Happy Friday friends! I’m excited for another installment of Student Loan Conquerors. Student Loan Conquerors is an interview series where I talk with some awesome people tackling their student loan debt head on and finding out how they are doing it and what inspired them to start in the first place.
If you are interested in participating please contact me and share a little information about your student loan debt situation.
Today, I’m excited to have Lindsay from Notorious D.E.BT. Lindsay lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, two kitties, and dog. She’s a former dogsled racer, National Spelling Bee contestant, and autodidact. She enjoys reading, hiking, hunting/fishing, and brewing her own beer. Now onto the interview!
When Did Your Graduate & With What Degree?
I graduated in 2011 with a BS in Wildlife Biology, and immediately launched into grad school from there. Three years later, I graduated with an MS in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. Both of my degrees are from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
My husband supported me through school, but once I finished we decided it was his turn to go back to school (and he wanted to live somewhere a bit warmer). He’s now got three semesters left in a Construction Management program from Colorado State University.
What was the Maximum Amount of Student Loans You Owed and Where do You Stand Now?
I took out two private loans for $25,000 each. By the time I graduated, the interest payments swelled it up to $60,535.54. I’ve been paying them off for two years, and I now owe $55,539.19.
My husband has several smaller federal student loans (he did it the right way!), totaling $15,388.44. We have yet to start paying those back yet because they’re in deferment while he’s still in school, and we’ve got other higher-interest debt to pay back first.
I should also note that all of my student loans are from my undergrad degree. For my graduate work I received a tuition waiver, health insurance, and a hefty stipend to help teach classes and work on my thesis research while in grad school. I actually came out +$75,316.73 after getting my MS degree!
Editor’s Note: If you have federal student loans and are struggling with your payments, consider utilizing an income-driven repayment plan at least temporarily. If you have private loans or your debt to income ratio allows, consider refinancing with a company like SoFi. I wrote a review about my experience refinancing my bar loan with SoFi. Refinancing with SoFi ended up saving me over $1k. Use one of my links to refinance and you’ll get a $100 bonus.
When Did You Start to Focus on Your Student Loans & What Motivated You to do so?
I became motivated to pay back my loans after graduating. I couldn’t find a job that covered my debt payments, even though I thought I’d be making tons of money once I graduated! Resulting in my being forced to work a job I hated as a lab animal caretaker—i.e., a glorified janitor.
I would have been free to pursue other work I liked better if I didn’t have those debt payments. That was when the lightbulb clicked on and I realized I had to make paying off my debt a priority.
I’ve been paying just the minimums on all of my student loans since getting out of college. I wish I could pay more, but right now we’re working hard to save up an emergency fund, because we basically have almost nothing right now.
One we have an emergency fund saved up we’ll be tackling all of our debt in order of highest-to-lowest interest rates. We also have two other non-student loans: a personal loan we took out to pay for home repairs, and an auto loan.
The personal loan has the highest interest rate, so that’ll be the first to go. Then we’ll be free to focus on paying down our student loans!
What is the One Action You’ve Taken that has Made the Biggest Difference in Your Finances?
The biggest thing that’s made a difference is just making more money. I couldn’t pay all of my bills despite how much I cut back my expenses, although it helped a little.
So, I decided to try freelance writing because I did a lot of writing in college and I heard from reading other people’s blogs and listening to podcasts that it paid well (or at least better than I was making at the time, which wasn’t hard to do).
The money I make from freelance writing has allowed me to break out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, pay off all of my credit card debt, and now we’ll be using it to save up an emergency fund before going into hardcore debt-payoff mode. We wouldn’t be able to progress financially at all without it.
What is the Best Piece of Financial Advice You’ve Received?
Aside from making more money, the best piece of advice I’ve gotten is to set up a budget. I tried them before but always failed, so I researched tips on how to make it work, like setting it up based on what we actually spend now, and updating my budget first thing each morning.
Now that we have a budget we’re able to tell our money where to go rather than wondering where the heck it flew off to. Without the budget, we wouldn’t be able to plan our expenses so we can meet our savings and debt-payoff goals. It’d just be a total mess and we wouldn’t be able to move forward at all.
(editor’s note: there are tons of budgeting tools out there that can help make sure you stay up to date with and stick to your budget. Personally, I found YNAB the most helpful, but I know others have done really well with Mint.)
What is One Piece of Advice You Would Give to Others Paying Down Student Loans?
Don’t focus on the big number all the time. If someone came to you today and said, “You owe $55,539.19,” or whatever, you’d probably have a heart attack!
Instead, focus on paying back small chunks at a time where and when you can. Even if you just pay off a $50 chunk, those tiny chunks add up over time, and they’re a lot easier to deal with mentally. Before you know it, your student loans will be completely paid off!
If You Could do it All Over Again, Would You? Why or Why Not?
I would do it all over again in a heartbeat—with one caveat. I wouldn’t go the private student loan, lump-sum route. Rather, I’d work a lot harder to find scholarships, and failing that, I’d exhaust my federal loan options first like my husband is doing.
By taking out two lump-sum private loans, I had a ton of money sitting in the bank that I was being charged interest on while I was waiting to use it for each semester’s expenses. I used it on stuff I shouldn’t have, like hobbies and plane tickets to visit people.
Because all my loans are private, I have absolutely none of the nice federal programs that help you pay back your student loans. I’m pretty sure my student loan company’s unofficial motto is Bend Over And Take It.
My private loan lender is not flexible at all in working with me to pay back my loans. They sent me my first bill less than a month after graduating, even though I called them to explain I didn’t have a job yet and had no way to pay the bill. They didn’t care.
Are You Actually Utilizing Your Degree? If Not, Why Not?
I’m on a bit of a hiatus between jobs right now and I’m focusing on freelance writing to tide me over, so not exactly. I did gain writing skills that help me as a freelancer, but no one’s paying me to conduct wildlife studies for personal finance pieces (although I do have one client that I write biology articles for).
I was working in the ecology field for the federal government this summer before reaching a cap on how many hours I’m allowed to work with them, so I was essentially laid off. My bosses are opening a new position soon that I’ll be applying for, and I hope I’ll get it!
If not, I’ll continue working as a personal finance freelance writer until a wildlife biology job opens up somewhere. I won’t be going back to scooping up animal poo for a living though, that’s for sure!
Anything You’d Like to Plug/Share with LDMW Readers?
Don’t discount the STEM fields when picking out a degree, especially for grad degrees. These programs are a bit different than grad degrees in other fields because it operates more as an apprenticeship than a traditional class-based approach.
Even though I was still technically in school while working on my grad degree, I was conducting research that’s being used around the world today—and that’s why I was paid accordingly and made it out of grad school with no debt.
None of the schooling I’ve had taught me how to manage my money, though. I had to teach myself bit and pieces here and there. I’m still learning, and I’d love to show people how I’m getting out of debt at my blog, Notorious D.E.B.T.!
Thank you, Lindsay! I appreciate you being a part of Student Loan Conqueror Series. I’m excited for your journey toward student loan debt freedom (I’ll see you there someday)! If you would like to learn even more about Lindsay’s journey, check out her site.