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My Money Story: Paying off $200,000 in Student Loans in New York

My money story is a series highlighting Snowball Community members. To join the community, click here for a short application.

Maia is originally from southeastern Massachusetts and comes from a middle-class family of five. She is about to celebrate paying off $200,000 in student loans in 5 years while living in New York! Today, we share her money story, wise words she has for fresh graduates, and tips to pay off student loans.

What did your family teach you about money?

My family taught me the importance of 401k and living within your means. I was also very fortunate that my parents emotionally supported me in pursuing my career path, even if they couldn’t financially. Growing up I learned more about being smart with money through my wealthier friends and the internet. Finances were tight with our HHI and growing up in a house of 5. From experiencing money stress as a kid, I had to learn to be organized(the hard way) and began working at 15.

It was always understood that relying on my parents to put me through college wasn’t much of an option. The notion of taking out loans for college was a normal thing in my family. My parents did it, as did my cousins, aunts, and uncles.

Can you talk a bit about your financial situation when you graduated?

At my college, I was fortunate to get a 10,000 merit scholarship my junior year, but aside from that, my family wasn’t low enough income enough to qualify for other financial help. I ended up with about 200,000 in debt, including interest by the time I graduated. Upon graduating, I immediately got an internship at a company making 40,000 a year. I was living with my parents and commuted two hours each way every day. Once October rolled around, I ended up not getting a full time role at the company and was technically let go.

I learned a few lessons from this:
1. Insist on performance feedback, even if it’s not offered. And see if you can get it in writing. Stay organized and protect yourself.
2. In addition to the hard work, you have to build relationships with your coworkers. When people ‘like’ you, they are more likely to keep you around. It sounds bad, but it’s something I’ve noticed at every place I have worked.
3. The relationship with your manager is key. You can advocate for yourself all you want, but If they don’t advocate for you, it’s going to be very hard to advance. If they do like you, it’s going to be a lot easier.

After I lost my job, I was unemployed for 7 months straight. Mentally I was in a really dark place. I applied for jobs every day. By the 5th month of my unemployment, I got a job stocking shelves at the local crafts store. 7 months into my unemployment, a Creative Director, who I still respect to this day reached out to offer me a gig in New York. That led to my first full time job at Condé Nast and my next job at a pharmaceutical company. The road to your first job is not always a straight line, and I’ve gone from $40,000 a year to $160,000 a year, and continue to have upward salary potential.

Maia is a part of the Snowball Community. To join the community, click here for a short application.

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During this time, were you paying off your student loans?

I actually started paying off my student loans when I was in college by working two minimum wage jobs. I made $700/biweekly and paid extra when I could. When I graduated I was in the 6 month deferment period, but when interest started to accumulate I had actually lost my job.

In 2016, During the 3 months that I didn’t pay the loans my credit ended up being destroyed (this happens when you go past the 90 day late payment period). I had 5 different Nelnet loans with derogatory remarks. Since that period, and when I received my first paycheck in NYC, I’ve paid the minimum amount at the very least, making extra payments whenever I can. About 3 years in, I refinanced my loans for a lower interest rate. This is something I wish I had done sooner. At my current job I’ve also been fortunate to get a bonus which has helped me significantly in paying off my student loans.

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What are your top tips for someone looking to pay back their student loans as quickly as you did?

It was really a combination of small and big things. I really had to be in a mindset of frugality, and not be too indulgent while I paid my debt.

Choosing a living situation: New York is expensive, but there are plenty of options that are more affordable that people don’t know about. A tip I’ve learned is to search within a range (For me, this was 600-900/month). If you want to find something even cheaper than that, oftentimes people who own homes in Queens rent out rooms for as low as $500 a month. There are lots of hidden gems—I pay 850 a month for a decent space with two roommates.

Minimalist mindset. A strategy that has helped me is, If I see a nice thing I want to buy, I wait a few months, and If I still want it, I’ll get it. I’ve learned It’s not about depriving yourself so much as it is being honest with yourself. Do you really need that thing? If you want it, why? I don’t have a lot of stuff when it comes to material things. I have a capsule wardrobe of a few nice things and some nice boots. The Konmari method has really helped me declutter my space and mind in doing so.

Good food can be affordable For food, beyond living on a ramen diet, Trader Joe’s is a really good place to get affordable frozen meals. In New York, I’ve learned that it’s much cheaper to pick up fruits and veggies from street carts instead of supermarkets.

If anything, cut back on experiences. Once I began living in NYC, I quickly discovered that going to the movies, concerts, uber rides, museums, fancy exercise classes, going out to eat, and bar-hopping add up very quickly. Groupon is really fantastic to find cheaper deals and experiences — I swear by the exercise classes. You can get a month of unlimited yoga classes for as little as 20 dollars sometimes.

All this to say….it’s important to treat yourself. In my view, paying off debt is an accomplishment, not something to be ashamed about. For me, setting micro goals in paying off the loan balance gamifies the experience. Maybe everytime you pay a certain percentage you: go to a concert, take yourself out to eat at a fancy restaurant, or buy an outfit that makes you feel good. It’s important to balance being frugal with rewarding yourself.

Be honest with yourself about what you want out of life.

Any last words of wisdom for our Snowball members?

Everything should be about your career when you graduate. Don’t let a romantic relationship dictate your decision making, at least at first.
When I took my first internship out of college, I pursued it for the wrong reasons. I had reconnected and fallen in love with someone from back home. This decision I made ultimately hurt my feelings and my career. I discovered that the hard way.

Keep co-workers at a distance. It sounds cynical, but be careful who you trust. I wish I would have read Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” sooner. As much as your work is important, it’s incredibly helpful to know how to work a room, how to get people to like you (while being genuine), and to observe people’s behaviors and intentions.

Understand that there is no job that you are better than. Don’t be afraid to apply to a company because it’s not a cool company. Just because a company isn’t sexy on the outside doesn’t mean that the paycheck won’t be. I recommend researching salary expectations (Glassdoor or Payscale is great) and openly ask your friends. If the people around you don’t support you in your goals, surround yourself with people who do support you and your goals.

We wanted to thank Maia for all of her nuggets of wisdom! We can’t wait to see what’s next for her financial goals now that she’s paid off her student loans.

At Snowball, we make the refinancing process more transparent and ensure you have evaluated the best lenders to get the best rate and terms for you. We also give you the best course of action to tackle your student debt and compare refinancing, optimizing payments, and federal decisions. You can learn more and sign up here.

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