How I Paid off $40,000 In Student Loans in 2 Years

There I was, completely overcome with both the peaceful euphoria of eating a slowly melting ice cream sundae on a beach hammock and the paralyzing dread of a monster truck about to run me over.

On the one hand, there was a dangling carrot -- my dream job that I’d wanted for almost a decade (in documentary film), and on the other hand, I was shackled to an anchor of overwhelming student loans and only ever knowing a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle from my family’s own debt burden.

What DO I do?

Follow my dream and pursue my passion even though it would keep me in debt for the foreseeable future? Or forgo the dream for a safe road and end the paycheck-to-paycheck mentality of financial scarcity in my family

I felt like a tightrope walker at dead center, going back was just as hard as going forward.

What DID I do?

I jumped. I did both. Boom!


How I paid off my loans


1. Decided very clearly why I wanted to do this.

Yep, the first step is entirely personal. Remember, there’s a personal part to personal finance.

I grew up in a single-parent home where I was raised to believe that money was taboo, evil, and would always limit and suffocate me. I was raised to believe that the only way to live was paycheck-to-paycheck, and that there would always be scarcity. And, finally, that the more money you have the happier you are.

This deep and destructive financial mindset -- of scarcity, survival, and dependency -- haunted me throughout every major decision in my life, especially as I balanced various jobs in college, and then through graduate school where I juggled both working full-time while attending school full-time. And most profoundly, it influenced my decision to NOT pursue a career as an artist and filmmaker because of the “starving artist” myth I was so deeply afraid of. It also influenced my decision to go to graduate school because I believed that’s what I was supposed to do to be a respected professional but that wasn’t what I actually wanted to do.

For me, I’ve always known that I wanted to be an artist full-time. So, I wanted to decrease my overhead (a.k.a. my overall expenses) so that I could do that asap.

I know that I didn’t really need to pay off my loans in order to transition into a career as a full-time artist, but I knew I wanted that debt gone because I wanted to show my family it was possible to live a life where you’d not always struggling and where you don’t have to be in debt.

Mathematically, I could have made more if I kept some of the debt and used the funds for traditional retirement instead, but I simply didn’t want to do that. I wanted it gone. Simple as that. Psychologically it made me uneasy to have it hanging over my head.

Besides, the tradeoff was really asking myself: Do I want to reap the benefits of this asap or in 30 years. I went with asap!

That said, I did both -- I didn’t take the dream job, and instead looked for the highest paying job (that I still enjoyed!) to pay off my debt asap. And, at the same time, I created films and did side gigs in documentary film. It turned out to be the best choice because I was able to meet my financial goal and to keep doing what I love (I had a film in an international festival and broadcast on television) and then fully transition into documentary film.


2. Figured out how much I needed to pay and by when

At the time, I was 27, so I decided I wanted it all gone by 30.

I had 29 months before I turned 30. I divided my total debt by 29 months and it came out to about $1,400/month. So, I made that my goal.

I figured, if people can make mortgage payments and have kids (neither of which I had), then I could make a large payment towards my student loans.


3. Automated my budget

Once I knew that number, then I automated my budget (more on that here) and did everything I could to hit it.


4. Hustle hustle hustle hustle...a.k.a. Increased money coming in

I increased the money coming in as much as possible. I got the highest paying job I could, I took on extra work side gigs assisting filmmakers and doing documentary film work and photography work.

I applied and was chosen for a student loan crowdfunding platform where people could contribute to your student loans if you did community service. And, of course, I did so in film. Here’s a throwback to my crowdfunding video:

Thanks again to everyone who supported that campaign! I’m still deeply grateful to you! <3


5. Decreased the money going out.

I decreased my expenses like whoa! I got a roommate, I mostly did free things (spent a lot of time at the park and public library, in the personal finance section of course!), and I didn’t have a car (instead biked everywhere or took public transit).

I also researched like crazy ways to decrease the debt itself -- consolidation, forgiveness, refinancing, etc. -- and found a forgiveness program that applied to me so had about $2,000 forgiven.


6. This all resulted in meeting my goal one month early!





Stuff You Can Use: 2 Lessons + 2 actions + 1 Toolkit



I shouldn't have given as much of a damn about my loans as I did.

That's easy to say now, though, right? ;)

I do know that I put WAY too much stress, heartache, and sleepless nights into worrying about my student loans. It was like driving on a slippery road swerving towards a tree. I was focusing on the "tree" -- scarcity -- but should've been focusing on the "road" -- abundance.

So, dozens of personal finance books, numerous courses, and 1 speedy debt journey later, this is the best advice on student loans I've ever read: Why I Simply Don't Give A Damn About my $100k+ in Student Loans.


So, I think the best thing you can do if you're worried about money is to automate your finances as much as possible, read at least one book on the basics, and then shift your focus to abundance so you can stop worrying so much and start moving forward.



Don't make surviving your goal, make THRIVING your goal!

Move on and live for a hunger to strive, create, and live (rather than the famine of scarcity, survival, and debt anxiety -- even while you're feeling lost. Scratch that, *especially* while you're feeling lost!).

They say that people who win the lottery see a spike in feeling awesome (duh!).

But then, something happens, the diamonds lose their luster, and just a few weeks afterward they go back to feeling the same way they did before they won the lottery. If they felt lousy about their life before the lotto, they continue to feel lousy after the lotto.

Nope nope nope.

Exactly. The. Same.

If there's anything I learned from having paid off my loans, it's that it doesn't lead to happiness.

SUPER cliche with a cherry on top!  

Yes, I know. But did I really think paying off my loans would lead to happiness / relief / joy? ... ya...I sort of did.

Yes, I have more cash to free up...but now I'm just looking for something else to obsess over with the freed-up cash -- a house, so just more debt...WFT? Yes, that's right, it continues.

But this time, with the peace of mind that I understand the math and (more importantly) my goals (not just my money goals), and can add them all up... my money goals + my time (which we know is worth more than money) + my life goals and can fit them together in a nice package with a bow on top. I got this! Like a present to myself, that I have given myself; I am now equipped to climb money mountains joyously! Without fear of whether I'm doing the right thing, or if I have enough for retirement (or any other time or money worry).

Debt + stressing over it + feeling totally lost = ew!

Debt + Peace of mind = priceless.

You know what feels better than being debt free? Cookies? A new car? Winning the lotto?

Nope nope nope.

Being you.

That's right...simple, right? Well, not for those who feel worried, self-conscious, and unclear about the road before them. And what makes it worse, is that sometimes you're not even able to admit it to yourself...that you're unclear, that road is scary, and that you don't know WTF you're doing. But it's okay. Really.

Whatever you do, don't let money (or lack of it) keep you from being the awesome person you already are. Don't use it as an excuse to not move I did {phew! I said it!}. I used my debt/money as an excuse to 'not be an artist'..."I'll get my life together as soon as I get my money right," I said.

Heard that one before? Or how 'bout this classic "I'll get my life together once I lose the weight/ New Years comes around/ I pay off these loans..blah blah wang wang."

The only one you're making excuses for is you, it's your life. Debt / money / a relationships / a clever Facebook profile...doesn't keep you (nor stop you) from living your life in the direction you want to go. Just move forward, debt or not, happy or not, whatever.

You, as you are, have everything you need to be your best self. HENCE, you're already you! :)


Write down a list of 100 Dreams (or even 10 dreams!) and empower yourself to work towards them *daily*. Or, use Shannon’s self-reflection starter kit here.