After earning an undergraduate degree in theater in 2006 and a master's degree in performance studies in 2011, Melanie Lockert had amassed $81,000 in student loan debt. With the recession lingering, Lockert struggled to find a full-time job in New York City, and moving to Portland, Oregon, didn't improve her job outlook either. But after starting a blog in January 2013 and hobbling together several part-time gigs, Lockert, now 32, managed to eliminate her debt by December 2015. The experience also landed her a book deal. "Dear Debt: A Story About Breaking Up With Debt" was published in August.[See: 10 Easy Ways to Pay Off Debt.]U.S. News recently spoke with Lockert about why she got serious about accelerating her loan payments, how she found her wackiest side hustles and the emotional impact of debt. The following excerpts have been edited for clarity and brevity: How did you move from frustration over your debt to taking action? I made the decision to leave New York because I couldn't find a full-time job. I knew that I couldn't afford to pay back my student loan and live in New York and pay rent. So, I moved to Portland to be with my partner and cut my rent in half. I thought things would be easier in Portland, and unfortunately they were not. The economy was much smaller [in Portland] and I had fewer interviews there than I did in New York. Every day I was so stressed. I felt so overwhelmed with my debt. I had this realization that if I wanted to get out of debt I had to do stuff to get out of it. I started my blog, DearDebt.com, in January 2013 as a way to keep myself accountable and to talk about all of those taboo emotions and feelings that I was having.How did you stay motivated? It was really hard to stay motivated. Debt fatigue is very real. I kept visualizing what my life would look like after debt. I knew that I wanted to travel more. I knew that I wanted to have less stress in my life. I just kept imagining what my bank account would look like without putting $1,000 to debt every month, what that would mean for my travel budget [and what it would mean] that I could actually give more to other people and organizations, that I could say yes more instead of no. I created a secret Pinterest board of my debt-free life to keep me motivated. [See: 10 Steps to Develop a Student Loan Repayment Plan.] Side jobs were a big part of your debt repayment strategy. Tell us about those. I'd say one of the most unusual ones was working a rave and selling water bottles from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. I found this gig on Craigslist where this person was hosting a party that was at a warehouse in the middle of the night. I sold water bottles to sweaty, inebriated dancers. My main side hustle during this time was being a brand ambassador. If you ever go to concerts or sporting events, or even in the middle of public transportation, and people are giving out coupons and free samples, that's a brand ambassador. I am an extravert and a former theater major, so I enjoy talking to people and I enjoy being out in public. Originally, I found those brand ambassador gigs on Craigslist. Then, I found out about the [Facebook groups] Brand Ambassadors of New York and Brand Ambassadors of Portland, and I started signing up for all these marketing agencies. I worked as a pet sitter. I worked as a mother's helper. I worked at a Jewish congregation as an event assistant. I am not Jewish, which is why they hired me – they wanted someone who could work holidays. It was a nice insight into Jewish culture, and it was a way for me to make money, and I often got free food and leftovers. Tell us about the Dear Debt letters.After six months of blogging, I didn't really know where I was going to go with my blog. There are tons of great websites out there with wonderful financial tips and resources, but I felt like none of them were really discussing the emotional impact that debt has. Everyone thinks: 'It's your fault. You got into debt. Get over it.' But no, there are so many different things at play and we need to acknowledge those emotions so that we can actually take action. Debt can create a lot of anxiety, shame, depression and guilt. I'm very passionate about emotion, and I'm very passionate about finance. I thought writing these break-up letters to debt would be a perfect marriage of empowering people in a fun way. I invited the community to write break-up letters to debt, and I've had some really wonderful dear debt letters that are humorous – some that are absolutely heartbreaking. Then, last year Coventry House Publishing approached me about turning my blog into a book. [See: 8 Financial Steps to Take After Paying Off a Debt.] Now that you've paid off your debt, what are your new financial goals? My main priority this year is putting as much money towards saving and investing as possible. I was never very happy in Portland, so I moved back to Los Angeles, where I am from and where my family is. I went to Italy and celebrated my debt freedom with my mom earlier this year. I am starting to actually live what those dreams were in my debt-free vision board and also saving and investing for the future..
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