Have you ever found yourself in a place where you did all the “right” things to achieve success, only to realize you’re not even sure you want the type of success you’ve earned? And then you feel stuck because you had to take on debt to get there?
This is an all-too-familiar story for student loan borrowers who find themselves embroiled in work that isn’t what they thought it would be. And it’s even harder to transition into something else because the monthly student loan bills make the risk seem too high.
But this story can have a happy ending for the person who can balance ambition and patience with strategy and courage. And for student loan slayer Katrina McGhee, that’s what she needed to transition her life to one of fulfillment and happiness, free of debt.
When ‘right’ starts to feel wrong
Katrina McGhee looked like she was on the perfect path to success. Recruiters were knocking at her door before she even finished her math degree at Smith College. Even if the job offers didn’t match her wildest dreams, it was hard to turn down a good opportunity just out of college.
That’s how Katrina came to move to Atlanta after graduating in 2001, with a degree and a $45,000 per year job offer in hand to become a health actuary. But the offer was just the beginning. She had to obtain new certifications every six months, for a total of 10. She may have had the job, but she still felt like a student.
It only took a few years for Katrina to realize she was bored, unfulfilled, and studying constantly for something she didn’t even want. So, on the advice from a friend, she decided to go to business school.
Another degree should solve it, right?
The next step of Katrina’s journey was a full fellowship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But when she received her MBA, the economy was weak, and she had to focus on finding a stable company to work for.
She found it in General Mills, but eight months later she was in the same place she was before — hating her work, stuck in a corporate culture that didn’t match her personality, and feeling stifled and overwhelmed.
Katrina was also deeper in debt. Although she had paid off her portion of her undergraduate debt of $49,000 (her parents covered $26,000) in 10 years, she took on another $60,000 in student loans for her MBA. Even with the fellowship, which covered her tuition, Katrina had to take out the loans to cover her living expenses while she went to school full-time for two years.
However, Katrina used part of her signing bonus, year-end bonus, and tax return to knock off $11,000 of those loans in her first year after grad school. And she made sure to apply that to her highest-interest-rate loan first — an approach known as the debt avalanche payoff strategy. But that still left her with a ways to go.
Taking a beat to make sure the next move will stick
After Katrina realized how unhappy she was at General Mills, her co-worker introduced her to a life coach. This event, it turned out, would change everything.
Before, Katrina thought she couldn’t change anything in her life until she achieved certain things, such as paying off her debt and achieving specific career milestones. But talking to a life coach led Katrina to an epiphany about herself:
“You want a freaking break. You can give yourself permission to do whatever you want to do. It’s so simple.”
After that, Katrina spent 18 months saving. And once she had put $40,000 together, she put in her notice so she could take a year off and travel.
Just three years after obtaining her MBA, Katrina was starting over again. Only this time, she wasn’t looking for the answers to her problems in her work — she was looking for them in herself.
A few more turns before landing on the answer
Her year-long break ended up lasting 20 months as she traveled to Argentina, Colombia, Spain, France, Italy, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia, as well as taking a three-month road trip through the U.S.
She was able to do this with the help of diligent budgeting and expense tracking, a temporary deferment on her student loans, and lower costs of living along the way.
But she and her boyfriend were tired of living apart, so she moved again. Soon after, they ended up in Minneapolis, where Katrina took a job at a boutique market research firm — with a huge pay cut.
But what she got was far more valuable to her: flexibility. By that time, Katrina realized her true dream — and it had nothing to do with math or working in a corporate office. In fact, her experience working with a life coach showed her that doing the same work for others was her true calling. She immediately starting working toward her new goal of becoming a life coach and was even able to negotiate a four-day work week at her new job so she could have some time to try to get her business to take flight.
Now she has a life coach certification, will soon complete a master’s program, and is running her own business online. But that didn’t mean putting aside her financial goals.
Although Katrina was able to purchase a home, she knew she didn’t earn enough to refinance her student loans. So a few years ago, she decided to roll her student loans into her home equity line of credit (HELOC) at a tax deductible 3% interest rate. And by February 2017, Katrina had paid off all her debt.
This was a decidedly risky move — as defaulting on her payments could have caused her to lose her home — but in Katrina’s case, it was the right one.
Proof that you can find fulfillment even while in debt
It’s so easy to feel like debt means you’re shackled in place until it’s gone. But if you have a high amount of loans to pay back — not at all uncommon given the fact that the average amount of student debt for the class of 2016 is a whopping $37,000 — the idea of not making any moves until you’ve repaid everything might not be realistic.
Like Katrina, you can work your way toward a fulfilling life while also working to become debt-free. All you need is some diligent financial tracking, a strategic career move or two, and a clear vision of your goals.
When you know what you’re aiming for in debt and in life, it’s a lot easier to make it happen. As Katrina said, “I didn’t want debt making any more of my decisions for me.”
What about you?
The views of the author of this article do not necessarily represent the views of Gradifi. We make no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained here. Readers should consult their own attorneys or other tax or financial advisors to understand the tax, financial and legal consequences of any strategies mentioned in this article.