“How I paid off $20,000 in student loans working part-time…in just 8 months!”
Don’t you just love chronicles like this? 🙂
Actually, I was supposed to construct this piece as an inspirational “you-can-do-it-too” story but the more I wrote about it, the more depressed I became. I didn’t want to lie so I scratched off that “you-can-do-it-too” spin. This is just how I (oh so effectively) paid off $20,000 in student loans working multiple jobs part-time.
Spoiler: it was no Disneyland.
Table of Contents
Undergraduate School Debt
My undergraduate cost around $20,000 dollars after scholarships, grants, parental guidance and 3 years working as a lab assistant. Bleh, $20,000 smacker-a-roos at a 4.75% interest rate after all that work.
That’s like a down payment for a house. My anxiety went through the roof. My concentration was neurology, psychology and child development to be specific. It was a mixture of child development, neuropsychology and biology courses. I learned I like children best behind soundproof, two-way mirrors, lol!
I made sure I graduated a semester early to save myself some dough. I forbade myself from dropping any classes because I was on a tight schedule to hit the required number of credits. Consequently, I ended up in the class of a, particularly pervy boxing teacher. He could hit on me in class in front of everybody and he goes home to hound me on Facebook (he found me on Facebook).
Anyways, I pushed on and that was an extra $5,000 semester I did not have to pay, baby.
Roughly speaking, each semester of university cost me $5,000 a semester. I know that’s not a ton but it’s still something of an expense.
A couple of people asked me, “why do you want to graduate early? You only get the college experience once.”
Well 5 years later, I still think it was a great decision. I don’t regret a thing.
Another great decision was when I decided not to attend the graduation ceremony. A 2-hour drive back to campus in the July heat with gas over $3.95 a gallon seemed high to pay for voluntary torture.
Plus, I didn’t want to pay good money for a one-time graduation gown just to stand around on stage in front of 2,000 sweaty people. Everyone pushing elbow to elbow just to have their smartphones raised up above their head so they could record a shaky video that they’re never going to watch.
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Debt Is No Friend
I graduated in December of 2012 and I goofed around for weeks trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I had maintained a 3.73 GPA and I already had all my letters of recommendation from all of my professors.
At that time, I really wanted a Masters or PhD in Neuroscience (focused toward children’s brains.)
All I needed to take was the GREs and draft up a personal statement. I had initially decided on attending graduate school right away but after I left the ‘ivory tower‘ I started getting cold feet about returning for a grad school degree.
I really didn’t want more debt on top of preexisting debt! Master-level graduate programs rarely offer financial aid besides in the form of loans and fellowships. Neither of which was going to help get this $20,000 monkey off my back.
PhD was the “free choice” but 1) if I could actually get in 2) if I really DID want to do this and stay in this field for my entire life 3) if I do want to devote 5+ years for a PhD.
Those are arduous decisions for a 21-year-old.
Receiving My Student Loan Bill
I was pretty nervous even before I received my student loan bill. The number was not outrageous but starting adulthood in the hole at $20,000 didn’t exactly feel like a kiss from an angel.
That $20K is actually less than a lot of my peers (most of them owed north of $30-$35K) and the national average student debt average ($31,710)1 as well.
I intend to pay back everything I borrowed of course.
That was the promise I made when I signed on the dot. It’s called being a PRW (Personal Responsibility Warrior).
You roll with the punches! So with that said, let’s get the ball rolling on how I paid off $20,000 working part-time after graduating college.
Starting The Debt Pay Off Journey
For transparency, my total debt: all government Stafford loans: -$20,000 @ 4.5% interest.
Having Money Saved Helps
Ha. Sorry…(well, it’s true!)…I had $5000ish dollars saved up in my savings account from a few summer internships during high school and hustling (eBay, Upwork, work-study, etc.) during college.
I threw that $5,000 to knock off some of the $20,000 principle balance. My interest was pretty low so in hindsight, I would have been better off throwing that money into Vanguard Total Stock Market (VTSMX) but I was 21 and terrified of my debt. I told myself that only after I kill off this $20,000 then I’ll be allowed to feel alive again. I hit the job want ads, hard.
Paid Off = $5,000
Remaining Balance: -$15,000
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First Job: SEO Content Writer
Ah a beautiful full-time intern gig, rarer than unicorns – so lucky me. Being a professional blogger was my first job out of college! It was for a nightlife promotion company in San Francisco. I had my own little desk in a pop-down shop in the richest, yuppiest part of San Francisco. Every day, I wrote about S.F. hacks and all the stuff tourists like to read. I was invited to local event & parties sometimes just so I could blog about it.
Unfortunately, I was not interested in the subject at all. Something cool like that was just wasted on me. It actually turned me off blogging for a long time. Now I know for a fact I don’t hate blogging. I just didn’t like writing about Coachella or the best place in San Francisco for bottomless mimosas…
I was an intern — or on paper 1099 (independent contractor), they paid me bi-weekly and I worked 2-3 days a week. The good boss doughed out $ bonuses every paycheck.
Pay Off = $5,500
Remaining Balance = -$9,500
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UpWork Freelancer & Entertainer
You can read about my Upwork freelancing experience here, the more interesting story was me and my friend attempting to do stand up comedy!
A friend of mine (it’s always the connections) talked me into her gig idea. She thought we were due for Hollywood any day or something insane like we’re going to be the first “Asian female comedy team.”
Naturally, with the unstable scheduling as a freelancer and the fact that I didn’t 1) think I was funny enough 2) stage fright 3) depressed at the time…I quit after 4 months and she had to find a new partner in crime. We’re still good friends today and talk every day 🙂 We made chump change – a couple of hundred dollars – and then some (we didn’t expect much, it was just nice side hustling with a friend).
Struggling Career Search
I needed to find another part-time gig to pair up with my SEO gig. Although I sent out polished, professionally critiqued resume & cover letters to over 100 employers over the course of a few months, I only heard back from 2 of them.
I remember locking myself in the bathroom to cry because I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.
Since I graduated before everyone else I didn’t have a real baseline of how bad it was out there. I found out later, as it turns out, my experience was pretty standard.
A lot of my college-age peers were having a tough time finding work too (except the computer science students, they were doing great). I took a quick peek at the ol’ Facebook and I saw mostly paralegals, barista, bartenders, church youth organizer, administration staff, substitute teacher, joined the military, English teacher abroad, soon-to-be-in graduate school, pregnant, etc.
You know what I was doing wrong? I was not on to LinkedIn every second of the day.
Networking on LinkedIn with real recruiters after my 1st year of struggling made me realize I was struggling because I was approaching the job search thing wrong.
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I started doing mTurk for any sort of extra cash along with the SEO gig because I was having a hard time finding part-time work to supplement my SEO job. I took survey after survey on HWTF (Hits Worth Turking For) – it was something for an underemployed millennial. Here’s my full Amazon Mechanical Turk guide.
I didn’t mind the work mostly actually. It was kind of relaxing…in an e-sweatshop way…plus it was flexible and I was able to stay at home which meant I skipped out on the commute hour traffic across town. I kept an eye out on the HWTF subreddit throughout the day. I’m guessing I probably spent 3 hours on it every day, 7 days a week, for 4 months.
These days, when I’m bored and I don’t feel like thinking, I go on HWTF for another 15 cents per hit. They let you transfer your earnings to Amazon gift cards now.
Paid Off = $3,000
Remaining Balance = -$6,500
Everybody has purchased junk before they come into contact with the Financial Independence virus. My room had so much junk that my natural recourse was to sell, sell, sell.
I sold a lot of my stuff on eBay & Craigslist. I sold my expensive Bamboo drawing tablet, a UV nail kit, an old laptop, fish aquariums, clothes and a lot of other little things.
My room (aka mom’s place) was decorated with garlands of silk flowers. Lana Del Rey was just coming onto the scene. I duplicated Lana’s flower crown in her ‘Born To Die’ video and they sold like hotcakes! Too bad I was too dumb at the time to advance further with that idea so when I ran out of flower heads I just stopped making them.
This is the anxiety I was talking about earlier.
I was laser-focused on my loan repayment and I refused to invest a single DIME into what otherwise would have drawn in more profit. Bad, bad me.
EBay (after fees + shipping) = $1,000
Etsy (after fees, shipping, no material cost) = $700ish
Remaining Balance = -$4,800
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Multi-Media Instructor Job
When SEO writing internship was going to end, I was well over 6 months in and I still had almost $5,000 left. Argggggh!
Right around this time was when the official student loan bill came in with its ugly standard letter envelope.
I didn’t even know schools sold loans. My loan servicer was Great Lakes instead of the usual Sallie Mae / Navient. That was one plus because Great Lakes was a smaller company and slightly less prone to ‘processing errors.’
Going back to the website Bare Foot Students where I had great luck finding my SEO gig, I flipped through page after page and came across an ad from a company I had previously interned for in high school!
They agreed to hire me as an after-school media instructor. I taught pretty much exactly what I learned as an intern there which was a smorgasbord of introductory courses to Photoshop, Maya 3D, Unity, InDesign, Adobe Illustrator, Final Cut Pro etc.
I had also done this part-time on Upwork when I was an undergraduate so these media skills helped me a lot.
They gave me a small stipend for signing up and the promise of a larger stipend at the end of the 3 month course period. If I recall, the sign-up stipend was only $200 but the last stipend was a good $5,000-$7,000 contract depending on the class size and their funding for the year.
Paid Off = $200
Remaining Debt Balance = -$4,600
Pending = $5,000-$7,000 in stipends (not counted for yet.)
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Debt Free! What Now?
In theory, I was pretty much done paying back all of my loans once the 2nd media instructor stipend came through in 3 months from my job. Teaching the class for 3 hours every day after school plus 1 hour to wrap things up meant I had a lot of free time on my hand.
Having idle hands makes me nervous because idle hands make trouble.
I became a “mizu shōbai” aka bar hostess through my mom’s connection. She had a friend who owned a successful chain of restaurant bars in San Francisco. I was a very uninspired hostess to be perfectly honest. I was there to pour a bottle of Sapporo and look cute. Even as a boring hostess, I brought in an absurd amount of money for such a low entry position.
The bar tips were $150+/night alone before adding in my hourly wage. There are a decent number of high rollers in San Francisco who wanted to part with their money I guess!
I also had full run of the snack fridge 😀
In 2 months, I made around $4,500 working 5 hours on the night shift, 3 nights a week.
Income = $4500
I went to Amazon and bought myself a copy of Turbo Tax (the version that supported 1099). It took a few hours but I fumbled my way through it the best I could; I knew the basics behind a W2 vs 1099 since my mom had dealt with something similar. But still, I was expecting a large tax bill for myself. Maybe I did it wrong but I only owed $1600 to federal which was great because when the second stipend paid out, I was at a surplus.
So I basically ended my first ever year out of college from -$20,000 in debt to about +$5000 net worth.
I guess the lesson is…um…wait..didn’t I start university with $5,000?
DID I just blow 4 years of my life just to break even?!
I don’t want to go into that right now…
Net Worth (1st Year): = $5,000
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Living With Parents
It turns out I didn’t even need to file myself. My parents told me later they had an accountant friend who would have done it for me for free (he ran a non-profit to help poor people with their taxes.)
Actually, this leads me to my next point.
I was only able to pay off $20,000 on part-time pay ONLY with my parent’s help!
I had zero expenses (not even transportation!) during the 1st year that I was living at home.
This was not a miracle or a feel-good story. This was as tedious to read as it was for me to write! My experience was just a regular GRIND. An uneventful grind.
Beyond my parents, I can attribute the speed of the pay off timeline to my debt adverse mentality. As I got older I learned more about the power of leverage 2 but as a 22-year-old, I honestly thought it was the end of the world.
I do not feed into the “treat yourself” mentality. I just don’t believe in treating yourself when you’re in a self-imposed mess. My philosophy is to stick it out no matter how bad it looks. Just focus on the result like a laser! Obviously, that has downsides too which I mentioned above but, eh, that’s just how my mind works. Get that nose to the ground and dig. Don’t stop digging until you’re on the other side, fool.
So now what? Graduate school? More debt? To have the pleasure of doing this all over again? NO. I was not ready for that yet so I told myself I’ll take an extra year to build up my nest egg so I wouldn’t have to take out loans. Either way, it wasn’t going to happen. I was just lying to myself. There was no passion left for me to return to academia.
2 Years After Graduating
I finally found permanent employment at a media company after an entire year of struggling. The best part was I actually scored a decent salary – thank you LinkedIn!
I was hired because I had an eclectic combination of technical & design skill on media platforms I picked up during high school. My research based college education had zero real-world applications outside of a controlled lab setting. The lab jobs were almost always in the East Bay and at a lower salary ($21/hour) than a media job that congregated within the city of San Francisco ($27/hour).
I moved into a cheap, shared flat with 4 other roommates. I did continue my part-time gig as a bar hostess; good money and…the snack fridge with free mochi ice cream…mmmm.
To thank my parents I bought them a new iPad and took them both for a nice dinner out. Nothing too crazy, I vowed to never dance with the debt devil ever again.
The whole experience taught me how to persevere even if the student to adult transition was a bit rocky, I’m still OK ?
Net Worth (end of 2nd year): = $22,000
What was the most helpful thing that got you through the first few years after college? Is it easier to be a college student or to be a working adult?
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