My 30th Birthday Present to Myself: Pay Down My College Debt

My 30th Birthday Present to Myself: Pay Down My College Debt

In the LearnVest Personal Stories series, everyday people share the details of their money lives, discussing the individual choices they’ve made and how it’s impacted their financial journey.

Today, a filmmaker and education-policy advocate talks about the journey that led her to launch an ambitious plan to pay down her college debt.


A few months before my 28th birthday, I had a near-existential crisis: I realized that I'd been in debt for almost 10 years. I was 18 when I signed my first promissory note for college, and as my birthday approached, I began to wonder what I wish I could have told my younger self about the financial responsibility I was about to take on.

Thinking about that answer started me on what I now call my “debt mission”: Pay off $42,436 in college debt by the time I turn 30.

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2 Degrees, 7 Loans: My College Debt Script

At 18, I left my home in Miami to get a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago. I had received scholarships, but I still graduated with about $25,000 of student loan debt.

After graduation, I won a doctoral scholarship to use toward a Ph.D. program of my choosing. I had up to three years to take advantage of it, so rather than dive immediately back into academics, I decided to use those full three years to make sure that a Ph.D. was the right choice—and have some post-college adventures dabbling in film and photography.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t do everything that I’d hoped during that three-year window because of my debt.

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I lived at home with my parents for the first two years, so I could pay as much as possible on my loans. I also took advantage of a loan repayment program through Teach for America—I taught elementary school in a low-income community and was fortunate enough to have $10,000 of my debt repayed. After paying off $5,000 on my own, that brought my undergraduate debt total down to $10,000.

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I had also managed to save an additional $15,000, thanks to living at home. But despite this cushion, when I weighed my long-term goals against my current and potential future debt, I decided against the Ph.D. degree and opted for a one-year master’s program in public administration instead.

I applied to 13 schools—and 12 accepted me. I weighed the financial factors for each one and ultimately chose Syracuse University. I was able to pay half of my costs through grants and scholarships, and the other half with about $32,000 in federal student loans.

I was following the narrative arc of the post-higher education story: Get an advanced degree in something practical that will lead to a good salary.

I still had about $8,000 in undergraduate debt, which I was able to defer while in grad school. But I wanted to accrue as little additional debt as possible, so I worked full time at Teach for America as an assistant to the data-analysis team, and ran a small photography business on the side. I was also very frugal: I live with two roommates. I biked instead of drove. And I cooked in batches—one of my go-to meals was a big pot of rice and beans, which I squirreled away to last a full week.

But once I had that master’s degree in hand, I realized that I couldn’t shake my artistic bug. On the one hand, I was following the narrative arc of the post-higher education story in America: Get an advanced degree in something practical that will lead to a good salary. On the other hand, my interest in art was only fueled by what I’d learned in grad school because I wanted to share stories about public policy.

So ... I got an unpaid internship with a documentary film company. Thankfully, I had a six-month grace period before I had to start paying back those loans.

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Ani Mercedes

My Financial Aha Moment

When the six months were up, I was 27 years old. I gave myself two options: Stay in debt for another 10 years (at least!) doing what I love for low pay—that is, working on a documentary about the burden of student loan debt—or I could get rid of the debt by age 30 with a higher-paying job, and then go the full-time artist route.

Of course, you know that I chose the latter, and took a full-time job doing data analysis and IT projects for Teach for America.

When I started paying off my student loans again, I felt overwhelmed. After just one month, I felt like I was on a starvation diet because I was being so strict about my spending.

That’s when I realized that my original approach to getting debt free wasn’t making me happy. So to make my debt-payoff decision feel more balanced and doable, I made a strategic change in my goals: I was going to focus on just paying down my higher-interest graduate school loans by 30.

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The interest rate on my undergraduate debt is 1.1%, and it will accrue only $200 in interest over the next two years. But my graduate school loans accrue about $150 a month in interest alone, so I put about $1,300 toward that every month, with the goal of upping it to $1,650 next year. I also pay $100 a month into a retirement account, and my employer matches another $100.

To date, I have paid down about 14% of my debt—that’s a little more than $9,000. And even though I still have about $28,000 left in graduate school loans, and a little more than $6,000 in undergrad debt, my load feels lighter because I have a sensible plan in place, with a financially healthy goal.

Throughout my journey, here are the three biggest lessons that I've learned:

1. You have to understand the total cost of your debt. I didn’t get this at first. For instance, I didn’t realize that I'd accrue $1,100 in interest just during that six-month grace period after graduate school.

2. You have to break down your debt into manageable pieces. I like to look at my debt month by month, rather than in years or decades, so it feels less overwhelming. I’ve also calculated that I’m charged about $5 of interest per day, so I factor that into daily financial decisions. Case in point: Is a $10 sandwich worth two extra days of being in debt?

3. You have to focus on your future potential, as opposed to just your current burden. For the first two months, I rebudgeted obsessively. But when I shifted that energy toward building my side business, doing things like photography for commercial clients, everything started to fall into place. As a result, in the last month, I’ve won four new clients, and I grossed $1,500 in just one month from my side gig.

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The Outlook for the Next 10 Years

I still have moments when I feel discouraged, but it's less so than when I didn’t have a viable plan—or the understanding that it's OK, say, for my rent to be 30% (not 10%) of my monthly income. I’ve learned that there really is a comfortable medium between a super-saver lifestyle and a more financially risky one. Yes, living without consideration for the future isn’t healthy, but neither is making decisions from a place of fear.

It’s important to be responsible, but also remember that your financial goals aren’t your only goals. My business is moving forward. I’m making progress toward being debt-free. And the energy I spend on my professional and creative endeavors means that I have less time to think about my financial burdens.

I even started a blog so I can share my experiences with those who are in debt or are considering taking on loans to pay for higher education. I’ve learned a lot on my journey from stress and confusion to knowledge and control. And 10 years after taking on debt, I recognize the power of turning obstacles into opportunities with a healthy, balanced plan.

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LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc., that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Unless specifically identified as such, the individuals interviewed or otherwise listed in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services and the views expressed are their own. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed, linked to or otherwise appearing in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies. LearnVest, Inc., is wholly owned by NM Planning, LLC, a subsidiary of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company.

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