Illustration by Erin Taj

Into the Black: I Married Into $100,000 of Student Loan Debt, but We Escaped Together

How a young couple used the ‘snowball method,’ grad school and baked goods to pay down their loans

This is the sixth installment of our series Into the Black, where we hear from people who found ways to pay off serious debt. This week we talked to Benjamin van Loon, who married into six figures of red but teamed up with his wife to pay it down.

Benjamin van Loon, 31, Chicago

Past debt: $120,000, $100,000 of which was his wife’s
Source: Student loans, both public and private
Past job: Bike mechanic at Johnny Sprockets
Past salary: $13 per hour
Current job: Copywriter, Aileron Communications (an ad agency)
Current salary: $50,000
Current debt: $30,000

I married my wife Sarah in May 2010 and got the world’s shittiest dowry: $100,000 in student loan debt.

We met in math class at North Park University in Chicago. We were both humanities people — I majored in English and philosophy, she studied music — so we’d sit in the back of the class and mock the professor. That’s how we first bonded.

Joke was on us, though. We had graduated in 2009, into one of the toughest job markets in American history, with degrees that had little value. I had to take a job fixing up bikes for $13 an hour, and Sarah’s nannying gigs paid only slightly better: $20 an hour. Staring at our debt, having these low-paying jobs that weren’t benefiting us in our careers, was a burden on us and our marriage.

But we were young and romantic and full of idealism, and we were determined to help each other out of our financial holes. There was never really an argument about whether to merge our finances. Our mindsets were, I’m here to help carry your burdens.

Still, dealing with six figures of debt was psychologically taxing, and we did argue about how to go about paying it down. I said, “Let’s live our lives as basically as possible to get out of debt quickly.” But she didn’t see it as that big of a problem. I remember one year she wanted to go back to New England to see her family and I told her we couldn’t afford it. And she would say, “Well, that’s what a credit card is for.”

She had to be convinced that our debt was a pressing issue and that we needed to make sacrifices, and, eventually, she was. Right after we married, she created this spreadsheet of all the different loans we had between us, all 12 of them, and decided to first attack the ones with the highest interest rates. And whenever we’d fully pay off a loan, we’d take the minimum payment from that loan and apply that it to the next loan on the list. That way, you pay more toward your debt as you go along. It’s called the “snowball method” and Sarah suggested we use it.

Her forecasts were ambitious: “We’ll get out of this in three years!” But we weren’t making much money. We were barely paying more than the minimums and it took nine months to pay off our first loan. My mindset was, We’re going to die before we pay this off.

Luckily, we were enterprising people, so we picked up a lot of odd jobs on the side. I would scour Twitter and Craigslist for writing gigs. I tutored and did some freelance proofreading and wrote SEO copy for brands. Sarah was enterprising as well, and would get jobs baking treats for people’s bridal showers and her friends’ opera recitals.

We found an apartment for $900 a month in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, where the average rent for a one-bedroom was $1,600. We thought it was a miracle, but the windows and radiator were broken and the floor was noticeably slanted. Oh, and the landlord was a cheap, anti-Semitic bastard.

We just didn’t have the money to go out with people all that often, so it was a lot of sitting at home eating stir-fried vegetables. We went out to eat once a week, and when we did, it was for something simple like burgers and fries. I often didn’t even want to go out because I didn’t want to bring people down with my depression about my debt. We rode bikes and read books, and I did some creative writing to pass the time.

Even with the side hustles, I knew I simply wasn’t making enough. So every day when I would come home from the bike shop, I’d job-hunt, update my resume and send out applications. I easily sent out more than 200 applications in a year a half, rarely getting a call.

Then I was offered a job as a “floater” at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The starting pay was $28,000 a year, barely more than what I was making at the bike shop. But it was worth it to have benefits, steady hours and some office experience, so I took it. And I was quickly promoted to executive aide at $33,000 a year.

I had started my own publishing business at this time, called Anobium, and through that, I met someone who told me his media company, Guerrero Howe, was hiring. They printed B2B magazines and took a chance on me as a staff writer. My pay bumped again, this time to $35,000.

My job at Guerrero Howe helped me land a gig in the marketing department at Cotter Consulting, upping my salary to $40,000. Each time I got a raise, I would make sure not to spend more and to put all that new money toward my debt.

Whenever we had a couple hundred extra bucks, we’d throw it at our debt. But, again, I just needed more money. It had been about two years since we got married and made that chart, and it was proving to be a painstaking, frustrating process. And we couldn’t just run away from it.

I was hitting my ceiling professionally, so I decided to go back to school and get my master’s. Northeastern Illinois University cost $14,000 for the entire two-year program, which was all I could afford. And between all the scholarships and academic rewards and the research assistantship I did, I actually came out ahead $1,000 by the time I graduated in 2015.

After getting my master’s in communications and media, I got a job as a copywriter at Aileron, a boutique PR agency. Sarah has a job with the American Jewish Committee, and our combined income is now more than $100,000.

We have $30,000 left to pay off and our attitude toward our debt has relaxed a little bit. We took a trip to Iceland this past May for our anniversary. We’ve moved into a nice apartment, but it’s cheap. Sarah helps the managing company with its finances, so we get a discount on the rent. One month we had rent-free because she did so much work for them.

On one hand, it feels great to have paid down $90,000 of debt. It’s proof of our hard work. On the other hand, it’s so incredibly maddening that we worked so hard, to the detriment of our social lives and familial relationships, and didn’t get to keep that money. That money could’ve been a down payment on a house. One of the major reasons we haven’t had kids yet is because of our debt.

Currently, we’re paying $400 more than minimum payment toward our debt each month, and putting about $1,000 a month into savings.

The stresses of more than $100,000 in debt and a tough job market would cause lesser couples to break up. Half of the couples we knew who got married at our age are already divorced, for instance. But we’re stubborn, and the adversity just made us want to dig in more.

I took on my wife’s debt, but I’m not sure I could have paid it down without her. When I had this mountain of debt, and I felt like I was never going to get out from under it, it was nice to think, Well, at least I have this person who loves me no matter what.