I borrowed a total of $81,000 in student loan debt—$23,000 of that was from my undergraduate degree from California State University, Long Beach, and then $58,000 of that was from New York University for graduate school. By the time I graduated from NYU in May 2011, I still had $68,000 dollars left to pay—after making payments for five years.

I struggled to find work in New York. I went on interview after interview after interview. (I have a pretty useless degree in something called "performance studies.") Six months after graduation, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t live in New York and pay my student loans without a full-time job. So I moved to Portland, Oregon to be with my partner.

Once I realized that debt was holding me back from my goals and dreams, I realized I had to make some change. The move cut my rent in half. The worst of times came right after I moved to Portland, Oregon. I struggled. I was able to secure a temp job at $10 an hour as an admin assistant, which brought in about $800 a month. At the suggestion of a friend, I went on food stamps to help cover the bills. It was a really, really tough moment to graduate from NYU (my dream school) with my master’s degree, and then to move to a city I didn’t really want to be in and find myself on food stamps, which I never thought would ever happen.

I felt so overwhelmed. I still had close to $70,000 in debt. There was so much anxiety, guilt and shame: I went to a fancy private school and got a not-so-practical degree.

You reach that moment where you realize that you have to commit to getting out of debt, and the only person than can do that is you. Something that I talk about in my book is that getting out of debt is very similar to the five stages of grief. I went through denial. I went through anger. I went through bargaining, depression and acceptance. And for a long time, I was angry at the system. I was angry that my parents couldn't pay for me. I was depressed about my situation, and thought I was the only one. Going through this whole cycle led me to acceptance, and realizing that nobody could help me get out of debt but me.

In January 2013, I started my blog DearDebt.com. It was really a lifesaver for me because I needed something to turn my negative energy into a positive. In my first post on Jan. 3, 2013, I wrote: "I am going to pay off this debt in four years. I don't know how because I'm making $12 an hour at a temp job but I’m going to do it." And ever since I made that declaration, my life has changed in a lot of ways, and I was able to get out of debt. In three years from that point rather than four, because of all of the things that happened: changing my mindset, side hustling, starting the blog and all of these opportunities that followed.

Find a Support System

Even though I probably had three readers at that time, I was committed to finding a community of people that were also getting out of debt. I wanted to create a safe space to talk about it. Other debt fighters found the blog, and we created a community of supporting each other. Every single month, I would write my "debt check in"—how much I paid off this month, my struggles [and] successes. People would root me on, and I would root them on, and it became this community effort of supporting each other to get out of debt.

Make More Money When You Can't Cut Back Anymore

I shared a studio apartment with my boyfriend. I didn't have a car, pets, a gym membership, and I barely went out—nothing. Aside from moving back home with my parents, there was really no more I could cut back. I hit a plateau. I was making $10 to $12 an hour at that point, and my payments were about a $1,000 a month. I did not want to only pay the interest on my debt, and so I knew I had to earn more money, and that’s when I started side hustling.

I pet-sat. I was also an event assistant, so I worked a lot of birthday parties, Hanukkah parties, New Year's Eve parties. People are looking for help during the holidays; I got paid several hundred dollars just assisting people on Thanksgiving or Christmas, and I didn’t get to spend time with my family. I worked as a coat checker. One of the weirdest gigs I did was [selling] water bottles at a rave from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. at a warehouse in Portland. I also became a brand ambassador. If you go to a sporting event or a concert, and people are handing out free swag, and that’s pretty much what I did. Those gigs can be $18 to $25 an hour.

I was working every single day at that point. I would scour Craigslist and Task Rabbit for any gig that could pay me. I struggled for so long to find a "real job." But once I swallowed my pride and said, "how can I make money in any way possible," I saw how many opportunities are actually out there when you're not just looking at things in the traditional way.

Connect with This Money Mantra

My number one money mantra is...Treat money with respect. I think for so long, I thought of money as this evil thing. I thought, I would never be rich, I'd never make a lot of money and so I didn’t really care for it. Once I started treating money with respect, I started getting out of debt. Treating money with respect has earned me more money, and so I can use it as a tool to have a better life—that's one of the most important things: Using money to have experiences, to live the life you want, and to spend on your values.

Listen to Farnoosh Torabi's full interview with Melanie Lockert here.

Farnoosh Torabi is a personal finance expert, the author of When She Makes More, and the host of CNBC's Follow the Leader and the award-winning podcast So Money.


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