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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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