Advice for a debt-free journey

Taylor Hayes ('15) pays it forward by sharing tips on paying off student loans with college graduates

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Surrounded by balloons that spell "60K," Hayes proudly holds her JMU diploma framed with "$60,349.02 paid in full." She paid off her student loans in 4 1/2 years.

SUMMARY: A JMU alumna paid off more than $60,000 in student loans over 4 1/2 years. Now, she's sharing her personal finance tips.

By Khalil Garriott (’04)

It is no secret that a college education is expensive nowadays. After graduating, it can be an intimidating and stressful feeling to know that you have a long road ahead to pay off your student loans.

As the Chinese proverb goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Taking this approach to student loan debt makes it more manageable. Bite off what you can chew, make payments in small chunks, and don’t focus on that big number of how much you owe overall. Trust that the little things will add up.

These are the wise words of Taylor Hayes (’15), who paid off more than $60,000 in student loans over 4 1/2 years. She’s paying it forward for students and new graduates by sharing her personal finance tips on an Instagram account with more than 18,000 followers.

“I want to share my story with college students to inspire them to get rid of their student loans as fast as possible,” Hayes said. “When I started making payments on my student loans, I had no idea that interest was accruing on them each day, and so for years, I only paid my minimum monthly payment. Once I realized that I was paying about $10 a day in interest alone, on top of my monthly payment, I finally realized that my student loans were detrimental to my financial situation, and I got serious about paying them off. I want the same for other college students graduating with student loan debt.”  

Hayes, who majored in computer information systems at JMU, created an “Imperfect Finance” student loan guide, a 23-page resource that outlines how students can pay off their college debt. Hayes empathizes with new and soon-to-be graduates who are stressed out about paying off their loans—and now, because of COVID-19—they face the added stress of trying to enter the workforce during a bleak economic period in American history.


“Job searching by itself isn’t easy, but when you add COVID-19 in the mix, job searching becomes a little bit more difficult,” she said. “However, companies are still hiring. So, my advice would be to keep applying on a consistent basis, and reach out to your college career center for help if needed. Make your resumé the best it can be, and apply to any sort of career path that catches your eye, even if it’s not necessarily something directly related to your degree.”

The end of the student loan grace period after a person graduates from college comes swiftly and forcefully. That’s why Hayes advises to have a plan before that time comes, crunch the numbers and seek ways to increase your income while decreasing your expenses.

Hayes’ motivation for sharing her wisdom, which she does via her “Imperfect Finance” blog, is simple: She’s been there. Having been in their shoes, she wants to impress upon people that it’s OK to make money-management mistakes along the way.

“When you make the same mistakes over and over again,” Hayes said, “it is hard to ignore the behavioral patterns that continue to bring our lives financial stress. If you are noticing a behavioral pattern that feels habitual (like spending too much money on your credit cards and not being able to pay them off in full each month), ask yourself why you continue to make the same choices even though they don’t make you feel good. That’s what I did.

“At the end of the day, I had to decide what kind of life I wanted to live: one that was riddled with debt, money mistakes and stress, or one that was debt-free, peaceful and in my control.”

Once someone’s able to get out from under their student loans, it’s a freeing feeling to be able to live life without that burden. Hayes is now able to create the life she wants to live. Having paid off $60,349.02 at a young age, she considers it her calling to share her personal finance tips and tricks. They’re all rooted in her real-life, personal experiences.

Hayes said, “I don’t believe college students (or people in general) are educated enough on how exactly student loans work and how they can seriously affect our finances, so I want to be someone who can show others the way, and show others that becoming debt-free is possible.”

Hayes strongly suggests staying patient and avoiding emotional spending. She knows firsthand that it can be difficult to focus on the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, but the hard work eventually will pay off.

“If you don’t start making payments toward your debt, you will never become debt-free,” she said. “The earlier you start, the better. It sounds obvious and cliché, but the sooner you start, the sooner you will be out of debt.”

Duke Dog joins Hayes and two of her friends in Bridgeforth Stadium to celebrate their graduation in 2015.

Hayes led by example during her time at JMU. Through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, she befriended and mentored a middle school-aged child in the Harrisonburg community and served as president of the JMU women’s club basketball team. In 2014, she studied abroad in Malmö, Sweden, with 15 other CIS majors.

Currently based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Hayes is a business intelligence analyst for McKesson, the oldest and largest health care company in the nation.

“My future goals include saving up to take my dad to Italy, and saving and investing enough for retirement so that I can retire as soon as possible,” Hayes said.



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Published: Friday, January 15, 2021

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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