Think you can’t get out of debt? Think again. Melanie Lockert of Dear Debt shares her strategies for tackling debt, even on a low salary.

In May 2011, I graduated from NYU with a total of $68,000 in student loan debt.

For months, I had been nervously anticipating graduation day. I felt like I was living in a ticking time bomb. Each day that went by, I was closer to graduation and my happy student bubble would burst. I knew I would have to pay back these student loans and the future looked so…uncertain.

I had no job lined up, except some part-time gigs I had cobbled together. Prior to graduate school, I had worked in the nonprofit sector and at my peak I made $38,000 — a salary that afforded me just enough to live in Los Angeles. My student loan debt had far surpassed any of my annual salaries; I was terrified, to say to the least.

While I wish I could tell you an amazing success story about how my income tripled after graduate school and allowed me to wipe out my debt, that just wouldn’t be a true story.

What is true is that I graduated and struggled in New York for a few months before leaving for greener (and cheaper) pastures in Portland, Oregon. What is also true is that, even with a master’s degree, I made the least amount of money I had in my whole life. The first few years after graduation were a struggle to get by while I worked to pay off a massive amount of debt.

During those tough times, I could have easily written off my debt by deferring or applying for lower payments — but even when I was only making $10 an hour and working part-time, I was determined to continue paying off debt as fast as possible.

Within three years time, I have paid off $30,000 of debt — making about that much in income, or much much less.

People are shocked when they find out how much I have paid off in such a short amount of time with such a small salary. When I put it into perspective: I was underemployed, working for a nonprofit, and now I freelance as a main source of income, it is even difficult for me to believe. And the typical response I receive is “I could never do that!”

I’ve made some choices, some of which were more drastic than others, to be able to pay off debt on a minimal salary. If you have a low salary and want to pay off debt, it is possible.

It isn’t simple. It doesn’t happen overnight. And it does test your patience. But if you are working to get out of debt, here is what has worked for me.

The Power of a Savings Account

My savings account was the biggest contributor to my debt repayment in those struggling early years. Before heading to graduate school, I had saved up $14,000 as a buffer for graduate school. Even though I did end up taking a lot of student loans, I actually rejected a portion of student loans for living costs. Instead, I worked three part-time jobs to pay for living expenses. Because of that, I didn’t touch any of my savings and just lived off my salaries, while my student loans paid for my costly NYU tuition.

My savings account was my net that helped me avoid any further debt when I was struggling to make ends meet. Also, when I got back on my feet again and my income stabilized, I slowly started to use my savings and put it towards my debt. As much as I liked seeing such a high number in my bank account, my savings account had a paltry 1 percent interest rate, whereas my Graduate PLUS loans were hanging over my head with 6.8 percent and 7.9 percent interest rates. At one point I was paying $10 per day in interest.

So I made the decision to put my savings towards debt. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly and one that I don’t recommend for everyone. But it worked for me and happened over a matter of months as I regained some stability in my income.

The Art of the Side Hustle

Aside from using a chunk of savings to pay off debt, I also became obsessed with the side hustle. Side hustling is a term for doing anything that makes money outside of your regular job. When I was working part-time making $10 an hour, I knew I had to earn more to continue paying off debt, so I looked for gigs outside of my job.

I began working as a brand ambassador on weekends, and working events for the local church. I participated in focus groups, cleaned houses, worked as a pet sitter, sold old CDs and books, and started freelance writing on the side. Essentially, I did anything in my free time to make extra money. I found gigs on Craigslist, Facebook, Twitter, and TaskRabbit. I told my friends that I wanted more work and they thought of me any time there was an opportunity.

Side hustling has allowed me to boost my income and put more of my money towards paying off debt. When you make a low salary, earning more goes a long way. While I’m a fan of cutting back on expenses, I know very well that there is only so much you can cut back. Conversely, there are many ways to increase your income.

Being Unconventional

In addition to figuring out ways to boost my income, I have also chosen to live a very minimalistic life, forgoing some things that most people take for granted. I moved across the country to a location with a lower cost of living and split a studio apartment with my partner. I opted not to have a car, and prefer to take public transportation or bike everywhere. In addition, I have said no to gym memberships, pets, cable, and kids.

Instead, I spend my days strolling in parks, going to the local art walk, biking, and exploring. I spend quality time with friends and live a fuss-free, minimal life. I am living according to my priorities and values, and my main priority is to get out of debt. These choices are not a standard fit for everyone; I realize that. But, even if you are an animal lover or someone who already has kids, there are ways to cut back expenses and increase income. My point is this: The days of “keeping up with the Joneses” are in the past and the days of living your unique dream life are here!

I know that becoming debt-free will help me afford my dreams so that I can live a richer life. I am committed to working hard now so that I can have a strong financial future, one that is filled with choice and opportunity, freedom and fun. So, while it is hard to pay off debt on a low salary, it is possible.

Getting by on a low salary is already a great feat of creativity — so imagine how getting out of debt will make you feel?

Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer and passionate debt fighter who writes at DearDebt.com. She is currently climbing out of $81,000 in student loan debt and is often dreaming of her next adventure.

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