For 32-year-old Heather Taylor of Calabasas, California, paying off her student loans right out of college felt "overwhelming."
"There were so many years when I had to just stop making the payments and defer," she says.
In 2010, Taylor graduated from California Lutheran University with a degree in communications and a combined $40,000 in debt across seven loans. She had both public and private loans, with interest rates ranging from 4% to 8.5% — and her largest loan of $26,000 was at the 8.5% rate.
After graduation, Taylor found a minimum wage job that paid $12 per hour. But while her loans were accruing interest, her earnings remained stagnant, and Taylor wasn't able to keep up with her monthly payments. Though she made minimum payments when possible, her balance kept creeping up.
"I was frustrated because [minimum payments] were just a drop in the bucket," says Taylor.
By 2014, she'd accrued $16,000 in interest, bringing her total student loan debt to $56,000. After years of struggling to make even minimum payments, Taylor ended up going into default on some of her loans.
The following year, Taylor vowed to turn things around.
"It was mostly just frustration that the monthly minimum payments weren't doing anything," she says. "I was tired of being in debt and I didn't want it to control the rest of my life."
For Taylor, "2015 was a game-changer of a year." That's when she took a new approach to earning and to paying off debt. Her first step? Finding a better paying job.
By 2016, Taylor had a full-time job as a communications coordinator earning $55,000. She also started a side hustle as a freelance writer, which initially brought in an extra $500 per month. Within a year, she was raking in an extra $1,000 per month from the side hustle alone.
Taylor started saving about half of her salary and all of her side hustle income. At the same time, she adopted the avalanche method of paying off debt, meaning she made monthly minimum loan payments of $653 while saving up to pay off each loan in full.
Video by David Fang
Taylor also made lifestyle changes. She started cooking more and eating most of her meals at home. She lived with roommates to keep her rent low. And though she lived in Southern California, she didn't have a car.
"I've never had a license. I can't even begin to comprehend how I would juggle payments of a car plus rent plus student debt. I take public transit, and I live purposely close to my job [so I can walk to work]," says Taylor.
Though she took the occasional Lyft or Uber when public transportation was inaccessible, her total monthly ride share never exceeded $100.
Taylor says that "maintaining a 'break in case of emergency' behavior" helped curb any temptation to dip into her savings. It also helped to shut out social media, since she found that scrolling through social media and the constant comparison to others was "the hardest thing" about saving and cutting back.
"It seems like everyone you know is constantly taking a vacation, eating out, and you can feel kind of alone. Is anyone else saving?" Taylor says.
While Taylor points out that you can be "inspired the by the way other people are saving" in #debtfree online communities, limiting social media exposure proved effective for her.
Even so, Taylor still found ways to treat herself. That means white chocolate mochas from Starbucks stayed in the budget.
"There's a whole thing about giving up the coffee. But it's the coffee that sustains you and keeps you going. It's a little treat that I love getting. In light of the fact that I'm giving up major things [like] a car or [buying] a home, I'm not giving up my Starbucks," says Taylor.
Video by Courtney Stith
In 2018, she applied to refinance her student loans, but was told she didn't qualify.
"It was such a poor experience, and one I figured was largely based on my prior history of defaulting and deferring my student loans, that I never got any other outside institutions, like my bank, involved in consolidating or refinancing," she says.
Regardless, by August 2018, Taylor had enough saved to start "ramping up to really pay back her loans." She'd divided her savings into "nest eggs" that she used to pay off the remainder of her loans in lump sums, with the exception of the biggest loan.
"I paid off the loans with the highest interest rates first. It keeps you going because you face the worst thing first," she says.
By May 2019, Taylor had wiped out all her loans. "It's really frightening, but eventually it gets smaller and smaller and then it's gone," she says. "And look what you've done."
After making her final student loan payment in May 2019, Taylor and a friend took a trip to Disneyland.
"It wasn't cheap, but we were excited about it," she says. She even splurged on a pair of Mickey ears for $30.
Her next celebration will be a trip home to visit her family in Saint Louis, Missouri, for the first time in over two years. Taylor's parents didn't have the means to help her financially, but she credits their emotional support with helping her get out of debt: "My parents were really encouraging."
"The next thing I really want to do is start a Roth IRA. [My father] had given me tips. I've been saving up money," she says.
Whatever challenge or opportunity comes her way next, Taylor feels confident in her ability to handle it.
"It shows you what you're made of," she says. "Sometimes you have to go through some of the most difficult things, and even if you're not totally prepared, you can get through to the other side if you just keep toughing it out, if you keep the mindset 'I can do this.'"
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