Article Thumbnail

Into the Black: I Went From $80,000 in Debt to a Net Worth of $200,000 in Six Years

Lorelei learned that the more money you acquire, the more discomfort there is in talking about it

This is the fifth 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 Lorelei*, whose economically precarious upbringing motivated her to get a college degree and become a wealthy, successful working mother.

Lorelei, 35, Seattle

Past debt: About $80,000
Source: Student loans
Past job: Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington
Past salary: “I got paid shit,” Lorelei says, which equates to $40,000 a year in monetary terms.
Current job: Hardware engineer at a medical device company
Current salary: $105,000 plus a bonus of up to $22,000 depending on personal and company performance
Current debt: None; Lorelei and her husband now have a combined net worth of about $200,000.

I graduated from the University of Washington in December 2010 with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and $80,000 in student loan debt.

I decided to take a little break after studying every minute of every day. I was exhausted and needed to rediscover what once made me excited about being an engineer. Mostly I just wanted to sleep.

I was living off leftover student loan money which, I admit, was stupid. Most of my debt was from the loans I took out as undergrad, but I took out another loan my last year of grad school as a buffer after my divorce.

After about nine months of that I took a job as a postdoc. I got paid shit: $40,000. This is pathetic considering how long I’ve studied, I thought. But it wasn’t easy finding jobs in my field since I had no on-the-job experience, and this offered just that.

I was making just the minimum payments on my loans. I was anxious about not paying down my debt, but it was just so daunting that I couldn’t deal with it at the time. “We’ll get to that someday,” I told myself.

I made sure to live cheaply. I always had roommates. During one stretch, I was one of five roommates in a five-bedroom, two-bathroom house. My rent was always around $500, $600, which is hard to pull off in Seattle.

Eating out was a luxury, two to three times a week. Frozen pizza was a good friend to me then.

Most of my hobbies are free, so I maintained an active social life. I’d go dancing or meet up with my co-workers and make furniture together.

Living cheaply was easy for me — I grew very poor in Tennessee. My father was a self-employed construction worker and we never had enough to stay up on rent. Sometimes the electricity got turned off. When I was 8, we started renting out rooms in the house just to get by. Everything we owned came from a thrift shop. In my mind, only people in movies bought things from stores.

And I knew I was poor. Kids made fun of me for wearing clothes from the thrift store. Some of my friends laughed at me because I could only afford the dollar movie theater (and not the regular one). But that gave me the motivation to get a degree and not be poor. That was always the point.

In May 2012, I moved in with my second husband and finally started paying down my debt. My rent went down (obviously) but so did my food costs. I don’t cook, but my husband does, and he made all our food from scratch. Our monthly income was $4,169 and our expenses were $3,163. The remaining $1,006 went to my student loan debt.

The following year is when things changed significantly. I was promoted to project manager and my salary doubled.

I lobbied hard for that raise. They intended to hire externally, and because I helped create the budget, I knew what the job paid. I got pushback when I asked for $80,000 and I pushed back myself. I had read this book called Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation about the pitfalls of not negotiating your first salary. If you lowball your first salary by 10, 20, 30 percent, that will follow you your entire career.

Thankfully, I avoided lifestyle inflation. I was so poor for so long that I grew accustomed to that lifestyle. My budget rule was: Don’t buy things. Much of the stuff my husband and I own is from Goodwill, or a hand-me-down that’s 20 years old. But it’s ours, and it has our spirit.

We started putting $4,000 a month toward my debt, and I made my last debt payment on August 25, 2014. I thought I was gonna cry. The weight was gone.

I was pregnant with my first child at the time and I remember thinking what it would be like for him to be born into a family with no debt and all this stability. That was really meaningful for me, especially considering my upbringing.

Two months ago, I got a new job with another raise, this time to $105,000 plus a bonus. I even negotiated flex time so I get to see my son for dinner each night and pick up my work after he goes to sleep. My husband and I are putting about $3,000 a month toward a house fund — we’re looking to buy this fall. (My husband is a software engineer, so he makes six figures, too.)

I feel like I’m winning at life.

Funny thing is, the more money you make, the harder it is to actually discuss money openly. When my friends and I were all poor, it was fine to vent about money because we were on even footing. But things have gotten weird as I’ve changed socioeconomic classes. I’m scared of coming off as the rich asshole, and people thinking my life is easy. She probably just buys whatever she wants. Must be nice.

And it saddens me. I don’t want there to be a divide between me and my friends. Strangely, talking about money is more socially dangerous now than when I was poor.

*Name has been changed.

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL, where he recently interviewed Kurt Metzger, the controversial comedian who serves as Amy Schumer’s male counterpart.