My student loans made my choices for me until I paid them off

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  • When I had to leave New York because I couldn’t pay rent and student loans, I was crushed.
  • Even living frugally on the other side of the United States didn’t make a difference – I had to do more.
  • Unable to reduce my expenses any further, I increased my income and reduced my loans for the first time.
  • Learn more about obtaining or refinancing a student loan with CommonBond »

About a month after graduating from New York University for my Masters in Performance Studies, I signed up for a popular budgeting app. At that time, I still had $ 68,000 in student loans despite minimum payments for five years already. Seeing how much my debt was growing freaked me out, and soon after, I deleted my account.

As I write in my book “Dear Debt,” I tried for months not to think about the financial burden of loans, take advantage of the grace period, and try to understand my work situation and my life.

But when my grace period ended in December 2011 and saw that my minimum payment was $ 900, I realized I just couldn’t balance it financially. What I was earning at the time teaching theater part-time could not cover the rent and student loans.

Moving made things even worse

I reluctantly decided to move to Portland, Oregon. I had personal reasons for moving there because my then partner was there, but I wasn’t ready to leave New York yet. I felt like I still had so much to do, so much to experience, and that it was going to end because of my debt.

I moved to Portland in early 2012 and thought things would be different. But the economy was not good, especially for jobs in the arts. I found a temporary job earning $ 10-12 an hour and had food stamps for several months. That wasn’t how I thought my life was going to turn out at all, and I was miserable.

Worse yet, I didn’t like Portland either. Being in this situation made me realize how important it is not to go into debt and to have a solid financial foundation. I felt that my choices were no longer mine. I have a very low tolerance for debt and owing money makes me very anxious. So I decided that I had to find a way to settle 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 left without health insurance, cables or cars. My frugality ceiling was pretty low, so I quickly hit a plateau. There was no other way to cut back. After looking at the numbers and my situation, it became clear that I only had one option, and that was to earn more.

I was finally motivated to make a real change

During that time, I was making $ 12 an hour working as a study abroad counselor for high school students. Nights and weekends I found gigs on Craigslist, TaskRabbit, marketing agencies, and through people I knew.

I helped a woman move out at the end of the month. I helped another woman organize her husband’s 40th birthday party. I worked for a family three years in a row, Halloween only, as a coat checker and waiter.

I once worked a night in a rave and sold bottled water. I sat as pets for coworkers who weren’t in town. I have worked as a brand ambassador and promoted products for companies in stores, festivals, concerts and on the streets. I worked as a nursery assistant.

I helped a guy clean his house and put the wrong soap in the dishwasher and almost flooded his living room (the not-so-fun part of the side hustle). I was also an event assistant in a Jewish congregation. Not being a Jew myself, the congregation was happy that I could work during the holidays without conflict. In other words, I did almost everything I could to make some money on the side and it became a quest for me. What gig could I get next to earn more?

Working for me made all the difference

In January 2013, I launched my blog, Dear Debt, to stay motivated on my debt repayment journey. After almost a year of blogging, I realized that others were leveraging their blogs to create money making opportunities online. Since all of my side activities were very active and in person, I was intrigued and wanted so much to work online.

I was able to use my blogging skills to write for other blogs and financial companies. I have helped with social media, branding campaigns, and publishing.

It all led to self-employment in July 2014. That year I doubled my income and earned $ 60,000. I have kept my lifestyle the same. Earning so much more was the key ingredient in paying down 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 really wanted to live.

Melanie Lockert is the author of the book “Dear Debt” and founder of the blog of the same name, where she recounted her journey on $ 81,000 in student loan debt.


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