How filmmaker Sami Khan paid off $100,000 in debt in 3 years and became an Oscar-nominated director

"It was a real grind just to get to the point where we were breaking even."

Sami Khan co-directed the film "St. Louis Superman," which was an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020.
Courtesy Sami Khan

Three years ago, Sami Khan was living in New York City, commuting three hours a day, and cobbling together a living with teaching and freelance filmmaking. Compounding the family's financial challenges: Khan's wife, Rachel Creagan, had about $100,000 in student loan debt from studying to be a social worker at New York University. And they had a baby.

"It was a real grind just to get to the point where we were breaking even," Khan says. "We could only afford part-time child care, so I was looking after our daughter two days a week on the other days that I wasn't commuting three hours a day."

Today, his family has paid off all of their debt and welcomed a second child. At the same time, Khan's filmmaking career has accelerated. In 2020, a film he co-directed, "St. Louis Superman," was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). "It's something I dreamed about when I was a teenager and now it's happening," says Khan.

Here's how Khan and Creagan were able to free their family from debt without sacrificing his dreams of filmmaking.

Debt was 'crushing us for a while'

Before having children, Khan was teaching film courses at Columbia University and Brooklyn College, and working on his own passion projects, all while taking on freelance film gigs to make ends meet.

"My wife really was the breadwinner for a long time," he says. "From 2014 to 2018, she was supporting us, like paying rent. Then I would pick up these jobs, these kind of oddball jobs, whatever it was, assisting a photographer, or doing production coordinator on some Oscar-nominated director's new project and producing fashion videos and whatnot."

That meant his income fluctuated significantly: "One year you'll make $20,000 a year, and maybe the next year you'll make $50,000." Realizing he was going to become a parent was a turning point: "When my wife got pregnant in 2017, that was a wakeup call for me," he recalls. "I was like, 'How are we going to do this?'" He realized, "That's not going to work: You have to have a steady income."

The most pressing financial issue was that student loan debt. "That was kind of crushing us for a while," Khan says.

He started budgeting and watching financial videos on YouTube to better educate himself. "I started to actually read more about financial literacy. Even though I was well into my 30s, I didn't really get the concept of compounding interest."

Paying off $100,000 in debt was a 'powerful moment'

At first, "there was kind of this sense of, 'Let's just pay the minimum [on the student debt] and sign up for the income-based repayment,'" he says. "But then I started to do the calculations on basically this ticking time bomb. It was just growing all of the time. The principal was growing and we weren't making any headway with it."

Creagan applied for grants for health-care workers and ended up being awarded $50,000 by the federal government and $10,000 by New York state. They put all of that grant money towards their debt.

In addition, Khan began taking on more consistent work, which let him make automatic contributions to build savings. "We used the bulk of the income I earned as things were taking off for me," he says.

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Video by Courtney Stith

In three years, they were able to save $30,000, enough to pay off the entire balance that remained. "She just clicked the button," he says. "Like, I taped it and everything. It was such a powerful moment, but again it's kind of surreal describing it."

In 2018, the family moved to Toronto. Khan, who was born in Canada and has Canadian citizenship, saw the relocation as another way to keep costs low and build career opportunities. "Not having to worry about health-care costs for a family of four now has been really freeing," he says.

On 'wising up financially' while doing work that 'fulfills'

As Khan was "wising up financially," he started becoming more selective with the paid work he took on. "I walked away from teaching because I realized, financially, this doesn't make sense," he says. "I can earn more money going into scripted TV or working on unscripted [content], and I saw the beginnings of the documentary boom. … It's just way more lucrative than academia and it fulfils my creative mission."

While Khan did focus on paid work, he was careful not to pick jobs solely for money. Instead, he only worked with people he respected, a choice that ended up paying off. "I started to build this ecosystem of people who were either above me, next to me, below me, who liked to work with me," he says.

I started to actually read more about financial literacy. Even though I was well into my 30s, I didn't really get the concept of compounding interest.
Sami Khan
Academy Award-nominated director

"Then over the years, people next to you start to, you know, their careers start to take off, like what happened with my 'St. Louis Superman' partner Smriti [Mundhra]," he says. Working on that project led to Khan's Academy Award nomination.

His career has continued to take off. Last year, the documentary "The Last Out," which he wrote and directed, won a special jury prize at the Tribeca Film Festival. He's also a writer and consulting producer for season two of the NBC drama "Transplant." A few other projects are in the works, including a documentary about a nurse practitioner, who each night after his shift, raced against time to deliver Covid vaccines across Philadelphia to disabled and homebound patients before the doses expired at midnight. 

"Sometimes I catch myself complaining about, 'It took so long to make a decision to get back to that person,'" Khan says. "But then I'm like, 'Stop complaining! You worked so hard to get to a point where you could have anybody believe in you.'"

Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.

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