This is my story about higher ed, student loans, switching careers, and paying off a quarter million debt. There are 1.2 million people with six-figures of student loan debt and 520,000 who owe more than $200,000. I was in that second group. For me, I was looking at $250,000 as recently as Christmas of 2016. I know the crushing weight of this kind of debt and how lonely it can feel to face such a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Hopefully my story can serve as a cautionary tale to those who aren't yet under a mountain of debt while providing some hope for those who are currently buried under it. Give me a shout on Twitter (@nickfogle) or in the comments if this resonates.
Graduating during a recession
I finished undergrad in 2008 - 3 months after Lehman Collapsed. It was a rough time to be an economics grad looking for a job in banking. I found myself jobless at a time when there were absolutely no jobs. I had a choice, I could either move back in with my parents or continue living on my own as a financially independent adult.
I chose the latter, and ended up taking the only job I could find - unloading trucks and stocking frozen goods at Walmart. This was difficult and sort of humiliating. It wasn't so much that I was embarrassed to be working at Walmart. It was more that I was tired of having to explain myself. "No, I didn't drop out." "Yes, I actually finished a semester early." "No, my parents aren't willing to cover my bills until I find something better."
A few thought it would be fun to go to the front and page me over the intercom. Hilarious. 😤
Eventually, I started wearing a zip-up jacket so I can could quickly hide my Walmart name tag if I saw a classmate. Then I'd just play it off like I was shopping there and wouldn't have to explain myself.
I Guess I'll Go to Law School
In February, I traded a difficult situation for a worse one. I took the LSAT, and started applying to law schools like my life depended on it. When I received the acceptance letter from Charleston School of Law, I was all in on law school. Charleston was a place I’d always dreamed of living, and it would soon be a reality. I knew it was an expensive private school, but there were a few things I thought I could do to reduce the overall cost.
First, I planned to work part-time (and enroll in the school's part-time program) to cover my cost of living. Second, I struck a deal with my father where he'd pay off a portion of the loans if I graduated with a certain class rank. Figuring that I could cover all expenses with part-time work and confident that I'd reach the necessary class rank for my dad's help, I calculated a maximum price of $90k.
These assumptions and back-of-the napkin calculations showed my immaturity. Millions of young people approach big decisions around student loans in a similar way. I think part of it stems from being taught that education is always a good investment. And when it comes to being a doctor or lawyer, many just assume that they'll make so much money after graduating, the loans won't really affect their standard of living.
I worked throughout law school while taking classes part-time, and I took the maximum course load each summer to ensure I finished in the standard 3 years. I made sure to check all the important boxes for landing a top job after graduation: editor on law review, moot court winner, graduated in the top 1/4 of my class, etc... By the time graduate came in May of 2012, I was exhausted.
Now it was time to start bar exam prep. After requesting another $5,000 to cover bar study costs, my outstanding loan total was nearly $130,000. This was $40k over my original cost estimate. I failed to factor in the cost of living change for Charleston, SC (more than double what I’d paid in Clemson), and I hadn't even considered the impact of student loan interest. A large part of the overage was attributable to 3 years of federal unsubsidized loans with 7.5%-8.5% interest rates.
Where are those high paying law jobs?
Things went down hill from there. Even though I met the criteria for the deal I made with my father, he was no longer in a position to help. To make matters worse, the legal job market was still in a deep recession and jobs were few and far between. The firm I’d worked for throughout law school offered me a job and started salary negotiations at $40k. There was no way I could make my loan payments with that kind of pay, so I had to refuse.
I tried to balance bar studying with my job hunt. I reached out to everyone I knew with a family member in the legal field, and tried to set up meetings. I took attorneys to lunch in the hope of making a connection and demonstrating my initiative. Eventually I gave up on law jobs in Charleston, and started thinking about Federal jobs. Public loan forgiveness started to sound like the best way to get my loans covered, so I bought a book about the secrets to landing a government job and put the book's advice into practice.
I applied to something like 50 jobs with the federal government. Each time I wrote a custom cover letter and targeted resume. I applied for law positions, economics positions, paralegal positions, research positions, literally anything that I met the requirements. Eventually I thought my luck was starting to turn when I received an email about a job with the Treasury department.
They were looking for someone with my exact background - economics undergrad with a law degree. I went through several interviews and wrote hand written letters to the interviewers after each round. One day I received a promising update from the hiring manager. He reached out to tell me I was the final candidate. They said they’d be in touch within a few weeks. It's been 8 years now, and I still haven't heard back.
August came. The bar exam was behind me. There were no jobs in Charleston, so Brittany and I considered moving. She'd been working at a non-profit and off-handedly mentioned this to her manager, who then used this as grounds to delay her annual pay raise which we desperately needed.
I drove to Columbia and met with attorneys. Then I lined up meetings in Greenville and drove through from meeting to meeting across the upstate. I talked to a judge, a county solicitor, and a number of private practices – I was buying lunch for anyone who would talk to me and trying my best not to come across as desperate. Eventually it became pretty clear that no one had the budget to hire me nor did anyone know of job openings for a new graduate.
Next I started interviewing for document review jobs. On a scale of desirable legal employment, these doc review gigs are at the very bottom. They are temporary and only pay $20-$30/hr. I learned that there was a "coveted" $30/hr contract gig in Charlotte, so I scheduled an interview and made the drive. The meeting was on an abandoned floor of a downtown high rise and lasted about 5 minutes. They were basically just checking to see if I had a pulse and weren't able to give me any sort of timeline or assurance that contract openings would even become available. I called my wife on the way home and fought to keep a positive tone as I choked back tears. In that moment I felt utterly hopeless.
I knew September would be the last month we could afford to live in our apartment and we were going to have to move. We were out of money. I had to get a cash advance on my Amex card to prevent September's rent check from bouncing. Now my last credit card was maxed out.
I went into survival mode.
First, I posted a housing wanted ad on Craigslist. We found a nice couple who lived out on a remote part of Johns Island and they were willing to rent us their guest house for $1000 on a month to month basis.
We moved all of our belongings into storage. I found a minimum wage job as a shuttle driver on Kiawah Island. After tips I could make something like $13/hr or about $100/day.
This is when things really started to turn around. Maybe it was the change in scenery and forcing myself to think about something other than law, but I realized I’d lost all interest in pursuing a traditional legal job. I was so sick of the bureaucracy and felt jilted by the system. I’d done all the things that you’re supposed to do, and the system hadn’t rewarded me.
An idea slowly began to form. What if I created my own job. That’s what I would do. I already had a business idea. I just needed a designer and a coder. I was broke but naive enough to try contacting a few people to see if they'd work in exchange for equity. Looking back, it's no surprise people don't want to work for free when you're an unproven founder with just an idea.
I realized I'd have to start this by myself, which meant I'd need to learn to code... at least enough to get started. We couldn't afford internet so after my shifts I'd park outside of Starbucks or go to the public library to use free wifi. I used every idle moment to absorb as much as I could. I'd stuff my laptop under the driver seat of the shuttle and in between pickups, used my cellphone's hotspot to get internet and continue coding.
It took me about six months of obsessively learning as much as I could, before I landed an internship as an interactive designer at Blackbaud. During the first few weeks, I had no idea what I was doing. I got lucky that they took a chance on me, but now that I had a foot in the door, I wasn't going to miss an opportunity to demonstrate my value. I arrived early and worked late every day for 4 months.
At the end of the internship, they weren't able to hire me for a full-time role. I was devastated and spent a few days feeling sorry for myself. At this point I was actually a pretty junior web dev, and I was able to do some freelancing to cover our bills while applying for jobs. The late nights hadn't gone unnoticed and several colleagues went out of their way to sing my praises to the hiring manager when a new job came available at Blackbaud. In October 2013, one year after embarking on this journey, I had landed a full-time job with a decent salary and great benefits at a publicly traded tech company.
Around the same time, I remember being at an event for my wife’s work and running into an older woman who shared an office suite with my old law firm. She asked me what firm I was with now, and I explained that I was a web developer now. Her mouth dropped and she said something like, "your parents must be so disappointed." At the time this comment cut pretty deep. I was self conscious and struggling with imposter syndrome. I'd love to see her again and catch her up on 2020 Nick and what's transpired since leaving law to become a lowly web developer.
I started writing this to explain how I got into a $250,000 hole with my student loans. By the time I landed that full time job in 2013, my loans had ballooned to nearly $200,000. I was enrolled in the PAYE (pay as you earn) program which sounded great at the time, but I had no idea it would mean negative amortizing loans. I had my head in the sand and was just wishing the giant mountain of debt would go away if I was a good boy and made my payments each month.
In 2014 I landed a higher paying job at Blackbaud and started taking work on the side as often as I could. At this point I was making a little over $60k per year and had started becoming more aware of how fast my student loans were growing. I met with financial advisor who appeared to be shocked when I shared my debt with him. He acted as if he'd never seen such a mountainous debt. By the end of our conversation, it was clear that there were no tricks or tips for getting out from under this debt. If I really wanted to be debt free, it was going to be up to me.
At this point I realized it wouldn't be possible to pay this back unless my salary was 3x-4x what it was currently. I knew the salary bands at Blackbaud and it wasn't going to be possible to make that kind of money there. I needed to start doing things with a higher payoff.
(1) I started honing my skills as a full-stack developer
I knew this was one of the top paying software specialities. I figured I could at least double my salary within a few years if I got really good. This turned out to be surprisingly accurate.
The full-stack developer skills paid off immediately as I launched Wavve, and they also helped me move up the ladder at Blackbaud. By 2016 I was able to leave Blackbaud and earn $200k in from the skills I'd cultivated as a software developer.
(2) I started buying nano-cap biotech stocks.
The nano-cap biotech stocks pretty much all went to zero, so that bet was a total bust. By 2016 my investments had basically dropped to zero.
(3) I bought some bitcoin and ethereum.
This paid off massively in 2017. I was able to sell for a large profit, put a down payment on a house, and pay off about a quarter of my loan balance.
(4) In 2015 I launched the business which would eventually evolve into Wavve.
The first two years were a major fail, but since 2017 Wavve has grown consistently. Throughout Wavve's existence I've been working a 9-5 job and having to work on it almost every night, weekend, and holiday. The hard work has paid off as the resulting business profits in 2018 and 2019 really helped as I got intense about paying down my loans. As of July 1, 2020, Wavve generates $110,000 in monthly revenue and allows me to draw a significant passive income.