Less than a year out of college, making barely enough to cover my student loans and no-frills living expenses, I only wore shirts that covered my elbows.
I desperately wanted to put money aside to travel internationally, move for a better job, and get ahead. So twice a week, I drove to a clinic at the edge of town, rolled up my sleeve, turned my head and squeezed my eyes shut as a technician stuck a needle in the crook of my arm and siphoned my plasma. I was not proud of this. It felt shady. It probably was shady.
This was the price I paid to pursue a writing career in journalism.
It was a career path more than a few adults had warned me was “dying” or “already dead” when they heard that’s what I planned to pursue in college. But I wanted to do something big, to write stories that would make people think and maybe even act. I believed—and still do—that an informed society was a healthy one, and I wanted to contribute to that.
But I was completely unaware of what it cost to survive in the real world, and how little newspaper jobs would pay in comparison. My loans totaled more than my annual salary for that first year out of college, and I was not prepared to feel so buried in debt. I thought I would be well into my 30s before even coming close to paying them off.
Paying for School
I borrowed $35,000 to attend Elon University. I had a substantial academic scholarship, a little bit of help from my parents, and worked multiple on-campus jobs nearly every semester to pay as much of my tuition and living expenses in cash as possible. I was a resident assistant, worked at the library and in one of the residence life offices, tutored, cold-called strangers for the Elon Poll, and served for two semesters as a news editor for the student paper, The Pendulum, which paid $30 week for all of my spare time. I took a full course load every single semester so none of my dollars would be wasted. Instead of doing my homework, I’d interview administration officials for news articles, opting for job experience over straight As.
“I did everything in my power to avoid taking out more loans.”
It paid off. My first internship was at Al Jazeera English, in Washington, D.C., where I sublet a high school friend’s college bedroom with a friend from Elon so we could afford the rent. I checked my checking account obsessively and made a rule for myself: if I was going somewhere less than two miles away, I would walk. If it was more than two miles, I would allow myself to spend the $2 or less to take the bus or metro. I did everything in my power to avoid taking out more loans.
I saved pennies in this kind of fashion for years, especially after graduating from school. My first post-college job, at the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va., involved being the sole staff writer for a sister weekly newspaper. I was paid only $26,500 a year, and even with a dirt-cheap apartment for $335 per month, I couldn’t afford to pay a similar amount for my loans, too. I hadn’t yet established enough credit history to refinance my 6-7% APR loans, so I immediately applied for an income-based repayment plan with the federal government, which dropped my required monthly payments to $0 for a full year.
Budgeting to Save Money
The immediate pressure was off, but the interest piled on, at about $100 a month. I didn’t want those loans hanging over my head. So I paid as much as I could afford, every month. Whenever I spent money—on groceries, on cheap wine, on gas to drive the two hours to Washington, D.C., where many of my college friends had settled—I asked myself: “Do I need this? How much more quickly could I pay off my debt if I ordered an appetizer instead of an entree?”
I regularly trolled refinancing sites to find more favorable interest rates. I took on a second job, at a pizza restaurant, and occasionally worked until 3 a.m. on days I had already put in a full day at my newspaper. After I became the paper’s education reporter, I felt more of a commitment to the community than ever. I covered three school boards, working odd hours to attend long meetings, and went over their budgets with a highlighter to find important pieces the community needed to know about.
When I scored a job as a crime reporter in Colorado Springs, with better pay, I drove across the country and left Virginia behind. After my first few paychecks, I looked into refinancing again but still didn’t qualify.
My roommate and I also rented out our living room on Airbnb, I started driving for Uber, and I took on some freelance assignments to squirrel away more money to free myself from my loans. I allowed myself the occasional indulgence—for the first time, I took weekend trips by myself to places where I didn’t have friends I could stay with for free—but I also had an app for My Great Lakes, the company servicing my federal student loans. My social media compulsion was not to check Facebook or Instagram; instead, when I was bored, I’d use the app to constantly monitor my balance. I’d see how much interest I was paying, get frustrated with how far I had come yet how far I had to go, and plunk down an extra $5, $50, or $100 on the go if I could afford it.
I watched my federal student debt tick down closer to $20,000, then below it. If I was close enough to round down to the nearest $1,000 with less than $100, I would do it for the psychological boost. It felt much better to see $19,959 than $20,040.
Whenever I saw friends posting on Instagram from trips to Europe, or sharing Facebook posts about quitting jobs they didn’t like to follow their passions, I’d feel trapped. I wanted to do those things, too, but I had loans to feed. I did not want to be paying them off a few dollars at a time until I turned 80. Years earlier, I had gotten into the habit of putting my full tax refund in a savings account where I couldn’t easily touch it. But sometimes, I would look at how much I had been spending on interest, get frustrated, and take $300 or $500 out of my savings to throw it at my debt with the hope it would soon disappear.
On the Way to Debt Free
In 2015, I started a new job as an outdoor business news reporter for a site called SNEWS. Moving to Boulder meant higher living expenses, and healthier paychecks to match. I’ve since had the opportunity to travel internationally for work, satisfying some of my wanderlust. The job has also allowed me to overpay my loans significantly, driving down how much I pay in interest.
Finally, last year, I found Earnest. After years of never carrying a balance on a credit card, paying my loans not just on time, but early, and with extra, my credit score was high enough to qualify to refinance without a cosigner. I refinanced $11,250 of unsubsidized Stafford loans and was able to lower my interest rates from 6.55% to 5.23% APR. I did not refinance the other half of my debt, which included my subsidized Stafford loans and a personal loan from my parents’ line of credit.
I had been nervous to give up the flexibility the federal government offers, but I knew I could pay off that money faster with a lower interest rate and higher monthly payments. Instead of paying $215 each month like I was required to, I set my automatic payments to $265 and resolved to pack more lunches instead of eating $5 burritos from the coffee shop near my office.
After a couple months, I looked at my savings account and saw that I had just enough to pay off my Earnest loan, in full. I debated for weeks whether I wanted to clear out my rainy day fund. It felt risky, but I calculated how much money I could divert to savings each month after paying it off, and how quickly that would grow.
In December 2016, I paid off my loan in full. I started pinching pennies again while my checking account recovered from the extra bills, and I said no to social events that cost money. But it felt incredible to get rid of such a big chunk of debt all at once. I cheered for myself, feeling for the first time like I was winning against my loans, and that I would beat them.
I’ve never felt more financially independent. Paying off that loan has been a wake-up call to the rest of my life. I feel more in control of my own life and career than ever, like I can finally start making decisions about what I want, without thinking first about how much I have to spend on my loans. I can take on assignments I care about, and taking odd jobs and working beyond my 9 to 5 is, finally, optional.
I’m expecting to be debt-free by early 2019—maybe even sooner—and it feels fantastic.
How have you made it work to pay off your loans? We’d love to hear your story. Email us at [email protected].