Vanessa, a 32-year-old purchasing assistant from Omaha, Nebraska, who prefers to go only by her first name, credits the support of her online community with helping her pay off just shy of $20,000 in student loan debt in the past year.
In 2018, she owed a total of $124,277, including $99,622 in student loans, with an average interest rate of about 6%. The remaining $24,655 was a mix of refinanced credit card debt, personal loans, and medical bills.
Vanessa started going into debt at age 18, when she borrowed to fund her bachelor's degree in business management at Northwest Missouri State. She transferred before her junior year to take advantage of cheaper tuition at Iowa State University. Even so, she graduated at 22 with about $50,000 in student loans.
Enrolling in grad school classes added another $20,000 in student loans to her tally—and also meant she deferred her undergraduate loans. Though she wasn't required to make payments, that debt continued to accrue interest.
"For several years ... I just ignored the number," says Vanessa. Then, in 2018, with inspiration from social media, "I figured out that I really did need to get on a budget and start tracking things and start making more money."
Through "Budget Girl," the popular YouTube channel of a young professional, Vanessa discovered the #debtfreecommunity, where people connect on social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube to share tips and document their progress toward becoming debt-free.
Inspired, Vanessa created her own budget. She organized her expenses into "fixed" and "variable" categories, which helped her cut down on frivolous spending and freed up about $500 in her $2,528 net monthly pay by dining out less often and taking fewer weekend trips.
She also found creative ways to earn an additional $1,000 per month from a part-time job at a gymnastics gym and side hustles like mystery shopping and selling pop sockets, or phone grips. Vanessa began posting daily on Instagram. She shared wins, like scoring unexpected gift cards or making an extra $100 thanks to a side hustle, and setbacks like car repairs or costly trips to the vet for her cat. Her posts resonated, and the debt-free community cheered her on.
"I kind of use Instagram as my accountability partner," says Vanessa. "Sometimes I just get curious about what other people's opinions are, and I feel the people that do respond to my posts really care about me."
In one year, Vanessa gained over 2,000 followers, some of whom she interacts with daily. She started a YouTube Channel and a blog where she discusses everything from meal-prep strategies to making money online.
Vanessa says that while talking about money can be touchy, her social accounts provide an outlet for expression and connection: "Seeing other people make progress and get out of debt, that gives me a lot of hope that I'm gonna get there someday if I keep going at it."
And she's already made progress. In the past year, she's made $19,248 worth of payments, bringing her total down to $108,478. She's on track to pay off her debt in full by 2024.
"I realized that I can't have that victim mentality and that, if I don't change it, nothing else is going to [change]," she says.
Vanessa hopes to celebrate being entirely debt-free by going on an exciting but affordable vacation.
"I don't know where I'll go or with who, that's kind of far from now," she says. "But it'll probably be a budget trip. I'm still going to live that lifestyle and make sure that I have my finances in order."
Vanessa emphasized that budgeting, while worthwhile, remains a challenge. "It can be exhausting. Sometimes I do take a step back and I don't track things for three to four days, but knowing that this is getting me somewhere keeps me motivated," she says.
Having a sense of financial security has been a game-changer for Vanessa, who struggled financially growing up. Once she pays off the majority of her debt, Vanessa plans to increase her spending slightly, but she doesn't plan to stop budgeting—or posting.
"If I didn't have my Instagram, I don't think I would've made it this far," says Vanessa.
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