This is the fourth 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 Kyle Pendergrass, whose debt management has improved his mental and physical health, but who lost some friends in the process.
Kyle Pendergrass, 26, Tucson, Arizona
Past debt: $16,000
Source: Student loans, $6,000 of which was credit card debt, because Pendergrass unwisely used a credit card to pay some of his student loan debt
Past job: Waiter at Turquesa Latin Grill
Past salary: Approximately $800 to $900 every two weeks, or $22,000 annually (including tips)
Current job: Research associate II at Ventana Medical Systems
Current salary: $50,000 a year, plus a 5 percent annual bonus dependent on personal and company performance
Current debt: $3,000
How he pulled it off:
Graduation was supposed to be a celebration, but I was depressed when I graduated from college.
Americans have this mentality that a college degree will solve everything. Take out thousands of dollar in loans. Don’t worry, it’s fine. You’ll get a well-paying job right after you graduate. You’ll pay off your debt in no time.
But that was all bullshit. The ramifications of taking out loans were never explained to me in actual dollars-and-cents terms. I was never told, “If you take out X much in loans, at Y interest rate, you’re going to end up paying Z in the future.”
Relatively speaking, my student loan debt was low—$16,000. But thousands of dollars is still a significant amount of money, and trying to pay it down felt daunting. Even the idea of getting a well-paying job felt hopeless, because most of that money would go to my debt.
Not having a job at graduation really put me in a slump. I spent the first year after college waiting tables at Turquesa Latin Grill, a restaurant in the nearby Ritz Carlton, earning just $400 to $450 a week (including tips).
I drank a lot that year, mostly to avoid the fact that I was in a dead-end job. And going out drinking was not cheap, so I was making no headway on my debt. I was sad and angry at the world for pressuring me to get an education that the job market deemed worthless. And that was even with a science degree: ecology and evolutionary biology.
I spent at least 10 hours a week job-hunting. I searched Monster.com, Career.com, Glassdoor. I sent out probably 40 résumés that year and had six job interviews, some of which did not go well. I interviewed with a local laboratory that does blood and urine screening for other companies, and I tried to negotiate them up to $10 an hour in the first interview. They didn’t appreciate that.
The sixth interview was my last. It was for a temp job at a biotech firm, filling in for a lab assistant who was on maternity leave. It paid little more than I was making as a server, and I was told it would last six to 12 months, with zero chance of me being brought on full-time. I took the job because I wanted it, but also because I was desperate. If if it didn’t work out, I figured I’d at least have some kind of formal work experience.
I went out of my way to impress everyone I worked with. I learned everything I could about the company and what my team was doing, specifically. I spoke to my bosses regularly and asked them follow-up questions and made it clear I was interested and enthusiastic. No one wants to work with a person who obviously doesn’t give a shit. And if it’s evident you do care, people will naturally want to give you more work.
Still, my salary came to about only $24,000 a year, which just wasn’t enough to pay down my debt. I was making only the minimum payments, putting nothing toward my principal.
In fall of 2013, six months into the job, things started going south at the company, and it ended up being the best thing that could’ve happened to me. My team was developing a test that would help identify specific kinds of cancer cells, and was painfully behind schedule. So they asked me to take on a bigger role. I said, “Absolutely,” and I immediately asked if it could lead to a full-time job.
“If you do this well, I think we can get you a permanent position,” my boss said.
I went from organizing tissue samples to being directly involved with product development. By April 2014, I was promoted to research associate, earning $40,000 a year.
That’s when I fell victim to lifestyle inflation — my spending increased along with my income, such that I wasn’t saving any more money than when I was working as a temp. I splurged. I ate out a lot, spent more on drinks, bought clothes and a new TV. I was making more, but had nothing to show for it.
I tried to get serious about my finances in September 2014, after stumbling on the r/personalfinance subreddit and reading all these stories about people setting budgets and paying down debts. I downloaded the budgeting app Mint and set a personal budget, but I couldn’t stick to it. It was a mental thing — I spent willy-nilly on food and alcohol, even though I knew, in the back of my mind, I was spending too much.
The following January, I thought to myself, Enough with this shit. I’m paying off my debt. I was tired of the fees, of the bad credit score.
I set a strict budget: $755 a month for rent, $500 for food and alcohol, $140 for gas. I cut out all unnecessary expenditures—video games, clothes. That left me with $800 a month to put toward my debt. That means I had been wasting $800 a month on superfluous expenditures.
Before, I went out drinking three to four times a week. After, I went out once every two weeks, and would only buy a drink or two when I did.
Before, I went out to eat whenever the hell I felt like it. After, I did it once a week, maximum.
I compensated by making more visits to friends’ homes, or texting and calling more.
Despite that, I lost about six friends amid the process. They came from more affluent backgrounds and just couldn’t understand that some people have to say “no” to things so they can pay off their debts.
My new lifestyle gave me a lot of free time. I started reading, mainly books about science and the history of scientific discovery — A Brief History of Time, Quantum Electrodynamics — and Chuck Palahniuk books. I trained for my first half-marathon and lost 15 pounds.
Most profoundly, I learned I was an introvert. There was a part of me that had long felt uncomfortable being alone with my own problems, and spending time alone helped me be at ease with myself. I realized I could be a flaky, undependable person. Having to be accountable to my financial guidelines taught me how to be dependable to others.
Within 10 months, I had completely paid off my credit card. I decided to tackle that first because the interest rate (22.99 percent) was higher than my student loans (about 5 percent). I was elated. I didn’t know who to tell, but it felt like this tension release from my chest.
At the end of 2015, I got another promotion, upping my title to research associate II and my salary to $50,000. I thought, I’m not going to change anything. I’m going to stick with the same budget, and use my extra income to attack my debt even harder.
I’ve since paid off more than $7,000 of my student loan debt. I plan to have the remaining $3,000 paid off by October this year. I don’t have plans to celebrate, but I know I’ll be relieved. It’s just so weighty to owe someone something.
John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL, where he last wrote about Chuck Klosterman’s take on the historical legacies of rock musicians.