How a wildlife researcher paid off $60,000 in 4 years, inspired by raccoons and caribou

After years as a wildlife researcher, Lindsay vanSomeran paid off her student loans, saved an emergency fund, and turned her side hustle into a full time career.

Lindsay VanSomeren caring for Arctic caribou.
Photo by Dustin Wagner

Right now, with so many people dealing with job losses, we're all trying to figure out new ways to use our skill sets to generate income and find new opportunities. But I've learned that every job experience you have is valuable, and can inform your present — even if it doesn't seem like it at first glance. 

I have two degrees in wildlife biology and conservation, and I spent most of my early career researching how animals, especially rare songbirds, ground squirrels, and caribou adapt to nutritional challenges. My work during this time included once-in-a-lifetime experiences like training an Iditarod dog sled team and even raising a herd of baby arctic caribou.

Even though I no longer work with wildlife, other than my beloved cat, the lessons I learned from that period have made me smarter about my money and helped me accomplish some big financial goals, including paying off over $60,000 in debt in four years. Here are a few of the most important ones.

Use your skills to diversify your income 

Wildlife work is a field where jobs can be scarce, and it required me to think about how I could use all my skills to earn more.

I didn't want to become what in biology is known as a "specialist." While "generalists," like raccoons and pigeons, can thrive in a wide range of habitats, "specialists," like koalas and pandas, with their highly specific diets and needs, tend to struggle when challenges impact their homes and food sources. 

Using a generalist mentality, rather than rely on just one source of income, I started doing side hustles I enjoyed, like freelance writing, developing knitting patterns, dog walking, and blogging. Over the course of four years, I was able to pay off $60,535 of student debt.

My side hustles also helped me boost my confidence, because I learned that I will always have the ability to create my own opportunities, no matter how uncertain things may seem.

VanSomeren in Alaska with one of her caribou charges.
Photo by Jackie Motyka

Be intentional about your spending

I used to think it wasn't worth budgeting: I didn't have much to spend, so how could I be wasting my money? Then, in 2015, in concert with the debt payment and emergency fund saving, I started tracking our spending. One figure especially surprised me. It turned out that we were spending $800 each month on dining out. A few meals here and there each week really added up. 

In the wildlife world, energy is essentially currency, and animals adjust their behavior all the time to make sure they are conserving it for when they really need it, like when a ground squirrel hibernates for the winter. That's when I realized that if I could budget meals and "count calories," as it were, for the constantly grazing caribou I'd worked with, I could do the same with my saving habits.

Since then, for the last five years, I've kept a consistent record of our income and expenses. I have a document that I update every few days. As we identified expenses that we could cut out, like subscriptions we no longer used, we put that money towards goals like saving for emergencies and paying down debt.

My budget has helped me gain a better understanding about what small changes I could implement to accomplish some of my most significant money goals and look ahead to the future. 

Carry a surplus

In my research jobs, I soon found myself stuck in a paycheck-to-paycheck rut. But with my side hustles, over the course of a few years, in addition to paying off my debt, I was able to save enough for a $10,000 emergency fund and break out of that cycle. I was even able to use it to cover expenses like a $3,000 lifesaving treatment for my cat, no questions asked. 

As I started to reframe how I thought about saving, it occurred to me that the extra fat reserves animals carry during the winter, the energy storage that keeps them going when there aren't as many resources available, is essentially the wildlife equivalent to an emergency fund. If they had to do it, so could I. 

When we decided to move to Seattle for my husband's job, we increased our emergency fund saving again, knowing that the city has a higher cost of living. Today, if both my husband and I were to lose all our income overnight, we'd still have enough money to live off of for six months without changing our lifestyle. If we carefully monitor our discretionary spending, we can even stretch that out to nine months. 

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Be willing to migrate

When my husband wanted to break into the software coding field, we saved up $7,440 over 16 months so we could relocate from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Seattle, Washington, with its booming tech scene. The move paid off, and after a three-month coding boot camp, my husband got a job offer within a few months. 

When we were preparing for the move, I was reminded of the Arctic tern. They are small seabirds that are fast fliers with great eyesight, but oddly enough, they aren't good swimmers. They can't stay in the Arctic all year round, because it gets too dark for them to find the food they need just under the ocean's surface. So they live their lives in an endless summer, flying from Antarctica to the Arctic and back each year. 

It's the longest migration of any animal, but the journey is necessary to take advantage of better conditions that improve their quality of life. My husband and I have taken that lesson to heart in several aspects of our careers and finances. And by the time we decided that Seattle was our destination, my success with freelance writing meant that I was free to work from anywhere, and seek out opportunities on my own terms.

Lindsay VanSomeren is a freelance writer living in Kirkland, Washington. She has been a professional dogsled racer, a wildlife researcher, and a participant in the National Spelling Bee. In her spare time she enjoys fitness, craft beer, and outdoor adventures. Follow her on Twitter @FiSciLindsay.     

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