Struggling with ‘terrifying’ debt, this chemical engineer has reduced her student debt to six figures and ‘loves life’

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Siu-yee graduated from a private university in 2018 with a degree in chemical engineering. But she also walked out of school in Pennsylvania in six-figure debt.

The 26-year-old got a job in her field paying $66,000 right out of school, rented a car and rented a one-bedroom apartment. As Siu-yee received her first paychecks, she feared she would forever spend all her income on her debt and realized she had to make a change.

“I started making a decent amount of money for someone my age, and I was making way too much money that I ended up sending it all to debt,” Siu-yee told MarketWatch. “It was really scary for me to think that I would have all these payments.”

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She totaled her debt and when she saw she owed about $124,000 in student loans, she was terrified. Also terrifying: the interest rates on some of his private student loans, which ranged from 7% to 11%. Part of what she owed, about $21,000, was interest accrued over her four years of college.

During this time, she took on more debt while paying off her federal loans. To maximize those loan repayments, she charged her monthly living expenses to a credit card with an initial APR of 0%. She also used the card for other purchases, like her dog, Percy, and the accessories he needed.

“I was really embarrassed to have so much debt,” she said. “I rarely talked about it with my friends.”

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After racking up her debt, she got to work. “The first thing I did was research how to pay off student loan debt,” she said.

On YouTube, she found Dave Ramsey, Graham Stephan and Aja Dang, and used the lessons from their channels to change her financial life.

Siu-yee began budgeting, using what’s called zero-based budgeting, meaning she spent every dollar of income on expenses or debt. It helped her focus. “I made sure to plan what I needed to spend and reduced my needs considerably,” she recalls.

Siu-yee planned her meals each week and reduced her grocery expenses to less than $50 per month.

Specifically, she has reduced her spending on groceries, clothing, and eating out.

She said she cut her grocery expenses to less than $50 a month by buying non-perishable or long-lasting foods like dried beans, rice, pasta, canned tuna, protein powder and frozen fruits and vegetables. At the time, she could buy 128 ounces of Quaker Oats on Amazon for $11. (Recently the price was $15.)

Siu-yee stocked up on flour and other ingredients to bake bread, cookies, tortillas and pancakes, and she made her own oat milk and protein snacks. She cooked meals in batches each week. All of this meant that she rarely had to buy much at the grocery store.

While cutting costs, Siu-yee increased her income by taking side jobs. She drove for DoorDash and Postmates, wrote online book reviews, and started offering her services as a ghostwriter on Upwork. She used her side income to pay for personal expenses and spent her 9 to 5 salary on rent and debt.

She also increased her salary at her main job to $92,000 by negotiating raises.

She gave up her apartment and moved back to live with her parents in New Jersey to pay off her debt faster. Siu-yee was born in Ecuador and her parents are Ecuadorian immigrants, her mother a Spanish teacher and her father a machinist.

It helped her pay the lease on her car and even buy the car back from the leasing company.

In her quest to lower her interest rates, she consolidated and refinanced her student loans several times, eventually reducing her interest rates to less than 3%.

Inspired by the personal finance YouTubers she learned from, Siu-yee started her own YouTube channel, Frugality & Financealong the way, breaking down her budget tips and sharing the lessons she learned with others.

One of the people Siu-yee helped was her mother. And after her mother budgeted her way out of consumer debt, she began helping her daughter, eventually contributing $29,000 to Siu-yee’s debt repayment.

Siu-yee has since reciprocated by contributing to her parents’ mortgage, covering half of their monthly payments each month for a total of around $3,800 so far.

If she could go back and do anything differently, she said she would have applied to public universities in her state.

“The university is a business,” she said. “And it’s really important that you make an informed choice about who you want to do business with.”

Siu-yee calculated that she had gone from more than $159,000 in debt, counting her student debt, car loan, credit card debt and interest, to zero.

“And now I’m finally here,” she said, “debt free and just loving life.”

Paul La Blanc contributed to this article.

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