In October 2011, I moved to New York to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. I'd graduated from Boston University in 2008 with $85,000 in student loan debt. Although I'd made some payments, by the time I moved I was closer to $90,000 in the hole due to mounting interest.
I juggled multiple jobs to make ends meet: catering at a Tribeca wine shop, babysitting Park Avenue kids, copywriting billboard ads, and of course, writing every article an editor was willing to assign and pay me for. Most years I made between $28,000 and $45,000 before taxes.
Despite how tight my finances were, every month, I kept paying off my loans. Those represented a substantial bill: In the first few years, my monthly payment was $1,040 per month. In all, I have paid more than $100,000 since graduation.
When the pandemic hit, I'd just started a staff-writing dream job here at Grow. As New York shut down, I made a decision. As long as I couldn't do all of the things that made the city New York for me (weird comedy shows, movies, hole-in-the-wall dumplings), I'd move home with my parents in suburban Boston and finish paying off my loans. At the beginning of 2020, I had about $28,000 left. By New Year's, I'd paid it all off.
Here's how I was able to pay off my debt and my advice for anyone in a similar position.
I was always obsessive about budgeting. I think this dedication helped keep my spending in check.
Other than loans, monthly expenses typically included about $750 for rent in my Crown Heights apartment (two roommates, no living room), $10 per month for a Spotify membership, $35 for an all-women's gym membership, and around $100 for a subway pass.
In terms of discretionary spending, I was extremely strict. I allowed myself $150 per week for everything else, including groceries and recreation. I'd look at my forthcoming plans and plot out exactly how much I could spend every day depending on what I was doing. If I was going out to a concert or to celebrate a friend's birthday, for example, that day would get $20-$40 and every other day might get $0-$5 (for a latte).
I was also constantly readjusting. If I ended up spending too much one day, I'd make sure to subtract however much I went over budget from other days.
Knowing how limited my financial resources were, whenever I needed or wanted to buy something, I'd google around to find the cheapest dive bars, thrift stores, or supermarkets.
When going out with friends, I'd research locations before and try to suggest options I knew I could afford and that wouldn't deplete my funds for the rest of the week. That way even when I knew I was spending, I was a little less worried about how much each dollar would ultimately hurt.
As I said earlier, for many years, I rarely turned down a job. Even if it had nothing to do with my intended career, I knew how much I needed to make every month to cover all of my expenses, loans included, and never stopped working until I reached that amount.
I pitched stories constantly, I reached out to friends to ask if they knew anyone that was looking to hire a copywriter or caterer, I kept in touch with contacts who might not have had openings at one time but would at another, and I was never shy about asking people I met ― no matter how random the encounter ― if their place of work was interviewing.
Video by Ian Wolsten
I've never had a credit card. I think different experts will weigh in differently about this decision, but I never liked the idea of spending money I didn't actually have, especially when it would be so hard to pay back on top of all of my other expenses.
There were certainly months when having a credit card would've made life a little bit easier, like when I was down to my last $20 and I wasn't sure when the next (often $75-$300) paycheck was coming. But not having a credit card meant I wasn't tempted to make big purchases I couldn't afford, and it also meant I never got into any more debt than my already heavy load of loans.
Living on the financial edge was very, very stressful. But I made it work.
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