When I finally made the decision to attack my $48,000 balance of long-standing student loan debt, I was already living pretty close to the bone. The year before I committed to my loan payoff journey, I was an underemployed underearner who had just declared bankruptcy. I was living on a tiny salary that I cobbled together through various teaching positions, temporary gigs, and freelance work. I lived with a roommate, kept my 14-year-old car once it was paid off, and shopped for groceries at the local discount store. I didn’t feel deprived, but I also didn’t feel like I was moving forward in any way. That’s when I decided to pay off those loans as quickly as I could. I reasoned that my small salary could stretch a lot further if I didn’t have those loans looming over my head.
It took me a minute to realize that in order to pay off those loans, that small salary couldn’t stay small for much longer. I knew that if I was going to make a dent in those loans, I was going to have to make more money somehow, someway.
That somehow, someway was pretty simple, actually. I did more of what I normally did.
For years, I made my living as a “freelance college instructor,” otherwise known as an adjunct. I left a full-time position because I didn’t like where it was located. I wanted control over my geography, which is rare in higher education. I traded full-time pay for that control. Wherever I’ve lived, it’s been pretty easy to secure a contingent position at any college or university in town.
I supplemented my income with odd jobs: Pilates instructor, book editor, freelance writer, dog-sitter, publicist, writing retreat host. My work life felt very scattered and purpose-less. I made enough to make my monthly student loan payment. But, I didn’t have much hope of carving out a career.
That changed when one college hired me as an I9 contractor. I could work from home for them, too – which is something I always dreamed about. Suddenly, I saw my career and financial life in a new light. That light inspired the idea to pay off those looming loans. It gave me enough confidence to try.
It took some grit. It also took some grind. I took a hard look at my resume. I wrote out a list of contacts in my network. I brainstormed a collection of skills I’d acquired through the years. I took inventory of the tools at my disposal. Then, I got to work building a better future for myself.
I called a contact I had a temp agency in town and got a couple of gigs doing office work in December, over Christmas break. During that time, I posted a few big ticket items on Craigslist, and buyers came through. I also made the decision to raid a small savings account I’d been building. All those chunks of money added together made a nice sum to apply to my student loans.
I taught. And, I taught some more. I took on a lot of extra teaching work. At one point, I was teaching two courses at one school for $800 a month, plus two courses at another school for $1,300 a month. I was also teaching at the other institution for much, much more. My expenses were around $1,000 a month, so all the excess could go toward the loans.
While teaching took up a lot of time, I also spent an hour or so every day applying to at least one side gig opportunity, whether it was to be a focus group participant or a sales associate at a furniture store. If I was even mildly interested, I applied. I pursued jobs that were in my realm of experience, but were also a bit of a stretch.. For instance, I sought a position scoring exams online, and I got it. It was temporary, and spanned two months over the summer, but I made $1,100 – enough to live on so I could apply my entire summer teaching salary to the loan.
Although I was already living pretty frugally, I found additional ways to save. With my housing and transportation costs already low, at about $665 total a month for both, I tackled two budget items that had a lot of excess to slash: food and entertainment. I don’t drink, so I wasn’t racking up big tabs on the weekends. I didn’t have cable, but I kept my TV budget pretty slim with Netflix and Hulu. I did go out to eat quite a bit. Instead of meeting friends for meals at restaurants, I started meeting friends for a simple coffee. We went hiking instead of shopping. I carried a bag of crackers with me at all times so I wouldn’t be tempted to run into the gas station and grab a bag of chips or a two dollar candy bar. When I checked my bank balance, I realized I had money staying put. I used that money to make big payments toward the debt. Every extra cent made a difference. Seriously. I even rolled coins one month and added $25 to my payment.
During that time, a transformation was taking place. I was putting myself out there more, and therefore making more connections with people. Because I looked for additional work in my field, I was doing more for my career, which started to blossom. A full-time position came available, and I took it. As my student loan debt decreased, my interest in my long-neglected creative work grew. I started writing more. I stopped browsing thrift stores for fun, and instead started using what I already owned. I even stopped buying new books, and read from my bookshelves. I started to feel more satisfied with my life.
Fourteen months after I made the commitment to pay off those loans, I sent in my final payment. I felt incredible. I felt invincible! If I could do that, what else could I do?
I could buy a house. I could fund an IRA. I could stop working so much and pursue my hobbies and interests again.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Now, I work one full-time job and take on freelance writing projects here and there. I spend less and less every month as I continue to realize the power of frugality. I’m thrilled with my salary from my full-time job, and I no longer consider myself an underearner. I’ve learned to live without credit, which created a certain sense of security. Instead of relying on credit in an emergency, I can turn to my savings, or I can EARN MORE through a side hustle. Whether it be teaching an extra course or scoring a few exams, answering phones in an office or writing an article or two, I know I can take utilize my skill set and make something happen.
I can make money happen. Somehow, someway.