How one personal finance writer changed her money mindset and her life
Award-winning personal finance writer and author Melanie Lockert tells us about her journey out of debt, and why she’s made it her mission to support people on their own financial journeys, breaking the stigma around both money and mental health.
If you’re interested in mental health, personal finance, and the place at which those two topics intersect, it’s likely you’ve come across Melanie Lockert’s work. She’s been featured in publications like The New York Times, Marketwatch, Allure, and Vice, and she regularly contributes to the personal finance section of Insider.
But before she had big-name bylines, Melanie had her blog, Dear Debt.
“I got into writing on the internet as a way to keep myself honest about paying off my student loan debt,” she told me over the phone earlier this month.
“When you have $68,000 hanging over your head, everything looks a little bit darker. Debt begins to rule your choices. It can be very scary.”
Melanie isn’t alone in the feeling that debt equals terror. Most millennials today have student loans averaging a whopping $40,000 per borrower. And while federal student loans have been in forbearance since the beginning of the pandemic, offering many a slight reprieve, repayment requirements will resume on Feb. 1, 2022, bringing back the stress once again.
“Unless you land a high-paying job right out of school, lots of people, myself included, see debt as something they’ll experience forever.”
Melanie graduated with her master’s from New York University in May of 2011. But by December of that same year, nearly 7 months after graduating, she still hadn’t found a full-time job.
“I’d been working part-time and taking on freelance gigs, but I knew that there’d come a time when that wouldn’t be enough. I wouldn’t be able to pay both my rent and my student loans, never mind exist in a city as expensive as New York.”
Melanie made the tough decision to move from New York City to Portland, Oregon, where “rent was cheaper, as was the cost of living.” She and her partner split costs for their studio apartment—a much more manageable $400 per month for Melanie’s share.
“But even with that type of minimal rent payment, that entire first year I worked $10 and $12 per hour jobs, basically scraping by. I knew it wouldn’t last.”
“Dear Debt… I am so over you.”
While her life in Portland did prove more financially manageable, Melanie still had nearly $60,000 to pay off.
I made the conscious decision to get real. I had to stop blaming my education for the ‘good debt’ it gave me—and to start treating it like something that had to be rectified.
“My decision to make a change came after a very anxious and sad year,” she tells me. “Finally, I made the conscious decision to get real. I had to stop blaming my education for the ‘good debt’ it had incurred me—and to start treating it like something that had to be rectified.
“I told myself it was time to get honest about my repayment journey—both with myself and, to keep me doubly honest, with whoever wanted to read about it on the internet. That’s how Dear Debt was born.”
In January of 2013, Melanie “declared to the internet, or whoever was listening, that I’d get out of debt in 4 years’ time. I was going to write about all of it—the good, the bad, and the extremely financially ugly—along the way.
“What I didn’t think I’d dig into as much in my blog,” Melanie says next, “is the emotional impact of debt. That’s what hit me the hardest.”
Melanie has always been interested in the world of mental health, but it wasn’t until this moment in her journey out of debt, she tells me, that she realized just how damning the entire experience had been to her wellbeing.
“If I was actually going to succeed in this endeavor, I had to make a big change. I had to shift my money mindset and find forgiveness in my experience, and recognize that I’d not done anything wrong. I started slowly by ridding myself of the shame associated with my debt.
“Low and behold, that shift coincided with my ability to climb out of it.”
Six months into writing regularly on Dear Debt, Melanie found full-time work at a non-profit.
“I was making $31,000 a year. It doesn’t sound like much—and it wasn’t—but I was getting a paycheck, and I was using my degree. Then I started freelance writing, which also meant that I was using that knowledge that I paid for.
“But it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was giving myself an easy out, sort of,” she tells me. “That idea of school debt as ‘good debt’ needed deconstructing.
“I thought to myself: Yes, I received higher education. Great. I paid for it… in loans. Less great,” she laughs. “At that time, I was the ultimate minimalist, I didn’t overspend, barely went out… I let myself be shocked that I was still in this place. That I was this stuck.
“What’s funny about that is… even if your costs are super low, and your debt is ‘good debt’, or however you want to put it… if you’re not making enough money, eventually, you’ll hit a frugality plateau, and the debt remains.”
It really wasn’t until I understood that what I had was an income issue—that was the root cause of my inability to climb out of debt—that I was able to rally against it.
Melanie began taking on side hustles to make up for where her non-profit job lacked: salary.
“I was a pet sitter, a brand ambassador, a TaskRabbit. I’d scroll Craigslist and see what type of work I could pick up on there. I became obsessed with earning more money and throwing it against my debt. Sometimes I’d make several hundred more a month.
“It really wasn’t until I understood that what I had was an income issue—that was the root cause of my inability to climb out of debt—that I was able to rally against it.”
She focused all of her efforts on earning more. Paying off debt. Earning. Paying off.
A year into nonprofit work and gigging combined, Melanie was able to quit her full-time job and commit to self-employment full-time.
“It took me so long to realize that my situation did not denote a moral failing of some sort. It was when I started working for myself, making so much more than I ever had before, that it became clear—this wasn’t forever. There was an end to it.”
After a year working for herself, Melanie had doubled her income and paid off all of her debt… an entire year earlier than she’d told the internet she would.
Changing your money mindset
Melanie is certainly used to answering the question of: How did you pay off all of that debt?! So when I ask her towards the end of our interview what really made the difference—I’m surprised by her answer: “My mindset.”
Sure, doubling your income in a year’s time doesn’t necessarily hurt the wallet, but Melanie credits her mindset shift as what really made the difference in overcoming her debt.
“Have a plan in place,” she tells me. “Get positive with yourself. Don’t say ‘I’m never going to pay this off.’ Instead, say, ‘I’m going to pay off all of my debt in X year’s time.’ Then get to planning.
“And all along, remind yourself that you deserve to get out from under this burden. Shifting your mindset towards possibility and positivity will give you the freedom to live. I promise it is entirely possible. Maybe not easy, but absolutely possible.”
Melanie Lockert is the founder of Lola Retreat which connects women and gives them a safe space in which to process their financial journey. She is also the host of the Mental Health and Wealth Show podcast, which aims to break the taboo around money and mental health. Her blog, Dear Debt, is also now a book: Dear Debt: A Story About Breaking Up With Debt. You can buy it here.