“Yes, I’ll come over at 9 a.m.,” I said. “See you then.”

I hung up the phone. The next morning, I went to clean the house of an unemployed Wall Street banker who would read the paper as I worked. I found him on Craigslist while I was living in New York, desperate for money.

I was barely making enough to pay my bills, let alone my $68,000 in student loan debt from my newly minted NYUmaster’s degree. Needless to say, I needed money then and there, and he paid in cash. The first time was fine. “I can do this,” I thought. “It’s not so bad.”

How To Overcome #StudentLoanDebt Even If You Are Flat Broke. Struggling with the #loans you took out to pay for college? Learn how to overcome student loan debt, even when you're broke and stressed. #debtfree #debtpayoffBut the second time, he criticized me for missing a spot as well as for the way I cleaned. The way he said it felt so humiliating. I tried holding back my tears, but they escaped, running down my face as I muttered, “I can’t. I need to go.” I left without being paid.

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I felt as if my life had been thrown off-kilter after graduation. I was stressed and depressed, my student loans consumed me, and I didn’t have much work to boot.

Finding the Right Mindset

Once I came to terms with my situation — which included educating myself about my student loan repayment options and coming to terms with my depression — I resolved to get rid of my student loans. This was not the life I had envisioned for myself, and I was determined to get back on my feet.

I didn’t want to be another horror story, another statistic.

All my friends fell in one of two camps. Either their parents paid for college, or they took out massive student loans and weren’t actively seeking a solution. I didn’t know anyone who had paid off their loans. Being free of student debt seemed insane and unbelievable.

But once I divorced myself from the common rhetoric of “I’ll be in debt forever,” or “things will never change” or “we’re all screwed,” I started fighting for my student-loan freedom. The reality is that while my college debt sucked, feeling sorry for myself was just a reason to not act.

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Hustling to Pay Off My Debt

Over the following years, I made drastic moves and relocated across the country to save on rent.

I started working every single weekend doing any gig I could take. There were times when I felt exhausted or embarrassed by the side hustles and when debt fatigue set in, but I remembered why I was doing it — I wanted to be debt-free so that I could travel and freely experience life.

During the leaner months, I’d put $800 to $1,000 per month toward my loans. Then, I more than doubled my income and paid back between $2,000 and $4,000 per month. Throughout the years, I’ve consistently put 50 percent of my after-tax income toward my debt.

How I Overcame My Student Loan Debt

During the four years after I left Mr. Wall Street’s house, I worked my tail off. I was focused on one goal at the expense of all others: becoming debt-free.

And right before Christmas a few years back, I gave myself the best gift ever: I submitted my last student loan payment. I logged into my account and saw the balance at zero — I was speechless. My breath quickened, tears welled up.

I should have been excited, but in that moment, I was just so relieved. The past four years of working nonstop had finally paid off.

Everything I’d been through brought me to this moment. After sitting there in disbelief, I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders.

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I finally breathed, letting out an “it’s over” sigh before properly screaming and jumping up and down. “I’m finally free!” I thought.

Now I get to explore life debt-free, and every cent I earn belongs to me (or the tax man). I plan on traveling more, worrying less, and saving up for my future, not paying for my past.

Top Tips: What to Watch Out For When Taking on Student Loans

Before you sign on the dotted line for your loan, there are a number of key factors to consider. Attorney Michael Lux, also known as the Student Debt Sherpa, spells out what prospective students should look for before agreeing to any loan.

Beware of the Interest Rate

“The key term for most student loan borrowers is the interest rate,” Lux says. “The higher the interest rate, the more difficult the loan is to pay off. When most of your payment goes toward interest, you aren’t really doing much to eliminate the debt. You are just the source of big profits for your lender.”

Borrower Protections

These are really important. Federal loans have options for student loan forgiveness and repayment based upon your income. These programs help ensure borrowers won’t be stuck with their debt for life.”

Know Your Lender

“The lender selected matters,” Lux says. “Some lenders have a reputation for being difficult to deal with or are flat-out mean on the phone. Dealing with student debt can be emotional, so don’t work with a lender who will pile on to the pain.”

Know Your (Realistic) Worth

“I normally suggest that your expected starting salary should be the cap on total student loan borrowing,” Lux says. “If you can reasonably expect to make $60,000 at graduation, managing $100,000 of student debt could be really difficult. The important thing is to be thinking about debt obligations relative to how much you expect to make.”

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Different Types of Student Loans

Student loan debt is currently at about 1.5 trillion and continues to grow. If you have or are considering taking on student loans, it’s important to understand the different types of loans available and how they can affect your debt.

Type of Loan Pros Cons
Direct Subsidized No interest is accrued during the period of study, in addition to a six month “grace period” following graduation. Determined by demonstrated financial need, and therefore frequently given out in smaller quantities than unsubsidized loans. Amount available is always less than that of an unsubsidized loan.
Direct Unsubsidized Not determined by demonstrated financial needs, and is therefore more widely available and in larger quantities than subsidized loans. Interest begins to accrue upon acceptance. A student who accepts an unsubsidized loan will graduate with four years of interest already accumulated.
Direct Plus Can cover the additional cost of attendance not already covered by Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized loans. Available only to graduate and professional studies students (post-bachelor education). Higher fixed interest rate (7.9 percent) than direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans (6.8 percent).
Parent Plus Can cover the additional cost of attendance not covered by Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized loans already. Available only to the parent or guardian of a student. Higher fixed interest rate (7.9 percent) than direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans (6.8 percent).
Private Available regardless of demonstrated financial need. Provided based on the credit score of both the signee and the co-signer. Variable interest rates that are frequently higher than those of federal student loans. No borrower protections (income-driven repayment plans, student loan forgiveness).

 Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.