How One SoFi Member Paid Off More Than $222,000 in Student Debt
The member’s experience below is not a typical member representation. While her story is extraordinary and inspirational, not all members should expect the same results.
What do a simple question, a tropical rainforest, and a shiny purple catsuit have in common? For SoFi member Caitlin Boston, they’re all part of the story that helped her pay off more than $222,000 in student loan debt.
This unconventional tale begins back in 2009, after Boston had earned two bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and American studies from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in social psychology from Cambridge.
Like many other recent graduates, Boston knew her student loan payments would start coming due. But what she didn’t know was just how high those numbers would be.
During the course of her education, her parents took out a number of both public and private student loans in her name in order to fund her tuition and expenses. But because they had never shared the details with Boston, she had no idea that the grand total had grown to more than $147,000.
Boston’s first strategy was to tackle one loan at a time while putting the others in forbearance, but that quickly caught up with her.
“That first final total was $1,400 a month, and at the time I had one, minimum-wage internship,” said Boston. “I’m pretty sure what I had was a panic attack.”
To add to the pressure, Boston’s parents said they were unable to help. She was climbing this mountain solo.
The Lean Years
To say that Boston lived leanly during her first post-grad years in Washington, D.C., is a massive understatement. In addition to her paid internship, she took on two other jobs—a running shoe store associate and freelance work—and lived in a vegan community house with four other people who all agreed to split the rent, cook for one another, and otherwise share expenses.
At the same time, she was “rabid” about saving money, even after she turned her paid internship into a full-time job at a nonprofit. Although she was able to part ways with the shoe store, she did keep the freelance work to pay for things like health insurance and food.
“After all my bills were paid, I had about $70 a month to live on,” she said.
Boston moved to New York in 2012, following the same philosophy: Live cheaply. Save every penny. And never stop working.
“I never even had the option because I kept trying to accelerate my career,” she said. “I had to constantly keep my foot on the gas.”
A Simple Question
Boston didn’t drink socially or go out to dinner. She didn’t even take the subway, getting around the city instead by bicycle. And even though she was able to avoid these and other “social costs” of living in NYC, it still wasn’t enough to keep up with the loan payments.
“I realized at a certain point that I needed to save more money, but I never had a discretionary fund to cut like that,” she said. “I just needed to make more money.”
And that realization changed everything.
Although Boston was working in her field doing design and product research, she knew that she was making minimal money for her degree. Her first step to rectify that was to leave the nonprofit world. “I made a hard turn and went into UX (user experience) at a traditional agency,” she said. “I actually took a pay cut at first, but knew the reward would be higher down the road.”
But when Boston was denied a raise—even after landing a $5 million piece of business for her company—it lit a fire. At a dinner soon after the denial, she and a group of female friends who had similar experiences started sharing their salaries. The answers shocked her, not only in the disparities between her friends, but also in just how underpaid she was for her education and experience.
According to PayScale.com, women in 2019 make 79 cents to every dollar earned by their male counterparts. And for women of color like Boston, who is Asian, the divide can be even more pronounced.
Her male peers weren’t quite as forthcoming about their salaries, but they were willing to answer one simple question: “Do you make over or under X amount of dollars?”
She asked as many people as she could—even strangers with her same job title and experience level whom she found on LinkedIn—and discovered that she should be earning at least 40% more than she currently was.
So she did the only thing that made sense. She went out and got it.
Alexandra Dickinson, marketing strategy lead at SoFi, says earning your market value is about more than just asking for it. Like Boston, you have to back it up.
“You need to make a case that’s based on evidence from the marketplace, evidence from your peers, and evidence about your performance,” she says.
Her top tip? Ask three women and three men about their salary, or salary range, and compare it to market data that’s available on salary and career websites. “It’s something you can deliver with confidence once you’ve done the research and you know,” she says.
A Tropical Rainforest
In 2015, Boston’s father took his own life. That event, coupled with other family issues, prompted her to take a break and head to Brazil—but her preferred destination was the beach. “I didn’t even want to go to the Amazon, to be honest,” she said. But a friend found a trekking company that would take them into the rainforest and back out, “and that’s how I got there,” she said. “Not by my choosing.”
And call it what you will—the universe choosing, divine intervention, serendipity—but that trip proved to be another huge step forward in Boston’s plan to pay down her debt.
During her time in the Amazon, seated in a row boat and miles from any type of civilization, Boston met Alan Donner, former senior director of product marketing at SoFi. The two struck up a conversation, and Boston learned for the first time that there was a company that could consolidate private student-loan debt, something she’d been unable to find in earlier consolidation attempts.
Back on dry land, Donner reached out to Boston, and she responded with a volley of questions. “I was very wary of doing any further consolidation,” Boston said. “I felt like I could be victimized. [I didn’t feel any] other company had my self-interests at heart, so I never took it seriously.”
They went over every scenario that could possibly go wrong, and every detail of the loan terms and conditions. But she will always remember that it was talking with Donner that finally won her over.
From that moment on, she was in.
A Shiny Purple Catsuit
During the 10 years that Boston worked to pay off her student debt, interest rates and several forbearance periods took her initial balance of just over $147,000 to $222,817.26. In 2016, she began her refinance with SoFi. And in 2019—on what would have been her father’s 72nd birthday—she made her final payment.
Then, she donned a shiny purple catsuit and created a YouTube video , complete with backup dancers, to mark the occasion. “I made the video to celebrate that I could say this was just for me and coming to the end of a chapter,” she said.
She also treated herself to a trip to the beach and a nice dinner out, for the first time, she said, without worrying about how spending that money would affect her future.
“Now that I’m in a place where I have no debt, I feel very relaxed,” she said. “I feel like okay, things are good.”
Boston’s advice to others facing student debt? “Be really aware that choosing passion over pragmatism isn’t always in your favor when looking at debt like this,” she said. “Chasing your dream is very real and truly invaluable advice for many people out there, but when you’re on fire like this, you need to attend to putting it out immediately.”
For her, this includes looking at your tangible, marketable skills and translating them into industries that will pay what you deserve to be paid. “Be strategic, choose deliberately,” she said. “What are potential careers that you can move into without a lot of additional overhead? How can you leverage what you already have?”
And if, like Boston, you face a hard “no,” Dickinson says to keep it in perspective. “Say if not now, when? What do I have to do? Think of it as no for now, but not no for forever.”
Boston also stressed how important she feels it is to make these choices early in your career. “You have the rest of your life to pursue your dreams,” she said. “You only have time to pursue new career potentials when you’re at an age when you can make certain choices without taking into account a family or a mortgage.”
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