4 Big Changes That Helped Me Wipe Out $68K of Student Loan Debt

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Growing up, I believed that education was the best investment you could make in yourself. So it didn’t faze me when I had to take on student loans for my undergraduate degree.

When I got into even more debt by attending my dream school, New York University, I justified it because education is always worth it.

Ultimately, I borrowed $81,000 for two degrees. By the time I graduated with my master’s degree from NYU in May 2011, I had made student loan payments for five years, but I still had an unnerving amount of debt left: $68,000.

My monthly payments ballooned from $250 per month after undergrad to $900 per month after graduating from NYU.

Despite my student loan debt, I left NYU with so much hope and optimism. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a full-time job after graduation. I was on a nonstop merry-go-round of interviews, always on the hunt for the next prospect — but nothing came of it.

I ended up moving to Portland, Oregon, taking on temp work and living on food stamps. It was a personal low. How could I end up on food stamps after graduating from a prestigious school like NYU with a master’s degree? Sure, I majored in the arts, but I thought education was the golden ticket to opportunity.

Being so broke, I scrimped in every way possible. I shared a small studio apartment with my boyfriend and went without a car, health insurance, cable, gym membership, going out to eat, and more. I was on a total bare-bones budget, reserved for necessities only.

Even after cutting back on everything and living as frugally as possible, my initial paycheck in Portland was $800 per month. Though my half of the rent was only $400, that was still half my check. That on top of my utilities meant I had very little left over. I knew if I wanted to make a dent in my student loans, I had to earn more. There was no other choice. So I committed to side hustling and earning more money. Here’s how I went from owing $68,000 to being debt-free.

1. I Had a Bare-Bones Budget, Even When My Income Increased

While I was in Portland, I went from earning $800 per month to making $5,000 per month. Still, I did my best to keep a bare-bones budget during that time, which meant only paying for necessities. Here’s what my typical expenses looked like:

Rent: $400 (my half of a studio apartment)

Utilities (gas, electric, internet): $100 to $200 (varied in winter)

Food: $200 (I got $120 in food stamps but became ineligible as I earned more.)

I saved money by not getting a car and walking and biking everywhere. At first, I went without health insurance, which I don’t necessarily recommend, but it saved me a couple hundred dollars each month.

Saving on the big three expenses — rent, food and transportation — helped me to pay off debt faster. I also didn’t succumb to lifestyle inflation as my income increased.

2. I Did Everything I Could to Make Extra Money (That Was Legal)

Feeling buried in debt and having such a small income was overwhelming. There was the constant hum of anxiety. I always felt one step away from financial disaster. Suddenly, being broke seemed like a problem I had to solve.

I started to apply for gigs on Craigslist, TaskRabbit and more. My main side hustle was being a brand ambassador making $17 to $25 per hour as the public face of a company at events.

I also used Facebook Groups and marketing agencies to find gigs. I found pet-sitting jobs that paid $30 to $50 per night through friends. I also made $12 per hour working as a catering assistant at a Jewish congregation after responding to a listing on TaskRabbit.

I found coat-check gigs and holiday party assistant jobs on Craigslist every year from Halloween to New Year’s Eve, which scored me $20 per hour. One time, I worked an overnight rave selling water bottles to partygoers after responding to an ad on Craigslist. That gig paid $10 per hour, but I made additional money from tips.

I helped someone move their stuff on New year’s Eve and made a quick $50. I worked as a pop-up gallery attendant, making $12 per hour to have fun. I did pretty much anything I could find. I made finding more work my full-time job. Nights, weekends and mornings, I was on the hustle. These side hustles earned me $10 to $30 per hour. They helped me stay afloat and pay off debt even faster.

3. I Started a Blog to Hold Myself Accountable

After side hustling like crazy for my first year in Portland with no full-time job in sight, I was getting pretty down on myself. I was busy, but I didn’t feel like I was making progress. My savings account was slowly getting dwindling. But I deliberately chose to continue paying down my student loans and NOT take an income-driven plan. (Though if you’re having trouble making payments and have federal student loans, this isn’t a bad option.)

In January 2013, I started my blog, DearDebt.com, to keep myself accountable in the debt payoff process. I needed something to help channel all this negative energy around debt into something positive. So I started writing. I connected with others in the personal finance community who became my friends, and later, my colleagues.

I started writing about my journey. I wrote breakup letters to debt. Along the way, I realized other bloggers were side hustling as freelance writers. At that point, I was busting my butt working weird hours all around town with no car (my bike was my best friend). The idea of sitting at home writing sounded just lovely.

I thought, “I could do this.” I put up a “Work With Me” page on my blog and emailed everyone I knew for advice on how to get started. I cold pitched a few people and got my first gig at $25 per blog post. My friends started recommending me for writing jobs they couldn’t take.

4. I Finally Found a Job… Then I Quit My Job

A funny thing happened when I started to build a blog and began freelance writing: I finally found a nonprofit job as an events and communications coordinator making $31,000 after two years of job searching.

But I only stayed a year because my freelance writing side hustle earnings — writing for personal finance blogs and financial companies — were starting to surpass my income from my day job.

In that first year, my writing gigs started making some serious cash. I doubled my income to over $60,000, so I quit the job I had been so desperate to find. I started doubling my payments, too, sometimes paying more than $2,000 each month.

On top of writing, I continued working as a brand ambassador and events assistant. In 2015, I put $30,000 toward debt — roughly the equivalent of my old salary.

On Dec. 10, 2015, I made my very last student loan payment. I’ve been debt-free ever since.

I celebrated my hard work and being debt-free by going to Italy with my mom in April 2016.

pay off debt
Melanie Lockert, right, and her mother Penny Carter-Lockert in Rome, Italy.

How You Can Side Hustle to Pay Off Debt

Side hustling can help you pay off debt even faster, and anyone can do it. You just have to put in the time and effort, and commit to doing something on the side. Maybe you’re busy or have kids, but even committing a few hours a week can help.

Focus on selling items you no longer need or want on eBay or Craigslist. Take advantage of the sharing economy with sites like Lyft, Uber, Postmates and Instacart. Tell your friends you’re available and interested to help out with babysitting, pet sitting and more. Create a website and advertise your services. Sell water bottles on the street outside of events. Make things, and sell them on Etsy.

There’s no shortage of ways you can make money; the only limits you have are your time and imagination. Regardless of the resources you have available, you can make more money.

Earning more could be just the ticket you need to get out of debt and create a better financial future.

Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer and event planner who lives in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Dear Debt: A Story About Breaking Up With Debt.” She has been featured on Oprah.com, Huffington Post, Business Insider, The Globe and Mail, and more.