When Melody Wilding graduated from Columbia University, she left with a master’s degree — and over $100,000 in student loan debt. Although that balance would be tough for anyone to manage, Melody majored in social work, a field with notoriously low pay.
“When I left [school], I had no idea what I had set myself up for,” says Melody. “I was in denial, and there was a lot of shame.”
But Melody was motivated to take action. Despite a low starting salary, she was able to pay off her student loans in just five years. Here’s how she did it.
A career in social work
Social work is a challenging field. Social workers help people cope with issues in their lives and serve as advocates for those who need assistance. If you pursue this line of work, you can practice in schools, human services agencies, or private practices.
The job can be rewarding, but the pay is relatively low. The median salary for social workers is just $46,890, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s lower than the national average salary — $49,630 — for all occupations.
“Social work is historically known as one of the lowest-paying professions, but it’s filled with incredible, well-meaning people who just care deeply,” says Melody.
To make matters worse, most social work positions require candidates to have a master’s degree. Going to graduate school can add thousands to what you owe and can cause you to have higher debt on a smaller salary than your peers.
That was certainly the case for Melody. Her student loan balance after undergraduate and graduate school was over $100,000. Thanks to interest charges, her balance quickly ballooned to $129,000. Her first job as a social worker paid just $24,000 — which made her payments impossible.
Researching repayment options
With her low salary, Melody couldn’t afford her monthly payments under the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan.
“At first, I was in a denial phase,” she says. “I signed up for an income-driven repayment plan for two years. My salary was so low I qualified for a $0 payment.”
Many social workers with student loans plan on pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) for their federal loans. With this approach, you can sign up for an income-driven repayment plan and make reduced payments. After 10 years of making qualifying payments, the government will forgive your loans. Melody considered this option, but she ultimately decided it wasn’t for her.
“Many think they will get PSLF, but it only works for some fields,” Melody says. “I wanted freedom from my debt. I didn’t want this limiting my life decisions for years.”
With PSLF, your career path can be narrow. To maintain your eligibility, you have to work for a non-profit for 10 years. That can mean limiting your earning potential for a decade.
Although income-driven repayment plans can give you breathing room in your budget, it can be tough to save for other goals — like buying a home or retirement — on a non-profit salary. Melody wanted to give herself more options.
“When I used the interest calculators and saw how much interest would accumulate, and how much I’d have to pay, it scared me,” Melody says. “I became super motivated to pay off the debt as soon as possible.”
Accelerating debt repayment
Melody switched her repayment plan back to a 10-year plan. Her payment was over $800 a month, but she was determined to make those payments every month to become debt-free.
To make it work on a small income, she took several different steps. She worked in New York, but knew she couldn’t afford New York’s sky-high rental rates. The average cost to rent a one-bedroom apartment is $2,765, according to Rent Jungle. That was more than Melody’s whole paycheck.
Instead, she lived with her parents in their New Jersey home and commuted into the city. It took her over two hours each way, but it was worth it because of how much she saved.
Melody says having the option to live with her family was a huge help. It’s a luxury that might not be possible for everyone. However, if you can live with family or friends for free or at a reduced cost, it can help you get on your feet.
In addition to cutting down her housing costs, Melody also focused on boosting her income.
“I had multiple side hustles,” she says. “Social workers have so much opportunity for that. It’s widely acceptable to have per diem work.”
Social workers often take on per diem work, meaning they work for another agency or private practice in addition to their full-time job. Per diem workers supplement the organization’s usual staff, filling in when someone is ill or when they need additional help.
Melody also leveraged her experience and education in other areas. She teaches social work at the City University of New York and began an executive coaching and supportive counseling business. She also became a professional speaker, using her social work experience to talk about issues like workplace wellness and emotional intelligence.
With all her side hustles, Melody was able to pay even more than the $800 minimum payment each month.
Melody juggled her schedule of working full-time and managing several different side hustles to keep up with her payments and pay down her loans faster. Her hard work paid off, too. In just five years, she paid off her loans in full.
“My career took a winding path, like many social workers now,” says Melody. “But getting rid of my loans gives me so much more freedom and peace of mind. We mentally and psychologically need our finances to be in a secure space in order for us to feel in control of our lives.”
She encourages others in the field to explore all of their options, and not to feel stuck in a low-paying job.
“Social work is such a broad field,” says Melody. “Look at the path others have taken. There are jobs in traditional social work with direct-service in hospitals or agencies, but I’ve known others who recognized their skills could be used in other areas. They’ve pursued careers in fields like human resources, which can be much more high-paying.”
But the biggest thing she recommends is confronting the truth about your debt and facing the real numbers.
“It’s easy to defer the decisions and avoid looking at the hard stuff,” she says. “As social workers, we help people through difficult decisions, but we often neglect our own needs and self-care.”
If you’re ready to take charge of your debt like Melody, here’s how you can pay off your student loans even faster.
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