Meet Melanie a freelance writer, event planner, the blogger behind DearDebt.com and author of the book "Dear Debt: A story about breaking up with debt". Melanie paid off a whooping $81,000 of debt and in this interview she shares exactly how and why she did it, what it took (working as a housecleaner, brand ambassador, and pet sitter), how the process felt, how she powered through and why it was all so worth it! Enjoy!
"Money can open or close so many doors. For a long time, I felt like I was getting shut out. Now, I’m walking through all the doors."
Tell us about yourself, who are you, where are you from and why are you passionate about your personal finance?
My name is Melanie Lockert and I’m a freelance writer and event planner, currently living in Los Angeles. I became passionate about personal finance several years ago, when I found myself deep in student loan debt. I had just graduated from NYU and even though I had paid back my student loans for five years, I still had a whopping $68,000 left.
After struggling to find work, I knew something had to change. Getting my finances in order, cutting back, and earning more through side hustling changed my life in a big way. Not only that, but it helped me pay off my debt faster!
What was your "enough is enough" moment?
In December 2011, I realized I couldn’t live in New York City and pay off my student loans without a full-time job. So I ended up moving to Portland, Oregon to be with my partner and cut my rent in half. Though it was a smart move financially and personally, I didn’t want to leave New York.
I felt like I was forced to. Like I didn’t have a choice. When debt starts holding you back from your dreams, it can be a rude awakening. I knew that I didn’t want all of my life choices to be dictated by my student loans. I didn’t want to miss out on opportunities because I was stuck in debt, so I decided to do whatever it took to become debt-free.
How much debt did you pay off in total?
I borrowed a total of $81,000, which includes $23,000 from my undergraduate degree and $58,000 from my graduate degree. In total, with interest, that number is probably closer to $100,000. It took me nine years in total to pay it all off. For the first five years, I simply paid the minimum, but when I graduated from NYU in May 2011, I committed to getting out of debt ASAP. I paid off $68,000 in 4.5 years.
How did you keep yourself motivated?
One thing that I learned through the debt repayment process is that debt fatigue is real. I paid off $81,000 over the course of nine years, and there were times I wanted to give up. I was tired of paying off debt. I kept myself motivated by starting a blog. Additionally, I set goal amounts and certain rewards associated with them. For example, I allowed myself a dinner out after paying $5,000, and a massage from the local massage school (which is super cheap!) after paying $10,000. I don’t believe in totally cutting out all fun, but rather budget for it and set goals. You can make paying off debt a little more fun by setting up rewards.
How did you manage the days where you just wanted to go out and spend money?
Not going to lie-- sometimes I failed. Sometimes I did go out. Other times, I would think of frugal alternatives. Instead of going out for happy hour, I’d open a bottle of wine at home and take a bath. I’d allow myself some time to relax and just binge on some Netflix. There were other times I’d just go on long walks and explore my neighborhood. You can notice a lot of new things when you walk around aimlessly.
What would be your money advice to your 21 year old self?
Start saving for retirement now! No, really! Do it! I am now 31 and have hardly anything saved because I was so focused on paying off debt. I thought I could save “later”. Time moves fast and life happens, but you have to make saving a priority. Automate it so you don’t even think about it.
What steps are you taking to ensure your debt freedom is permanent?
I’m ensuring I never touch debt again by boosting my savings and tracking my spending. I also am very debt-averse and didn’t get a credit card until a few years ago. I use that for necessities and pay it off in full each month.
Debt was like a horrible ex-boyfriend — one that I never want to see ever again.
Now that you are in a new phase of your life, what's new with you?
Now that I’m debt free, I’m reaching my full potential and doing things I put off for years. I moved from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles, CA. I didn’t love living in Portland but it was cheaper, so I stayed until I paid off my debt. Now I am living with sunshine and close to family and it feels good.
I am also traveling more and saying no to gigs that aren’t perfect for me. It feels good to be picky! It wasn’t always this way, especially a few years ago when I was working as a housecleaner, brand ambassador, and pet sitter to get by.
Money can open or close so many doors. For a long time, I felt like I was getting shut out. Now, I’m walking through all the doors.