I entered 2021 fatigued like everyone else. The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, the volatile state of our country, topped off by the third consecutive year of my journey to being debt-free. I had committed myself in my early 20s to an ambitious goal of paying off $65,000 worth of debt, most being student loans, as quickly as I could.
I know that would lead any normal person to ask, “Why?”
Let me start from the beginning. I was a journalist at a local newspaper making $35,000 a year in 2018, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University, a degree that cost me a pretty penny and left me nearly $50,000 in debt. My paycheck was spent before it even arrived, consistently. And after making minimum payments on my student loans for over a year, not a cent went toward my principle.
As the great Maya Angelou said, “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I wanted to create financial freedom and generational wealth – bold for a broke 24-year-old, I know. I had big dreams and absolutely no idea what I was in for.
The hardest thing I’ve done in my life
I started by reading Dave Ramsey’s “Total Money Makeover” in 2018. A dear friend who introduced me to Ramsey and his Baby Step method lent her copy of the book. It was radical, to say the least, but I was in.
The strategy was simple: Live below your means and throw all extra money at your smallest debt until it’s gone, repeating until you are done. Although it sounds straightforward in theory, it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.
Biden’s plan doesn’t go far enough: Biden’s student loan forgiveness is a good start, but it falls short for borrowers like me
The first obstacle was realizing I had an income problem. I was fortunate to land an opportunity with USA TODAY in July 2018, when I almost walked away from journalism entirely for a higher paying field. Then I got a second job in November 2018 at Victoria’s Secret, the first of many side jobs I’ve consistently held to this day.
I would work from 4: 30 to 10: 30 a.m., processing shipments at Victoria’s Secret. Then, I would sneak in a nap at home before starting my shift at USA TODAY from 1 to 9 p.m. And repeat. I worked 21 straight days in December 2018, including Christmas Eve. (I also did stints at Ulta Beauty and a local cycle studio called Power + Flow.)
You get the picture. I don’t have to whine on about the consistent grind, constant discipline and never-ending sacrifices. (I promise this is a story of inspiration, bear with me a little longer.)
Fast-forward to 2021. After Joe Biden was sworn in as president, I was $18,000 away from being debt-free. But after losing two mother figures suddenly, part of me wondered if I was wasting time by not creating new memories because life proved to be short. And hearing about potential student loan forgiveness left me conflicted.
Should I keep going or quit?
More on student loan forgiveness: Biden’s student loan forgiveness is costly for taxpayers and bad for higher education
A friend on his debt-free journey told me, “We control our destiny.” It hit me. Destiny is not something you sit by and let happen to you. Our destiny is determined by our decisions, and we are in full control of our choices. So I followed through.
Opinion alerts: Get columns from your favorite columnists + expert analysis on top issues, delivered straight to your device through the USA TODAY app. Don’t have the app? Download it for free from your app store.
After 38 long months of blood, sweat, LOTS of tears, 50+ hour work weeks, countless side hustles, sacrifices and some days where I felt like I had nothing else to give to this journey, I did it! I paid off $65K. To make it sweeter, I made my last payment on 11/11/21. I couldn’t think of a better wish. No more student loans. No car note. No lingering medical bills. No credit card minimums.
I’ve spent the past months processing what this means to me. It’s hard to put into words, but I’m overcome by this feeling of relief and freedom. I’m so incredibly proud. It feels unreal.
Bitter? Maybe, but no one can take that journey away from me
Last week, Biden followed through on his campaign promise of student loan forgiveness – nine months after I paid off mine. After the news, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “How do I feel? Do I feel cheated? Do I feel shortchanged.” I’ll be honest: I was a little bitter.
From resentment to celebration: Reactions to student debt forgiveness vary. Why are some people so angry about Biden’s loan forgiveness program?
But I can’t help but be happy that the time has come, even if it is after me. I controlled my destiny. I did it on my own terms. I get great satisfaction in the fact that I stuck through such a huge goal. Just because I did it, however, doesn’t mean I would wish this tireless journey and grind on anyone else. I think of my 26-year-old sister, who will get some relief on her $30,000 in student loans as she continues her education.
If you want to follow in my footsteps and kick debt to the curb, here is my advice to you: Balance! With trial and error, I learned that I could aggressively pay off debt while still treating myself here and there because if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that tomorrow isn’t promised.
Don’t ever stop believing in your capacity to grow, achieve and transform your life. Experiment. Shift. Pivot. I’ve had great months on my debt-free journey and I’ve had bad months, but they were all progress.
It all paid off, literally
Cydney Henderson is a Sports NOW reporter for USA TODAY, covering the NBA and all trending news. Follow her on Twitter: @CydHenderson