A young Maryland woman who recently bought a home with her husband as they prepare for the birth of their first child is proud that she developed the financial acumen to pay off her student loans in full — no matter the path that others may be taking.
Based in the Washington, D.C., metro area, Micah (who asked that her last name not be used) works as a contractor in the financial services industry. In an interview, she told Fox News Digital that she'll always be proud of her accomplishment of paying off a whopping $120,000 in student loan debt — and that she knew going in that it was her responsibility to do so.
"With the financial freedom of having paid off my student loan debt, I can focus on other life goals," said Micah.
She added of her loan, "I decided to make the journey to pay it off because I just didn't want anything looming over my head in terms of ‘what if?' down the road. I wanted to pay it off and be out of that situation." She said that with this comes "peace of mind" for her.
The debt she incurred earlier on got her through college (University of California, Berkeley) as well as graduate school (Columbia University School of Social Work in New York City), she said.
Her take-charge mentality and sense of personal responsibility in paying off her debt is noteworthy given the Biden administration's recent announcement that it would "forgive" a certain amount of student loan debt for tens of millions of borrowers across the country.
In August, President Joe Biden said the administration would "cancel" up to $20,000 in student loan debt per person.
The administration, as part of this student loan handout plan, also said it would pause loan repayment obligations for the rest of this calendar year.
Micah said she knew even before her first year of college, when she was 17 years old, that she would bear the financial burden of paying for her college education.
But last week, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the program will cost about $400 billion over the next three decades — even as the White House said the CBO's estimate of the $21 billion the plan will cost in its first year alone is lower than what the administration initially expected.
With little fanfare, the administration has just scaled back the eligibility requirements for student debt relief. Now, borrowers with loans guaranteed by the federal government but held by private lenders are not eligible for debt cancelation, according to the Education Department.
Meanwhile, the nation's federal student debt is topping $1.6 trillion after ballooning for years — while the national debt, according to the Treasury Department, is currently at $30.7 trillion.
Worked 3 jobs to pay her way through college
Micah said she knew even before her first year of college, when she was 17 years old, that she would bear the financial burden of paying for her own college education.
She grew up in a single-parent home, she told Fox News Digital, and early on, ahead of her freshman year of college in the fall of 2007, her mom sat her down and talked to her about the costs involved.
"My mother raised four of us by herself in south-central Los Angeles," said Micah.
"And before I went to the University of California, Berkeley, my mom had a very frank conversation with me. She said, 'Listen, I’m going to take out this Parent PLUS loan for you' — and it was $13,000. And my mother taking out that loan," added Micah, "was the only way I would be able to register for classes."
She said that she, as a student, didn't quality for merit scholarships.
"She told me, ‘Your first bill is due Oct. 1st. So, you need to find a job.’"
"So, my mom said that I would have to go to the financial aid office as soon as I got to school" and figure out a plan.
"She told me, ‘Your first bill is due Oct. 1st. So, you need to find a job.’"
Micah embraced this reality, she said, because it was the only way she'd be able to attend college.
"I remember when I first got on campus, I met people who were saying, ‘Hey, let’s go out, let's go do this and that, let's go out and enjoy the college freshman experience.'"
Her mother's words, however, kept ringing in her ear: "You need to go to the financial aid office and figure out what your options are."
Within the first two weeks, Micah said she was "able to work with a really great financial admissions officer" who explained the work-study option to her. And that meant getting a job on campus.
"I was able to get a job in the dining hall" — one of the college cafeterias — almost immediately, she said.
Micah admitted that cleaning up in the cafeteria after her friends and peers was not the easiest thing for her to do — "but it was one of those things that I had to do," she said.
Friends began asking her why she had a job on campus, saying things like, "Your only job is going to college right now," she said.
Micah said she told them, "In order for me to stay here, I have to have a job — I have to work so that I can start paying back this debt."
She said her friends pushed back. They said, "Why? Once you graduate, you'll get a nice job, and you can start paying back your debt then."
But she held firm, thinking of what she owed her mom. "I told them, ‘No, if you all want to see me in the spring semester, I have to start paying this off now.’"
Added Micah, "So, that was the start of my student loan payoff journey, and it definitely began with my mom talking with me in a very frank way and letting me know what our family's personal financial resources were — which, at the time, were very limited."
"My mom was honest with me. She never wanted to set us up for failure."
She said, "My mom was honest with me. She never wanted to set us up for failure. She wanted us to be able to navigate this world, this environment and to make better financial choices than she did growing up, she always told us."
She also said, "She invested in me with that initial $13,000 loan so that I could go to college. So, I wanted to be true to her and be true to my word" to pay it back.
Micah admitted that cleaning up in the college cafeteria after her friends and peers was not the easiest thing for her to do as a freshman or at any time during college, for that matter — "But it was one of those things that I had to do," she said.
"And it helped me realize the relationship between pride and money and finances very early on. I just told myself, ‘Well, you know what? I’m here to get a degree. So, let's do what we have to do to make it happen."
During her first fall semester of college, she said, she had a first job under her belt. By the spring semester, she realized she could take on a second job as well to keep paying down her debt.
Ultimately, she worked three jobs during each semester of school as she took out new loans to cover her college costs.
For her sophomore, junior and senior years of college, she worked as a resident assistant, plus held two other campus jobs, she told Fox News Digital.
Too many college students or even college graduates, in her view, are "suffering in silence" as they try to pay down their student loans or other debt.
"I consistently held jobs" all throughout college, she said.
Along the way, she also learned how her loans accumulated interest and realized that her peers were not learning as much as she was about the financial intricacies of paying for college.
"You just have to know what your own situation is" and not worry too much about others' situations or positions, she said.
Getting comfortable with numbers
All of it made her even more determined to pay down her loans as steadily and quickly as she could, and to allow her, she added, after she graduated from college in 2011, to attend graduate school as well.
At Columbia in New York City, she applied the same determination and discipline to make things work.
Micah said that too many college students or even college graduates, in her view, are "suffering in silence" as they try to pay down their student loans.
"We don’t always talk about how much we make or owe," she said.
Thanks to a discussion with a friend about student loan repayment, Micah realized that if she made extra payments each month, she could have her loan total paid off sooner than she thought.
Ultimately, she wound up refinancing with SoFi — reducing her loan term in half and saving 3%-4% in interest, she said. It's how she was able to pay off her loans in full by May 2020.
Since then, she said, "life has pretty much taken off" for her. She and her husband got married during the pandemic — "We had the ceremony in our backyard," she said — and now they're expecting a baby.
"The journey of having paid off my student loans," she said, "taught me how to budget, how to save, how to invest, and I think the foundation gave me skills for a lifetime."
She's contributed consulting as part of her work on the SoFi Member Advisory Board.
5 tips for others as they aim to pay off debt
As a new homeowner and with a baby on the way, Micah shared tips for others who want to achieve financial freedom.
1. Get comfortable with numbers. "I think it’s important to talk numbers," she said. "In opening up about my student debt, friends began talking to me about their credit card debt." That, in turn, led to a greater awareness and understanding on their part, she said, of how to pay down their debt.
2. Know the loan process. "What they don’t tell you," said Micah, referring to taking out student loans, "is that the day you sign that notice, that’s the day that interest starts collecting."
3. Cut costs. "I shared a studio apartment with another person to cut costs," she said, referencing her graduate school years and beyond. "I walked to work and brown-bagged it."
She added, "I did travel. And though I might have stayed in hostels, I have those stamps on my passport."
4. Know your own worth. Micah said it was by working with SoFi’s complimentary career coach that she came to know her bargaining power, including how to negotiate for a salary increase when she changed jobs.
5. Live within your means. Micah and her husband bought a house in Maryland, she said, rather than in Washington, D.C., since that was a much less expensive choice for them.
"The power of saving and living within my means," she said, "allowed me to take the money I had been putting toward my student loans and save for a down payment."
She added of her new home, "While it may not be a brand-new home, we have a lower mortgage and money to travel and invest."
What would she say to others who are still faced with debt and struggling to get rid of it?
"Pride — leave it at the front door," she said. "Stay the course. You can do it."