Illustration by Erin Taj

Into the Black: How I Cut My $118,000 Student Loan Debt in Half

After realizing she might never own a home, Kelsey Kronmiller started slinging ornaments on Etsy to help pay down her debt

This is the second installment of our series Into the Black, where we hear from people who escaped the overwhelming burden of unpaid bills and loans through their own sacrifice and ingenuity. First up was Paige Trimble from North Carolina, who paid back $68,000 in three years. This week we talked to Kesley Kronmiller, who’s cut her six-figure debt down to (the apparently magic number of) $68,000.

Kelsey Kronmiller, 27, Wareham, Massachusetts

Past debt: $118,000
Source: Student loans, $50,000 of which was in a loan in her name. The remaining $68,000 was from a loan from her parents.
Past job: Graphic and web designer at Dennis East International, a home decor wholesaler in Cape Cod
Past salary: $30,000
Current job: Visual web designer at Boston.com, The Boston Globe’s website
Current salary: $70,000 base, plus a bonus of up to $8,000 based on personal and company performance
Current debt: $68,000 that she owes to her parents

How she pulled it off:
It wasn’t until I was living on my own, paying my own bills, that it set in exactly how in debt I was.

I got my first job in June 2012, about five weeks after my college graduation, and moved out from my parents’ house and into my own place the following May. I was living with a roommate, a friend of mine since middle school, and he quickly became my boyfriend. (And now he’s my fiancé.)

Here I was in this committed relationship, and I realized all the things I eventually wanted in life — a wedding, a house, a family — would never happen because of all the debt I was carrying.

I was absolutely devastated, feeling helpless and hopeless.

Then I became emboldened. I got mad at my debt and said, “Fuck this shit.” Something needed to be done and it needed to be done now.

I Googled “getting out of debt” and from there discovered Dave Ramsey. He’s this well-known personal finance personality on the radio, and I read his Complete Guide to Money. I thought the book would be daunting because I generally hate math, but I was surprised at how easy it was to understand. He talked about being “gazelle intense”: tackling your finances with the intensity of a gazelle running from a cheetah.

On August 11, 2014, I changed my life completely. “I refuse to be just another American living with debt, especially because of something so necessary like an education,” I wrote on my blog that day.

I started working, like, 500 jobs, because $40,000 a year just wasn’t going to cut it. (I was laid off from Dennis East in October 2013, but it was a blessing in disguise because I was underpaid and I hated the work. SmartPak, an e-commerce site for equestrian equipment, hired me in March 2014 at $40,000 a year.)

My first side gig was overnight pet-sitting. I’d go to work, get home, eat dinner, then head to a client’s house and take care of their pet. Sometimes it’d be for the night, other times the entire weekend. I charged $65 a night, which, at least 12 nights a month, amounted to an additional $10,000 to $15,000 a year.

During the holidays, I opened an Etsy shop selling handmade ornaments inspired by video games. I started selling them to my friends and marketing them on the “Skyrim” subreddit. I sold 900 ornaments and made $12,000 in just three months at the end of 2014. Between that, pet-sitting and my full-time job as a graphic designer, I basically didn’t sleep that entire December.

Oh, and I also started doing freelance web design work that August — logos, business cards, fliers. I’d scour Craigslist and Facebook groups, taking any job I could find. That brought in another $3,000 to $5,000 per year.

All in, I was making an additional $30,000 from my side hustles, nearly doubling my salary.

The next year my salary (almost) doubled for real: In August 2015, The Boston Globe hired me at a $70,000 base, plus a yearly bonus of $5,000 to $8,000 based on personal and company performance.

August 2014 is when I also got my spending under control, budgeting like a crazy person. I had both a good offense (increasing my income) and a good defense (decreasing my expenditures). I started using the budgeting program You Need a Budget — it’s like Mint, but better. It teaches you to budget your income down to the last cent. If you have a $500 paycheck, for instance, you would allocate every dollar to a category until you have nothing left. Previously, I saw my bank account as one large sum of money. With You Need a Budget, I saw all the individual parts of my monthly spending.

I completely cut out everything that wasn’t a necessity. I stopped going to the movies. I stopped buying video games. I’m a huge fashion person, so I had to cut back there. I went from spending $100 a month on clothes to zero, unless it was, like, socks or something I needed. I literally just stayed in my house and hung out with my boyfriend for about 19 months.

All this time, I was putting all my extra money toward my debt. Prior to the life change, I had only been making minimum payments, just paying interest and putting nothing toward the principal.

This February, my boyfriend became my fiancé. In March, I made the last payment on my personal student loan. It was like birthing a child. It was amazing. Except the federal loan website doesn’t update for a week.

We’re trying to stay under $10,000 for the wedding. The ceremony is on the top of a mountain, so that’s free, and because it’s on a Sunday, we got the venue for half-price ($3,500). We found our photographers on the wedding planning subreddit, and they offered to it for us for just $1,000, whereas most photographers charge $3,000. And we negotiated the caterer down to $1,200.

And because my salary is so much higher now, I’ve scaled back on the side jobs. I scaled back the Etsy shop this past Christmas because I just wanted to be stress-free. I remembered being up all night, in tears, the previous year, missing family parties because I had so many ornaments to make. I’ll turn some pet-sitting jobs down and go on the occasional vacation — we’re thinking about going going to Harry Potter World. (We still don’t go out to eat or to the movies much, though.)

But I’m still on my grind, because my husband, who’s a carpenter, is going to build us a house from scratch, and I want that house now. I’ve dreamt about owning a home since I was 5, and when I make that down payment, it’ll be the best thing that ever happened to me.

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL, where he last wrote about embracing life as a Fedora Bro.

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