Finance: The Third Year of Paying Down $575,000 in Student Loans, An Update

Every May, I post an update on how we are doing with our path to financial independence, which largely depends on our student loan repayment plan. If you haven’t already heard the story,  I graduated at the age of 26 years old (turned 27 a few weeks after graduation) with more than half a million dollars in debt. A weight that was too heavy to bear, I decided to shun the common notion of waiting 25-30 years for loan forgiveness and instead to get rid of the debt as fast as I can.

Three years of aggressively tackling my loans is coming to an end, and what a journey it has been! You can read about my first two years here and here. As every year before, I will summarize what we have accomplished financially since last May, and how we plan to move forward and snowball our way down to being $0 in debt.

A Summary of Accomplishments for Year 3

This past year, there have been numerous accomplishments that I am very proud to share. It has been a year of experimentation and discovery for us both. But also, a year of triumphs over a few financial hurdles. Here is what we’ve done.

  • I opened a bakery and managed my own small business with one employee for an entire year. One of my life goals was to pursue my hobbies and possibly make them into mini-side-hustles. Other jobs that I had last year on top of dentistry was this blog space and dog-sitting via ROVER. After a year of baking for local restaurants, coffee shops, and markets, I closed my bakery two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic took place.
  • My husband wanted to switch careers. He has been interested in coding for some time and he decided to take a coding boot camp in order to be able to do systems analytics for large data sets. We enrolled him in a program which started January 2020 and paid for the schooling in FULL (it cost $8k) without reducing the amount we put towards student loans. We took the money from our “emergency fund” and built it back up over the course of 3 months. In February of 2020, when the company he was working at was doing lay offs, he requested to be considered for it due to a nice severance package for two months which ended on April 7, 2020.
  • COVID-19 epidemic happened which ended up helping us financially. My husband, whose severance ended in April, then applied for EDD and instead of getting very little money during this period of professional transition, he gets paid $4200 a month from the government.
  • As a dentist during COVID-19, I was in a precarious position. I split my time between two dental offices and was working 6 days a week prior to March 15. However, the government decided that dental treatment should be limited strictly to emergencies, thus causing one of my offices to shut down for the time-being. Luckily, the other office located 3 blocks from my house stayed open and I was able to work 3-4 days a week due to a particular patient pool. A 3-mile radius around our office houses over 330,000 residents who are mostly within a lower social-economic status. They usually do not have time to worry about preventative dental care and go to the dental office only when something hurts. Thus, emergencies ran amok. Additionally, 80% of the patients I see have Medical. Therefore, Medical covered all root canals and extractions at 100%, and everyone who came in with a medical emergency pretty much had a free pass at getting the treatment started on that day. Since most other dental offices were closed, patients from 30 miles away were driving to see us, too. If it were any other dental office, I would have been sitting at home like all my other colleagues but due to sheer luck, this actually kept us afloat.
  • COVID-19 helped us even further by reducing the interest rate on student loans to 0% until the end of September. This is a dream for all graduates paying off student debt, especially if they are paying it off aggressively. With the uncertainty that came in March, we paused student loan repayment and kept all our incomes liquid. However, now that we realize that the stipend from EDD for Mike and my work situation puts us at a stable financial position, we have enough set aside for student loans to bring us in the $300,000s ($375k to be exact)! Which is CRAZY! That means that in three years, we were able to go from $575k to $375k at a 6.8% interest rate. So now, we are tossing and turning the option of partially withholding some of that loan repayment money and putting it into buying a second property that we can use as a rental unit – thus increasing passive income. We are still up in the air about whether to experiment with real estate or focus on paying down loans. Perhaps we get both?
  • This past weekend, we finished off my husband’s car payment, a loan that lasted five years. My husband has owned three cars and three motorcycles. Five years ago, he was convinced by the dealer that he should take out a car loan to improve his credit. His other motor vehicles were always bought in full and in cash. The dealer recommended a car loan to improve his chances of being able to get a house mortgage in the future. Since Mike has no history of accruing debt, opening his first credit card AFTER graduating from college, he technically had “bad credit”. Mike signed up for a car loan and while I agree it improved his credit tremendously, I also get weak in the knees thinking about all the money we lost on interest. It’s a screwy system. But now it’s all over, which adds that monthly $585 car payment towards liquid assets which we can put into our loans or a rental unit.
  • Speaking of mortgages, we are finishing up our home refinance, which if successful would reduce our monthly payments by $500 a month. Add this to the savings from the finished car payments, and that’s an extra $1k to put towards snowballing our path to FI.
  • Lastly, we made a few adjustments including switching our car insurance and our homeowner’s insurance to a different company so that we can shave off an extra $100 per month. Now that Mike is at home working on his course, we have saved money on dining out since someone is always home making meals. Also, without the bakery, I have less stress and can focus on improving our finances and other aspects of our personal life.

How to Continue Snowballing

There are many ways in which we are snowballing the loan repayment so that we gain momentum and speed as time progresses. An example of this is the car being fully paid off, which then adds an additional monthly $585 towards our repayment plan. We had created many ideas along the way on how to make our repayment system better. Here are a few ways.

  • The Repaye program pays 50% of interest for the first three years of the program. By switching to REPAYE within the first year of repayment, we have saved thousands of dollars on interest. The final year of REPAYE is this coming year. We hope to reach mid to low $300k by the time it ends.
  • After the 50% perk of REPAYE ends, we hope to be at a low enough dollar amount to refinance the entire student debt. If we can refinance at 3% instead of the 6.8%, that would speed up our progress tremendously. Also, as the principal amount decreases, more of our repayments go towards the principal itself.
  • We are debating about purchasing a second property as a rental unit. If we do, we are searching for one that would at least cover the mortgage and it would be swell if we could find one that can actually rake in a bit more than the mortgage per month. This builds equity under our name and sets us up for passive income in the future in case we pursue early retirement. As we get closer to the end of the student loans, we always have the option of selling it (assuming it accrues value) towards the end of repayment to get a chunk of liquid assets and put it into the loans. Of course, the latter option is less financially savvy.
  • Currently, with me working and Mike unemployed, we can still afford our monthly $6.5k student loan payment and our living expenses. My hope is that Mike will get a job after the coding program that he enjoys and we can funnel 100% of the additional income into loans.
  • Currently, we are renting the bottom floor of our loft to my brother’s girlfriend for a very cheap rate to help her out. My brother is currently in Arizona starting his second year of dental school in the Fall. There has been discussion about them moving in together in a year or so. Of course, we would love for her to stay with us forever and ever but if she does choose to move to Arizona, we can definitely rent the bottom space closer to market value. Since our live-work-loft is commercially zoned and faces a downtown area, we can rent the bottom space to either a business or a resident. Our options are widened by the fact that it can act as an office space or a storefront.

When we first started our student loan repayment journey, we thought it’d be great to pay it back in less than 10 years. The first plan we made put us at 9.8 years. We made such good headway the first year but it wasn’t until Travis Hornsby from Student Loan Planner tipped us off on switching our repayment plans in order to save more money that our trajectory put as at paying back the debt in 7 years. With COVID-19’s help, I did the calculations at the current rate, I can repay it in 3.5 more years. But assuming Mike gets a job soon after his coding camp ends in June, I think we can actually finish this in only 2.5 more years.

And to think that people almost convinced us not to do it. They said life would be very difficult for us personally and financially. Yet we are the only couple we know who are calling the shots at work, creating our own schedules, switching professions if we wanted to, pursuing hobbies as options to replace work, traveling the world freely, and living a relatively stress-free life. Choosing the harder path, the road less traveled, really set us up for a different life.

Which is to say that sometimes, it pays off to follow your gut. Reach for your dreams. Look at more than just numbers. Surround yourself with like-minded people, cut out societal expectations, go rogue and run like vagabonds toward the nearest exit signs. Be afraid and do it anyway. Live life to the fullest, you’ll have no regrets.

Here’s to Year #4! Cheers!

Tips for New Grads with Large Student Debt

  • Get a consultation with Travis Hornsby of Student Loan Planner. I know it costs money and it feels difficult to pay more money when your goals are to save and pay back debt. But you don’t know what you don’t know and Travis is well-versed in student loan repayment options. Even when we were already aggressively tackling our student debt and working with an amazing financial planner whose wife was a dentist herself, Travis still taught us a few things we didn’t know. He saved us about $10,000 by simply placing us in a different repayment plan!
  • Run the numbers. This may be hard without someone’s help, but you’ve really got to run every possible repayment scenario to see which one saves you the most money. Of course, in the end, you may choose the one that affords you the lifestyle you want. In our case, we chose the one that does both. By choosing to aggressively pay back debt, we are saving more than $100,000 than if we just waited for forgiveness 25-30 years later. We also are freeing ourselves us 15-25 years sooner than our peers, which is a huge psychological benefit. Notice that I said we chose the one that saves us the most money. Travis will argue that we didn’t choose the one that would make us the most money. Which is true considering you can invest over 25 years of working. But I guarantee you we chose what was right for us.
  • Figure out your priorities in life. The best thing our financial planner did when we started talking about our finances was to spend a few sessions in the beginning asking us the hard questions to try to figure out what exactly we wanted. It was like marriage counseling for money. The top few items we had were to spend time with family, travel the world, and have the freedom to pursue our interests and hobbies. Freedom and independence dominated the conversation, and it was because of this that we decided aggressive repayment was the way to go.
  • Master a budget. You have to start somewhere. Mastering the budget is where you have to start. You can always increase your income, but if you never learn to curb your spending then there is no point. I made this course FREE on my blog to help as many people out. We use YNAB to manage our budget.
  • Surround yourself with a community of like-minded people. There is that saying that you are as good as the 5 people you surround yourself with. I choose to surround myself with finance resources. My favorite finance podcast is ChooseFI, but there is also Afford Anything and FIRE drill. My favorite book is Your Money or Your Life  by Vicki Robinson but other goodies are The Simple Path to Wealth and Goodbye Things. And then, of course, there are blogs, including Mr. Money Mustache, Mad Fientist, JL Collins, and The Frugalwoods.

Frugality: Self-Care

When I first set out to write a piece re: self-care (yet again), my initial though was to create a curated list of small businesses to support, and let support. In the spirit of being helpful to those who may need it most, I then concluded that perhaps doing so would make a thing as vital as breathing itself unattainable for many, especially at this time.

To commoditize caring for the self as it has been by consumer industries seems suddenly wrong and unaligned with what it was originally created to be – that is, a movement that promoted the under-privileged to care for themselves because… who else would, if not them? Which now, knowing the provenance of the term, makes me quite uncomfortable with turning self-care into something that benefits consumer culture.

In an effort to respectably recognize it’s humble intention, I am now sitting down to write of self-care with a different lens. Self-care doesn’t have to be pampering yourself, as defined by most millennials. It doesn’t require spending money buying things or paying for services. As much as the cosmetic industry would like to make us think that our pores and skin are working against us, or the fashion industry  wants us to believe that everything can be cured by a shopping spree, trust me when I say that neither is true and both are baloney.

It’s quite easy to convince someone that happiness lies on the other side of a credit card swipe (especially when that someone is mentally exhausted or extremely stressed from say, oh, work … or a pandemic!) but come on, we’ve all felt it. That uncertainty afterwards that lingers in the back of our mind. A feeling of guilt that our hard-earned dollars went into someone else’s pocket. Or the regret of not choosing to spend “free-time” in our PJs on the couch, rather than going out to treat ourselves to food and drink. Face it – anything that makes you feel like crap afterwards is NOT self-care. It’s an easy hide-under-the-rug kind of care. An avoidance of care, if we are truly being honest. Another thing to add to the to-do list in order to not-do anything about important things.

Well, you get the gist.

So here we go. A tribute to what self-care was originally meant to be.

  • Make your bed – and other ways to tend to a home (here and here). Something as simple as washing and changing the sheets can be as therapeutic as buying a new bed set, I guarantee, without the stresses of deciding on a new color, where to put the old one, and which of the two you’ll use.
  • Work on your finances. Taking care of your future self in the form of budgeting and saving is an OG approach to self-care.
  • Turn off the phone. Set some boundaries.
  • Take a long bath – no need for bath bombs or richly sensuous oils. Just turn on the water, sit in the dark, light a candle, listen to music with no words. Easy does it. I personally dislike baths, but I do like to clean the bath tub as a way to show care.
  • Nap without guilt – to which my roommates laughed because apparently, some people are able to do just that. I always feel guilt and unrest after waking up from a nap – as if I’d wasted precious time. But I am trying to re-learn that sleep is productive in its own right.
  • Drink plenty of water. If you want to fancify it, add lemon slices or mint sprigs. A mixology fact- tapping a stem of mint leaves on the back of your hand makes it more aromatic. Add ice, if it’s all you got.
  • Write a list of ten things you love about yourself – or what you want to accomplish, or who you care about, etc.
  • Practice breathing exercises or meditation.
  • Alternatively, stretch a few times throughout the day. Body movement is the best way to combat aging. Avoid static postures. Dance, if you must. Like no one’s watching, too – it’s a real mood booster.
  • Reduce your social media follows. Curate your feed. Much of how you feel is dependent on what you see and who you follow. If you follow athletic people to motivate you to lose weight, but they also make you feel bad about yourself, maybe they aren’t the best follow? Same goes for aesthetic spaces, models, clothing companies – everything that makes you feel like worthiness requires something better, or more.
  • Do absolutely nothing. For me, this is the ultimate form of self-care. An activity that takes me a while to get into, it is so much better than any solution you can immediately achieve.

I am sure there are plenty more, none of which requires spending. I’d enthusiastically promote the tabulating of your own personally gratifying self-care activities, and to carry that in your back pocket like arsenal. Because if not you, then who? And if not now, then when?

How to Monetize a Blog

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

When I first started writing, I was a person filled with angst. I couldn’t quite place it exactly, not realizing  that the unrest lied in my lifestyle as a millennial yes-woman. And so I did the only thing I consistently ever did since becoming a teenager filled with regret and discomfort – I wrote.

In that writing, I found myself – buried under all of  society’s imposed expectations, fetal position underneath all the rubble and trash. When I first started this blog, I didn’t expect anyone to read it. I didn’t even think myself brave enough to share all the darkest parts. I couldn’t imagine myself coming out of it positive and vibrantly alive. And I certainly did not expect a following, nor did I think that my written word would turn into a business. It’s been two years in the making, but now I’ve been able to create a community and a space in this vast interwebs, while also make money on the side to fuel my goal of paying down my debt.

And it all began with Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing!

Where Blog Monetization Began

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner runs a personal finance blog called Making Sense of Cents  and is the author of Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing. I first heard of Michelle on ChooseFI, as an interviewer like myself, talking about a life of side-hustling via blog work. It was then that I was introduced to affiliate marketing, which allows someone to share useful products relevant to their blog or lifestyle in the interest of helping others, while receiving a commission from the company if purchases are made through you. Prior to this moment, my blog made no money. Since then, I have had the joy of receiving additional side-hustle income while doing what I love. My blog became my first side-hustle. 

What I Liked About This Course:

  • It taught me how to sell without compromising my values. I am very much against selling for the sake of selling. As a minimalist and a frugalist, what I choose to purchase is very important for me, and I wanted that to translate into my blog. I dislike sales-pushy people and am very much against excessive consumption. This course helped me to balance the implementation of affiliate marketing without feeling like I sold my soul.  I use affiliate marketing as a means to share with others products or experiences that brought value to my life. I help others by directly linking them to note-worthy companies. I am very mindful about not infiltrating my blog with a cluttered handful of advertisements, generally limiting each post to one or two.
  • It allowed me to invest in myself and helped propel us forward with student loan repayment. This course is an investment in your ability to make money. More than that, it invests in expanding your skill set and abilities. I knew nothing about growing a blog, but learning about affiliate marketing was a great introduction into running blogs as more than a digital day-to-day diary. I am the first to say that my investment into becoming a dentist (costing me more than $550k in student debt) was not worth the education that I received, albeit it was worth the life lessons I learned and the person that I became. But this course is worth every penny! If you are interested in increasing your income, speeding up your trajectory towards financial independence, or a flexible job that allows you to stay home, I highly recommend this course.
  • It gave me a job that I love. I get to work as a part-time writer, staying at home working in my PJ’s, and doing what I love to do. All because affiliate marketing makes my blog a money-making venue. I always hear people say, “I don’t believe anyone can ever love their job”, and when I do, I feel very sad. I also feel guilty, because I DO love my job – in fact I love all my jobs! I love being a writer, a dog-sitter, a baker, and a dentist. However, if I never discovered how to monetize my blog, I do not think I would be able to make that statement. If I never fell into this  sphere of making money on the side, I would have probably been stuck working as a dentist, five days a week, burned out from the emotional stresses and mental challenges with a crick in my neck and an aching back at the ripe age of thirty. This course gave me my first glimpse of what it means to step back from a traditional work-life. It gave me the opportunity to limit my time in other jobs, which prevents me from hating a mundane existence. If writing is your passion, then maybe it’s time to carve out a job for yourself.
  • It gave me the confidence to start other side-hustle ventures. It’s hard to step out of  a comfort zone. It’s hard to leave a job that promises stability. It’s hard to do what others are not doing. It’s hard to chase freedom, when it also involves the freedom to fail. But once you’ve left the zone, there is empowerment outside of  it. Using what I learned in affiliate marketing gave me to confidence to believe in my ability to sell my skills rather than work for pay. I started to see value in my ability to take care of dogs. I saw value in the bread that I was making. I saw value in a lot of things. I left an egg-shell that was already shattered, I crawled out of a cocoon by putting myself out there. I think it takes one tiny step to fall fantastically forward into a black hole of bliss. This course was my one. tiny. step.

What I Like About Affiliate Marketing

There are many positives to affiliate marketing. In the interest of brevity, and in the hopes of allowing you guys to figure what you love about it yourselves, here is a list of the things I like most.

  • It increased my income and quickened our pace with loan repayment.
  • It taught me a lot about myself, in terms of what I wanted to promote and what I did not want to promote.
  • It allowed me to share with my community what brought  the most value to my life.
  • It allows my readers to connect directly to the source, facilitating a sharing of useful resources.
  • It shined the spotlight on small businesses and companies just starting out, especially those who I believe can have a great impact.
  • It provided me with the lifestyle I wanted, and is a great opportunity for writers just starting out, or people interested in working from home, nixing a commute, or being with their family.

How to Start Making Money with Your Blog

So if you are interested in writing and earning money, start with this course! It’s an easy transition for beginners like me, who knew nothing about starting a blog. Right now, the course is ON SALE (which hardly ever happens!). If you use my affiliate link here and use the code APRIL2020CC, you will receive 20% off of the course, making the total price $157.60 after the discount! (The payment must be made in full as there are no monthly payment options for this great price.) Now I know frugalist followers will be rolling their eyes at this price, but do remember that it’s an investment for the FI lifestyle. When done right, you can make that money back quite easily, especially if  you approach affiliate marketing from a mindful place. But do hurry, because this deal won’t last long! It ends Monday, April 2020.

As always, do not hesitate to contact me if you need any help or would like to learn more.

Property Ownership: Refinancing a Home

With the extra time on our hands these past few weeks, we’ve had time to mull through our current finances and see where improvements can be made. We are generally good at frugality (see how you can stretch frugal muscles here), we have mastered a budget (and I’ve written a free course walking you through the process here), and have been very good at paying back out student loans so far. However, this does not mean there aren’t places where we can improve.

Since Mike has been without a job since February and since the dental offices have been open only a few days a week, our income has undoubtedly diminished over the last few months. With the lowering interest rates of mortgages, we decided, perhaps now is the time to refinance our home.

Refinance Can Save $$$

We purchased our home in 2018 and was given a locked rate of 4.875% at the time. After shopping around, we found rates offered to us today to be as low as 3.625%. I was alerted by the drop in interest rates by a colleague who was refinancing her home, and another who was in the process of closing on his first house purchase. The latter also informed me that he knew of someone who has refinanced their home twice in the last two years.

At first I was skeptical as to the efficiency of refinancing a home. Of course, there are closing costs to consider, and is that offset by the monthly savings due to a lower interest rate? After running some numbers, we have decided that yes, it is worthwhile.

We were able to rope in our closing costs into the total cost of the loan which made the appraisal fee our only up-front cost. After calculating using the new loan amount (with the closing cost added in), we found our monthly payment reduced by $500+ a month. Multiplied over the course of 30 years, this saves us $180,000, assuming we do not pay off the home early.

How to Refinance

The process was fairly easy, since we were sticking with the same mortgage company and they already had our mortgage details. We simply filled out an application form and Docu-signed necessary documents. You may need to provide additional documents such as proof of income in the form of paystubs, which you’re lender will specifically ask for.

Of course, you can always shop around with other lenders. I would recommend asking for referrals from friends and family members until you find one you like. The closing costs can always be negotiated, and you can shop for some services on your own which may end up being cheaper than going with the lender’s recommended vendors. Do not be afraid to ask which services you are allowed to shop for. We did shop around and entertained two other lenders, however, all three options gave us a similar interest rate. Since we already like our current lender and we try to do all things in simple ways (simple does matter), we decided to stick with our current one.

Potential Problems

Of course, with the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19, you may run into a myriad of potential problems such as, but not limited to:

  • Delayed processing due to an influx of multiple home-owners also trying to reduce their monthly payments.
  • Volatile interest rates which are daily changing due to multiple people not being able to make their home payments, people losing their homes, and alternatively, people trying to buy homes at the low rate.
  • Delayed services such as appraisals due to social distancing and stay-at-home protocols currently in place.
  • Reduced income, depending on whether work-at-home is an available option for you, which can then affect your ability to refinance at all. If possible, keep your job so that you can prove that you have a solid income that can support the refinance.
  • Increasing debts as the jobless try to stay afloat. My advice is to try to keep debts at a minimum so that credit scores are not greatly affected by this recession to come.

Despite these potential problems, I would still prompt you to pursue refinancing your home. There will likely be a recession post COVID-19 and house prices may not stay at their current rates. In fact, we may see something similar to 2008 when house prices drop drastically and when that’s the case, refinance would be a difficult thing to swing. I would refinance while the value of your home can still be appraised highly, and while you can get in on these low interest rates.

Financial Advice to Battle COVID-19

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

I think it has become apparent to all that the up-hill battle which we face against COVID-19 has only just begun and will not go away any time soon. When whispers of a lock-down first spread two weeks ago, I truly believed that it was a wave we were all going to ride out, and normalcy will once again return within a week, maybe two. But the summit still has not been reached, so I believe it is time to talk about planning for the long haul.

I originally published my Mastering a Budget course here for free when I first heard of people halting work in order to protect the majority. That course will continue to remain free, but apart from budgeting, there are a few other financial topics to be discussed. Advice, if you will.

As always, take it or leave it as it pertains to your particular situation. I do not claim to be a financial guru, neither do I believe in one solid path. However, for the general public, these are my thoughts.

Financial Advice to Battle COVID-19

  • Start saving, if possible. For some of you, this is beyond what’s possible. Many people have filed for unemployment insurance with the EDD(which I highly recommend if you have suddenly found yourself temporarily or permanently laid-off), and saving is a ship that has long sailed. I understand that. For those who are still fortunate enough to work, I would highly recommend saving every penny possible. Now is not the time to go on an online shopping spree. These are volatile days, and no one really knows what tomorrow holds. For those who are without work, you still can save the dollars you have. Just because you have more time doesn’t mean you should be scouring the internet for sales (there will be many, I would presume). And this advice doesn’t apply to saving just dollars. Start saving pantry items, start saving worn-out clothes, learn to mend your way through. My favorite blogger who writes about working with what you have is Erin Boyle of Reading My Tea Leaves. Work with what you have, and save what you can. Which brings me to my next point…
  • Reduce spending. I am a strong advocate for frugality, and if there was ever a time to practice frugal muscles, well, now would be it. I have published a plethora of frugal challenges, as well as an Ever-growing List of Things I Have Given Up In the Name of Frugality (which happens to be my most viewed post!). Reducing spending is easy, once you get used to it. Like I said above, this is not the time to spend your days-off browsing the internet for sales and new clothes. This isn’t even the time to order delivery for fancy dinners at night. I know you already aren’t paying your cleaners (in the name of social distancing), and hopefully you stopped paying for gas and transportation now that you’re working from home. The stay-at-home mandate actually makes it easier to reduce spending if you are wise about it. Cut where you can, and put what you would normally spend into your savings.
  • Stop extra debt payments. This advice is what kills me most to say, but it is actually the smart thing to do if you are without work or find yourself with less income. If you continue to work like normal and earn the same amount as before the pandemic, maybe you can maintain extra debt payments. However, be sure you have enough in your savings first! You never know if tomorrow you will be so lucky to have the same job as today. Perhaps you will be without work, regretting spending what you thought was “extra money” on paying down debt that didn’t need to be paid. As many of you may well know, I derived my nickname “TheDebtist” after graduating with an astounding student debt – $575,000 to be exact – and deciding to pay it down aggressively. I am here to say that even I have decided to pause extra debt payments during this time of uncertainty. Currently, the President has mandated that federal student loans be waived their interest fee for the next sixty days after March 13, 2020. Therefore, deciding not to pay down the debt right now is a good move because I store that money as liquid cash, available for emergencies. We do not lose anything because the interest is waived and therefore the loan amount isn’t growing. When this is all over and the interest resumes, I can pay that lump sum that I haven’t been paying now towards loans and not prolong my trajectory towards freedom. This isn’t to say, “Don’t pay off debt and spend the money instead”, by the way. Overall, to me, stopping extra debt payments make sense. Now, this is different from not paying down credit cards in full every month. Barring severe emergencies or a shortage of funds, I think that credit card payments are not considered “extra” payments. They are actually the reflection of what you already spent. If cash is tight or if there is no interest rate, then I get it. But if possible, do pay off credit cards in full, otherwise you will simply be accruing debt and make life harder for your future self. Other areas where you may be aggressively paying down debt include but are not limited to: home mortgages, auto payments, and medical debt.
  • Use time wisely. I know, I know. I have been saying this past week that this time off is a much needed gift, something the world has been craving for ages. This is the time we need to take for ourselves. However, this does NOT mean “use this time to turn into a vegetable as you watch Netflix on the couch, scroll through Reddit or Instagram, constantly chat with your friends on Zoom or Skype, create dance videos on TikTok (twenty times over until it’s just right)”, et cetera. This time is meant to be used wisely. A time for self-discovery and introspection no doubt, but also, a time for growth. I shared an ability for my readers to access Skillshare for FREE for two months so that they could learn something new. Some of the skills on there can create a new job for you. If you are recently jobless, it would behoove you to discover what skills you have to share with the world. Create a business walking dogs on Rover. Or make money blogging (here’s how). Read plenty of books, some self-help to inspire you to create a new job position, some fiction to inspire creativity itself. Organize your home, thus organizing your mind, priorities, and the self. Take care of the paperwork you’ve been neglecting, or set yourself up for financial or professional success. Update your resume, or look into refinancing your home to get a lower rate. The world is yours for the taking.


  • Don’t touch long term investments. I cannot say this enough. Do NOT, DO NOT touch long term investments such as a 401K. Try all avenues before even thinking about doing this. The effects of touching these long-term investments are grand. It would make imaginary losses a reality. It would hurt any financial goals you’ve worked on building. Please, if you can, do not pull money out of these investments at all!
  • Create a budget. Off course, with the extra time on your hands, you can FINALLY sort out your budget. If you don’t have one, then I suggest making one ASAP. I personally use YNAB to budget (get your first 34 days FREE here), but if you take my free Mastering a Budget course, you will learn multiple other ways to budget without having to sign up for an online budgeting tool.
  • Stay Calm. Lastly, stay calm. Panic will lead you to rash decisions and regrets. Do not sell all your stocks at once. Do not hoard stuff because you are afraid. Do not sell the house or the car. Just. Stay. Calm. Think about the life you want after all of this is over. Then work backwards and think of how to make that happen using what you have today. Get help, if you must. I am here, for anyone who wants to talk.

Don’t know what in the world to do with student loans? Get help! Student Loan Planner is my number one recommendation for student loan help. Although this is an affiliate link, I am honest when I say that I would not recommend ANYTHING that I do not personally love or have not tried. Travis Hornsby saved us thousands of dollars! Scheduling a call today would be a very smart move. The financial frontier is daily changing, and you definitely need someone with the most up-to-date expertise to navigate through these waters.

How to Get Companion Pass for 2020

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

I wrote previously about how to travel for free using Southwest. I also alluded to the Companion Pass, which allows you to take someone with you at NO COST, neither in points nor dollars! The Companion Pass is by far our favorite perk for travel hacking. We essentially purchase flights using points for one person and the second person gets to tag along for zilch. When done right, it can last TWO YEARS! You can change your chosen companion thrice a year, like a piece of luggage or carry-on, but with significantly more endearment. How amazing is that?!

How to Get Companion Pass

Getting an elite status of having a Companion Pass requires the accumulation of 110,000 points in one calendar year. The Pass lasts for the rest of the year through the following year after. It is more beneficial to achieve Companion Pass status towards the beginning of the year than in the later part of the year. For example,  if you get the Companion Pass in February, you will have 10 months for that year plus an additional 12 months for the following year, summing up to a total of 22 months of privilege! Compare that to getting the Companion Pass in October, which would result in only 14 months of privilege.

The 110,000 points that you’ve accumulated in order to get Companion Pass status goes towards purchasing your future tickets from Southwest Airlines. Even though 110k points sounds like a lot to accrue, it is easily achievable using the credit card sign-up bonuses. It has never been more achievable than now, because for a limited time (until October 16, 2019), the new Southwest Business Performance card comes with an $80,000 sign-up bonus if you spend $5,000 in the first three months! This is the largest sign-up bonus that I have ever seen with Southwest.

How to Get Companion Pass for 2020

Because of this new deal, you can easily reach the 110k points needed by pairing the SW Business Performance card with a SW personal credit card of your choosing. The personal card will give you 40k points in sign-up bonus after you’ve spent $1k in the first 3 months. Together, both credit cards will get you 120k in points, thus reaching the minimum 110k threshold for Companion Pass. It is important to get both sign-up bonuses in the same year, preferably towards the earlier months. The Companion Pass considers when you get the bonus points only, not when you opened the credit card. So if you want to get companion pass for 2020, you can open both credit cards 2 months prior to January and hit the minimum spends IN JANUARY.

Here is a how-to guide for getting Companion Pass

  • Sign up for the SW Business Premiere CC sometime between now and when the deal ends (October 16, 2019). You want to make use of the 80k sign-up bonus deal. If you miss this time frame, you will only get the standard 60k sign- up, which will not meet the minimum 110k even if you pair it with a personal card.
  • Plan ahead on how you will spend the 5k minimum spend within the first three months.
  • Do not spent all 5k in 2019. You want to make sure that you get the sign-up bonus in 2020. For us, we plan to use the credit card for everyday spending, the holiday season, and booking AirBNBs and transportation for our Japan trip in March. We will spend only 4.5k on the credit card, which will give us a healthy buffer that ensures we do not accidentally overspend. In January, we will be spending the first few days of the year on a short trip to celebrate our third wedding anniversary, where we will likely hit the minimum spend.
  • Sign up for the SW Rapid Reward Plus personal credit card in November or December. I like this one because it has the lowest annual fee ($69) with $900 worth in bonus points, which makes it very worth it! If you would like more perks, applying for another personal credit card at a slightly higher annual fee may be for you. The Points Guy details them well in this chart.
  • Spend only $500 on this credit card in 2019. The minimum spend is very low ($1000) and you do not want to go over this amount! If you do, you cannot count these points towards 2020. In the first few weeks of January, you can easily spend the $500 on utilities, internet, groceries, and other everyday spending.

Tips on How to Meet Minimum Spends

If you are having trouble reaching minimum spends, here are some ideas:

  • Pay bills ahead, whether it be utility bills, insurances,.
  • Buy non-perishables that you will definitely use for the home.
  • Buy non-perishable staple food from the grocery store.
  • Purchase big ticket items during this time period.
  • Book future travel plans.
  • Offer to buy gifts for friends/family ahead of time.
  • Offer to pick up the tab for all your friends when you dine out, and then just have them Venmo you their fair share.
  • Ask friends and family if you could use your credit card to make big ticket purchases for them and have them e-wire you the cost. (Of course, choose your friends and family wisely).

Roadblocks You May Encounter

  • Being Denied a Business Credit Card: Gone were the days when you could apply for two Southwest personal credit cards. This method was how we got Companion Pass two years ago but alas, it is no longer an available one. They now allow only one personal and one business card. Thankfully, there is still a way! However, qualifying for a business card may be difficult if you do not have a business. Previously, I’ve written about the cons of depending on a single income stream, and credit-card-hacking-made-difficult is one of them. Off course, your life’s work shouldn’t depending on card hackability, although it’s yet another example why multiple modes of earning money could be beneficial. Often times, as reliable as they are, single income streams may lead one down the path of working for another rather than working for the self. Side hustles, however, open way for your own business. Take myself for example. I opened an S-corp for my dental practice which makes ME and MY SKILLS “the business”. My dental office pays Samantha De Leon Tillapaugh DDS, Inc. via a 1099 who then pays myself via a W-2. But even without that, I could also demonstrate my income and spending reports for Aero Bakery. I could demonstrate the dog-sitting business that I’ve grown via Rover, with letters of reference from dog owners. I can demonstrate this blog as a business, listing the affiliate marketing that I’ve entailed as well as the upkeep spending reports. Those are four “businesses” that I could use to justify the loose qualifying terms for a business credit card. Note how none of those have LLCs. I had a friend who got a business credit card from Chase when he detailed a business he wanted to start, indicating why he needed a business credit card to get the business off the ground. There are many creative ways to do this, and side hustles definitely help. If you babysit children, or tutor teens, you can rationalize why you need a business credit card. If you hold creative workshops or cook for others, you can again rationalize a reason. If you do photoshoots for special events or play music as a DJ …. well, you get my drift. Having hobbies turned side hustle can help avoid this pitfall.
  • Hitting the minimum spend in 2019 – This is definitely not a problem you want to have. Because you apply for the credit card earlier than 2020, you run the risk of hitting the minimum spend the year prior. You definitely do not want to split the sign-up bonuses between two years, because then you will have a very tough time reaching the 110k points. My advice keep track of all spending on the credit card and stop short a few hundred dollars. You can then resume spending on the credit card in January to make sure that both reach the minimum spend in 2020.
  • Not hitting the minimum spend in 3 months – If you fail to hit the minimum spend in three months, then the benefits of the card that would have outweighed the annual fee would be gone. It would defeat the purpose of travel hacking altogether. Since hitting $5k in 3 months may be difficult for frugalists, check the list above to see how you can actually use that $5k to plan ahead and relieve some of your future spending! However, beware of falling into the habit of spending just to spend. The purpose of the credit cards is not to allow you to buy more than you need. Rather, it is a tool to get you what you want without having to spend money for it (travel!). As always, spend wisely and well below your means.

Frugal Challenge: Practice Minimalism

In my life (as it is now), minimalism came first. By practicing minimalism, everything good in my life fell into place, financial clarity being one of them. Every time I choose a life of less stuff, I enforce a habit of not relying on external stimuli to make me feel whole. I am also deconstructing a fallacy that we were taught from birth, one that says we can buy our way to happiness. Minimalism is, after-all, a modern by-product of Zen teachings on how happiness resides within ourselves and the worlds our minds create. Any external stimuli only prevents us from tapping into our inner state of calm or peace by acting as a distraction from true happiness. Without the material things to distract me, I am able to focus on the more important (non-material things) in my life, such as paying down $575k in student debt! I can confidently say that I would not have been as successful with finding frugality and working towards financial independence without first practicing the art of saying Goodbye, Things.

My frugal challenge for the month of October is to start practicing minimalism. After all, it goes hand-in-hand with frugality. Practicing minimalism can cut down costs in many ways. Here are a few!

  • LESS SHOPPING, ERGO LESS SPENDING: After you’ve de-cluttered a lot of your items, you will naturally develop a hesitancy with buying something again (unless it’s something you realized you really need or want). The de-cluttering process, when done right, is a tedious process for the average American because of how much stuff we tend to accumulate. I guarantee that once you’ve really pared down, buying things is not as attractive as it once was, which means you will spend less money on shopping.
  • LESS STUFF MEANS LESS LIVING SPACE: Having less things allow for a smaller home, which usually leads to cheaper rent! Many minimalists find that once they are freed from the burden of material objects, they are suddenly free to live alternative lifestyles, such as pursuing the small space movement! Housing is one of the largest expenses in most people’s budget, so reducing the cost of housing will greatly catapult your path towards financial freedom.
  • LESS UNNECESSARY SPENDING FOR REPAIRS AND REPLACEMENT. Minimalism is a lesson in being grateful for the things we already have. Because minimalists surround themselves with only their most beloved things, they are more likely to preserve, mend, and fix a broken thing than they are to throw it away and replace it. They aren’t going to buy things for convenience sake and they are more invested in maintenance. Because of this, they save more money.
  • LESS KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES’S: Minimalists do not participate in keeping up with the Jones’s. In fact, they think the Jones’s are making a dying, rather than making a living. And minimalists prefer to live life rather than work themselves to death in order to buy material goods. And since minimalists do not participate in upward social comparisons, they are not as easily influenced or frequently bombarded by and with advertisements. They aren’t called upon to be consumers. And if they are, the calling is easily ignored. Overall, they don’t spend money in order to keep an appearance. Minimalists save their dollars, preferring to build wealth rather than build social status.
  • LESS STRESS RELIEF BINGES. When we are stressed, we tend to spend in order to make ourselves feel better. We want to take a vacation to run away from stressful work. We go out to drink during happy hour after a difficult 8-5. We binge on food and eat our misery away. We even have retail therapy. A practice in minimalism leads to more space physically, emotionally, and mentally. Minimalism reduces stress by reducing the external stimuli in our environments. With all this Zen, there is less cost dedicated to stress relief practices.
  • NO EXPENSIVE FRIVOLOUS EVENTS. Minimalists do not want to celebrate big life events with lavish parties, nor do they want to receive a tower of gifts. What will they do with all of this stuff? I may be speaking for myself, but my ideal celebration involves people and homemade food in a warm setting. I like gatherings in small spaces because you can feel the presence of others and there’s no nooks and crannies to hide in and stare lovingly into your phone. A good example of this was our wedding. We got married in an empty warehouse and the decor was handmade. My father tied gold streamers onto a string, and I made a backdrop for the photobooth area. My aunt collected wild flowers and put them in vases, and Mike’s grandmother made cookies and her famous magic bars. Our friends provided local beer for the reception as their wedding gift. We hired a taco truck and had donuts for desert. I’d imagine the same would go for children’s parties, funerals, graduation, & c. No frivolous events means no expensive events!

These are just a few ways that minimalism can help build a frugal lifestyle. The truth is, minimalism goes a step further than frugality. When I became a minimalist, I reduced the distractions in my life. I honed in on who I was and what made me happy. Because of this recently tapped in energy, I performed better at work and increased my income. I then found a few interests that became side hustles (writing being one of them). This further allowed me to make more money. And as I became happier, I also became less dependent on buying my way to happiness. My work made me happy, and I funneled even more time into my passions. And so the cycle snowballed, and slowly, our debt repayment changed from 25 years to 10 years to 9 year, to 7 years, to hopefully less than 6 years! All because I got rid of my things.

As all minimalists argue, if minimalism involves shedding physical burdens in the form of material possessions in order to be liberated to live the life that really matters, why isn’t is called maximalism? Frugal maximalism.

FREEDOM: Getting Out of a Rut

Alright, I’ll admit it. I’ve been in a rut. It took a long time to recognize it (too long!), but it is quite obvious to me that I’ve made a false start. I began this year with the intention of writing a course. It’s September and it’s 80% written but yet to be published. Meanwhile, it’s been slowly eating away at my bank account as I use a program that is useless without the course itself. Not only is it nibbling away at my account, but also at my inner peace. My mind is always thinking about the course. More accurately, I am always reminding myself that it has yet to be finished. Something is always nagging me, competing for attention space. I’m split spiritually, trying to go in two directions as half-ghosts of myself struggle in confusion.

The course is on budgeting. I wanted to write it to help people get out of their debt, much in the same way my CFP helped us get out of mine. But since deciding on helping people with this, my world was drastically changed, by BREAD no less! My focus is no longer on teaching people finance in a virtual space but on creating a local community around bread in my physical space. And still, I didn’t abandon the course.

I was essentially in denial. I made excuses such as, “I’ll work on it eventually”, “It’ll be worth my time”, and “People need me”. In all my self-glorification, I was disillusioned into thinking people’s budgets were in my hands. I’ve started to learn lately that that’s a big flaw of my Enneagram type 1 personality (more on that later, perhaps). After I got over myself, I finally realized what this course was:

  • A good idea, AT THE TIME. But the times have changed.
  • A self-glorified belief in my ability to help people and “set things right”.
  • A long withdrawn denial that this isn’t working out.
  • A hindrance to my advancement with what’s really interesting to me now – this bakery.
  • Unhelpful to me, unhelpful to anybody.

At times like these, we need to be brutally honest. I had to metaphorically stare myself down and say, “This is not YOU”.

There are three steps to getting out of a rut. The first is to see the rut. I see my bank account. I see my half-finished write-up. I feel nothing towards this course. The fire has gone out, which tells me it’s time to move on. Next, is to admit I’m in a rut. Which is why I am here. Forget all the assumptions I made about how beneficial this course will be. It’s just not happening. And thirdly, get out of the rut. The hard part. After spending hours of my days writing what must be a mini-novel on budgeting, I need to just abandon ship in order to save myself and get me moving again.

Here are a few ways to get out of a rut.

  • Make a list of new ideas. Brainstorm what can be done with one thing – see where it takes you.
  • Change your environment. Take a walk, get outside, go to a coffee shop. Sometimes we’re in a rut because too much is familiar and inspiration just can’t strike.
  • Challenge assumptions. Figure out why you can’t keep going, or why you are holding on. Challenge those reasons.
  • Just DO, as in DO ANYTHING.

The beauty of a creative life is that the path is never straight. It’s never carved out for you. It’s scary and confusing and downright dangerous. It’s hard work and frustrating and unclear. What it is not, however, is torture. In this experience, I am reminded of something my mom used to say. “We only torture ourselves.” You will know when you’re in a rut. You may also resist, at first, like I did. But eventually, there will be no hiding, and we have to be good at letting go.

We need to believe that part of the creative life means your work doesn’t depend on the first idea, but rather, the LAST. I see now that my new idea is being a baker. I see that my preconceived notion of writing a course limits my pursuit of bread-baking. A creative life will end if I cling to the first idea. My advice, always run with the last.