Mandy Velez didn’t think about the debt she was incurring during her time at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I was raised in a household where education is a thing that is necessary and you do whatever it takes, and that includes going into debt,” Velez, a New York-based Puerto Rican journalist, tells Remezcla. “You’re paying your dues.”
But after graduating in 2013, the bitter reality struck her: She had $75,000 in student loan debt.
A fire began to burn within Velez to rid herself of this burden. She decided to change her life drastically to cut costs and make bigger loan payments. She declined party invitations, brought lunch from home to her job and hustled relentlessly through side gigs, all while working full time.
Earlier this year, Velez, now 28 and an editor at The Daily Beast, made her final payment. The total student loan debt cleared: $102,000.
“It feels incredible,” she shares. “A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders and buried in the abyss forever.”
To celebrate, Velez arranged for her childhood friend, photographer Mike Arrison, to meet at a New York City cemetery. Dressed in black funeral garbs, she smiled widely for the photos. In her hands were silver foil number balloons that read “102K.”
“I had a ‘funeral’ for the student loans I paid off – 102K including interest in 6 years,” Velez tweeted in a post that has since gone viral. “Happiest one I’ve ever been to.”
While Velez acknowledges that not everyone can make the changes that she – a single, childless, able-bodied woman – was able to do in order to kill off her debt, she was generous enough to share a few tips with Remezcla. Here, some ways to help clear your student loan debt before turning 30.
Cut your budget.
After examining her spending habits, Velez says she shaved her budget to less than a third of her income, creating one only for essentials. “Everything after my essential living expenses went to paying off debt,” she says. “Not everyone has to do as drastic as me. It depends on their personal situation and the time period they’re dedicating to paying off their debt.”
Mandy recommends starting out small. “Maybe it’s just cutting out taking Ubers,” she explains. “I would sometimes try to do ‘no spend weeks.’ It really can add up, and it’s also a good way to stay on track with these little challenges.”
Reduce your spending on food.
“We buy a lot of excess food and sometimes it goes bad,” she says. “My method was making a list and knowing exactly what I wanted. I would know exactly how long it takes me to eat it, to reduce overspending or wasting money.”
Velez says maybe you can treat yourself to an outside meal once or twice a month, but notes that even this can quickly add up. She says she never ordered out while she was trying to pay off her debt. “I would just say be purposeful in the food that you buy … and if it doesn’t fit into your payoff plan, don’t buy lunch at work,” she adds.
Choose your debt payoff plan.
Velez recommends researching different debt-reduction strategies before deciding on one. She used what’s called the snowball method, which calls for the borrower who owes on more than one account to pay off the accounts with the smallest balances first, while paying the minimum payment on the larger debts. “I did the snowball method, and that’s to really reduce my interest rate because I was being efficient in how I was allocating my funds,” Velez tells Remezcla. “It made the payoff go faster.”
Seek side jobs on community posting boards -- and work them.
Velez says she stuck to gigs in Manhattan, where she lives. She walked dogs, cared for pets, babysat and even stayed up for 24 hours straight to make a few hundred bucks as a TV extra. “Side hustles are really important to paying off my debt because the key is to cut your budget, obviously, but increase your income so you can do that by getting a higher-paying job or doing side jobs,” Velez says. “Though it was hard and not everyone can do that for whatever reason, I was fortunate enough to have that. It really helped.”
Start declining invitations.
“I would say perfect the art of saying ‘no,’ even if it’s hard because hopefully it’s only a short-term thing,” Velez suggests.
She says she missed out on a lot to try to clear her student loan debt. “I didn’t go to dinner with friends. I stopped going to brunch. I had to say ‘no’ to a weekend New Orleans trip with my best friends from high school,” she shares. “I had to cut down on how often I went home to visit my family in Philly and had to pick and choose the times that I wanted to come home. I couldn’t go wherever I wanted.”
Advocate for yourself at work. Ask for that raise.
Velez felt compelled to speak up and said the raises she received helped a lot. “Just think about the work that you’re doing and know that it’s valuable and it’s important and you wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t,” she says. “What also helped me is trying to remember that I’m valuable and other people are doing the same things or advocating for themselves, so why wouldn’t I? I’m not any less important or deserving.”