How I got into this mess. No, not the debt. Living the life of an actor! LOL. But, yeah. The debt, too.
I’m the daughter of immigrants who never finished high school and the first person in my family to go to college. My mother was a single parent of three kids. When she was fifteen, she fled a war torn Nicaragua for America. She immediately began working low wage jobs and never had the chance to finish school. So as she raised her own children, she always stressed the importance of education.
Study hard, get good grades, and go to college so you won’t end up like me.-my mom
My mom worked two full time jobs to provide for me and my siblings, and yet she still struggled. She would wake up at 3:30 AM, work 5AM-2PM at her first job, change uniforms, and work at her second job 3PM-midnight. She only slept 3-4 hours a night and it killed me to see her overwork herself like that. On one of her days off, we went to the grocery store and on the drive home she almost fell asleep behind the wheel. My older sister volunteered to drive, but my mom insisted she was fine. That’s the kind of woman she is.
As much as I loved my family, I was dying to leave home. I lived in a cramped one bedroom apartment with my mom, sister, and brother. For some time, my mom and sister slept in a queen bed while my brother and I slept on bunk beds two steps away. I had seen my fair share of pests in that apartment: mice, cockroaches, lizards. I dreamed of going away to college to escape my reality. I couldn’t live at home anymore. It was suffocating me. I dreamed of eating at the salad bar in a university dining hall and having just one roommate. In college, I remember other kids used to complain about the dorms being so much smaller than their bedrooms back home. But for me, college housing was an upgrade. For the first time in my life I had my own closet, my own space.
Not only was I convinced that getting an education was the only way out of poverty, but I also saw college as a status symbol. When I was in high school, I pretentiously looked down on kids that went to community college or the nearby university that accepted everybody and their mom. I knew I was smarter than that and one day, I’d make it out the ‘hood. Most kids at my high school didn’t take school seriously the way I did. A lot of them wound up going to nearby colleges, so I falsely associated community college with laziness. I also thought that going to a prestigious university would give me better opportunities. It would make people take me seriously and increase my chances of getting work.
So no matter how much it cost, I knew I had to go to away to college. When I applied to colleges, I mainly looked at out of state schools. My mom raised me to have integrity and do everything 100% or not at all. Because of that, I always wanted “the best” and tried to be the best at everything I did. So when looking at colleges, I dreamed of going to a high ranking school that was well known for its acting program. I wasn’t impressed with any universities in my area. And to my delight, I was accepted to schools out in Los Angeles, the north star for all actors. I was excited to finally get my chance out in LA, but unfortunately, I was going to have to take out student loans and even my mom would have to take out Parent PLUS loans. I vividly remember the night I cried to her about how torn I was about taking out student loans and my desperation to leave for college. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. She tried to convince me to stay home and just go to community college. But I couldn’t be swayed. I couldn’t imagine living another year at home, in a city that made me feel like there were a ton of bricks on my shoulders, in a tiny apartment, with my siblings, who I had a strained relationship with at the time. My mom knew how badly I wanted it, so she agreed we would take out the loans. I was relieved but I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. No one taught me in high school about student loans. In fact, the college counselor at my high school encouraged us to take out student loans, noting that it would be simple to pay them back. Maybe for her generation.
So I set to apply for student loans. No help from any adult. Even if my mom wanted to help me with these applications, she wouldn’t have known how to. She didn’t read English very well or go to college. So, I filled out financial aid applications and FAFSA all by myself, to the best of my ability. I found out years later that I accidentally put down that I was going to contribute $2,000 per year for my education. I have no idea how this happened, but obviously, my contribution should have been ZERO. My FAFSA EFC was 0 at the time so I have no idea how that happened, but I really missed out on extra money. Though it made me nervous to sign up for student loans and I didn’t fully grasp the severity of the consequences (I was basically still a child), I knew deep down that one day everything would be OK. I would one day have the career of my dreams and these student loans would be chump change. I knew God was going to help me along my journey. I would one day be the independent woman I had always wanted to be, making good money and providing for my family. One day.
I remember one day in AP English Literature class, a group of us were discussing where we’d be going to college. All of my classmates were staying in state and going to school for free. I shyly admitted that I was taking out thousands of dollars in student loans and jaws dropped. Noticing their reactions, I quickly followed it up with, “But I’ll make that much money per episode when I get on TV!”
I have always wanted to be an actor. I’ve always had a vivid imagination and loved telling stories. But I knew it cost money I didn’t have. I remember being so jealous of one of my seventh grade classmates because he could afford to be an actor. He had a great resume even at twelve years old. His family put him through classes and community theater for $300 a month. I could barely afford school supplies. When I was thirteen, my mom and sister saved up enough money to buy me my first acting class at the local community college. Though I loved that class, I never wanted them to spend money on me like that again. Throughout college, I had a minimum wage job on campus that earned me just enough money to buy food and a few activities with friends. I never made more than five thousand dollars any given year, but that money prevented me from having to ask my mom or sister for extra money. I was proud of that.
I know I’m skipping a lot of details here, but let’s fast forward to May 2016! I finished school, moved into an apartment, finally exhaled, and asked myself, What the hell did I just do?! I graduated with close to $100,000 in student loan debt. I had about $50,000 under my name and another $50k under my mom’s name. And after everything my mom had been through, I agreed that I would pay that debt myself. My debt caused me A LOT of anxiety. I cried countless times in my closet. I felt so much anger and shame towards my degree because I felt like I had nothing to show for it. Sure, I had a degree, but I was broke. Post grad, I only managed to secure a part time job earning $16 an hour. And on the acting side of things, I was completely lost. My training taught me how to break down a script and tell a story, but I knew NOTHING about the business side of acting. It’s called show business for a reason. I had no idea how to get my career started! Get an agent? But how?? My senior year, I hoped that I would get into the acting senior showcase and be scouted by an agent. But that didn’t happen. I had a couple teachers tell me I was talented, but my looks would hold me back. I’m Latina, a size 12, and have big curly hair. Not the leading lady type. I truly felt hopeless. The younger version of me that was convinced I could repay all my student loans by getting on a TV show wasn’t so sure anymore. I let the negativity get to me and I quit acting for a year.
In that time, I tried to get my finances together. I’d get discouraged when I’d hear certain financial experts yell at people like me who got “worthless” degrees. It was heartbreaking to be shamed like that, especially considering everything I had been through. Single mom, no guidance, no financial education, desperate to get out of the ‘hood and into an education. I thought I was just taking the next logical step in life by going to college, not wasting my time or making an irresponsible choice, the way these financial experts made it seem. It negatively affected my self esteem to think about my education like that. Their advice made me never want to look at my student loan debt ever again. I was paralyzed and depressed. I didn’t make any moves to improve my finances or my career because my self esteem was so low. My student loan debt prevented me from making any progress in my personal life and career. I was consumed with shame and fear. I couldn’t afford the $500/month suggested payments, so I got on an income based repayment plan instead. I paid $0/month for the first year. And looking back, maybe this is what I needed. I had to stop thinking about this debt for a while. For my mental health. So I did. I didn’t make significant payments on my student loans for four years and instead, I focused on rebuilding myself.
Then, in 2020, the world stopped. The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. I was laid off from my job. I had nothing going on in my life except for a free six-week financial course I enrolled in through The Actor’s Fund. And unlike other financial courses, this one was designed specifically for artists trying to manage their finances AND pursue a creative career at the same time. I THANK GOD for this class because there was zero judgement, so much love and emotional support, and it made me realize how much I was overspending and more importantly, how much I was UNDER earning. It was the wake up call I needed. Though I loved the flexibility my previous job gave me to pursue acting, I was severely underpaid and undervalued. I was only allowed to work 20 hours a week and $16/hr was a barely livable wage. The most I ever made in a year was $28k, but that was after taking on a several extra jobs and side gigs. I’ll never forget my first tax return after college. It stated that I made just $16,000 that year. I wasn’t even a huge spender, but I found myself struggling. I couldn’t afford to make the progress I wanted to be making in my acting career. I had needed new headshots and a reel, but because I didn’t have the funds, I procrastinated on getting new materials for years. The sad thing is, when I started getting unemployment insurance in April 2020, I was making more on UI than I did at my normal job. And that’s before the government bonuses kicked in. I finally knew what it was like to afford my life. I knew I had to find a job that would allow me to maintain that income level. The year 2020 inspired me to finally make a change. My life would never be the same.
I started applying for full time work April 2020. Every Wednesday, after my financial class, I would search Indeed for job openings. One day in class, I was tasked with calculating my net worth. It was the first time in years I took an honest look at my debt. The only debt I had was student loans. I opened up my laptop and nervously signed into My Great Lakes and Fedloan Servicing. Looking at my -$100k net worth made me angry all over again. I had to pause and catch my breath. I thought to myself, resenting my education never helped me before. So why would I continue to do that now? I decided to see what would happen if every time I got angry or anxious about my student debt, I replaced the mantra in my head with “I am grateful for my education. I don’t know how, when, or why, but my education will serve me one day.”
I am grateful for my education. I don’t know how, when, or why, but my education will serve me one day.-my new mantra
I repeated this mantra often. Every night before bed, I prayed to God for a new job opportunity.
A month later, I was catching up with a friend. I was telling him about my financial revelations and my search for a new, full time job, with benefits. He casually mentioned that his employer was hiring and I should apply. I was hesitant but knew I needed to embrace change and take a chance. Two months later, I was hired!
And that brings us to present day. I more than doubled my income and now have a job with benefits, including a 401k and insurance, for the first time in my adult life. And that friend of mine — we met in college! My mantra came true! My college education did serve me. If I hadn’t gone to college, we would have never met. And all the work experience that helped me qualify for my current position was through my jobs in college. I’m so grateful to have a job that pays me well, values me, uses my skills, and that I thoroughly enjoy.
I’m finally at an income level where I can confidently start chipping away at my student loan debt and also make progress in my business as an actor. The purpose of this blog is to 1) keep myself accountable and 2) show you how I’m paying off debt while being an actor. Actors have to pay for things like headshots, footage, union dues, coaching, classes, etc. No wonder we’re called starving artists! But I believe I can aggressively pay down my debt and have a great life. I’m not a financial expert nor am I telling anyone they should model their life after mine. But I do think it could help someone out there to share my money diaries. At least, I hope so. 🙂