January 4, 2013

Looking at my total student loan debt, then at my checking and savings account can easily send me into a tailspin. They are hard numbers to grasp and the math just seems impossible. After feelings of sadness and regret, I inevitably think, how did I end up here?

For starters, it wasn’t always this bad.  In 2006, I graduated with an arts degree, unsure of what the hell I was going to do with my life. From the age of 17, until the time I graduated I had always worked. I worked such glamorous jobs as an office assistant, cashier for a pizza parlor, and even as a telemarketer (we use to have this fun game: whoever gets hung up on the most, WINS!).

In that time, I did realize the value of money, budgeting and hustling; for almost a year I saved up making minimum wage to study abroad in Spain for a summer.  I did just that and it sparked my interest in travel.  When I graduated, I was unsure of my future and it finally hit me that I was in student loan debt.  Luckily, I had recently fell into a job in arts education and non-profit management at my school. I was able to keep that job and found two other part time jobs to keep me afloat.  8 months of juggling three jobs, I finally found my first real adult job. And it was pretty amazing.

For the next three years, I worked at a job a year earlier I would have never dreamed of getting.  I worked in arts education working with youth and facilitating community programs. It was a pretty killer job, but being a non-profit the pay was low. I was living in Los Angeles and my starting salary was 30k. Within those three years, I got raises to 32k, then 35k and ultimately 38k. In Los Angeles, that is not an exorbitant amount of money by any stretch of the imagination. But being frugal and mindful, I was always ok. I preferred (and still do) to spend money on experiences and not things.  When I finally reached 35k and ultimately 38k, I had gone into extreme savings mode. I was saving $600 a month and diligently paying off $250 a month for my student loans. After working my butt off for three years, and reaching the top of what I could do at that job, I was craving more. I felt successful, yet stifled. On a serendipitous work trip to New York, I decided to check out some of the grad schools there just for fun. A month later, my friend and I dared each other to apply, half thinking it wouldn’t really happen.  Flash forward, six months later and I got into the #1 ranked program at my dream school.

HOLY SHIT.

At that caliber of a school, we’re talking 52k for a year of school. Luckily, my program was exactly one year. There were many nights spent contemplating my future.  It was at the beginning of the recession and I had this amazing job, which would keep me settled and secure—but I also had this opportunity to pursue my dream. I had always wanted to get a masters, and looking back at my journals from three years earlier, when I was in a much worse spot, I had written that all I wanted was to go to this school.

I decided to quit my job, move across the country, leave my family, friends and boyfriend behind, all for the uncertainty of graduate school. I saved up for 14k before moving to New York. Ironically, this was the same amount of student loan debt I still had left. I kept thinking, what if I don’t go and just pay off this debt—I can be debt free forever. But I went the other direction and plummeted myself deeper into student loan debt. Upon moving to New York, I was offered a staggering 89k in student loans. Just looking at that number made me queasy. I did the math, looked at my savings and immediately shaved off 16k of that. I only accepted 73k in student loans. At this point, that was still a crazy, incomprehensible number.  While in graduate school, once again I managed to have three jobs to pay for my living expenses: teaching artist, assistant and secretary. I was determined to live off my income, so that I could only use my loans for tuition. In my last semester, I was able to pay 10k in my program tuition from student loan money I didn’t use. Working my butt off and hustling had me graduating with a total of 68k. This is 30k less than originally expected.

I wish I could be more excited about that.

Going to graduate school and living in New York was single-handedly the most difficult, intense and amazing experience of my life. I graduated in May 2011 and was confident, relieved and excited to finally enjoy New York as a person, not a student.  I had several jobs, but was looking for the perfect, full time job which I so desired. In two months, I had twenty interviews. Yes, twenty interviews. One of these days, I will actually write about the hilarity of those interviews as well.  After many close calls, of me being one of two candidates, many times I was not chosen because I didn’t have enough “New York experience”. Fuck me. What was going to grad school and working in New York the past year for then? During this time, I was also in a long distance relationship. My boyfriend from earlier, moved to Portland, Oregon to pursue school as well. Any “discretionary” income I had those days, was used to visit each other every two to three months. After several months of not getting the job I was looking for, the loneliness of being away from my partner was getting to me. Anyone that has done long distance, let alone for two years, knows this. You move or you break up. I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel and things weren’t exactly going my way in New York. A year ago, I decided to move to Portland.  I knew the economy was bad, but how bad could it be? I got extremely lucky and found a part-time job my first week here. Within two weeks, I found a full time job. Downside? They were both seasonal. I have never seen or heard of so many part-time, seasonal employees in my life until I moved here. Essentially, I have been looking for full time work in my field for the past year. Also in the past year, I have worked a variety of iterations as part-time, full-time/seasonal and independent contractor.

I am not like most Portlanders. I am not looking to retire and I actually WANT a full time job. And looking at my debt, this is what I need to accomplish my goals.  I don’t think this is where I want to stay, but it’s where I am for now. The upside is having such a transitional, ever-changing employment situation here is MUCH MUCH easier than in NYC or my hometown of LA. My rent is $400 and I walk to work every day. I have been on and off food stamps and overall, making it work. In the past year and half since graduation, I have paid 10k in principal (and much more in interest) without having a permanent job.  Throw in a cross country move, a mini vacation and plenty of visits from family and friends, I dare say I am proud of myself. But in 2013 my goals run much deeper.  I want to get a full time job, and pay off 15k in my graduate student loans. My undergrad loans are about 9.5k and at a nice 2.4% interest rate. My graduate loans are at 48k and at an astonishing 7.9% interest rate.  I get $400 in interest tacked on every month. That is my rent! STOP THE INSANITY! For my own sanity, I do need to pay this off as soon as possible. Many things have happened, both good and bad, up until this point. I have to remember that life is cyclical and it wasn’t always this bad.  I have to have faith that things can change and I can be in control.

The future awaits.

Melanie

Melanie is a freelance writer currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about education, financial literacy, and empowering people to take control of their finances. She writes about breaking up with debt, freelancing, and side hustle adventures at DearDebt.com.

Currently she puts more than 50% of her income towards debt, while living a frugal, fun life. In addition to her love of personal finance, art and music, she is also a karaoke master. Follow the adventure @DearDebtBlog.

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