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John Kapetaneas clearly remembers the moment he looked down at his $90,000 student loan bill thinking, “What the heck am I going to do?”
He was sitting on the floor of his old bedroom at his mother’s house in late 2013, having just earned a master’s degree in journalism from NYU, he told financial expert and author Farnoosh Torabi on a recent episode of her “So Money” podcast.
On top of his student loan debt, Kapetaneas, who’s now a producer at ABC News, had another $10,000 in credit card debt, he said. Together with interest, his monthly payments were about $1,300.
“I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I just saw this hole that I put myself in,” Kapetaneas, who was earning $20,000 a year as a freelance journalist, told Torabi.
Then he stumbled across a blog called “No More Harvard Debt” written by a Harvard MBA who had the same amount of debt and managed to pay it off within a year. Kapetaneas’ perspective changed “from one of hopelessness to one of purpose,” he said.
He knew he needed to increase his income and reduce his spending, so Kapetaneas took on extra shifts, worked holidays and weekends, and eventually moved back in with his parents.
More importantly, Kapetaneas said, he consciously decided to “endure the discomfort” of working more and living on less.
“Everywhere I could squeeze money out of my self-expenditure and plow it back into my student loans, I did. The reason being is because every single payment, every little bit that you put down once you kind of accept this journey. If you kind of frame this as, you know, hero’s journey … the end goal is this debt paid off, this is zero something day, and every step along the way is your various challenges, your call to action, you’re facing various challenges.
“Every little extra bit that you put down on your loan, every time you see that number drop from your principle, it will be a small win. Over time, you’ll begin to feel so much better about this, you don’t really even think about all the sacrifices that you have to make.”
In July 2016, Kapetaneas finally made his last payment on the total debt: $111,354.33. If he could go back to the beginning, he said, he would tell himself “don’t be so hard on yourself, that light is there.”
“That’s what I would tell to anyone who is listening to this who has 30, 40, 50, 80, $100,000 in debt,” he continued.
“Don’t put yourself through that anguish. Don’t put yourself in a place where money makes you feel like less of who you are. Because there is that light at the end of the tunnel, and you can get there,” Kapetaneas said. “You just have to believe that you can get there. I know that now, but there were times back then that I didn’t know that.”
Ultimately, he says, the spending and saving habits he developed throughout his debt-repayment have stayed with him. He lives within his means to ensure he doesn’t take on any more debt, and he’s able put extra money toward a 401(k), and an emergency fund.
“It’s all because I kept that discipline that I learned throughout this journey, throughout this process,” he said.