I paid off over $38,000 in 3 years on a freelance music teacher’s income: Here’s how

Charlotte Darr is the founder of Save Live Thrive.
Courtesy Charlotte Darr
Key Points
  • "My primary goal with my budget was to bring as much consistency to my financial life as possible," writes Save Live Thrive founder Charlotte Darr.
  • "By trying different side hustles, I was able to use the extra money towards my debt repayment goals."
  • My "personal finance Instagram account has grown into a financial literacy business that I now run full-time."

In April 2018, I sat staring at my computer screen in panic.

I had calculated my net worth for the first time and realized that I was $78,511 in debt. I was also about to graduate with degrees in music education and vocal performance, a career path that is not typically known for its high earning potential.

My debt consisted of credit cards, private student loans with an 11% interest rate, an auto loan for a vehicle that was way out of my price range, and federal student loans. I knew I had bitten off more debt than I could chew, and I was determined to figure out a way to get my financial life under control.

That moment got me started on the road to increasing my financial literacy and ultimately boosting confidence. By 2021, thanks in large part to my social media side hustle, which is now my full-time job, I had paid off $38,109 of my debt. 

Here's how I did it, and my best advice.

I listened to my gut about my career 

After I graduated from college, I accepted a full time teaching position as a K-8 music teacher. But as much as I liked my students, between the long and underpaid hours and having to navigate administrative bureaucracy, I quickly learned that a traditional classroom setting wasn't for me. 

I knew there had to be a better career fit out there. So I quit my public school position, started working part time as an early childhood music teacher, taught private voice lessons, and performed.

On average, I made around $3,000 per month, before taxes, and quickly learned the importance of being extremely organized and mindful of where every dollar I earned was going. These became key elements that allowed me to reach my financial goals while working with a smaller income.

I became more intentional about my spending 

Once I started bringing in a more variable income, it became important to understand the major areas where I was spending money. I broke my spending down into three broad categories: necessities, financial goals, and wants. From there I got more specific to my situation.

I started by looking through my transactions over the last few months to see what I was spending money on. Once I understood how I was spending in these categories, I started asking myself questions like, "What do I actually want out of life right now? What is important to me? How do I want to feel about my finances?"

With these questions in mind, I started brainstorming how I could make the most out of my income in order to spend in a way that was aligned with my values, goals and current situation. I realized that I valued the feelings of security, freedom, and independence way more than a lot of the random stuff I bought every month.

I also learned that I was spending more money on housing than I needed to in my area. When the lease to my apartment was up, I spent more time researching different housing options, moved to a less central part of town, and continued living with a roommate.

It wasn't the sexiest decision, and I didn't want to live with roommates forever, but finding ways to lower my housing costs opened up $400 in my budget that I could put towards my larger financial goals.

I started a budget and financial routine 

My primary goal with my budget was to bring as much consistency to my financial life as possible. Using the data I found from tracking my spending, I identified what I call my baseline numbers, the money that I needed to cover my necessities, minimum debt payments, and a small amount of recreational spending.

Knowing my baseline helped me understand how to make adjustments in the event of a low income month, and helped me set a clearer income target for my freelancing jobs. Then I created a realistic budget that prioritized necessities, followed by financial goals, and then wants. 

This way, I feel more secure, my goals remain a top priority, and I'm able to spend on things I want without feeling any guilt, because I know it's not taking away from things that are more important to me.

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I started using a bucket budgeting system, using multiple bank accounts with designated purposes that I transfer money into on payday. It's similar to the cash envelope system but uses bank accounts instead of cash and envelopes.

For the last four years, almost every Sunday, I've sat down and reviewed my bucket bank accounts and spending, checked in with my financial goals, made any necessary modifications to my spending plan, and set financial intentions for the upcoming week.

I chose a debt repayment strategy

At the start of my financial journey, I had some pretty high interest debt, where the interest charges were accumulating close to $200 in interest fees each month, or about 6% of my monthly income.

Because of this, I decided to use the debt avalanche method to pay off my debts. The debt avalanche is when you prioritize paying off debts in the order of highest to lowest interest rate, which may help save more money in interest over time.

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Today, the only debts I have left are my student loans. I'm not focused on paying them off quickly at this time due to their low interest rates. Instead, I'm working on building wealth first by investing and increasing my income, while making the minimum payments on my student loans.

I may decide to shift gears and work towards paying off my loans early one day, but for the time being, this is the informed decision that works best for me.

I started a side hustle that became my full-time job

Our income is one of our most powerful wealth building tools, and I knew very early on that I needed to find ways to increase my income if I wanted to achieve my financial goals faster.

Beginning in 2018, I experimented with several different side hustle ideas from selling crocheted scarves on Etsy, beauty blogging, starting a music education blog, and in June 2020, I decided to start an Instagram account called "Save Live Thrive" that chronicled my debt repayment journey.

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When the pandemic began and I saw the negative impact it had on so many people's financial lives, I felt even more grateful for the financial education I had been building over the last few years. I wanted to share what I had learned with others and create a financial literacy platform that talked about personal finance in a positive, welcoming, inclusive, and nonjudgmental way.

That personal finance Instagram account has grown into a financial literacy business that I now run full-time. I'm finishing my certification to become an Accredited Financial Counselor, and Save Live Thrive has allowed me to earn more money than I ever thought I would as a music teacher.

While I am no longer teaching music, I still perform locally with professional ensembles and opera companies on the side.

By trying different side hustles, I was able to use the extra money towards my debt repayment goals, and ultimately realized the passion I have for teaching other women about personal finance, and inspiring them to take ownership of their financial futures.

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