What gig could I get next to earn more?
Working for myself made all the difference
In January 2013, I started my blog, Dear Debt, to keep myself motivated on my debt repayment journey. After almost a year of blogging, I realized others were leveraging their blog into online money-making opportunities. Considering all of my side hustles were very active and in-person, I was intrigued and wanted so badly to work online.
I was able to leverage my blogging skills into writing for other blogs and financial companies. I helped out with social media, brand campaigns, and editing.
All of this led to self-employment in July 2014. That year, I doubled my income and made $60,000. I kept my lifestyle the same. Earning so much more was the key ingredient in paying off debt, aside from the low cost of living. It was because of this that I was able to pay off my debt in December 2015, move to Los Angeles, and start living the life I actually wanted to live.
Melanie Lockert is the author of the book, “Dear Debt,” and founder of the blog by the same name, where she chronicled her journey out of $81,000 in student loan debt.
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