This is the story of how I paid off my $110k+ student loan debt in five years. I’ll start with a simple confession: I wouldn’t do it again. Not like this.
Back in 2016, I wrote an article titled “I Tried the Sharing Economy and Made $0” about my brief venture into the world of resource sharing. At the time, I was living with my boyfriend in a 2-bedroom apartment in Miami. My student loan debt was $110k and despite working a full-time job as a marketing coordinator, a part-time job copywriting and a side hustle selling my artwork, I was still reaching for ways to make more money. I had come to accept that I would never be debt free.
I imagined phrases like “debt free” and “early retirement” were reserved for rich people with wealthy grandparents who counted on inheritances. I’m a Cuban immigrant whose parents worked long factory hours just to put food on the table. My sister and I grew up in a shotgun apartment in Union City, New Jersey, furnished with free furniture we sourced curbside, discarded by rich folks in neighborhoods where kids never played outside. My parents did everything they could to create opportunities for us they never dreamt of having. We learned early on that work is a blessing and not to be taken for granted. With any luck, my mother often said, we will work ‘til the day we die.
I was working full-time before I graduated high school, living in an efficiency in Miami where I paid $450 a month for a room with a private entrance and bathroom. I worked
a day job as a clerk at an import/export company that sold cafeteras and Hitachi rice cookers to South America and cleaned houses on weekends. I drove a rusty 280ZX that I found on the Auto Trader for $850. I drove to work and home and drank too much on weekends. Then I did all the typical things girls like me do in their 20s—met a boy, fell in love, moved into a bigger efficiency, worked too hard, partied too hard, fell out of love, blamed each other, got divorced.
By the time I was 29, I had worked a long string of jobs in a sorted variety of industries—from hospitality to finance—and knew for certain that working ‘til the day I die was a complicated kind of blessing. But the idea of college terrified me. It had been a long time since I’d been in school, and I wasn’t sure I could be a good student. There was also the matter of paying for college. I knew financial aid was something I could apply for, but how it all worked scared the santisimo out of me.
The summer before my 30th birthday, I shoved my educational comemierderias aside and enrolled for an Associate’s degree at my local community college. I learned my way around financial aid applications and got comfortable spending money I didn’t have. I didn’t think about paying it back. I was working full-time as a cashier at the service department of a car dealership, living paycheck to paycheck, going to school weeknights and on Saturday mornings, and doing the best I could to pass the remedial math classes I was enrolled in before I could start my college-level requirements. It took me longer than most, but eventually I graduated with an Associate’s degree. I remember that graduation as one of the proudest days of my life.
Soon after, I enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree at a local university. I completed one semester on-site and quickly realized I needed more flexibility. I transferred to a fully-online program that I could complete while working my day job at a marketing firm, my weekend gig cleaning houses, and my side hustle selling artwork at craft fairs. I dove in and studied and worked and studied and worked, and time passed the way it often does when you’re too busy working to notice.
I was renting a room at my friend Franky’s house in the summer of 2010. It was Memorial Day weekend and there was a barbecue and people showed up. One of the guests was this smart, well-read guy who loved comics and music and had never shelved a book in his life. I was a serial shelver who regularly abandoned books midway for even minute offenses. Life is too short for bad prose, I’d say. I was in my early-thirties then and focused on finishing school and traveling—somewhere, anywhere, eventually.
The well-read guy invited me to dinner at his apartment and I said yes. He grilled asparagus on the balcony and we watched 500 Days of Summer. A few months later we moved in together. By the time I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in communications, he was enrolling in an MBA program and asked why I hadn’t considered an MFA.
There are several reasons why I had not considered a three letter degree. First, was the simple fact that I did not know what an MFA was. Truth: no one talked about MFA’s over the dinner table in my universe. Second, I had never thought of myself as “a writer.” In hindsight, I’d identified with many other titles such as: clerk, receptionist, telemarketer, dishwasher, house cleaner, and so many others. But, writer sounded ridiculous to me. Jose Marti was a Writer. Paulo Coelho was a Writer. Isabel Allende was a Writer. Writer was the sort of thing educated, professional people could aspire to, but not a guajira like me. Third, of course, was the reason that weighed most on me and the one thing I knew for certain—the more letters in a degree, the more it costs.
But dreaming is dangerous business and before long I had traveled too far down the MFA rabbit hole to turn back. I found an online MFA program I liked that only required two 10-day in-person residencies in the 2-3 year period I imagined it would take me to complete the coursework. I could request vacation from my jobs for those periods and travel to New Jersey, my home state, for the residencies. This seemed doable. I submitted an application and waited for a rejection letter, cried when I received an acceptance, then signed more financial aid paperwork.
The program I enrolled in was a low residency MFA and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. I met incredible teachers, made life-long friends despite my introverted habit of hibernating in my room during residencies, and participated in poetry readings, something I had never considered and didn’t think I could survive. With a little help from my new friends, I not only survived but eventually learned to do it without throwing up immediately after walking off stage. I felt like I’d acquired a super power.
For my second residency, I embarked on the “Wroxton Experience” and traveled to my school’s campus overseas. Wroxton is a dreamy little village in England I had never heard of. I spent two weeks studying poetry in a 17th-century Jacobean mansion known as the Wroxton Abbey—an experience I never in my wildest dreams imagined possible. I felt then, as I do now, that the gains of attending FDU and the ways in which the program enriched my life—the friendships I made, the writing tools I acquired, and the countless opportunities that became available to me as a result of opening that door—forever outweighed the financial costs. But the costs remained.
Fast forward to post-graduation, my student loan debt was over $100k. I had financed every step of my education and hadn’t made a plan for how I would pay it back. In truth, I imagined I never would. I enrolled in the Income Based Repayment Plan and paid the minimum monthly payment. Based on the fine print, I knew whatever amount I hadn’t paid after 25 years would be written off. This seemed a good-enough plan—I would live with the debt for 25 years, all the while paying the assigned monthly payments based on my income, and eventually the remaining portion would be written off. Easy peasy.
What I didn’t realize was obvious, of course, to anyone with basic knowledge of mathematics. Unfortunately, math was never my mermelada. Because I was paying the minimum and the amount I owed was considerable, the loan amount never decreased. I was strictly paying interest, and that interest continued to compound so that every month, the total amount of my loans was increasing rather than decreasing. Things were going in the wrong direction. But what did I care? It was all going to be written off eventually. Or so I imagined.
On a hot summer day in 2016, the smart boyfriend and I took a long walk down the beach and talked about finances. It was unplanned and innocent. He spoke the words “early retirement,” despite being neither rich nor white, and talked about frugality and savings and the FIRE movement (which I learned stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early). It all sounded muffled, like I was in some kind of spaceship, and he was on a different, more intelligent planet. Every now and then a wave broke on the shore and I’d look out toward the horizon to stabilize myself. He continued to speak slowly, acknowledging my vertigo, and eventually I understood.
In 25 years, when the unpaid portion of my loans was finally written off and declared on my taxes, I would owe the IRS approximately $70k. How was it that after 25 years of making payments, I would still owe ¾ of the total in one lump sum?
Compound interest, he said. The words crushed me.
I had to work my way through denial, which is my go-to survival life strategy. But eventually, many coños later, I processed the information, re-strategized, and made better plans.
It’s been 11 years since the boyfriend and I moved in together and five years since that enlightening walk. In that time, we moved out of Miami—the city that I called home for 26 years—and to the west coast of Florida. We bought a house —a little fixer-upper on a canal near the gulf, learned basic plumbing and electrical skills, gardened, drank wine with an army of mosquitoes in our back yard, and survived a pandemic.
Here is the part where I tell you how easy it’s been to pay off my student loan debt—how I simply put one foot in front of the other through hell and high water and achieved my goals. Insert thumbs up and fireworks emojis! But that would be a lie. The truth is it was incredibly challenging to pay off my loans on an average salary as a marketing coordinator, even with all of my side hustles. I’m well aware of the pay gap and how it affects Latinas specifically. I worked thousands of hours of overtime to achieve my financial goals. Luckily, as my mom would say, I had work—a blessing I’m especially grateful for this past year when so many close friends and family members lost their jobs.
So, while I did the best I could to stick to the plan I set out for myself, it certainly was not easy and several factors played a significant role in keeping me on track.
1. First and foremost was flexibility. Bend became my mantra, because I did not want to break. Circumstances exist beyond my control (like a pandemic and a complete MELTDOWN—more on that later). So I did the best I could within those circumstances.
2. Leaving the city I called home for 26 years was another major factor. I loved everything about Miami, even when I cursed it. But the cost of living there made it impossible to make significant financial strides on an average salary. So we rented a U-Haul and drove off into the swamp.
3. I always imagined myself a renter, and I loved the freedom of moving whenever I pleased. But we did the math and based on our particular circumstances and location, buying won. So we bought a casita—a truly affordable house we knew we could grow to love. It was clear from the get-go the place needed work, but we took our time with repairs and tackled what we could. With a significantly lower cost of living, I maximized my loan payments and made even bigger strides toward reducing my debt.
4. I refinanced all of my student loan debt into a single, lower-interest payment. I wish I had done this sooner, but the timing actually helped since interest rates were at their lowest. At this point, the amount I owed was dropping significantly from month to month, which shifted my motivation into even higher gear. Things were finally going in the right direction!
5. We did away with “luxuries” like cable TV and eating out. I mostly cut and dyed my own hair and waxed my own eyebrows. Of course, having a supportive partner who was fully committed to a frugal lifestyle helped tremendously. When COVID happened and I eventually transitioned to working from home full-time, we sold my car and became a single vehicle household. The savings all contributed to reducing my loans.
At the same time, I’d started following Latina finance bloggers online and realized that my relationship with money had been flawed from the start. Somewhere along the way I had learned that money was a dirty word and something we didn’t talk about, but not talking about it had made me financially ignorant. Here were mujeres making major financial moves, talking about things like personal finance and investing and wealth building and NOT living paycheck to paycheck. Listening to these women speak confidently about money inspired me to expand my financial goals to include so much more than simply becoming debt free, like investing (which I learned is not just for Wall Street bros)!
By the time I got into the teens (under 20K student loan debt, baby!) I was obsessed with paying it off. So I pushed harder. I worked longer hours, sold our old furniture online, clothes I didn’t need at consignment shops, and continued to hustle selling my artwork and copy-writing on the side until I was delirious with exhaustion from working like mad and not stopping to breathe.
Do I recommend this? No—some kind of moderation here would have made for a healthier plan. In the end, I burned myself out and spiraled into a completely overwhelmed and uninspired state of exhaustion that I thought I might never come back from.
This is where the MELTDOWN comes in.
We are not robots designed for round-the-clock work. Working endlessly brought me to a place where I felt mentally, emotionally and physically depleted. I struggled to get out of bed in the mornings and found myself persistently tired. My general lack of coordination became even more apparent as I regularly dropped and spilled things—coffee, water, dishes—and bumped into walls and furniture. I was experiencing regular migraines and (for the first time ever) severe joint pain. I felt like I was falling apart, but I did my best to “power through” my days and wondered if there was something medically wrong with me. At the same time, I was so close to paying off the debt that all I could think about was making that final payment. So I stumbled on toward that finish line.
The day I made my last loan payment, my boyfriend and I went out to dinner and celebrated. I cried tears of joy and we talked about future goals. I felt like I’d been climbing a mountain forever and not seeing much of anything along the way. Why didn’t I take a kinder path? All good lessons seem obvious in hindsight.
I’m incredibly proud of having paid off my debt and thrilled with my newfound financial options, but I’m also aware that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It’s taken me a long time to learn that our worth is not measured in productivity, and that making time to relax is essential for creativity. These are not lessons many of us are ever taught. We model our lives after our parents and learn to value hard work above all else, our self-worth intrinsically tied to this idea that if we work more we are worth more. Like many kids with similar upbringings, I viewed retirement as a luxury—an unattainable pipe dream for working class people like me. For most of my life, I believed wholeheartedly that working ‘til the day I die was the most I could hope for. But being exhausted and over committed and physically/mentally/emotionally drained benefits no one.
Turns out working ourselves into the ground is not the thing to strive for. I’ve just started to consider what I’ll do with this newfound wisdom. Maybe long walks on the beach and...
Oh look! A Now Hiring sign!
Just kidding. Cheers to setting more balanced goals.