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When Sharon Hadden was working full time as a digital experience manager, she had no trouble making payments on her student loans. But corporate life wasn’t the right fit for Hadden, and she longed to spread her entrepreneurial wings and travel the world.
Choosing not to let her remaining student loan debt hold her back, Hadden left her job to run her own marketing agency. But as her financial situation changed, she realized she needed to make major changes in her approach to student loan repayment, too.
Here’s how Hadden balances entrepreneurship, travel and student loan repayment on the almost $50,000 she has left, as well as the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Graduating with $57,000 in federal student loans
A first-generation college student, Hadden received a full honors scholarship at Claflin University in South Carolina, where she graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications. But when she pursued her master’s degree in integrated marketing communications at West Virginia University after working for a few years, she had to borrow student loans.
“I had zero scholarship opportunities, and my income level pushed me out of reach for financial aid,” Hadden said. “I graduated in 2016 with almost $60,000 in federal student loans.”
Her interest rates ranged from 5.06% to 6.59%, and she paid $670 a month. When she got a job at NVIDIA, a technology company, Hadden had no trouble keeping up with monthly payments.
“I was making a six-figure income [around $100,000], and one of NVIDIA’s company benefits included a student loan repayment program,” Hadden said. “For about nine months, I continued making my payment of $670 a month, and the company also paid $500 a month toward my student loan debt.”
But even though she valued the financial stability and student loan repayment assistance, Hadden longed to work for herself.
Saying goodbye to a 6-figure income
Not wanting to put her professional dreams on the back burner, Hadden decided to leave her corporate job to grow her business, a marketing agency called Social Savvy Consulting that she’d started a few years prior. In the three months before leaving her job, she was able to grow her revenue to about $1,000 a month, most of which she funneled into savings.
“I tapped back into the network and brand that I’d previously built to revive my business,” Hadden said. “I went from a steady monthly income of at least $8,000 after tax to living off savings.”
But even though the change in her income was dramatic, dropping to less than $20,000 a year, Hadden felt confident in her ability to work for herself.
“I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” she said. “In high school, I got my cosmetology license so I could style hair through college to pay for living expenses. After college, I freelanced alongside my full-time job.”
Although Hadden knew leaving her job was a risk, she was excited to give her marketing venture a real shot.
“I was really scared, but super optimistic,” she said.
Building a business while traveling the world
Along with wanting to work for herself, Hadden also felt excited to travel the world while networking with fellow entrepreneurs. So she joined Remote Year, a company that brings digital nomads to a new country each month. Participating in Remote Year costs about $2,000 a month — plus a $5,000 down payment — but this includes housing and travel between countries, apart from the initial flights to and from home.
“When I signed up for Remote Year, I had a few clients across the U.S., so I knew location independence wasn’t going to be a problem,” Hadden said. “Remote Year was an investment to meet other women in business around the world, listen to their stories and expand my network.”
Along with growing her network, Hadden got the chance to live across Asia in cities such as Hanoi, Chiang Mai, Kyoto and Kuala Lumpur.
“Hanoi was my favorite,” she said. “The chaos of the city streets and the weekly night markets were magical.”
Although she ran into occasional internet issues, Hadden loved the experience of living internationally.
“Traveling abroad is a symbiotic experience,” she said. “You immerse yourself in new cultures, and you bring a little of your culture for the locals to enjoy.”
Feeling the financial squeeze
Although Hadden’s new lifestyle enriched her life in lots of ways, she soon felt stressed about money.
“When I decided to take the leap and leave my job, I had a runway of about six months,” she said. “As my runway started to shorten, every unexpected expense made me sick to my stomach, and not being able to bring in proper cash flow really did a number on my self-esteem.”
For Hadden, her biggest concern was falling behind on her student loan payments.
“I had this spreadsheet that forecast my revenue potential,” she said. “But entrepreneurship doesn’t work like that.”
She also suggested that this concern may have affected her Remote Year experience: “I don’t think I ever really relaxed into my remote lifestyle because I was so worried the day was coming when I’d default on my loan.”
Adjusting her student loan repayment strategy
Although Hadden didn’t want her student loans to hold her back, she also didn’t want to slow down repayment with an alternative repayment plan. But given her change in income and the unexpected expenses that popped up while traveling, she knew she had to make a change.
“I started gathering the paperwork to apply for an income-driven repayment plan, which is a little challenging when you’re self-employed,” Hadden said. “When I was approved for a payment of less than $200 a month [nearly $130], it was an instant relief. I wish I had done it sooner.”
Income-driven repayment plans adjust your monthly payment along with your income while extending your terms to 20 or 25 years. This adjustment can be a huge relief for borrowers who, like Hadden, are having a tough time keeping up with monthly payments.
Even though she was resistant to extending her terms at first, Hadden said doing so was the right decision.
“Had I updated my repayment status when I left my job, I would have had an additional $4,000 for travel and living expenses,” she said. “That’s a lot of money. Money that would have reduced the anxiety of financial uncertainty during an already stressful life change.”
Her advice to other student loan borrowers? Don’t try to keep up appearances
Because Hadden was resistant to the idea of extending her student loan terms, she had even more financial pressure as she tried to build her business and travel. Looking back, she wishes she had taken advantage of the flexible repayment options that come with federal student loans sooner — and advises anyone else in a similar situation to do the same.
“A lot of things change when you start working for yourself or traveling the world, and your student loan status should change with it,” she said. “Don’t bank on income you haven’t yet received. There are a variety of repayment options for a reason, and no one will fault you if your circumstance has changed.”
Along with income-driven plans, federal student loans come with options such as extended repayment, graduated repayment, deferment and forbearance. While it’s smart to be cautious with these plans, as they can cost you more in interest, remember that they’re there for you if you need them.
Unfortunately, private student loans typically don’t come with the same flexibility, though some private lenders will let you pause payments in certain circumstances. Plus, qualifying borrowers can refinance student loans to adjust their monthly payments and choose new terms.
Whatever kind of debt you have, explore your options for repayment, especially if you’re dealing with an uncertain income. By trying various strategies of repayment, you can find one that works for you while avoiding student loan default.