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How community could help you tackle debt

A woman stands smiling as she holds up her framed diploma. The white frame is decorated with stickers that spell out "paid in full".
Taylor Hayes
JMU graduate says finding the right community helped her pay off $60,000 college debt.

A JMU graduate paid off $60,000 off student loan debt in 5 years. She says the key to her success came down to finding the right community.


ANGIE MILES: On average, college graduates living in Virginia owe about $40,000 in student loans. But our guest, Taylor Hayes, owed 60,000 when she graduated from James Madison University in 2015. Taylor managed to pay off her debt in five years and is now a web developer. She's here to tell us how she did it and how others might be able to diminish debt of all types. Taylor, thank you for joining us today.

TAYLOR HAYES: Thank you so much for having me.

What was your reaction when you realized how much money you owed?

I think there was a little bit of shock, but to be honest, for the most part I kind of was just like, well I expected to have student loans and I was told that it was kind of normal and I just thought to myself, you know what? I'll probably have these for the next 25, 30 years of my life. But yeah, at first I learned about it and I just thought, I guess this is just part of my life now.

And what you did seems impossible to a lot of people. Talk about that moment when the switch flipped and you got the idea, oh I can just pay these off. What prompted that?

Absolutely, yeah. So, I had gotten a new job and I got a little bit of a pay raise and I had always heard that you should be budgeting your money in one form or fashion, but always was very disinterested. But as soon as I got a little bit of a bump in pay, I finally thought, you know what, maybe it's time to get my money in order. And so, I did a little bit of research to learn how to budget and I ended up stumbling upon what's called the zero base budget, which is essentially just taking your monthly income and subtracting from that your monthly expenses. And if you have any money left over, that can be put towards your debt. But if you don't have any money left over, it might be time to start cutting your expenses or increasing your income. And so that was really the light bulb moment for me where I was like, wow, my expenses are a little too high and I'm not going to be able to put money towards my debt, so what do I do?

Okay, so that sounds very sensible, right? To pay off your debt, you either cut expenses or you make more money or you do some combination of those things, right? Is it that easy? Was it that easy for you?

You know, logically it sounds very easy. I think it's more of a mental game than anything else. It's like you really got to get serious about what you want in life. Do you want to eliminate your financial stress, or do you kind of just want to live with your debt payments for the next 25 and 30 years? And I kind of decided I don't want this to be a part of my life anymore. And that's when I got laser focused on trying to increase my income and cut my expenses.

Setting aside for the moment, the people who are saying to themselves, "Well I'd love to make more money but there's nothing else I can do. I'm stuck with what I bring in right now." Setting that aside for the moment, what part of this challenge do you feel is emotional for people? The spending part.

I think we are constantly bombarded and encouraged to spend our money, especially when it comes to social media and you're seeing everybody take vacations, buy amazing clothes, do all these things with their friends, and you see everybody doing these things and you think to yourself, I can do all these things too, right? Like to fit in, I guess I have to spend all this money and I got to go on these vacations. And you don't really see that actually a lot of the time behind those phone screens, people are struggling with money. But you don't really see that and so you just think, oh, I guess I'll just do what everybody else does. And then unfortunately you end up digging yourself into a deeper financial hole a lot of the time.

And this is a day-to-day decision by decision practice, right? To just discipline yourself that you don't give in when you feel the emotional pull to spend money on something that maybe you don't really need or that you'll regret later. Am I putting words in your mouth? Is this how you experienced it?

Absolutely. And because it was so difficult, I kind of flipped the script on myself and turned it into like a little bit of a game. So I was like how quickly can I do this? It's me verse my debt essentially, right? And I'm a pretty competitive person by nature. I'm very determined. But even if you aren't competitive and super determined but you just know you want to get out of debt, I think like viewing it as sort of a game where you are against this thing that's trying to hold you down and keep you in debt forever, like switching your mindset to be like, you know what? I can absolutely overcome this thing. I've seen other people do it. I know that there are steps that I can take. And viewing it that way gives you a little bit more encouragement I think to start paying it down.

Okay, step by step, you kept track of how much you owed, how much you were paying, watched the numbers over time, how did you track your payoff of the debt?

Yeah, simply just doing a spreadsheet. What I think really helped me as a point of motivation was calculating how much interest was accruing on my debt every single day. So, with student loans, oftentimes you are accruing interest on your student loans every single day. So that balance is building every single day. And once I did the math, which was a really simple calculation that you can Google to just determine your daily interest, I realized I was paying about, or my balance was rising about $10 a day on top of the 60 grand that I had owed. So as soon as I learned that fact, I was like, wow, like I really can't just sit idle and pay the minimum payment. Like I need to do something about this and I need to be more intentional.

I'm putting myself in the frame of mind of people who maybe didn't get their degree, but they still have debt, or their degree is in an area where you can't make a lot of money, but they are passionate about the work. Maybe it involves helping other people. If they're watching this interview and thinking, well, I don't know how I can make extra money and I don't know how I can make a change in my life to address student loan debt. Are there side hustles? Are there things that you recommend that people can look into that could help them solve their debt problems?

One of the things that I did was I got a part-time job at an ice cream shop. So, after my nine-to-five on weekdays, and then on the weekends, I sacrificed, it was probably about a year of going from my nine-to-five to the ice cream job, but I made like 12 to $13 an hour plus tips. And all the money that I made from that ice cream job went straight towards my student loans. And that was actually a really great experience because not only did it help me pay off my student loans faster, but I got to meet a lot of really awesome people and it just gave me a different life experience that I never would've had otherwise. And there are things like babysitting, pet sitting, I would ask my coworkers, like one of my coworkers at the time had a niece and nephew and their parents needed a babysitter and I was like, I'll do it. Really anything that would help me make a little extra money.

You also in the process have created some resources for people who are trying to tackle debt, not just student loan debt, but really could be applicable for any kind of debt. What kind of resources do you have for people who want to learn more?

So, I have chronicled my debt-free journey on Instagram. You can find me @ImperfectTaylor. And what I will say is on top of kind of everything that I've mentioned, one of the most helpful things that I did, if not the most helpful thing I did, was I searched for hashtags and I stumbled across a hashtag on social media called Debt-Free Community or DFC. And what I came to realize was there are thousands upon thousands of people, no matter what kind of background, age, anything, that are paying off their debt and they're determined. And just seeing all of these people, one, opened my eyes to wow, there are so many people out here who are just like me that really want to get out of their debt. But also, two, I made friends who were just as excited or passionate or feeling maybe even like hopeless and wanting to pay off their debt. And you get to network with all of these people if you'd like, and you just encourage each other and motivate each other, and it helps you feel so much less alone.

They inspired you, and now you are inspiring other people as well. Thank you so much for joining us, Taylor Hayes, slayer of student loan debt and accomplished professional today. Thank you for sharing with us today.

Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.

For more information:


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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