There’s no question that education is expensive. Student loan debt has risen exponentially over the past decade, with $1.5 trillion in debt now held by more than 44 million Americans. For many, the costs of education may be a reason to forgo pursuing higher education and advanced degrees all together. But Kellee, an elementary school teacher who dreamed of earning a PhD since high school, wasn’t going to allow these seemingly insurmountable financial challenges stop her. Thanks to a combination of a supportive network, budgeting with Mint, and efficient planning, she was able to graduate with her doctorate debt-free. Ahead, Kellee shares her story of budgeting to pay off her student loans to meet her goals of being a teacher and buying a house in her 30s. As told to Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner.
I always knew that I wanted to teach. I was raised in a family of teachers: My paternal grandmother taught math, and my dad taught computer science and mathematics — both of his sisters worked in education, too. I grew up around so many adults helping and teaching people, and letting people reach their fullest potential. I enjoyed helping others and knew teaching was my path.
After finishing high school, I was determined to stay in school until I had my doctorate. I started by taking out loans for my undergraduate degree, living on campus during the school year, and trying not to add on extra expenses. Every summer, I lived with my family and worked in retail at the mall. I saved money and applied it immediately to the next semester’s tuition and expenses. I started budgeting early on with Mint, which taught me to put money away when I work — it’s a practice I’ve carried on into my adult life.
After undergrad, I pursued a master’s in education. Instead of living on campus, I moved back home with my parents and brother. I paid tuition out of pocket, and living with my family helped dramatically. I was teaching during the day and going to grad school in the evening — which was a lot, but it also meant I didn’t have time to spend a lot of money, which was helpful, since I wanted to pay off my debt, not add more.
Growing up, my family tried their best to live within their means. We did go on vacation, but didn’t splurge. I didn’t have a lot to cut back on once I wanted to get serious about budgeting. In my youth, I’d seen people struggle with credit cards, so I didn’t open one for a long time. I saw how debt stripped people of their freedom and ability to do things they wanted to do. There were severe consequences and I wanted to avoid that as much as possible. Now that I do use a credit card, I treat it like a debit card, paying off the totals each month with money I have.
Doing my best to stay out of debt, I knew I had to make unpopular choices, like telling friends I couldn’t go out with them to restaurants or take big trips. Being honest about your boundaries helps, and I’m grateful for understanding friends.
Still, it took close to ten years to pay off my student debt, and in many ways I think I could have done it sooner. I did make mistakes, like buying a car before grad school, and not checking with my employer about reimbursing some of my doctorate expenses. I missed out on some funding because of that. But even as I embarked on my doctorate of education, I reminded myself to stay flexible about my timeline to pay off my loans. The plan kept getting pushed back, but I was still moving forward.
As I continued my EdD program, whenever I had money saved, I’d put it toward my loans. I was really lucky to live with a supportive family, which kept my costs very minimal. Beyond tuition, books, and commuting costs, I didn’t have many expenses. I used Mint to help organize the bulk of my loan payment, since the loans were from a few different lenders. I pulled in all the debt into the app and connected my bank accounts, so I could keep track of my money in one place. Seeing my credit score change helped me see how much of an impact lessening my debt made.
When I did finally graduate with my doctorate, my loans were completely paid off. It took a few extra years, but it happened. Now, I’m working as an elementary school teacher, leading a hybrid in-person and virtual learning classroom. My extensive education also allows me flexibility in my career: I’m qualified to teach kindergarten through high school, and can also work at the college level or in administration. I’m blessed to be doing what I went to school to do, but it’s also freeing to have options — and savings. Now that I’m working full time and not putting so much money towards school and loans, I’d planned to spend some of my money on international travel, which I love, but with the pandemic, I’m currently just saving. I know I’ll need a cushion for my first house for repairs and expenses.
Graduating with my doctorate debt-free was the realization of a dream I’d had since I was a teenager, and a decade in the making. My next goal of being a homeowner by thirty is delayed by a few years, and that’s fine. What I’ve learned in this process is milestones don’t always have to be tied to age, you can take it one day at a time.
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