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Debt Is NOT a Death Sentence with Melanie Lockert of Dear Debt

The BiggerPockets Money Podcast
56 min read
Debt Is NOT a Death Sentence with Melanie Lockert of Dear Debt

Melanie Lockert joins us today to share her story of student loan debt and her subsequent inability to find a job when she graduated into one of the worst job markets America had ever seen. This perfect financial storm culminated in a spiral into depression and shame over her debt.

And Melanie is not alone. As of 2018, more than 44.2 MILLION student borrowers owe more than $1.5 TRILLION!

September is National Suicide Prevention month. Melanie hosts a Suicide Prevention Blog Tour every year due to the sheer number of people who find her blog when they search “I want to kill myself because of debt.”

She advocates sitting down and figuring out exactly how much your debt is costing you per day. For her, it was both a big source of shame, as well as a HUGE motivator for her to pay it off. She also shares her journey out of debt—and out of depression through therapy.

Melanie goes on to discuss resources for people feeling overwhelmed. For starters, those in need can find counseling options at www.openpathcollective.org or talk to someone through text by texting HOME to 741-741, which is the Crisis Text Line. Alternatively, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Click here to listen on iTunes.

Listen to the Podcast Here

Read the Transcript Here

Scott: Welcome to the BiggerPockets Money Podcast, show number 91, with Melanie Lockert.

Speaker 2: It’s time for a new American Dream, one that doesn’t involve working in a cubicle for 40 years, barely scraping by. Whether you’re looking to get your financial house in order, invest the money you already have or discover new paths for wealth creation, you’re in the right place. This show is for anyone who has money or wants more. This is the BiggerPockets Money Podcast.

Scott: How’s it going everybody? I’m Scott Trench. I’m here with my co-host, Miss Mindy Jensen. How are you today Mindy?

Mindy: Scott, I am having a fantastic day. It is the day after I returned home from FinCon, and I could go on for 17 hours about how awesome FinCon was. I do want to say one thing about FinCon, it was awesome. PT puts on a great show. I will say that there is a community pass available for people who aren’t bloggers, aren’t podcasters, but that want to attend FinCon. We will have this in later shows. We’ll have a code for people to sign up for FinCon on the community pass. It’s a discounted price for people to just come and hang out with their favorite bloggers and podcasters next year. So 2020, FinCon is at Long Beach, California. Or I should say in Long Beach, California.
I had a great time. I saw Melanie for like 14 seconds at FinCon. It was so amazing to connect with all the people that go to FinCon every year and all the personal finance bloggers and the podcasters and things like that. So if you’re interested, I think you should check it out. It’ll be a super lot of fun. But today we are talking to Melanie Lockert. She is from deardebt.com and the Lola Retreat, the co-founder of the Lola Retreat. Every September, she organizes a suicide prevention awareness blog tour because she gets a lot of people who are just despondent over their debt, contacting her and she’s like, you know what, this is something that needs to be addressed. September is suicide prevention month and she does this whole blog tour and I thought, what better time to bring her on than in September so she can talk about her journey with money?

Scott: Yeah, and I think this is a particularly powerful episode to frame it. What gets me up in the morning and what I enjoy about this job and doing the BiggerPockets Money Podcast and all that is because I think that if you can help people achieve financial freedom, master their finances, gain control and power back in their lives, that you just have a better chance to realize your potential, be happy, do whatever it is you want to do and leave your mark on the world. And that’s a mission that I really buy into and get behind. On the other side of that, the inability to manage money, or not even the inability, but just having a large amount of debt and the crippling emotional and lifestyle burdens that that places on you can potentially limit to some extent some of the potential that you might have to achieve or the happiness you can enjoy or the freedom and control you have over your life.
I think that this is the other extreme what Melanie’s doing. She’s doing fantastic work and perhaps in a more literal sense, saving lives with her financial work on her blog at Dear Debt. I think that’s the real power of today’s episode, is getting behind the scenes of like, hey, if for whatever set of reasons you have a large pile of debt or know somebody with a large pile of debt, they might be going through this and it could be a real burden on their life and happiness and wellbeing. So [crosstalk 00:03:44].

Mindy: Yeah. I wanted to bring her on to tell her story because she has a happy ending. She was able, oh spoiler alert. She was able to pay off her student loan debt and it wasn’t an overnight process. It was a slog. She did some side hustle work. She did a lot of, sounds like 80 hour weeks to get this going. But she was able to do it and she’s like, “I am so much happier now that I have paid off my debt and it’s just not something I could have lived with having this horrible debt forever.” As I was at FinCon this week, I really put two and two together.
What I love so much about this show is that I can share all the money stories. My money story isn’t like your money story isn’t like Melanie’s money story isn’t like Melissa’s from last week or Patrice Washington’s from episode 50. Everybody has a different money story and everybody can resonate with a portion of somebody else’s money story. But we’re going to hit on a story that you are going to resonate with the most. Oh my goodness, this is exactly me. This particular story today is just so powerful to tell because I think that it’s not, unfortunately, it is not a unique story. The depression and the anxiety and the just sadness around debt.
Melanie Lockert from deardebt.com, thank you for joining us today. Welcome to the BiggerPockets Money Podcast. How are you?

Melanie: Good. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here with you.

Mindy: I am so excited too. Like I said in the intro, I just got back from FinCon and I did not really run into you. I waved at you one day and then I never saw you again.

Melanie: I know. [inaudible 00:05:26].

Mindy: It was so good this year. Yeah, super fun. I’m really glad that we get to connect today. Did you have a great show? I had an awesome show.

Melanie: I did. It was so fun. I was gone for a couple of years, so it was good to be back and see everyone and reconnect.

Mindy: Yeah. I love your story. I really hate saying that because you don’t have like this, hey, I won the lottery and everything was great forever. It starts off in not an awesome place. So I don’t want to be like, oh, I love that you had so much adversity. But I love your story because of the end and because of how you got through it all. So I want you to tell your story because you are going to tell it a little bit better than me.

Melanie: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s totally reasonable and I think we need more stories that highlight people’s struggles and what they’ve went through. So [crosstalk 00:06:14].

Mindy: Yeah. It’s not all happy fun.

Melanie: Yeah. I think a lot of people have similar stories to me. I borrowed $81,000 in student loans to go to two schools. Most of the student loan debt came from NYU, which is for my master’s degree and performance studies, which is fun arts degree. It’s pretty useless. I had graduated in May 2011, and I had already been making payments on my undergrad loans for five years. I had so much hope and I went on 30 different interviews in New York trying to get jobs at arts nonprofits, which was my career trajectory up until that point. Just interview after interview after interview didn’t pan out and six months after graduation I still didn’t have a full time job and I had $68,000 left of student loan debt and I just realized I could not afford to live in New York anymore. So I moved to Portland, Oregon to cut my rent in half. Also, my event partner was there at the time. So I thought, okay, well I’ll come move and be with you and stop this long distance shenanigans and start over.
Moving to Portland, Oregon I thought that was going to be a nice fresh start and it really just continued to be a really difficult time for me. I moved to Portland in 2012 and all I could find were temp jobs making $10 to $12 an hour for literally the first year and a half I was there. That was extremely difficult for me because I didn’t graduate from my dream school with my master’s to make $10 to $12 an hour and then have all of the student loan debt that I felt like I couldn’t pay back.
I felt a lot of guilt for going to this fancy private school. I felt a lot of shame that I couldn’t get a decent job to pay it back. I felt so much depression and anxiety because I was like, how am I ever going to pay this back? I can’t even get a decent enough job to pay it back. All of 2012 was just a complete depressive blur for me. Just thinking back about it now, like, oh, so many negative emotions. I think a lot of people feel that way about debt and we don’t really talk about it enough. And really, I just hit a breaking point towards the end of 2012 where I had been crying every day, I felt so stressed out and so depressed and I just didn’t know what to do. I had been counseling, I kept trying different things. And then I discovered personal finance blogs like a lot of people do.
I was googling how to pay off debt and came across personal finance blogs. I found all of these amazing stories of people that had paid off debt and I thought, wow, if they could pay off debt, then maybe I can too. But the main difference that I didn’t see was that no one was talking about the emotional relationship to debt. No one was talking about the mental health issues that I was experiencing because of debt. So in January 2013, I started my own blog, Dear Debt. The tagline is, A Blog About Breaking Up With Debt, and it’s based on this concept of dear John letters where you write break up letters to debt. That’s really been the start of the journey of me saying, I don’t know how this is going to happen, I don’t know how it’s possible, but I want to pay off my debt no matter what. Starting that blog just completely changed my life in every single way possible for the better.

Scott: Going back to this period in 2012 when you were really depressed with all this debt and moving to Portland working those temp jobs, were you able to make it by without accumulating more debt or were you forced to take on even more maybe consumer debt during that period to get by?

Melanie: That’s a good question. Actually I did have about $10,000 in savings that I chose to whittle away to survive and continue to pay back my student loans. I don’t necessarily say that I did everything right. I just had a weird particular way that I did things. Technically, I could’ve gone on an income driven repayment plan because I had federal student loans and probably would have qualified for a zero dollar payment. I would have not technically had to make a student loan payment and it would have been fine. But because I know math and because I had already calculated that my student loans are costing me $11 per day in interest, I was like, if I don’t make a payment on these student loans, it’s going to blow up in interest and it’s going to be that much more difficult to pay these back. So I made a conscious choice to continue to live off my savings and continue to use some of that savings to pay down my debt.
I had these $10 to $12 an hour temp jobs and then I was side hustling seven days a week doing whatever I could from gigs from Craigslist, from TaskRabbit. I worked a lot as a brand ambassador. So if you ever see those people who are giving out free coupons at sporting events or grocery stores or concerts or giving out free shirts. I saw a lot of brand ambassadors this past weekend at FinCon working the booths. That’s what I did for my main side hustle seven days a week when I wasn’t working these temp jobs. So, yes and no. I didn’t go into further debt but I definitely compromised my savings situation to continue my payments and my lifestyle.

Mindy: Okay. You just gave us a bunch of stuff. I want to unpack a lot of that. First of all, you said that your student loans were costing you $11 a day.

Melanie: Yes.

Mindy: On the one hand, that’s almost depressing number to hear $11 every day is costing me just in my interest payment. On the other hand, that I would think would be a huge fire under my butt to start paying those down and kudos to you just to even figure that out. So I want to invite everybody who’s listening right now who has loans, figure out what it’s costing you every single day and try to come up with a way to at least stay on top of the interest rate if nothing else.
Melanie: Well, it’s so good that you say that because actually student loans are different in that the interest does accrue daily. I had done the math and I was like, this is what I am paying every day? It actually made me so angry, so angry. I was like, this is a round trip flight from New York to LA every month. This is several concerts. This is going out to a nice restaurant every week. I got so angry that it just felt like I was incinerating 300 plus dollars a month and that anger really fueled my repayment. I could’ve just stood in that anger and just been so bitter and angry, but I just was like, I have to get out of debt asap because I’m so mad that I’m wasting so much money.

Mindy: Well, yeah. Just because you sit there and stew in it, that doesn’t get that debt paid off any faster. That’s just more days that you’re throwing, I don’t want to say throwing away $11, but that’s more days that’s costing you $11. You also said something like, “I’m so depressed and nobody’s talking about the depression.” Let’s talk about that for a minute.

Melanie: Yes.

Mindy: I mean, $11 a day. I don’t want to pay anything $11 a day. Super don’t want to pay it on student loan debt, which seems like I already got the thing, why am I still paying for it? That seems like, I don’t know how to phrase it, but depressing I guess is, and I don’t mean to be so flip about that. But-

Melanie: No, it is depressing and I’ve actually done a lot of psychoanalyzing about why it’s super depressing. I think the reason it’s so depressing is because when you get a degree, especially with student loan debt in particular, you have so much hope about what it’s going to do for your future. It’s going to open doors, it’s going to lead to new jobs, it’s going to lead to a better raise, it’s going to lead to more cloud X, Y, and Z. But instead of opening up all these opportunities, you are literally paying for your past. You are literally tethered to the past and it just feels like you’re stuck in this time frame of like, wow, I’m paying for this thing that’s already done, that I shouldn’t have already paid for, and that I thought was going to open all these doors in the future. But instead I have a ball and chain just stuck in the past and I feel like nothing’s moving forward.
I think it’s that feeling of stuckness, that feeling of being trapped that can lead to the depression and anxiety because you just feel like you have no options. You feel like you’re stuck. People often ask me, oh, how did it affect your social life? How did it affect your finances? And I just remember for at least a good five years, any kind of social activity, oh, do you want to come to this birthday? Do you want to come to this dah, dah, dah, dah, dah? I would either have say no or I would have to just automatically get the cheapest thing on the menu, which that’s not fun when you’re doing mental calculus like, what’s the cheapest thing on this menu where I don’t look like a cheapskate? Or when the bill comes with friends, how can I navigate this without being weird, all that stuff?

Mindy: Yeah. Those are big questions. You would still want to have a social life, but you are stuck. As you’re saying that, I’m like, oh, I remember that Friends episode where Rachel and Joey have no money. So they go out to dinner with everybody else and they just got salad and everybody else got these fancy dinners and they’re like, “We should split it six ways.” And they’re like, “But all I had was water.” And they’re like, “Wait, wait, it’s Monica’s birthday. We’ll split it five ways.” And they’re like, “Stop, I can’t afford this.” And it seems like, if you are saying to a friend, I can’t afford this, your friend should be like, hey, don’t worry about it. We’ll just all split it up between however we had things.

Melanie: Yeah, totally.

Mindy: But there’s this shame, like you said, there’s this shame of, I don’t want to say anything because I don’t want them to think less of me. Look, if you don’t have any money, spending money you don’t have on a dinner that you didn’t eat isn’t going to change the fact that you don’t have any money?

Melanie: Yes, exactly.

Mindy: It’s just going to make it worse.

Melanie: Totally.

Scott: Did you have peers that graduated with similar levels of student loan debt and similar degrees that you’re going through this experience with?

Melanie: Not exactly. Maybe yes. But the thing is, I didn’t really tell anyone what I was experiencing because I felt so much shame and I felt so alone. It was not until I started the blog and then I actually opened up about my experience that people came out of the woodwork saying, I feel the same thing. Or I have a teaching degree and I have the same thing. I have a degree in the arts and I have the same thing, or I have quadrupled the amount of debt and I feel the same thing, or I have half the amount of debt that you have and I feel the same thing. It wasn’t until I personally put my story on the front line that I started hearing it from other people because I internalize that shame is like, oh, this is taboo, this is something we don’t talk about. And because NYU is such a prestigious school, I didn’t want it to solely this reputation or make it seem like, oh, I made a big mistake because then it just made me feel even worse, if that makes sense.
I hadn’t really talked about that a lot with my peers. And it wasn’t until I started my blog that I had fully understood that, wow, I am not alone and here I was beating myself up that I made this big mistake and that I’m in so much debt and I feel so awful about it. Starting the blog really just made me create a community and realize that there is a community of people out there extremely suffering because of their debt.

Scott: You use this word mistake, like “I made this big mistake.” Is that how you still feel about it today or is that how [inaudible 00:17:54] the time it seems?

Melanie: Yeah. That’s a difficult question to answer and I only say that because obviously everything that’s happened since then with the blog, which has then turned into this freelance writing career and these other paths that I have now launched from that blog. I can’t say it’s a mistake. I’ve been able to, as my friend so nicely put it, she’s like, “You’ve put your pain into your passion and you’ve made a career out of your emotions and your pain with this debt.” I personally can’t say it’s a mistake as of right now, if this whole blog, career, freelance writing thing didn’t work out, would I say it’s a mistake? Probably. I mean, not fully.
I wouldn’t say it was worthless or I totally regret it. I loved living in New York, I loved getting a master’s degree. That was something I had always wanted to do. I definitely learned a lot. But from the practical standpoint, aka would I do at again? Probably not. I always hesitate to answer that question because it’s like my situation’s unique because I was able to pay all this debt, and it’s turned into something else that I can hopefully inspire others. But if this was not what had happened afterwards, I don’t know.
Scott: I think that’s a fantastic response. And the fact that you’ve made something of this is remarkable and [crosstalk 00:19:14] for maybe putting yourself in the shoes of someone that’s going through a similar experience and maybe going to be able to turn it the same, everyone can turn their situation, make lemonade and all that kind of stuff. What would be your advice to somebody who’s considering going down the same path?

Melanie: If they’re considering going to graduate school, especially something in the arts or something that’s not immediately profitable, I would really question, what is your future going to look like? Especially financially because I’ll be the first to admit no one could have told me anything. People tried to talk to me like my parents, my friends, are you sure you want to quit your nonprofit job and move across the country and triple your debt load? People tried to say things to me and I was like, “La, la, la, la la, this is my dream school. I don’t care.” So I totally understand when you’re really stubborn, you’re like, no, this is what I’m doing. That was totally me. But also, I think we have this idea of like, oh, of course I’ll make more money with a master’s degree. Of course, going to a fancy school open up more doors. There’s this narrative that, what we’re paying for opportunities, you’re paying for open doors, you’re paying for a higher salary. But that’s not always the case. Life doesn’t always work out that way.
Then also just from a practical level, how much of your income will be going to debt? Because it doesn’t matter who you are, but if you have 30% to 50% of your income to student loans, your life is going to be affected by it. Then you just have to think about that in the bigger picture. I mean, yeah, I was in my late twenties, early thirties paying the majority of this off. But even then, all my friends were getting married and buying houses and having kids and having pets and I was at the brokest I had ever been in my entire life. I had lived a better life when I was 22 than I did when I was 28. So that was really difficult for me to be like, wow, okay I have to scale back and have a different lifestyle and living that way for so long does take a toll on your psyche and your relationships both romantically and friendship wise and professionally.
I think it’s really important to consider all of that. Then if you are or were like me where you’re just like, I’m going no matter what, no one can tell me anything, then you just really have to have an open mind and just understand that anything can happen and that if you really do want to get out of debt then it’s going to take a lot of sacrifice. I had classmates who had the same amount of debt as me or more and their debt didn’t bother them. I think I had wished I was that kind of person like, oh, I have a hundred grand in debt. It doesn’t bother me. It’s fine. But that’s just not how I’m built. It really did bother me and that’s why I was so crazy about it.

Scott: On that point with the 100 grand in debt not bothering, what I’ve noticed sometimes with certain people, and I think you’re clearly an exception to this, is that they’ll almost bury their head in the sand to a certain extent where they’re not even aware of what their interest is costing them. Often these student loans are chunked, so you’ve got like 20 student loan debt of $4,000 if you have 80 grand in debt or something like that, and they’re not aware of the various interest rates on that, they’re not aware of how to pay them off. We had a lady last episode, Melissa [inaudible 00:22:45]. She had a situation where she was like, “I had to actually call the debt holders in order to pay off my medical debt because it wasn’t clear how to do this in the first place.” [inaudible 00:23:00]. So I admire the fact that you clearly are proactive about it. Can you tell us a little bit about what prompted that?

Melanie: Yeah. And I am so glad you brought this up. First of all, I would totally like to acknowledge that denial is so comforting and seductive. It’s like a warm cocoon that you can just stay safe in. I was definitely not immune to the denial trap. In my book, Dear Debt, I also recall the five stages of grief are similar to paying off debt. You definitely go through that denial and anger and bargaining and acceptance phase. And I think they’re very similar. So for me, I definitely had that denial phase as well. I’ve told this story a couple of times, but when I graduated from NYU probably that first month, I knew I had to get my finances together. I knew that I should get on top of things. So I created a mint.com account actually. I synced all my loans and I synced my poultry student income and everything.
That was actually the first time that I saw the numbers in black and white that even though I had been paying my student loans for five years for my undergrad and I knew I had borrowed a bunch more, I didn’t really know how much I owed. And then I saw, oh my gosh, I still owe $68,000 and it was seeing it in black and white like, oh my God. Especially compared to my really sad income at the time, I actually panicked and I deleted my mint.com account. And I was like, I can’t deal with this right now. Let’s just delete this. That was denial 101. I just completely deleted my mint.com account, and I was like, I literally cannot handle this right now.
I continued to live in denial for a couple of months. And anyone in denial, reality catches up with you eventually. It wasn’t until December 2011, six months after graduation, where my student loans, the grace period was coming to an end and I still hadn’t secured a full time job. And I was like, okay, I literally can’t afford to pay rent and student loans in New York, I have to make a choice. When you’re forced to decide where you’re going to live because of your student loans, when student loans start effecting big choices in your life, like where you should live, whether you should get married or not, whether you should have kids or not, that forces you out of denial real quick. So I would say that was the turning point for me out of denial. I was like, oh man, I had wanted to stay in New York. I wanted to live a fabulous artistic, cool lifestyle in New York and I just couldn’t swing it. So I sobered up real quickly and I was like, oh, this hurts.

Scott: I love that the reality catches up with you. Do you reopen your mint.com account and stare reality back in the face? What does facing reality look like for you?

Melanie: I didn’t right away because there were too many changes going on. The first step was actually moving to Portland, Oregon and then actually trying to find a job. I just remember those first couple of months in Portland were pretty brutal getting this temp work. Actually for a brief period I was on food stamps, which was also not fun. So yeah, just the first couple of months were really just about surviving and adjusting to this new reality. It probably wasn’t until later in 2012 when I had discovered personal finance blogs. Then January 2013 when I started Dear Debt where I was like, okay, I’m committing to paying off this debt. I’ve started this blog. I’ve said, no matter what, I’m going to pay this off because I have no choice that I start to get it together again.

Scott: Sorry. What year was that? I just missed that in the last [crosstalk 00:26:46].

Melanie: January 2013, I started my blog, Dear Debt. It took like another full, basically a year of me just wallowing in my own misery and feeling stuck and feeling like hitting my head against the wall. I don’t know what to do. I feel stuck and trapped and anxious. And just to that point, I think it’s so important that we do talk about the mental health issues because I really believe that the reason I couldn’t really do anything in 2012 to move things much forward was because I felt so much shame and depression and anxiety. And it’s like, there’s so many great blog posts about, here’s how to pay off debt. Here’s the debt snowball and the avalanche and X, Y, and Z.
But if people aren’t prepared emotionally or mentally to even look at their debt or address it, they’re not going to be able to take action. Because I know personally, depression and anxiety can be completely paralyzing. Paralyzing, so if you’re paralyzed, you’re not going to take action. That’s why I’m so passionate about this topic because I really feel like we have to address the underlying issues that prevent people from actually looking at their debt and taking action. Because we all know that the tips are out there on how to actually pay off debt. They’re there. But why do we not do it? It’s because of the behavioral mindset issues.

Mindy: Okay. So let’s talk about the mindset issues. Let’s talk about these first steps in addressing the underlying issues. Where does someone start? Let’s say we’ve got someone listening to this show right now. They are in Melanie 2012 mode where they’re just feeling so much shame and so much guilt. What I want to say to them is you are not alone. You are not the only person who has debt. So-

Melanie: Definitely not.

Mindy: … hop on Melanie’s site and read her letters to her debt and hear other stories of people that are in the same place. Even if it doesn’t, it won’t change the amount of debt you have. But knowing that you’re not the only one who has that, especially when you’re with friends who are like, I have so much money and I could just go out to either dinner and not look at prices. That gets really shameful. And that’s not the right word because it isn’t something to be ashamed of. Yeah, you have debt. What is it? Less than 1% of Americans can afford a $1,000 emergency bill. They don’t have any savings. I can’t remember what the number is, but it’s super, super low.

Melanie: Yeah. Well, I think only 40% of people can cover a $400 emergency in cash without going into credit card debt. And I know 44 million people have student loans. So it’s like you’re definitely not alone at all. And really, if you look at the way this country is set up, debt is like our favorite national pastime really. So getting out of debt is like breaking the status quo in a way. So we really do need to internalize all of this stuff so much in my opinion. So you were saying what are some actionable steps that people can take if they were 2012 me?
What 2012 me did initially was I needed to get to counseling because this was significantly impacting my life. I’ve been in and out of therapy my whole life for various reasons, but this was definitely a situational circumstance. Like, okay, my debt is what has prompted me to be in this situation. They always say counseling is a good idea if something is really impacting your day to day life. And this was not like, oh, I’m sad for two weeks or like, oh, I’m crying here. It was like every day for months sort of thing. I was like, I need help.
But one of the worst things about being in debt and being depressed over your debt is you’re like, well how the heck can I afford therapy when I can barely afford my debt? Actually I was so grateful to find a co-worker of mine who had said that he found some affordable counseling through the local graduate school. Portland State University, they have a graduate counseling program. These are pretty much counselors in training who are like one semester away from graduating who, they needed their training hours before they got their license. So they had their professor, I guess, behind some room watching that I didn’t know about.
It can be a little weird. But if you can get over that, the sessions were $15 a session and because I was on food stamps at the time, I negotiated it down to five dollars a session. So I was paying like $20 a month for therapy. So I highly recommend local graduate schools because it’s a win-win situation for everyone. The students need their training hours. You get someone to talk to. It’s usually significantly more affordable. I also have found my current therapist through openpathcollective.org. Not as cheap, but more affordable. I think they have sessions between $30 and $80 a session, which I know that might not be cheap to some people, but compared to out-of-pocket, which can easily be between like 150 and 300 a session, it’s definitely a lot better.
Then also I highly recommend the Crisis Text Line, which you can text home to 741741. I really like the Crisis Text Line because it’s pretty open ended with the word crisis, a.k.a, you don’t have to be suicidal. I know there are a lot of wonderful suicide resources out there, so if you are feeling suicidal, there’s the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is 1-800-273-8255. If you are feeling suicidal, I highly recommend talking to them. But then there’s also people who are like, I feel like I’m in crisis. I’m not exactly suicidal, who Can I talk to? The Crisis Text Line is a wonderful resource. You can text them at 741741. And everything’s over text, which I think is wonderful because sometimes if you’re in an emotional state or you’re not feeling well, sometimes it’s really hard to even get the words out. So if you do it over text, it’s wonderful and they have certified crisis text counselors to respond to you and help you calm down and provide resources and understanding.
I know for people who have either maybe never have gone to these resources before wonder like, well, what are they going to do for me? Because I totally understand when you’re in that skeptical state, like, well what are they going to do for me? And what I always say is, when I talk to my therapist or anyone that’s a professional, they can really help you see a different way that you can’t see with your own eyes. So we’re all programmed and conditioned to think a certain way, to behave a certain way given our friends or family, the way we were raised. And that’s just the way we’re programmed. In some ways it can feel like we’re in a cul-de-sac of like, I’m a broken record. This is the only thing I can see or do.
Then my therapist sometimes will say certain things and I’m like, wow. Literally, I would have never thought about that. The way my brain is programmed. I just would’ve never thought about that. So I think these resources can really provide some outside perspective that you probably can’t see. And it’s not anything against you. It’s just, sometimes when we’re so in it, when we’re so close to the issue and when we’re so stuck, we just can’t even think clearly. And so to have someone from the outside help us see, hey, you’re not in a cul-de-sac. Actually there’s this route, there’s this route, there’s this route. Then also, you can make a U-turn. There’s a lot of different options.

Scott: How does this manifest itself in your story? Did this therapy help you arrive at, hey, I’m going to attack this head on, form a blog and go after it starting in January 2013?

Melanie: I would say the counseling in 2012 really helped manage my day-to-day symptoms of crazy anxiety and a lot of crime. So it helped me remember that I’m not an awful person, that I didn’t just ruin my life by going to Grad school and helped manage those day-to-day emotions. It wasn’t really until I found personal finance blogs in the end of 2012 did I really get the financial portion of the inspiration to pay off debt. But like I said, before, I feel like if I hadn’t done that mental work in 2012, that I might not have been ready to tackle the financial part. But because I had “done the work in therapy,” the mental portion, I feel like at that time when I discovered personal finance logs, I was ready to take action and I had internalized so much shame and guilt and depression and anxiety and I felt ready to take action finally.

Scott: Got It.

Mindy: So what was your first bit of action?

Melanie: Yeah, my first bit of action was really starting the blog and writing that first post. It’s really funny because you can go to my blog now and the first post is still there. I had this awkward anonymous photo of me, I think I had like $57,000 left at that point. I had depleted some of my savings to pay down some of that debt. It’s a really dramatic, silly first post.
But you can also read the pain in it too. I’m like, I don’t go back and edit it because it’s like a history archive to me now. I think it’s so funny and interesting and I also want people to go back and be like, okay, yeah, you see that I have this polished career now that I’ve paid off my debt. Go back to my first post in January 2013, you can read that and be like, wow, this girl is going through something and her debt is eating her alive. So really just committing to that first post and writing it to the Internet even though it literally had one reader at that point, my mom, I think just having that public accountability was really important to me. And I say that that was important for me because I realized just me as a person doing anything, having that outside accountability is really important to me.
I wish I was one of these types of people that just had endless internal motivation, but I’m absolutely not. As Gretchen Rubin would call it, very much an obliger, meaning I get a lot of motivation by having external people keep me accountable for things. The blog from me really was that. I would ask yourself, what do I need to be motivated? Is that an external person to keep me motivated? Do I have endless internal amounts of motivation that I could just do this on my own? What will keep you motivated? For me it was having a community of people having that blog, writing updates every single month towards my debt. Then really it was just about figuring out how can I cut back in every single way.
I’m already a minimalist. I already didn’t have a lot of stuff. So for me, frugality was already a natural instinct and I didn’t really have much to cut back from. So I think a lot of people in a personal finance journey realize this where cutting back on coffees and going out and X, Y, Z is really important. But for people like me who never really had a lot to begin with, never really spent a lot of money anyways, I couldn’t cut back anymore. I realized literally my only option is to earn more, which is where a side hustle and came in. Which is where later, becoming self-employed really changed my life because I was able to double my income once I went from nonprofit sector to self employment and that really helped me pay off my debt. For me, earning more significantly helped me pay off debt far more than frugality ever did. And like I said, that’s not to say that frugality doesn’t have its own virtues, but that was already a second nature to me. It wasn’t really something that’s significantly impacted my life.

Mindy: Okay. That’s interesting because usually when you hear somebody’s story, oh, I’m in a lot of debt, they have something to cut. I was listening to Dave Ramsey one time and he said, he’s talking to this person on the phone and he’s like, “You know what, I’m going to take you off the air and we’re going to go talk separately because you don’t have anything else to cut.” I don’t know what I… When he talks to people it’s like, oh, you can cut this and this and this and this. And he’s like, I don’t see anything else you can cut. That’s like, wow, what do you do?

Melanie: You have to earn more.

Mindy: That literally is the only thing you can cut or you can grow and-

Melanie: Yeah.

Mindy: Yeah. When there’s nothing else to cut, now it’s time to grow.

Melanie: Exactly.

Mindy: So let’s go back to, you did this blog post and you said all of a sudden you started hearing from people, let’s go to the first person you reach out to you to say, hey, I’m going through this too. How did that feel and how did you get through that portion?

Melanie: Yeah. I think we’re alluding to maybe two different things and not all referenced to both of them. Pretty early on, I had got comments from people saying, I’m going through this same thing. I’m really depressed about my student loans. I’m still glad you’re talking about this. But then on the more serious note, probably like a year into blogging, I had seen in my Google analytics that someone had googled, “I want to kill myself because of debt.” That just completely stopped me in my tracks and I was just so completely bowled over with the fact that someone was googling not and finding my blog. Once I felt that, I was like, whoa, this mental health debt depression thing has really taken on a life of its own here. From that search term, I wrote a blog post as if I were talking to that person because it upset me so much.
That was another impetus to a whole different journey for my blog because I wrote that one blog post as if I were talking to that person and said, “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what prompted you to write this, but please don’t do it. It’s not worth it. Debt is not a death sentence.” I published that blog post not really thinking much about it, but because I had talked once again about suicide and debt and depression and sure enough I kept ranking for that search term. I hate to say it, but it’s been five years and that is still probably my highest rank search time is I want to kill myself because of debt or some kind of variation of that. I’ve become this accidental hub of suicidal people who reach out to me and I get emails every single week from people who are suicidal over their debt and I answer every single email.
It’s so wild because some of the emails I get, you could just tell that people… Well, I I get a lot of people think like, oh, I didn’t think you were real or I didn’t think you were going to respond. I’m like, yes, I’m real and yes, I’m going to respond because you’re clearly reaching out. To me, if someone is googling, I want to kill myself because of jet and they find my blog and they take the time to send me an email, that is a call for help. That’s a cry for help. I don’t know if I can save their lives. I don’t know what’s going to happen after I email them. I don’t know if I have any of the answers, but what I do know is that when you are that depressed that just having someone that can listen to you without judgment is so important.
I feel like I try to tell that to other bloggers and podcasters and people who have the capacity to engage with readers in this way is that the greatest gift that we can give someone is the ability to truly make them feel heard and seen. A lot of these people feel pushed to the wayside, that they’re losers, they’re ruining their families, they’re ruining their lives, it’s all their fault. It’s so sad because I get a lot of people who are like, oh, my wife has no idea we’re in this debt. Or like, I don’t know how I’m going to pay for my child to eat next month. And it’s so devastating. I don’t want anyone to end their lives because of debt. People shouldn’t end their lives over any reason, especially not debt. So that’s been my crusade for the past four or five years.
Four years ago, I started the Suicide Prevention blog tour where I got my personal finance blogger friends together every September, which is Suicide Prevention Awareness month to write about this topic. This is the fourth year we’re going into it and I have a whole suicide prevention tab on my blog, Dear Debt, which has the previous blog posts from all the other tours. It has all the resources for the National Suicide Prevention hotline for the Crisis Text Line. You can read so many people’s stories. What has been wild about doing the blog tour is that I can see that so many people have said, I’ve gone through something similar, or my neighbor died by suicide. People had said it was because of debt too. People come out of the woodwork to share your story. And it just goes to show that we think that we’re suffering alone with these issues. But then if one person is brave enough to share their story, so many people will come out and feel comfortable sharing theirs as well.
So I try to be a resource for people and say that you’re not alone and that debt is not a death sentence and that I’m here to listen and that this is definitely not something you should do. Always trying to build up other resources to help these people. I definitely feel like I have some of the mental health resources from the financial portion. Maybe they can talk to a nonprofit credit counselor. Obviously I can’t necessarily recommend bankruptcy because I’m not a financial professional, but obviously that’s something to consider aside from dying by suicide. There are other options and I feel like we should definitely be supporting this community of people who are suffering.

Scott: I think that this is very powerful and it’s something that as someone who did not have a lot of student loan debt, I’m trying to learn from you and how to put myself in the shoes of folks that have that, how overwhelming and dire that can seem in terms of your overall life outlook. And I think it’s just great work. I’m wondering, once you find someone who’s maybe got student loan debt or whatever, do you also do any of the actionable tips to help them through at least situations that were similar to yours? Or is that, like you said, is that all outsourced to some of the other professionals that come up with that, the planners?

Melanie: If it’s someone with student loan debt, I will definitely impart what I went through and what I did. Definitely tell them about income driven repayment plans if they’re really truly struggling. I think a lot of people don’t know about income driven repayment for federal student loans. I think that’s a really important option because from a loan servicer standpoint and from a borrower standpoint, there’s many more people that immediately go into delinquency and default when they would technically qualify for a zero dollar repayment under income driven repayment. I read a lot about student loans and credit these days, so I have some extra knowledge about this. But if your income is truly at the poverty level, you can technically have a zero dollar repayment under income driven repayment and be “in good standing.” And every year you recertify your income. So obviously as your income goes up, then you’ll start paying again.
But if income is truly the issue on your federal student loans, I really implore people to go on an income driven repayment plan. Even though I said earlier that was not the right plan for me because I was scared of interest, I did know if things got really, really truly bad, I could have gone on that plan and had [inaudible 00:46:53] repayment and I still would’ve been able to eat and pay my rent. That’s definitely a resource I’d like to share with people. And then it’s tough when I get people who have credit card debt, which is something I’ve never dealt with. I feel like the most difficult situations I deal with are people that are not in this country because obviously I know in America if you’re in debt, you’re not going to go to jail. I don’t think the mafia is going to come after you. You might get wage garnishment with your student loans or your tax refund.
But I get people from India or Africa or Malaysia email me and I don’t know, they’re in some weird loan shark, that situation where it sounds like their lives might be in danger because of other people. That’s really difficult for me to handle because I obviously don’t know what the solutions are there. Obviously I don’t have the laws about debt and other countries especially if may or may not be through an official financial institution. So I would say those are probably the most difficult situations for me to deal with because I just, I don’t have the answers. But I still try to be a support and a listening ear for people.

Mindy: Okay. Before we get back to your story, I want to just give some URLs and some links to some of these things that we’ve been talking about. You said that you have a suicide prevention blog tour that goes on every September. What is the link that people can find that on your website?

Melanie: People can go to deardebt.com/suicide-prevention. There, they will find all the resources that I typically include as part of that blog tour. Which has some of the resources I’ve mentioned here today. Like openpathcollective.org, the Crisis Text Line, the National Suicide Prevention hotline, talking to someone from the National Foundation, the Nonprofit Foundation For Credit Counseling, as well as all of the blog posts. And yeah, I definitely recommend people go there if they’re looking for resources, both financial or mental health.

Mindy: Okay, perfect. And we will include all of these links in the show notes for this episode, which can be found at www.biggerpockets.com/moneyshow91.

Scott: All right. Before we move into the famous four, I was hoping we could finish out some of your story and hear about how you personally managed to pay off your student loans.

Melanie: Yes, good question. I know I had talked about how I had really hit the cutting back threshold pretty quickly in my debt repayment journey where I was like, okay, I cut a few things out. But I really hit the plateau of like, okay, unless I starved myself or moved back in with my parents, there’s nothing for me to cut back on. So I realized that earning more was really the only way that I could truly make the progress that I wanted on my debt repayment. I was making $10 to $12 an hour literally for the first year and a half I was in Portland. Then I finally found the nonprofit job literally two years after graduation in May 2013, as a nonprofit events and communications coordinator, which is quite funny because now I’m doing mostly events communications on my own. But I got that job in May 2013, making $31,000 which [inaudible 00:50:12] amazing amount of money was a significant increase from 16,000 to 20,000 dollars, which is what I was making the previous two years.
At the time my rent was $400. I split a studio apartment with my then partner. I did not have a car. I did not have health insurance. This was pre-affordable care act, so there was no penalty. I literally walked and biked everywhere and I didn’t really go out. So my expenses were pretty minimal and I didn’t have any pets, which I really wanted a pet. So like I said, my expenses were pretty minimal.
I was very lucky to live in Portland and share studio for $400. Then increasing my income to 31,000 I was like, okay, I’m doubling down on my repayment now that I’m making more money. And then right at the height of all of my side hustles with my blog, I realized that all of these other people in the blogosphere were also getting side hustles as a freelance writer. And I thought, wait, people are getting paid to write? I thought, I have a pretty useless master’s degree. But if I learned one thing as part of my master’s, that was to write. So I thought I would love to not be working here, there, and everywhere all over Portland, Oregon, especially when I don’t have a car and it rains nine months out of the year, I would love to just be in the comfort of my own home doing side hustles.
So I started pitching other blogs about writing and I got my first writing gig. To make the long story short, a year after I got that nonprofit job, I was making about the same amount of money side hustling as I was at my day job. So I was making pretty a lot more money than I ever had. So that was obviously helping my repayment. I was putting more money towards debt than ever. Then I thought, if I’m making the same amount of money on the side as I am as my day job, if I free up these eight hours per day, I’m sure I’m going to make more money. That was a really difficult decision to leave my job because I had waited two years to find stable employment with benefits and it’s like I still had $40,000 in debt at that time. And it’s like, are you nuts to quit this job that you’ve waited so long to get? I just knew that I was going to make more money if I quit. And sure enough I did. So I quit to essentially do events and communications.

Scott: [inaudible 00:52:40] did you quit?

Melanie: This was July 2014. So July 2014, I quit that nonprofit job and I worked as a freelance writer and I also did events with financial brands. I have a colleague, Tonya [Rable 00:52:55], and I from My Fab Finance. We’ve done some other events with brands and bloggers and I had mostly been writing for other financial blogs or banks or fintech companies. That first year I was able to double my income from 30,000 to 60,000. And to be able to double your income and still keep your rent at $400, I was able to increase my payments to $2,000 to $3,000 a month, which is insane. But like I said, my rent was $400. I did not have a car, I did not have health insurance. Those are the main expenses that a lot of the people have. Doubling my income just changed my life.
A lot of people talk about the risks of self-employment and I definitely don’t want to underplay that. But for someone like me who literally I had only worked in nonprofits before that and my highest salary up to date at that point was 38,000, the most I’d ever made in my entire life was $38,000 and to suddenly be making 60 because of self-employment. Self employment single handedly helped me get out of the low nonprofit pay trap and really opened up a lot of doors for me. That first year I made 60,000 and I think the second year I made 80,000 and it was at second year 2015, by December 2015 I had paid off all of my debt.
It was so great because I had started my blog in January 2013, and I was making I think $12 an hour at the time and I said, I’m going to pay off this debt in four years. I don’t know how, because given my current reality, there’s no way this is possible, but somehow it’s going to happen. I was actually able to pay it off in three from when I started my blog. The whole journey really was off and on for nine years and I paid off the majority of the $68,000 in four and a half years. There’s a lot of different timelines going on here at the same time. But yeah, December 2015, I had gotten rid of all of my debt.

Scott: This is outstanding, remarkable hustle and work ethic and the fact that you’re spending so little and just continuing to stay disciplined on that way you attack your loans is just outstanding. One question I have is, how many hours would you say you were putting in in a given work week between your day job and your side hustling while you’re getting your side hustle this income stream that propelled you out of student loans off the ground?

Melanie: Yeah, I can tell you very clearly. I would wake up and work from 6:00 AM to about 8:30 and then I would leave at 8:30 and I would work from 9:00 to 5:00. I would come home 5:30, would have dinner and from 6:00 to midnight be working again. I did that during the work week and then I did a lot of brand ambassador work on the weekends. That’s where a lot of the concerts and the sporting events happen. Being a brand ambassador was my main side hustle over the years. Those had different hours. Sometimes it would be four hours on a Saturday or 12 hours on a Saturday or a couple of hours here and there. I literally worked seven days a week probably for close to five years and it was incredibly daunting and difficult. I don’t necessarily recommend it because it definitely did take a toll on my mental and physical health. Obviously I’m very happy to be on this side of the spectrum now where I’m debt free and I can enjoy all of the fruits of my labor and have been debt free ever since. It’s been great.

Scott: I just want to dive into this because I think it’s so critical to understand, is you just don’t go from making $30,000 to $60,000 a year without, I think some sort of slog like what you just described there. Every single person who has a story in some capacity where their income made a dramatic change like yours did has gone through this on our show so far. I can’t think of a single example of someone who made a similar percentage increase without this kind of slog going through. How did you feel during, I guess, that period?

Melanie: I felt exhausted all of the time. It was exciting because to go from a place where you’re on food stamps making $10 to $12 an hour and you feel like you’re not getting paid what you’re worth and you feel like you made a bunch of mistakes to finally being able to make money, that part felt really great and exciting. But it’s also exhausting because we’re human beings and we’re only have a finite amount of energy and time. I definitely felt myself getting more clumsy, more tired, sometimes having a shorter fuse because I was so tired and definitely impacted my relationship at the time. It was tough because he was not paying off debt like I was and it’s like, I don’t have much time for you. But yeah, it was difficult. Definitely can have an impact on so many different facets of your life. But it’s really about taking risks and knowing that something is going to suffer. You can never put in that much energy. As you said, you can’t make that much of an increase with your income without some part of your life getting sacrificed. There’s just no other way.

Mindy: I really like that you didn’t just sit back and, oh, whatever. It reminds me of a couple of people that we’ve interviewed previously on the show. Patrice Washington was on episode 50 and Patrice, she’s fabulous.

Melanie: She is amazing.

Mindy: The part of her story that I just, it sinks into my head so much and I’m so impressed by is her husband Gerald. Gerald was a real estate broker making like a million dollars a year, lost everything in the housing crash of 2008 and then said, “Well, I’ve got to put food on the table. I’m going to go work at Taco Bell.” And he did. Working at Taco Bell is not a glamorous job despite what Paula Pant from Afford Anything said.

Melanie: Yeah. [inaudible 00:59:06].

Mindy: Working in food service, you come home smelling like the food that you’re making all day long. But he did it because that’s what you do. You pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you slog through it and it’s not a lot of fun but you got to eat. That’s a really great episode to listen to when you’re looking for another… I’m looking for somebody who’s going through this too. Patrice Washington, episode 50, can be found at biggerpockets.com/moneyshow50. And Nick Loper from Side Hustle Nation shared a bunch of different side hustles with us on episode 28.
Maybe what Melanie is saying in that she became a freelance writer isn’t something that you want to do or feel comfortable doing. Nick has what? 150 or 500 episodes of different side hustles on his podcast and he has a website. Is that sidehustle.com or sidehustlenation.com?

Melanie: I think it’s Side Hustle Nation.

Mindy: Yes. There is a side hustle for you. You will read through all of these and say, nope, nope, nope. Yes, I can do that. That would be my things. There is somebody who will pay you to do something that you are good at, you feel comfortable with, can do on the side and can still make money to throw at your debt. So I just wanted to get those out there before we move on.

Melanie: It also does recommend people try different side hustles too, whether you think you can do them or not because there’s no better way to learn things on the job than a side hustle. I didn’t know what I was doing as a brand ambassador at first and I was like, oh, it’s just talking to people. I can talk to people. I’m an extrovert. Freelance writing, I had some writing skills, but yeah, it’s not like a real job where you need to have a formal resume and 10 years of an experience. Side hustles, you can just figure out on a job. If it doesn’t work out, then not going to be the end of your life. Just use it as a time to learn more things and try different things out.

Scott: One last question before [inaudible 01:01:06] here. What did you do once you paid off your student loan debt in terms of managing your money? How did you begin investing or accumulating wealth?

Melanie: Yeah. I definitely had a plan for what I was going to do with all of those four figure payments once I was debt free. It was really about building my emergency fund back up, starting to actually invest. I do think I made a mistake. I hadn’t really fully invested until I was debt free, which I paid off my debt when I was 31 so I was already quite behind. I don’t necessarily recommend that for other people, but really it’s just been playing catch up with my savings and investments and rerouting that money towards those things. Also what had kept me going when I was paying off that debt and so miserable was creating this debt free dream list. When I was like, oh my God, I have so much debt fatigue. I’ve been paying this for years and years and years. What am I doing?
I just kept thinking of what’s my life going to look like once I pay off my debt. I did not like living in Portland, Oregon. It does rain nine months out of the year. And that had a significant impact on my mental health. I didn’t like the city very much, but I knew it was going to be way more affordable than moving back to LA, which is where I’m from and where I wanted to be. So I made a conscious choice to stay there.
On my debt free dream list, I was like, I’m going to move back to LA, I’m going to get cats, I’m going to take my mom to Italy. I’m so happy to say that I’ve been able to do all of those things since paying off my debt. I have so much more appreciation to be in this one bedroom apartment now in LA that I can afford easily on my own. I have my two baby kitties, Myles and Thelonious, who I love so much. I took my mom to Italy and that was her first time going to Europe.
So to be able to have those things that I kept in my mind, like this is what my life is going to look like when I pay off debt and be like, this is the carrot that’s driving me, that’s keeping me motivated and then to accomplish those things and just have so much appreciation. That’s been so great. All of that to say, yes, I have continued to save and invest and been “catching up” so to speak, from paying off all that debt. But I’ve also used it to enhance my quality of life significantly. That’s just been the best part of it.

Scott: That’s awesome. I love everything about that. I love the, here’s what my life’s going to look like. Here’s the carrot for this. Grind, grind, grind, grind, grind, and now you’ve realized it and you are enjoying all of that.

Melanie: It’s so great. I love it.

Scott: That’s great.

Mindy: That is fantastic. Okay, so this is Melanie from the Dear Debt blog. We’ve got all of these links to your suicide prevention plug tour, the suicide prevention hotlines and all of those things. We’ll keep in our show notes. Again, you can find those at biggerpockets.com/moneyshow91. Okay, Melanie, it is now that time of the show, the famous four. These are the same four questions in one command that we ask of all of our guests. Are you ready?

Melanie: Okay. Yes.

Mindy: What is your favorite finance book?

Melanie: Get Money by Kristin Wong.

Mindy: Oh, that’s a new one.

Melanie: Yes.

Mindy: Get Money by Kristin Wong. Okay. Why do you like that book?

Melanie: She’s just so funny and it’s so direct and it’s a very actionable book to get your finances together in a lot of different ways. And it’s totally not boring.

Scott: What was your biggest money mistake? And this might be, I’m interested to see what you say at this one.

Melanie: I would say my biggest money mistake, well, actually I have two of them. I’m just like, ah, two of them. Number one, I did not save for retirement when I was paying off debt. I paid off my debt at 31 and I’m behind. Number two, because I was in the nonprofit sector for so long, I had never asked for a raise because I just had told myself that nonprofits have no money and so why would I even ask? So those are two pretty costly mistakes. Don’t pull me.

Scott: No, I think those are great mistakes and I think that it’s also very interesting that you did not, but you said, like we discussed earlier in the show, hey, it wasn’t even the student loans and the debt. It was not saving for retirement while paying off debt and asking for a raise. Which I think are very controllable things after you [inaudible 01:05:25] the stuff.

Melanie: Yeah, totally.

Mindy: The best saving for retirement while paying off debt story that I have heard is from Craig Curelop. He was on episode 35, he works here at BiggerPockets. He came out of school with what, $85,000 in student loans and he paid the minimum on every single one while he got a little bit of work experience, he came and started working for us. He learned house hacking where he bought a duplex and rented out one unit and lived in the other and then while he was living in the other, he would rent out the bedroom and sleep on the couch so that he could generate all this cash. He lived there for a year, jumped into the next duplex and now I think he has. Does he have two? No, that’s you Scott.

Scott: He has three properties now.

Mindy: He does. One duplex. The next property he bought was a five bedroom, two bath house, which is a weird configuration. If you have that many bedrooms, you need more bathrooms. Well, but it sat on the market for a while. He was able to get a good deal. And this was located in a city that didn’t have occupancy limits, so he lived in one bedroom and rented out the four. So five unrelated adults, but that’s okay in that city. He made a lot of money during that as well. And didn’t he pay off all of his debt in like one big check after he had these three properties that he was renting out? His story is just really, really interesting.
Before I heard his story, I would’ve been on your page, Melanie, you don’t save for retirement, you pay off all your debt and then you can start saving for retirement. He framed it in a different way and was able to generate enough money that he can live off of now his whole salary goes to his debt and it was just a different way to look at it. I really enjoyed that story. That was episode 35 of the Money Podcast.

Melanie: I love that.

Mindy: Yeah, it was a really great, interesting story. Okay, so what is your best piece of advice for people who are just starting out? And that’s ambiguous. Are they starting out on their debt repayment journey, are they starting out in life in general before they even get to college? Where do you go?

Melanie: I’m going to assume that they end up like me for watching and listening to this episode. I would say the very first step that you have to do is to get out of denial and know your numbers. So really, go to the National Student Loan data system and really look at how much debt you owe. Go to annualcreditreport.com, see how much credit card debt you have, really line up every single loan amount that you have as well as the interest rate and write it all down. It’s not fun. It can be probably the most difficult part of this debt repayment journey to see the numbers in black and white. But it’s really important that you actually know how much you owe. And then also calculate how much you’re spending daily on interest because that could really light a fire under you. It’d be like, oh my gosh, this is just how much I’m throwing away every single day. So I would say those two things

Mindy: That is great advice.

Scott: Mindy, how many times have we asked this question and what percentage would you say it’s some variant of know your numbers, map your financial position, track your spending? Those-

Mindy: I’m going to go at least 50 or 75 percent of the people who do this say, track your spending is a huge one. Know your numbers, whatever your numbers are, know that. Because if you can’t change, like with the debt, that’s not going to change just because you’re not looking at it. Your spending, is it going to suddenly get better unless you’re looking at it? know your numbers, know what you can do to change those numbers.

Melanie: Totally.

Scott: Yeah. I think it’s just so telling and it’s like, if you’re listening to this show and you’ve made it through 91 episodes and you haven’t tracked your spending or mapped out your financial position, it’s time to do that because you’re not going to make [crosstalk 01:09:15] without knowing your numbers.

Melanie: Yeah.

Scott: All right. What is your favorite joke to tell at parties?

Melanie: I don’t know if I have an answer to that. I feel like I’m definitely a person that makes a joke depending on the actual conversation. Does that make sense? I’m not a big, like here’s a joke out of my pocket sort of person. I’m definitely more of the type of person, like in a natural conversation, I’ll say something silly or stupid.

Scott: Well, provide some cat jokes. You said you finally got your two cats, right?

Melanie: I have a really incredibly bad cat joke that’s like-

Scott: [inaudible 01:09:56].

Mindy: Oh, good. Scott excels in incredibly bad jokes.

Melanie: Where do cats go on vacation?

Scott: I don’t know where?

Melanie: Nyali. Told you it’s so bad.

Scott: [inaudible 01:10:11]. All right.

Mindy: I never laugh at these. That’s great.

Melanie: It’s so bad.

Mindy: There’s a cat channel at work. I’m going to put that in our office chat.

Melanie: Yeah.

Mindy: Oh, I love that. I love that. Okay. Melanie, tell me where people can find out more about you.

Melanie: People can find me at deardebt.com as well as @Melanie on Twitter, @Melanie on Instagram, and also I have a women and money retreat. They can find me at lolaretreat.com.

Mindy: That’s awesome. I think the Lola Retreat is always scheduled for a weekend that I am already doing something, but I need to get out to the Lola Retreat because I have heard so many good things about it. And just-

Melanie: Yes, you do.

Mindy: … talking to women who are in the same position as you about finances is, I don’t want to… Scott’s wonderful, I’m not talking smack about Scott, but there are some men who are like, oh, just do it or don’t worry your pretty little head about it or whatever. It’s really powerful to hear from other people who are exactly like you, which is hey, just like Dear Debt.

Melanie: Yes, exactly.

Mindy: Oh Wow. This was amazing. Oh my goodness. I don’t know where I came across your name. I’m like, I got to have Melanie on the show because it’s September and I always, I’ve never actually participated, but as you’re sitting here talking to me, I’m like, oh my God, I have to write a blog post now for 1500 days to put up to be on the suicide prevention tour. Just the tips I’m getting, I am going to link to the show, but I’m also going to link to you and all the other people, just the tips that I’m getting, like get a debt counselor, get a therapist. I don’t know what the right way to phrase it is. Like a mental therapist, not a-

Melanie: There’s a financial therapist too, by the way. I do business. I have resources.

Mindy: Do you really? That’d be great. Get a financial therapist but also get somebody to help you. Like a psychiatrist or a therapist or something. Here’s the thing, it’s not something to be ashamed of, but so many people are ashamed of it. You don’t have to wear a tee shirt that says, hey, I see a therapist every Tuesday. [crosstalk 01:12:24].

Melanie: And it means you’re being proactive too. I don’t even know why there’s a stigma to be honest. Because it means like, oh, you’re judging me for actually taking care of my… Okay.

Mindy: Yeah. Oh, I have a broken arm. I better not do anything about that because that’s embarrassing. Whatever, it gets fixed and you move on.

Scott: I have a question here, which I’m not sure how to, but do you think it’s different for men versus women?

Melanie: For therapy and medication or?

Scott: For therapy. [inaudible 01:12:49].

Melanie: I do think there is a difference and I only think that because of toxic masculinity and the way we condition men in our culture. I think men are so conditioned to not talk about their feelings, that it can be a lot to uncrack that eggs, so to speak. In therapy, I think men especially should go to therapy because, well first of all, just to go back to what I just said, I think everyone should be in therapy regardless of where they’re at. Because I think there’s a, this belief that you should only go to therapy if you’re struggling or if you’re dealing with stuff. Honestly, you should go for preventative maintenance whether you’re going through something or not, number one. And number two, everybody needs a third party to speak to because the thing is, we can all talk to our friends and family about our issues, but they’re all going to be biased.
For me, it’s great to have a third party perspective where she doesn’t have an investment in my life. She’s not going to be biased or be like, oh well, I don’t want to hurt Melanie’s feelings or this is what I think is best for Melanie because she’s my best friend. She’s going to be like, my therapist calls me out on my stuff. At first I didn’t like her because I was like, I think I need a little bit of sugar in my coffee, a little. You’re a lot. But actually I was like, no, she’s actually the type of person I need. She calls me out and it’s like, yeah, this is… I think we all need someone that can call us out on our stuff, but without hurting our feelings and give us a third party perspective. To that end, I think men who maybe don’t have the same kind of support systems as women do, or at least as comfortably, it’s great. The men that I have talked to who are in therapy seems so much more in touch and emotionally aware than other men.

Mindy: No, that toxic masculinity thing, that’s really great. As a woman, and I’m talking to a woman, I listened to this as more for women, but you’re absolutely right. That toxic masculinity thing mess, did I say toxic masculinity?

Melanie: Well, here’s the thing. It hurts men and women. Because it hurts men because men, I’m totally hyper generalizing here, by the way. In general, men don’t have the same kind of friendship networks that women do where they can just talk about anything and everything. I think there’s a lot of expectations that they need to be strong, that they should not have feelings, that they should not be emotional. Bottling all of that up, in my opinion, is what leads to some of the violence and the outbursts and the misogyny that we deal with. It literally hurts them, but it also hurts women. So it’s like, if we can create a culture where it’s okay for men to talk about their feelings and get help, I think it’ll be significantly better for men on their own to help themselves. And then also with their relationships with women. It’s a win-win situation.

Mindy: It really is. Scott, it’s okay to have feelings. It’s okay to be unhappy about something or sad about something that happened.

Scott: I’m just always like this though. I’m always like, [inaudible 01:15:51] leading personal finance questions and then periodically go on a mild rant about a topic that I feel particularly strongly about when it comes to [inaudible 01:16:02]. And that’s my state of being at all times.

Melanie: Yes. I like it.

Mindy: I think that Scott actually is a little more in touch with his, not in touch with his feminine side so much as just-

Scott: Well, you build yourself. That’s exactly you.

Mindy: He’s going to do what he wants to do. He’s not going to let toxic masculinity affect the fact that he feels sad today. He just feel sad today and it’s okay. He will embrace that. So I’m just going to stop digging that hole. But yeah, Scott’s-

Melanie: Yeah. But just to bring it back and reframe it to both genders. I think both men and women can investigate the ways that we have been conditioned to be the way that we are and the way we respond to things. Like, am I really like this or was I just born in a culture and conditioned to be this way? You know what I’m saying?

Mindy: Yeah, yeah. No, that’s a great way to-

Melanie: For example, women are always conditioned to be the prize of a man’s affections or attention or wanting to be beautiful because it’s the type of currency. We’re not born that way. That’s the way we are conditioned. So whenever these thoughts are like, oh, it’s like, hmm, that’s actually not the way I was born. This is some conditioning that I’m experiencing.

Mindy: That’s a great way to wrap it up. Much, much more eloquent than I did, so thank you. That’s why you’re the guest and I’m not. Okay. From episode 91 of the BiggerPockets Money Podcast, I’m Mindy, he is Scott, and she is Melanie. Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Melanie.

Melanie: Thank you for having me.

Mindy: Okay, we’ll talk soon.

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In This Episode We Cover:

  • Melanie’s journey with money
  • Experiencing mental health issues because of debt
  • Start blogging and wrote break-up letters to debt
  • How she paid it off
  • Her main side hustle
  • How much it costs her to pay her student loan debts
  • The reason why debt is depressing
  • The biggest mistake people are making
  • Her advice to anyone who has the same path with her
  • Five stages of grief that are similar to paying off debt
  • On living in denial
  • Steps to prepare your mindset and address the underlying issues
  • Therapy hack
  • What keeps her motivated
  • Talking about the first person who reached out to her
  • How she personally managed to pay off her student loans
  • On making more money
  • What her life looks like post-student loan debt
  • And SO much more!

Links from the Show

Books Mentioned in this Show:

Tweetable Topics:

  • “Denial is so comforting and seductive.” (Tweet This!)
  • “You just have to have an open mind and just understand that anything can happen.” (Tweet This!)
  • “If people aren’t prepared emotionally or mentally to even look at their debt, they are not gonna be able to take action.” (Tweet This!)
  • “Depression and anxiety can be completely paralyzing.” (Tweet This!)

Connect with Melissa

Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.