Lessons from a young professional who just finished repaying $222,817.26 of student loans

Caitlin Boston, center, and friends, celebrating freedom.
Caitlin Boston, center, and friends, celebrating freedom.
Image: Courtesy Caitlin Boston
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The thumbnail for Caitlin Boston’s “Student Loan Debt Celebration” YouTube video, now making the rounds on social media, has an intentionally silly vibe.

It features Boston, a 34-year-old tech worker in New York, in a purple catsuit and jokduri, a small, elegant crown typically worn by Korean brides. She’s flanked by backup dancers in sandwich boards displaying dollar signs. But don’t be fooled: If the video is collecting views by the thousands, it’s thanks to its surprisingly layered message, one that’s part financial advice, part affirmation of life after loss.

In the opening of her four-minute long performance, Boston dances wordlessly, with glee, to Lizzo’s anthem of survival, “Good as Hell.” Meanwhile, captions at the bottom of the screen tell the story of how Boston, over the past 10 years, managed to pay off $222,817.26 in student debt, more than $75,000 of which was interest alone. “I did it all by my single freaking self, as in, no family passing me $$$ at any point,” the text states.

We learn, too, that Boston has lived through significant trauma in the decade since graduating—most significantly, her father’s suicide six years ago, but also her mother’s stroke, and what she calls the disintegration of her family.

Then, just before the two-minute mark, as the music switches to “Money (That’s What I Want),” and the dancing dollar signs arrive, Boston promises to share the number one thing that has allowed her to reach that debt-free day, Aug. 6, 2019, which would have been her father’s 72nd birthday. “Ask your peers what they make,” her caption urges. “That’s it.”

There is, of course, more to the strategy and her story than what could fit in her short film. Quartz at Work wanted the details, so we contacted Boston and met with her in New York. Here’s what we learned.

How she got into debt and climbed out of it

Today, Boston works as a senior user experience researcher at a major tech firm. Over breakfast one morning, she described how she spent eight weeks planning the video. In a floral-printed maxi dress and flats, Boston barely resembles her purple-suited self, except when she briefly shimmies her shoulders while explains why she didn’t take professional dance classes before making her video. That is, we shouldn’t need to spend money to learn how to dance because “we’re all born to move our body in a way that feels good,” she says. “You shouldn’t be a gatekeeper to your own movement.”

Boston developed an eye for how people behave as part of her academic career, completing undergraduate degrees in anthropology and American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She went to graduate school at Cambridge, where she got a master’s degree in social psychology and systems analysis. Throughout those years, she needed to borrow funding to live, not just to pay tuition. That’s how the student loans piled up.

At the time, Boston had no sense of how much money she was borrowing to keep herself in school, or what would be required of her to pay it back. She grew up in a blue-collar community, she says. Her father was a police officer in Baltimore. Her mother was a homemaker, and Boston was adopted. None of the adults in her life—teachers, firefighters, and more cops—had a clear understanding of how white-collar jobs were obtained, she says. In their minds, she realized after graduating, a person with a master’s degree automatically walked into a white-collar job. They weren’t aware of how nepotism or networking played a role in the recruiting and hiring practices at so many elite companies, or how to maneuver in the foreign culture of the upper-middle class.

When she finished school and organized her loans, Boston discovered her monthly obligations totaled nearly $1,500 per month. This came as a shock. At the time, she was making close to minimum wage and was lacking guidance to help her deal with her loans.

Even as her wages slowly improved, she came to see that living frugally would not, on its own, allow her to pay down her six-figure debt. She penny-pinched too, of course, cycling to work instead of buying a metro card, as she told Buzzfeed, and living with five roommates to split the costs of rent, utilities, and meals, for most of the past decade.

When she reached the limits of cost-cutting, she chose to focus on the other side of the equation: her earning potential.

“How much do you think I should make?”

Arguably, this is the more difficult issue for most people to parse, since talking about your salary, or asking other people about theirs, is still considered taboo in many workplaces. Studies do not unequivocally support the theory that being transparent about salaries necessarily leads to equitable pay, but anecdotes about it do abound, including Boston’s.

One year, around review time at one of her early jobs, she and a few colleagues were chatting about salaries when they decided to share what they earned. Boston learned that she and two other women of color were earning the same amount as another female colleague, a white woman who she says was hardworking but younger and less experienced. That was one problem. Then Boston asked a male peer who held the same title she did, and had the same amount of experience, to share the amount he was making. When he demurred, she asked if his income was over or under a six-figure amount. Within two questions, she knew his salary range, and the lowest end was still $20,000 more than her salary.

Women basically need to expect that they’re being underpaid compared to men in the same role, her video warns, and women of color can expect that gap to be wider than it is for white women. It’s your job, Boston advises in her captions, to find out what your colleagues make, “especially your male ones.”

The message continues: “It might make you feel uncomfortable but it’s the sole reason I started making an additional 41% a year.”

As it happens, Boston has further refined and softened her salary-question icebreaker. Now, to depersonalize the query, while also taking advantage of the phenomenon known as mansplaining, she asks male friends in her field: What do you think my salary should be? “Then they can just pontificate,” says Boston, imitating a man droning on. (She also has male friends who talk to her about pay rates and the gender gap problem openly, without her needing to appease their egos, she stresses.)

This isn’t foolproof advice. A Quartz at Work colleague recalls the time she was up for a promotion at a previous employer and asked two senior co-workers, one male and one female, what they thought she should make in the new role. The ranges they suggested were above her current pay, but still would have left her earning at least $35,000 less than a male colleague in a similar role who volunteered his salary figure when she asked him to share it.

How else you can get a boost in pay

Though it’s not explained in the video, Boston also has a rule about what to do if you discover you’re earning less than your peers: Leave. That massive pay increase the video alludes to came from job-hopping into a position at the online retailer Etsy, in New York.

“That’s another reason why I think I’ve been able to make such big gains in my salaries,” she tells Quartz. “I’ve just been willing to move both jobs and location.” To her, staying put and trying to negotiate in order to close gaps as wide as $20,000 are not worth the time and energy that could be dedicated to finding a job that pays significantly more instead.

As viewers of her video have pointed out—”Strangers message me now,” she says—Boston would have had it easier had she moved to an inexpensive state, like Iowa or Kansas. However, she had done the research and concluded that living in an expensive city like New York was still the wiser choice in her profession, because that’s where the salaries were higher too, according to government data. (All the information you need to make finance and career decisions is out there, she tells young colleagues now.)

Being single and able to move to New York was a privilege, she says, as was being “a cisgendered, able-bodied, grad degree-holding person,” as she states in her video. However, her basic advice holds up for anyone in any field, for those with or without debt: It pays to find out what your labor is worth.

Why Boston’s video stands out

Boston’s boyfriend works on a Netflix show and he helped her put the video together. He told her that at nearly four minutes in length, it was probably too long to get much attention beyond friends, which makes sense when you look at the TikTok craze. And because he works in content production, she assumed he was right.

But Boston’s video already has more than 87,000 views on YouTube, and has inspired a range of (mostly supportive) reactions.

Younger people, especially millennial women, tend to cheer her on, and thank her for talking about what “typically would be considered a really shameful amount of debt,” she says.

The critics—mainly older white men, Boston surmises—are perhaps evaluating her life choices and her salary-gap warnings “without thinking about how they came up during an era,” she argues, “where unions were really strong and helped to set a baseline for pay, private companies were more competitive, and there wasn’t this degree of debt because universities didn’t have a kind of private money mechanism that would create unscrupulous loan practices, industries in general were much less precarious, and the economy was much less volatile.”

But the most emotional responses to the video have come from people who, like Boston, have suffered personal, stigmatizing losses, with the cloud of debt always present.

“I know for a fact, having a parent that committed suicide, that there’s so much shame tied to that,” Boston says. “But I’m not ashamed about [my father’s] choice. I’m not ashamed about what happened. I am still in deep grief that he is gone.”

Across the US, more than 44 million people have student loan bills to pay. And though we don’t know how many of those people are dealing with additional major burdens, we do know that millions of families are now affected by issues like opioid dependency and other addictions, and that the US is dealing with an extreme mental-health crisis. If student loan debt is a person’s only big problem, they might be fortunate.

Debt is not something everyone can overcome easily

“LOVE LOVE LOVE. Bloody well done,” the British advertising legend Cindy Gallop writes in the comments on Boston’s YouTube page, adding her enthusiastic praise to that of dozens of others.

“Good for you, but even with your success I can’t say that the life you lived to get this done was healthy,” reads another comment. That person was scolded by yet another armchair pundit—perhaps unfairly, because Boston actually makes a similar point describing her life for the past 10 years.

When her father died, she was given only four days of official bereavement leave, she said. To that she added five vacation days and five sick days, which still wasn’t enough to process what had happened, she recalls. But taking additional—and therefore unpaid—leave wasn’t an option. That would have meant pausing her loan repayment, putting her credit score in jeopardy, and allowing interest to balloon.

When you have student loan debt, “you will be penalized for grieving appropriately,” Boston notes, adding, “I’ve had enough therapy by now to know how unhealthy it was for me to push through everything and keep working, and to keep performing at a pretty high level, too.”

In fact, if the video requires any additional context, it’s that Boston doesn’t want her story to read like a proto-American Horatio Alger fable. Despite her emphasis on figuring it out by her-freaking-self, she doesn’t believe it’s possible for everyone with debt to do the same thing.

Debt “is not something I think everyone can overcome easily,” she says. She supports the idea of forgiving student debt to stimulate the economy and liberate others from what she experienced, even though she has exhausted herself, physically and emotionally, as she says, to be debt-free. “For 10 years of my life, I woke up every morning—and this is not hyperbole—I felt like ‘I’m going to be crushed alive by this,’” she says.

“It’s a miracle that I’m here,” she concludes. “It was beyond anyone’s assumptions that I would end up here, including my own.”