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How I Managed to Pay Off 26000$ of Student Loan: Candid Tips for Freelancers and Travel Bloggers!

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Over six years ago, when I quit my 9-to-5 corporate job in Singapore, I tried not to dwell upon the 26,000$ student debt hanging above my head. In order to finance my college education in Singapore, I had taken a massive loan, and had until 2030 to pay it off.

Yet there I was, quitting a well-paying steady job to experiment with a life of travel, freelancing and blogging. The day I sent in my resignation, I promised myself two things:

One, that I would do what it takes to earn enough money to pay my loan instalments – a minimum of 200$ per month. I wouldn’t borrow money or dig into my backup savings as far as I could help it.

Two, that if by age 35, I still hadn’t paid it off, I would swallow my dreams, head back into the corporate world and work my butt off to repay the loan.

Although I broke my first promise a couple of times by digging into my savings, I didn’t have to wait till 35 to reconsider the second one (phew). In 2017, over six years after quitting my full time job, I managed to pay off the entire goddamn loan – while freelancing, blogging and travelling around the world.

Here are some lessons I learnt along the way; candid tips that I hope will give perspective to fellow freelancers and travel bloggers in similarly challenging times:

1) Believe in yourself and stop working for peanuts

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Learning along the way in my outdoor offices – this one in Coorg.

When I first began freelancing, I was writing travel stories for as little as 500 rupees (less than 10$). I had no contacts in the industry, no idea of freelancing rates and no confidence in myself to deliver a decent travel piece. But with time, I built each of these.

Once my travel writing portfolio expanded to include BBC Travel and National Geographic Traveller, I decided to walk away from work that neither excites me nor compensates me enough to be worth my time and effort. Unfortunately there are no standard industry rates for freelancers / travel bloggers, so my formula is simple: for how long can a piece of work fund my travels? My goal is to earn a month’s worth of expenses for a week’s worth of work. It’s a personal thing and must evolve with the quality of work.

Many freelancers complain about poor rates, but end up accepting the same gigs anyway. We’re certain to lose some opportunities when we hold our ground in a negotiation, but it’s the only way to seek out better paying opportunities, deliver higher quality work and strike a satisfying work-travel / life balance.

Also read: Practical Tips to Break Into Freelance Travel Writing

2) We only get a few chances: Professionalism matters more than we think

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Life of a digital nomad – in the Bavarian Alps.

I remember the months I could barely scrape up enough money to pay my monthly loan instalments. I remember sleepless nights of pitching and sending proposals, not knowing where my next assignment might come from.

So when I scored a 3-month social media and writing gig, I knew I had to do everything to keep it. Working virtually, I learnt early on the importance of being professional and timely in my communication, deliverables and deadlines. So what if I was a one-woman show with my own blog and social media to manage, simultaneous work deadlines and an insatiable wanderlust? I gradually managed to turn two short gigs into year-long projects that steadily enabled me to increase my monthly loan repayments.

I’ve heard companies lament how they’ve burnt their hands with freelancers, and tourism boards disappointed by bloggers who don’t deliver on their promises. Remember that it’s a small industry and word gets around fast. Right from the first email and deadline, we’re being judged on our professionalism. And cliched though it sounds, under-promising and over-delivering is always a good mantra to hold yourself to.

Also read: So You Want to Start a Travel Blog?

3) Freelancers need a forced savings plan too

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Spending on experiences that matter… but saving too.

Like every freelancer and travel blogger, I hate late payments from clients, but I secretly think of them as forced savings. I’m pretty casual about spending what I earn on travelling, so it takes no time for my account to go from six digits to three – and the only way I survive is through forced savings.

In my corporate days in Singapore, a portion of my salary was deducted and transferred into a provident fund account. After I quit, I tried to keep that habit – transferring 30-40% of what I earned on a big project into a fixed deposit or second savings account. Ultimately, all that saved money helped me pay off the last big chunk of my loan at one go – phew.

Also read: Things I Wish I Knew Before I Quit My Job to Travel

4) Stop feeling insecure about losing a free trip to another blogger/freelancer

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Inspiration to create inspiring travel content.

I came face to face with a dilemma that every travel blogger (and these days, Instagrammer) faces at some point: to accept a free press trip to somewhere exotic, or not. Back in 2011, at my first travel blogging conference outside India, I was surprised to learn that some prominent travel bloggers were charging a fee to join press trips. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Besides the fact that creating truly inspiring travel content online is a time and effort intensive job, it also leads to direct revenue for the brand or tourism board involved – and I know because many of my readers write to me to say my stories from a destination made them travel there.

I’ve been part of multiple blogging trips now where it’s turned out that I’m one of the only ones getting paid – and not necessarily because my content is better or my reach greater, but because I’m willing to walk away. I’ve also been dropped from many campaigns because I’ve walked away in a negotiation – and I think that’s okay.

Truth is, if we are confident we create innovative content and influence our readers’ decisions, we need to realise and monetise the value of our work.

Also read: How to Earn Money While Travelling

5) Sell your work, but not your soul

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Contemplating dilemmas in northern Copenhagen.

I started travel blogging for two reasons: One, I didn’t want to forget the incredible stories and small acts of kindness I came across on the road. And two, I wanted to encourage my readers to think differently about life and travel. The only way I can continue doing both is by staying true to myself – and there are plenty of dilemmas every day.

I struggle to stuff my blogposts with keywords that google wants; I struggle to write posts that people search for (like how to do Europe in 5 days – sorry, no one can “do” Europe in 5 days); I struggle to promote things that I don’t genuinely believe in (no thank you L’Oréal, I can’t support animal testing).

And so be it. I tell myself that the offers will come and go, the money will come and go, but my writing will stay. This blog will stay. And (hopefully) you guys, my readers, will stay… and that’s what matters. Because without my audience, my blog is nothing.

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

6) Let’s not try to be superheroes: Learn to delegate

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Doing the digital nomad thing in Chiang Mai.

The biggest lesson I learnt from running my travel startup India Untravelled, was to delegate to the right people. It’s something I still struggle with, but I’ve been learning – to split my work (and pay) with other freelancers when my plate is too full, and to gradually grow my team at The Shooting Star. By delegating things that need fresh eyes, are time-consuming and just don’t interest me (hello, google analytics), I’ve been able to free space and time for things I care about and to work on passion projects.

By investing in talented individuals, I’m not only looking at my own work with a fresh lens, but also learning more about running a business, diversifying my income sources and gaining plenty of “me-time” along the way.

Also read: Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning’s End

7) Naysayers be damned: Turn off the negativity

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Turning off the negativity in Guatemala <3

Ignore the naysayers – that’s the best advice I got when I first took the plunge to quit my job. Maybe I’d make it somewhere in life, maybe I wouldn’t; maybe I’d be able to pay off my loan before 35, maybe I wouldn’t. But the worst thing I could do is fill my mind with all the doubts people had about my choices.

I’ve come to believe that our lives are often a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more positively we think of the future, the better it tends to be. And even if the future isn’t going to be that great, why ruin our present with negative thoughts?

All those years ago, the idea of paying a huge loan through an unsteady freelancing and travel blogging income seemed rather impractical, but I convinced myself that I’ll find a way. After all, what fun is a practical life with no big dreams and no impossible challenges to overcome?

Also read: How I’m Funding My Adventures Around the World Through Travel Blogging

What are your biggest challenges as a freelancer or travel blogger?

Connect with me on InstagramFacebookTwitter and Google+ to follow my travel adventures around the world!

ALSO READ:
Why Long Term Travel is More Like Real Life and Less Like Instagram
Advice for the Young and Penniless Who Want to Travel
Confessions of an Indian Travel Blogger

72 Comments

  1. Useful and informative post. Hats off to your courage and belief in self. A great going

  2. I’ve been freelancing for ten years now and the biggest irritant is clients suddenly rethinking their terms of engagement with you once you’ve delivered your piece. I’ve learnt to always ask to be paid an advance, and to not be afraid to walk away if they don’t. Hopefully, some of what I’ve learnt will apply to travel blogging too! 🙂

    • Shivya Nath says

      I hear you! I refuse to take on projects without a 50% advance payment now too – it’s really annoying to deliver work and then be given a 100 forms to fill in order for payment to be processed. So much for being a “digital” freelancer.

  3. Shirley Johnstone says

    A very inspiring read and plenty of food for thought. Thank you.

  4. I can so understand the freelancing writing problems! Especially that finding the right price for my writing. It’s definitely the biggest challenge for me. This was totally inspiring post to read 🙂

    • Shivya Nath says

      Thanks V! I keep increasing my rates till the acceptance rate goes down – that gives me a good idea of just how much people are willing to pay to work with me. Also not being afraid to walk away really helps.

  5. Wow, what an inspiring story. I think we are soul sisters in a way because I did something similar a few years ago. In my case, I used to travel around the world and get a job here and there when I was younger then I suddenly decided to settle down also because I had to deal with some serious health issues. So I returned to Europe and started my life from zero again… to find myself at age 46 not wanting to spend a single second longer in what I perceived as a golden cage. Though I’m a minimalist, I had the impression that everything was getting more and more expensive just for my basic needs and I often felt anxious and depressed. I also discovered that people who have never travelled in Europe do not approach life in the same way we do (you know what I mean!). At the age of 46 I’d had enough and quit my job as an English corporate trainer, cultural mediator and translator and started my new life as a vegan nomad here in Asia. I temporarily live in Cambodia because I’m still healing myself from a lifetime of bad habits and unhealthy relationships, my savings are really low at the moment but I’m positive, as soon as I get better, I’ll finally get through with my projects which are primarily about computer games, sci-fi ebooks, digital art, blogging and video tutoring! A big hug from your soul sister and good luck with all your projects!

    • Your post is fascinating. Here in India, we are rampantly judged by our age. It is perceived that once you cross 30 and haven’t found the right career/spouse yet, you’re doomed for life. This is what I’m struggling with right now. What you wrote gave me hope.

      • Dear Jheelam, we are pioneers in this life because nobody really knows what life is about unless they experience it! I was born and raised in Italy, near Milano, my upbringing was strongly catholic (I had no choice) but when I was younger I always struggled between what the catholic church expected me to be and what I really wanted for myself. I’ve been to India a few times and I totally understand how you feel; you sisters are paving the way for the new generation because India, though it’s changing at the speed of light, it’s got a long way to go in my view. It’s the only country in the world where I got sexually harassed while travelling alone by bus… Luckily those horrible men are becoming a minority nowadays as people are starting to open up their mind. We don’t harm anyone, yet people get very judgemental with women like us whose only purpose is enjoying and discovering the gift of life firsthand. Both Italy and India have very strong patriarchal views which need to be challenged to be able to evolve. After all, Shiva and Shakti are supposed to be equal to be perfectly balanced!

        • This is one of the nicest replies I’ve ever received. Your goodness shines through it. I’m so sorry and ashamed about what happened with you in my country. Hope, you visit us again in future (if and when situation gets better). Stay blessed. 🙂

          • Jheelam, to be honest, I angrily screamed to the young boy who groped my bum while I was putting my backpack on the rack above my head that I was going to f****** kill him if he did that again (the words just came out of my mouth). There were only men on the bus, I got really scared. I was travelling from Nepalganj (Nepal) to Rishikesh in 2015. Luckily, a very kind man travelling with his niece, a girl in her twenties, got on the bus almost right after the incident and he immediately understood that he had to keep an eye on me. He and his niece came to eat with me and helped me in situations where people didn’t understand me despite not being able to speak much English. He incarnated all the beautiful qualities I read in stories about Lord Khrisna; those horrible people are just a minority and are cowards because if you react, they immediately put their tails between their legs. Stand up for your rights sisters, don’t let those cowards scare you away from your dreams! Women were not born to be their servants – life is a gift and we are all equal. In fact, I learned that advaita in Sanskrit means non-dual: we are ONE! Love and blessings to you all – and well done (India is rising)!

            • Shivya Nath says

              I’m so sorry that this happened to you in India, and so glad that some kind souls looked out for you. You sounds like a really strong person. Much love to you!

            • I feel so glad that someone from faraway land knows so much about my faith. 🙂

              I’m so sorry about what happened to you. Those scums are waste of space.

              Yes, there are beautiful human beings still exist in this country, otherwise, we would all go insane.

              Loads of love for your encouraging words. Be blessed sister.

      • Shivya Nath says

        You’re right Jheelam. Now that I’m 30 myself, I hope to write a more about the age struggle in India because I know so many awesome women who are (and can be) challenging what we’re supposed to have done by 30.

        • Ya please do. I find you such an inspiring figure. Would love to read your take on ageism in India.

    • Shivya Nath says

      What a journey! Thanks for sharing your story. So many people get bogged down by age and personal issues – I’m glad you didn’t. I hope you’re healing well in Cambodia, and cheers to being a fellow vegan! Hope our paths cross soon x

  6. Always felt your posts are genuine, inspiring and the style of writing enchanting. As a reader I look for ‘feel of a place’ in blogs and that is what I find in yours

    • Shivya Nath says

      Thanks so much Sangita; glad to read your comment 🙂

  7. Hi Shivya,
    great post. Loved your sentence „[…] And even if the future isn’t going to be that great, why ruin our present with negative thoughts?” So true …

    • Shivya Nath says

      Thanks Stefan! Have to keep reminding myself of that too 😉

  8. Great post. I have a question. You’r travelling alone and don’t you afraid of people/place? How do you care about safety?
    Can you please write about it.

  9. Jatin Doshi says

    Wow! Way to go Shivya! If you need any help with your finances now that you’re out of debt I can easily help you setup a portfolio for your long term savings etc. How to allocate your money between FD, equity etc! Time passes really fast and you wouldn’t even know how fast your money would compound! I’m 32 years old and alreadt on my way to be financially free by 40 meaning my passive income will exceed my full time expenses inflation adjusted and then I’ll be free to do anything I want without worrying where the money to pay the bills for the next month would come from!

    • Shivya Nath says

      That’s amazing Jatin! I’m a complete noob when it comes to financial investments – and just shove a chunk of money in FDs every time I get a big project. Would much appreciate some help! And kudos to you to be on your way to financial freedom!

  10. Each blog of yours that I read comes straight from the heart(Me thinks!) and the fact that the travel industry has not affected your style of writing is what inspires me the most!

    • Shivya Nath says

      Thanks so much; I’m glad you feel my writing is unaffected – it’s what I strive for all the time!

  11. Lovely…Nice to know the steady progress of a 23 year girl i had met years ago…Appreciate and admire your persistence and determination..Keep going, there is lot more to achieve…

    • Shivya Nath says

      Thank you Sunil; truly appreciate all your virtual encouragement through the years! Hope things are well at your end!

  12. Poonam says

    Wow. Its not easy at a young age of 23 to take a different route with an uncertain future when you have a huge debt to pay off. Your hard and determination made it all possible. Am very sure there were days when things just did not seem right but the belief in yourself and a strive to make it work, worked. You are a big inspiration. I am neither a travel blogger nor a freelancer, but someone who has a full time job, with which I share a love-hate relationship. While I know that I cannot quit my job, I decided on day one of my working that I will fulfill my dream to travel as much as possible. So when others splurge money on buying a new dress or a bag, I save that money to buy a ticket to a new destination. The amount of peace and satisfaction this travel has given is difficult to explain to anyone. So keep travelling till it lasts. 😊

    • Shivya Nath says

      That’s amazing Poonam; I’m glad you’ve found a happy balance for yourself. All that matters is that we chase our bliss, whatever that means for each of us.

  13. Right now, as a beginning blogger, it’s really finding my voice and my style. They’re developing, and the more I write, the better I think I get 🙂 Also, I am my own worst enemy. Working on shutting that down.

    • Shivya Nath says

      All the best; this is the most fun and somewhat crucial time as a blogger I think 😉 And yes, shut that down, you’ll make enough enemies along the way, haha.

  14. Supriya Mimani says

    Love love love…and kudos for not supporting animal testing!! <3

    • Shivya Nath says

      Thanks Supriya! And ya, since I turned vegan, it’s opened my eyes to so many more things.

  15. You are a heroine for this 68 year old man – vegan, no animal testing! Slowly – but surely – people will learn kindness from you

    • Shivya Nath says

      Aww that’s a bit much Dileep! But as someone with a lot of readers, I feel I have to – at the cost of sounding like an activist – take a stand against animal cruelty publicly.

  16. Thanks for this great post Shivya. You have given me a lot of hope 🙂

    • Shivya Nath says

      Aww I’m glad Ni – there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Just that the tunnel is sometimes pretty long 😉

  17. Bhagyashree says

    Inspiring and honest, thank you and good wishes for your endeavours. 👍

  18. Traveling is my passion but not my profession. People like you are great inspiration for people like me. Keep traveling and keep writing!

  19. Its really inspiring. You are a very genuine person and all the things you say in your blogs really feel like you actually mean them. I love and enjoy writing and somewhere down the line travel becomes my passion. Even in my busy schedule and minimum leave I manage to take time and travel wherever possible. I was fidgeting with the idea of starting a travel blog from a long time but never found the courage even after investing on domain etc. But somehow after going through your post I felt its discipline which I am lacking and I should go with it. All the best for you future and hope to see you some day !!

    • Shivya Nath says

      I’m great you found some perspective after reading this post, Dipti! I always say start a blog only if you’re really passionate about it – then discipline, time and everything else will come along 😉

  20. Kushagra Singhal says

    Its always amazing and inspiring to read your heart felt thoughts and experiences. Following your passion is one thing and making a career out of it is totally different. Needs lot of courage, positive attitude and patience. You are a perfect role model for all those who want to follow their heart and make a decent living out of it. God bless you always!

    • Shivya Nath says

      Thanks so much Kushagra! To be honest, none of this was planned. Sometimes I look back at my life and wonder just how I winged it 😉

  21. I love this. It’s so hard to find authentic voices in the blogosphere who write candidly about their struggles. It’s taken time to integrate my tone, but it’s good to draw a FIRM line about what I will do–and what I won’t. I realize that other bloggers may choose to do these things, however I love that the decision is mine. I also agree about not obsessing about what others are doing. In academia, we call this imposter syndrome and I see it so much in the blogging world. It’s important to keep your head up and try to be as original.

  22. Thanks for sharing your story and your advice! You are such an amazing storyteller.

    I’m just starting out as a storyteller. With a little one now, I can only travel domestically, all the more reason to live through the lens of others who can really bring you into that place and moment! Keep being awesome, Shivya! 🙂

  23. I have read so many articles and books on tips of freelancing guess by far this has been more accurate and I could relate with. and yes walking away from alluring freebies and trips needs a lot of courage. Kudos to you! I am glad I am not the only one 🙂

  24. Ravi says

    Nice to find a reply from you. You certainly are an inspiration to fellow bloggers.

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