How I Paid Off $25,000 in Student Loans: The Life-Changing Journey to Becoming Debt Free

This is a guest post by Jaime Lopez. He has degrees in film and history and spent the past decade working in both education and the A/E industry. You can connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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The following post is Jaime’s personal story of how he got out of debt, and the life-changing transformation he experienced as a result. He also shares the valuable lessons on the way and the sacrifices that had to be made so that he could become who he is today.

It’s a story of developing a powerful mindset, dealing with obstacles, keeping hope alive and turning hardships into a great learning experience.

I believe that the following reading can encourage you to do something about your life today, can show you that anything can be overcome and freedom can be reached, and can remind you of the power of education.

Enter Jaime, and see what helped him take back control of his life and the powerful lessons he learned.

Introduction

I want to develop my potential and help others do the same, as I believe we’re all born, to some extent, as diamonds in the rough.

Based on my own life experience, I subscribe to the idea that becoming better human beings and better at the things we pursue depends and how actively and continuously we educate ourselves. With so much information in today’s world, it is important to process information effectively and purposefully, without also completely ignoring our need for leisure that can feed our soul.

There is almost nothing that means more to me in life than education. At every step of my life I have pursued it, even when there’s been very little or no support for me to do so.

Last night I made my last student loan payment. The range of emotions and memories that are racing through my mind seem almost unreal. I graduated from UCLA in 2002 with $25,199 in student loans, which after 13 years with interest probably amounts to somewhere between $30,000-$35,000.

The Financial Nightmare

The journey of paying for my education has been long and rough, but nonetheless extremely priceless.

Immediately upon graduating I worked up to 4 jobs at a time, trying to start my adult life on strong financial footing. I wanted to do more for myself, for others, and more than anything I wanted to continue my education. I was tired of being poor.

I saved up enough money to entertain the thought of investing in real estate, which at the time was heavily encouraged by almost everything I heard and read. I saw this investment as a means to help me accomplish my goals, although it would ironically prove to make my goals less obtainable.

In 2005 I bought a condo and kept up a mortgage for 8 years, paying almost $100,000 during that time, only to have ended up with a short-sale. In December of 2007, on the same month that economists now agree marks the beginning of the great recession, and not even half-way through my 8 years as a homeowner, I was laid off from a job.

The next five years (2008-2013) would be a financial nightmare for someone who had always done “the right thing” – going to college, working hard, saving money, and making “wise” investments. Instead, what I experienced were continued poverty and unthinkable opportunity costs.

The Sacrifices on The Way to Becoming Debt Free

The financial strain I faced saw me renting out my condo numerous times, renting rooms where I slept on the floor, and sleeping days at a time in the office. But I kept fighting and believing in myself, even when I perceived that I was viewed as a failure, or worse yet, a joke.

During 3 of those 8 years, I took two LSAT prep courses, spent countless hours studying, and took the LSAT 4 times with unfavorable results. But in the process, I learned how to dissect arguments and identify fallacies, abilities that I will possess as part of my analytical skills for the rest of my life.

I took the GRE three times with somewhat better results, and though I’m still not in graduate school, I expanded my vocabulary tremendously and solidified my disciplined approach to most things.

Making the experience less rewarding along the way, I helped out my family in whatever way that I could, though my generosity has hardly been recognized, much less appreciated. I have a younger sister who accuses me of acting like her dad, when all I’ve wanted is the best for her and everyone else in my family. This perception has killed me, but I have to trust that someday my experience and my willingness to share every last part of it will be better understood.

But I’m lucky. I learned valuable lessons that will help me in the future. At 36, I feel young, and after working for everything I’ve accomplished since I was 16, I feel very blessed.

Since turning 16, almost nothing has been given to me, and though this may seem sad, and in many ways it is, I now wear this fact as a treasured part of my identity.

The person I’ve become along the way means more to me than all the money I’ve lost.

Transforming My Life Thanks to The Power of Education

education

As people sometimes say, money comes and goes, but an education is something no one can take away. My experience is the experience of someone who has roughed it out for almost 2 decades with seemingly very little to show for it on the surface, but today I feel so free and in many ways wealthy.

Not because I have financial wealth or a fancy title per se, but mainly because I’ve proven to myself that not only can I survive the toughest of times, but that I can do it without compromising my character, my soul, my culture, my life-experience, and my continued efforts to educate myself, even after college, and especially at a time when people often question the value of a college education.

Today, as I walk around in life, I’m empowered to know that those $30,000 to $35,000 were probably the smartest and most valuable investment I will ever have made in my youth.

In conversation after conversation, with people of all educational and financial backgrounds, I am reminded at how important it is to think critically, and how lucky I am to have gained that ability, especially at a time when anti-intellectualism runs so rampant in our society.

I am as inspired as ever to keep growing intellectually, and I’m convinced that there is still so much work to do. I’ve confirmed to myself that experiences that add to our knowledge of the world such as reading books, watching thoughtful films and documentaries, traveling, and seeking out interesting people and events that inspire and educate us are perhaps the wisest investments we make, not only with our money, but with our time.

In these past 13 years I’ve been through a great deal, but I’ve also had the opportunity to do amazing things:

• I’ve traveled to 1/3 of the United States and visited 12 countries (which includes seeing some of the world’s greatest art and architecture);
• survived the removal of a tumor;
• read over 100 books since college (I keep a running list);
• watched over 500 films from a list called “1,000 Movies to See Before you Die”;
• watched all of Roger Ebert’s 363 “Great Movies” and reviewed 111 of them (I’ve since become friends with Roger’s former boss at the Chicago Sun-Times);
• ran 3 marathons (thanks to Melissa) and 10 half-marathons;
• went sky-diving over the Swiss Alps;
• visited 3 of the 7 wonders of the world;
• watched a match at the French Open;
• attended 4 World Cups;
• contemplated the power of Iguazu Falls within a few hundred feet;
• got to see UCLA win their only College World Series;
• was admitted to UCLA’s film school (which is statistically harder to get into than Harvard medical school);
• wrote, directed, and produced a short film on 16mm;
• tutored students of all ages;
• college-counseled 65 students across 3 states and attended about 20 of their high school graduations;
• have taken classes in graphic design, personal finance, Chinese, college counseling, technical writing, political philosophy, and international relations;
• attended dozens of concerts;
• enjoyed foods from dozens of countries;
• read hundreds of New Yorkers articles (my favorite publication);
• have consumed and processed hundreds of book abstracts, podcasts, and articles;
• and have been loved by a most amazing girlfriend;
• I’ve been vegetarian for almost a year now;
• I’ve been car-free for 8 months (and not planning on looking back);
• I’m almost done visiting a list of 178 landmarks around Los Angeles with Melissa.

Gratitude, Freedom and Looking Forward to What’s Next

I’m feeling very emotional about my life right now because in many ways I’m not even supposed to be here. My existence was not planned, I was not bred to succeed, and I was definitely not given a fair shake in many other respects.

I’ve always felt like life is one big party I wasn’t invited to, but I’ve nevertheless crashed it.

I’m here, I’m as empowered and overjoyed about life as ever, and I’m feeling utterly grateful for EVERYTHING. And why, because life is absolutely beautiful, and to waste it, to waste our potential would be criminal.

A lot of this is luck, a lot of this is thanks to generous people along the way (some of whom I’ll soon begin to visit and pay my respects to), the complicated but also unconditional love of my family, and a voracious appetite to understand my life and the world I live in.

Nothing that is worth it comes easy. As a person born with few if any advantages in life, I’m feeling proud of what I’ve done, something I’ve rarely allowed myself to feel, but I’m allowing myself to stand proud today.

I am as of now 100% debt free, and I’m super excited about what’s to come.

I’m excited to one day obtain the elusive graduate degree I’ve chased for years, I’m excited for my future adventures with Melissa, I’m excited to learn more, I’m excited to see more of the world, I’m excited to give more to those in need, I’m excited to help save the planet, and just as importantly, I’m excited to correct the mistakes I’ve made along the way.

I’m not one to ever care for celebrating my own birthday, but this week, after all these years, paying for my education is something that I will celebrate with the utmost joy and pride.

I’ve recently been asked to speak to incoming students at UCLA about their student loans and financial aid. I could not feel more honored than to share my experience with them.

I just wanted to share this powerful and meaningful moment with you, as I’ve always wanted nothing more than for everyone to be their best and live life to the fullest in whatever way you define it.

***

I’m happy Jaime found me through my blog and decided to email me sharing all this. Stories like that need exposure as many people out there are struggling with the same issues. And, often, it’s just a success story like that which will give them a confidence boost and inspire them to take action.

I’m sure the good things for Jaime are only just beginning. With such a desire to learn, explore, create, give and help, he has all it takes to achieve anything in life.

What do you think?

If you have a question for him, make sure you connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Lidiya K

Lidiya K

Author, blogger and podcaster in the fields of self-improvement and life hacking. Creator of Let's Reach Success.
Full-time freelance writer. Lifestyle designer.
Lidiya K

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