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The Most Honest Account of $80K in Student Loan Debt You'll Hear

A Story of Debt, Dreams, and Disillusionment

When I was 18 years old, I took out $80K to go to an art school that cost more every year than what my parents made annually. 

I Wanted to Be an Animator as Long as I Can Remember

I knew I wanted to be an animator as soon as I realized cartoons were hand drawn. During a high school marching band trip to Disney World, I bumped into a feature film animator hanging out in a gift shop. I asked them what I needed to do to be a Disney animator and they handed me a packet—they get that question a lot. The packet had a list of art schools that Disney recruited from. Having grown up in New Hampshire, I picked the school with the warmest weather. I sent out my application and portfolio to this warm-weather school, got accepted, and was ready for my new life to begin! 

Paying for College? I Was on My Own

Just weeks before I was going to graduate high school, my parents quite frankly broke the news to me that they didn’t have any money saved for my college education, nor could they afford to contribute in any significant way. Both of my parents grew up in Jamaica, they came to the US with nothing and they weren’t financially savvy. We spent our lives living paycheck to paycheck. The answer to most of our requests was something along the lines of, “we can’t afford that.” I was naive to think college was going to be any different, but I was angry. It was my “if you want something you’re gonna have to go out and get it” moment.

I talked to counselors and recruiters and it became clear to me my only options for attending this school would be a loan. “AWESOME! I can still go to the school of my dreams and have the career and life I’ve always wanted.” 

I was too young to understand the meaning behind the hesitation and reluctance on the faces of adults in the room. I recall one counselor saying slowly, “this is a loooot of money” and my thought was “soooo is everything?” The only person that tried to talk me out of taking on student loans of that magnitude was a friend of mine that was a couple years older. She said, “that’s a lot of debt, you’ll be paying it off for a very long time. I wouldn’t want to do that.” I still remember that lone voice of dissent and I still remember my reaction, “I need to go to that school. I need to be an animator.”

The private loans required for me to attend school were so great my parents weren’t eligible to cosign. A very close family friend believed in me and signed on the dotted line next to mine. This is when the Little Mermaid made a deal with Ursula. 

After Graduation, Money Was Tight

I went to college. I graduated. I didn’t land a job after college. I stayed in town, lived with a roommate and waited tables or answered the phones for a cable company. 

The first ten years after I graduated I made about $10 an hour. Everything involved paying as little as possible and calling in every favor in the book when money shortage got scary. I didn’t know how to cook, so I figured out how to make $8 a day cover all my meals and entertainment. That mostly meant not eating and I looked like it. 

This was living on the edge and I was about to be tipped over it by a feather.

My roommate did most of the driving, my ‘93 Ford Tempo with the dying transmission could barely be trusted to get me to work everyday. Birthdays and holidays were used to acquire anything that resembled luxury. I cut my own hair, had two pairs of jeans and little over a handful of t-shirts. All my other money went to car insurance, rent and student loan payments. This was living on the edge and I was about to be tipped over it by a feather.

Check and Checkmate

My roommate told me he was moving to chicago to be with his girlfriend. This meant my impossibly sweet deal of $400 a month (utilities included) was coming to an end. Ok, maybe I can find someone else to live with. Then I got a $300 speeding ticket.

Check.

My girlfriend told me to make a budget. I just dumped every expense I could think of into a spreadsheet then freaked out at the number. After laying on the floor for about 10 minutes, I called my parents and said I was moving back home.

Checkmate.

The Moment It All Changed

Five years and a-change-of-life-situation later, I googled, "I need a budget" and discovered, You Need A Budget, aka YNAB.

I learned the power of zero-sum budgeting and only worrying about what needed to be tackled first. I quickly paid off some small credit card debt but being the visual person I am, I SAW what my money was doing; I saw what my money COULD do!

I Finally Had Clarity on How to Get Out of Debt

Having a budget that worked with me and my lifestyle was the most empowering feeling I had about money. My money wasn’t a constant insecurity as it had been my entire life. The budget also made it clear that I needed to make more money. 

For the first 10 years of my debt I made about $10/hr, and much of that was part-time work. Once my career began, that's when attacking debt felt like a praying mantis strike. You move so slowly and steadily towards it, you feel like you're making no progress at all. Then, one day, you see your opportunity and BOOM! Nom, nom, nom! Buon appetito!

I Paid Off My Credit Card Debt

I’ve always been deathly afraid of credit card debt, and that’s a lesson I learned from my student loans. For years I wasn’t even sure how they worked. The few times I’ve ever used them were for one-time purchases and paid them off as quickly as possible. Right before discovering YNAB I knew I had to use a credit card to get through life in Manhattan until I figured out my finances.

With YNAB, I saw how I could comfortably put chunks of my paycheck aside for debt and still live comfortably. Before, I wouldn’t even make those credit card payments until the end of the month just in case I needed that money. It didn't take long for me to trust the relationship my spending habits and budget had together. They were getting along just fine and soon the thrill of paying off my credit card was more exciting than holding onto some extra cash “just in case.”

Next Up: Student Loans

The credit card was practice for the student loans. The card was paid off in a matter of months, but the student loans were going to take years. No way around that, but what was important was this newfound relationship of me and my budget. I could live and still defeat debt at the same time. I could court the woman of my dreams in one of the most expensive cities on the planet and still build my net worth.

It sounds abstract. Like words on a screen, but it’s like flying in an airplane. You often have to look out the window to remind yourself you're traveling at hundreds of miles per hour tens of thousands of feet about the Earth. And you know what? Thousands of people do it every day.

It’s Finally Gone

I paid no less than $150K on my student loan debt after interest. It wasn't easy, but I made every payment on time. I knew paying off my loans would be a grind, and it was. Interest is the price you pay for having more time to pay off your debt, and I paid that price in spades. 

When I made the final payment, I didn’t have an overwhelming sense of joy. I felt like I quit a job I was overqualified for and underpaid. I tried not to think of the opportunity and generational wealth taken from me and my children. I just put it behind me and move forward, but I feel responsible to share my story with others so that they may benefit from their situation that might resemble what I went through. 

I felt like I quit a job I was overqualified for and underpaid.

Debt Has Changed Who I Am

Getting rid of this debt has changed who I am as a person. EVERY major choice I have made for the last 20 years took these loans into consideration. Where I lived, who I lived with, what I bought, when to get married, having kids, buying a house, the car we drove, what computer to buy, buying art supplies—all of those things were always draped in the cloak of debt. When I walked down the stairs to tell my wife the loans were gone she couldn't believe it...then she called her mom.

It's gonna take a while to get used to not having that debt sit at the decision table.

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The Most Honest Account of $80K in Student Loan Debt You'll Hear