Borrowing

When Caitlin Boston paid off $222,000 in student loans, more than 935,000 people watched her celebrate

Photo by Apollo Baldoz

Caitlin Boston finished paying off her $222,817 student loan debt on August 6, 2019, which would have been her late father's 72nd birthday. The journey took 10 years, and to celebrate its ending the New York City tech worker posted a video of herself dancing to Lizzo while wearing a crown and a shiny purple catsuit.

The video, which runs for three minutes and 44 seconds, went viral: More than 935,000 people watched it.

Since then, strangers and friends alike have reached out to Boston for career and financial advice. Boston enjoys the new opportunity to offer empowerment. "I find it really amazing being able to work with, particularly women, to take control of their finances," she says.

Boston, now 34, owed $147,602 before interest for an undergrad and graduate school degree. Some of her loans had over 10% interest rates. She couldn't turn to her parents for money or assistance: "I knew that if something happened to me, I could not ask anyone for help," she says. "It was either I was going to fix this or I was going to be homeless and broke."

Through research and determination, Boston paid off all her student loans. Here's how she did it.

The strategy: Get a higher salary

Boston and her female colleagues were out one night commiserating about being unable to get a raise. They discovered that even with varying experience levels, they all made the same amount.

Back at work, Boston asked a male co-worker what he earned, and he seemed hesitant to share. "I needed to make him more comfortable," she says. "I asked him, 'If I throw out a number, can you tell me if you're making over or under this number?' And he kind of relaxed and he said, 'Oh yeah, I can do that.'"

After a few rounds of over/under, Boston realized she and her colleagues earned at least $20,000 less. "And we were all doing the same work. We all had the same title. There's no difference in our backgrounds. So I was pretty livid at that point."

Photo by Apollo Baldoz

Boston sought resume help from a friend with human resources experience and started her job search. While waiting to discuss salaries for a few positions, she reached out via LinkedIn to people with similar jobs and learned what kind of salary to ask for. "I was putting a number out there. I was like, 'This is the minimum number that you're going to get me for.'"

She accepted a job as a user experience researcher, "and I ended up making a 41% pay increase via that negotiation." This allowed her to double what she could pay toward her debt, and she finally finished paying it off.

The celebration: A video watched by more than 935,00 people

Boston's video started as a playful personal project. When Boston was a few months away from her final payment, she and her boyfriend were watching a moment on the Netflix show "Patriot Act" where a couple dances to Pharrell's "Happy" for a few seconds after paying off $100,000 in debt.

"I got really, like, 'Oh my god, that's it? That's all you did?'" she says. "I think some people, when they have student loans, it's a foregone conclusion that they're going to pay them off, whereas for so many years I just thought I was going to die with these loans hung around my neck."

An image came into her head and she shared it with her boyfriend. "I was like, 'I'm going to get a spandex purple catsuit and I'm going to wear this Korean crown that's usually associated with marriage for women, and I'm going to reclaim this crown, and I'm gonna make it for my debt payoff,'" she says. "'And I'm gonna dance around to it, and it's gonna be awesome.' And he looked at me ... and he's like, 'OK, that sounds reasonable.'"

Boston felt that the video was about more than this particular debt. "I feel really strongly that women are not expected or allowed to celebrate accomplishments that are not based around relationships or family," she says. "So I really wanted to make something that was able to communicate that it's OK, and it's actually amazing, for women to be able to celebrate themselves when they achieve something that is just for themselves. I wanted to make this about how a woman defeated her finances. And I didn't get married and have someone pay off my loans for me."

She captioned the video with encouragement for others to ask the "over/under" question, and with a dedication to her father, who died from suicide in 2013. "I wanted to honor that memory, and honor who he was as a person and that it was through his sacrifices that I got to go as far as I have," she says. "His work ethic totally influences me even to this day, and also I just want us to be free of this thing. I want to be able to say, 'I know you died in debt, but I'm not. I'm fine.'"

The opportunity: Saving, investing, and health care

Boston now puts more money into saving, retirement, and her health. "Last year I maxed out my 401(k)," she says, noting that she still lives frugally except for a few health-related choices. "I go to acupuncture. … I buy organic food now."

And she plans to invest in the future. "I'm kind of thinking about buying a place in the next two years," she says. "That's possible for me now. I don't know if I want to be tied to another massive debt after I just finished one, but the fact that I'm able to save for one as though I could be is really exciting."

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