How to Thrive in Life with Student Loans

In August 2016, I was nearly 2 months into my first post-grad office job, and I was dog-sitting for a friend in the suburbs. I remember standing in the shower, in a huge house that wasn’t my own, and not knowing if I could muster the strength to get to work.

My world was caving in on me. I couldn’t breathe. The tears wouldn’t stop falling.

Looking back, I recognize that the impending death feeling was likely a panic-attack, induced by the realization that I couldn’t afford to live — even with my fancy new $48k/year salary.

Why? My grace period had ended, and it was time to start repaying my student loans.

I was shocked at my current situation. After living abroad for a year and making $12/hour online, my new salary felt like riches. But what I didn’t know when I traded my small town-Israeli rent, new immigrant subsidy, walkable neighborhood, and dirt-cheap local produce for a $700/month Boston basement bedroom, MBTA pass, and city grocery prices, was that my new salary also disqualified me for my federal loan deferment.

My new job took me from an already sky-high loan payment of $912/month, to owing roughly $1,240/month between my lenders.

On my receptionist salary, my bills instantly went from tight to impossible. I couldn’t make the math work. And after working so hard to earn my degree, being in this situation made me feel like the ultimate failure.

Fortunately, it got better for me. And it can for you, too.

It’s been 5 years since I graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in Linguistics and $120k in debt (it’s okay to laugh, it is absolutely insane).

I still have plenty of student debt, and I don’t know when I’ll be done paying it off. But I have managed to take control of my finances, leave a miserable work place, and open up shop as a full-time freelancer and online community creator.

So for those facing down a mountain of debt, who feel like the future can’t possibly get better, I’m here as proof that it can and it does.

With hard work, intentional action, and planning, you can overcome your debt and live the life you dream of.

Now let me set some expectations real quick. This is not a post that will tell you how easy it is to pay off 6 figures of debt. It’s not easy, and I actually believe it’s damn near impossible unless you have access to some hefty resources.

No, this post is about surviving and thriving in spite of your debt. About not letting your debt hold you back from the life you dream of, finding a way to let your debt serve you, and using it as a motivator to propel you forward.

For too long, I used my debt as an excuse to not take action on my dreams.

I scoured every site and facebook group I could trying to find the answer to my problem. How could I ever get out of debt?

Here’s the secret I’ve learned over the last few years: it’s okay to not pay off your debt instantly. It’s okay to want other things and prioritize other goals in your life. You don’t need to devote your 20s to just getting out of debt if it keeps you from doing what you love, what you’re called to do.

For a while, I was resigned to working as an administrator because of the “benefits”. My salary was above average, I had vacation time and retirement contributions, and it was stable. But it was sucking the life out of me.

There was a voice in my head that told me that what I was doing was wrong.

I did not spend four years in school just to sit at a job for no reason other than to collect a paycheck. I did not travel and learn four languages so I could end up punching numbers into excel sheets. I didn’t hone my skills as a teacher just to train checked out boomers on processes they didn’t care about.

If you’re feeling angry about your current situation, here’s my advice: lean into it.

That anger is fuel for your future. That anger will drive the correct sacrifices in your life.

Here are the steps I’ve taken so far along my journey to help me feel like I am thriving, and not just surviving, with student debt.

What I did the weekend of my panic attack has laid the path to where I am now, happily self-employed and financially confident. I went out and got a second job (and then a third).

In tough times, there’s no room for pride — yet I am still proud of myself for how I handled my sudden doom. All of my debt was for the love of languages and French, so why not work in an upscale French restaurant?

I will never forget how exhausted I was for the eight months I worked two full time jobs — I can feel the memory of my aching feet as I write this. But I loved my restaurant work. Even though I was on the clock, I got to be more myself while waiting tables. I got to practice my French every day, and and I now look back on fond, sepia-toned memories of sipping wine after a long shift on the back patio with my colleagues.

I didn’t make a ton, but I made enough to break even until I got a better office job. That little bit of extra security did wonders for my mental health. I could pay my bills on time. I didn’t need to ask anyone for extra help.

There is something empowering about taking control of your situation, and finding a creative and fun way to do it is an added plus.

I remember going to H&R Block to file my 2016 taxes, and the look of horror on my preparer’s face when I showed him my loan statements — I had paid over $10,000 in student loan interest to Sallie Mae alone in 2016. He urged me to refinance, but I couldn’t — my debt to income ration was too high.

It took me another two years before I got the numbers to where I could refinance. It was a frustrating and demoralizing process, to say the least.

But if I had stopped trying because it was difficult, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today.

Just like any adversity, what’s important when it comes to your student loans is that you don’t give up. It would have been all too easy to say it was too hard, I would never make enough, I was going to be stuck forever.

But I knew that that was my best shot at making a real dent in paying off my loans. I HAD to get my interest down. So I kept working. Every extra dollar went to my loans. Christmas money? Birthday money? Restaurant money? All to my loans.

And eventually, it worked. I cut my interest by 5% on some of my loans, and my monthly payment by almost $300.

Now, when I make extra payments on my loans, I actually see my balance go down. And that’s because I didn’t give up on what I knew was the best option for me.

Maybe it’s refinancing. Maybe it’s student loan forgiveness for working in public service. Whatever option can help alleviate the burden of your debt, don’t give up chasing it. It will be worth it in the end.

By the time 2017 rolled around, I had resigned myself to the fact that I’d work my desk job forever because I had made the mistake of taking on more debt than I could handle.

I saw my debt and made my decisions accordingly. Even though I had dreamed of freelancing since I graduated, I looked for new ways to tie myself down to a desk job. I worked at my alma mater, which offered free tuition as an employee benefit, so started shopping around for a masters program.

The problem was that I wasn’t pursuing my passion. I was pursuing what I thought I was supposed to do, what I thought would solve my debt problem.

I finished half of a masters degree, and even though I loved the classes, I felt like I was just digging myself even deeper into a hole. Yet another round of bad bosses and bureaucracy was waiting for me, it seemed.

I was worried about paying my lenders, but not myself. And the cost was so much more than money out of my checking account.

After a particularly bad day at work, I finally got the courage to pay myself first. Invest in my dreams.

So instead of funneling extra payments to my loans, I started funneling extra money to my savings account. I sent in notice of my leave of absence to my masters program. I gave two months notice at work to keep me committed to my decision. I invested in a course to help me get started freelancing.

And wouldn’t you know, I made more progress with my professional and personal growth in my first 6 months after making that decision than I felt I had made in the 4 years since I graduated.

I was finally focused on paying myself first. Instead of trying to do the most to get rid of my debt, I’m focused on investing in my dreams first. That is, after all, why I pursued a college education in the first place.

For those of us with student debt, we set out to better ourselves through education. Unfortunately, many of us didn’t fully understand the consequences of student loans (or money, for that matter) until we were in too deep (I was 17 years old when I left for college).

The issue of student debt and access to education in the United States is a major political issue, but for many of us, it is a deeply personal issue too.

And while some feel the pressure to pay off their loans right away, others can’t realistically do that without sacrificing their quality of life, or giving up the dreams they had when they set out for college.

So if you’re like me, and the only way to make a dent in your loans is to put life on pause, I’m here to tell you this: It’s okay to follow your dreams while you have student debt. It’s okay to go on vacation, and pursue new endeavors while you have student debt.

You owe it to yourself to take action that serves you, and not your lenders. Keep your head up, make a plan, and live your life. I’m right there with you.

Freelance writer lost in my own thoughts. Figuring out my way in life one happy mistake at a time.

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