If you were handed a thousand bucks, what would you do? Book a flight? Splurge on a new phone? Invest in your rainy-day fund?
Elizabeth Krupka, the first monthly grand prize winner of NerdWallet’s Rewards Sweepstakes, decided to spend her $1,000 in prize money on something that fueled her love for the outdoors.
Krupka, a 28-year-old digital marketing manager for a software company in Salt Lake City, entered the sweepstakes by using the NerdWallet app to track her credit score. (The sweepstakes allows people to earn entry points by taking certain actions within the app, such as linking an account or saving toward an emergency fund. Each month, one winner is selected to receive $1,000.)
We spoke to her about her experience with student debt, how she makes the most of her side gig and what she bought with the sweepstakes money. This transcript was lightly edited for clarity and length.
What’s your history with personal finance?
I had a ton of student debt from attending Cabrini University, a small liberal arts school in Philadelphia, and that was really frustrating to deal with. I wouldn’t change my education because I liked the curriculum and teachers, but in hindsight, there were things I could have done to make my college experience cheaper. I could have worked part-time — a lot of my friends were baby-sitting or nannying — but I just didn’t want to at the time.
I had four student loans that averaged 13% APR. I was paying $800 to $900 a month in interest on my private student loans, and that was really hard when I was only earning $45,000 a year. I wanted to refinance them, but there was always another bar to reach: improving my debt-to-income ratio, getting a better salary, etc.
Where do you stand with student debt now?
I’ve paid off $35,000 in private student loans so far. I have an interest rate of 3% now, which is amazing. My student loan payments went down to $380 a month. My goal now is just to make sure I’m being smarter about paying off my loans. I had a ton of anxiety about my student debt, but I don’t feel that anymore. This is America, where people live in debt and live way over their heads. I have a philosophy now where I don’t want to be paranoid about finances, but I want to be ever-conscious about my goals and where I want to be. Financial freedom makes you feel peaceful.
Can you describe your spending habits and how you save?
I live simply. I hate spending on stupid things like vacuums. I don’t buy a ton of furniture for my apartment. I used to spend a lot of money on clothes, but I’ve gotten into the habit of “buying nice, not twice.” I’m ruthless about selling clothing I no longer wear through ThredUp, an online resale shop.
I’m trying to invest in things I really like that are more expensive instead of buying four or five things from cheaper quality companies. Since I’ve moved out west, I’ve been interested in snowboarding, climbing and kayaking. I try to buy good quality outdoor gear when I can.
The biggest thing I did last year was get creative about side income. Money is out there to be made if you can get creative. I realized I could be freelancing to pay off student loans more quickly without having to eat ramen every day. I adjusted my life by giving up personal time to do freelance marketing since I know how to work with different marketing automation systems. I posted my resume on LinkedIn ProFinder. There’s also a Slack community where people post about businesses looking for freelancers. I had to get permission from my current job to make sure there wasn’t a conflict of interest, and it took a while to find projects, but once I found them, it made a dent in my private loans.
I freelance around 20 hours a week. During the week, I come home from work, run my dog, make dinner and freelance for two or three hours a day. I’ll try to give myself one full weekend day off, but then I’ll work the other day. I actually liked spending my time like this, so I’ve kept up with it.
What’s the cost of living like in Salt Lake City?
I moved to Salt Lake City from Philadelphia about two years ago. My costs have gone down significantly. Philly is an expensive city and it’s hard to have a car there, so I took public transportation. I learned that I was spending about $700 a month on transportation (i.e., buses and Uber rides). Once I started to track my finances, I knew that paying that much for transportation wasn’t something I wanted to repeat in Salt Lake City.
I now have an $800 studio apartment that includes Wi-Fi and everything. I don’t have TV or cable, and I’m completely happy without them. I only knew one person when I moved to Salt Lake City — it was a big leap of faith. I wanted a change. I was over Philly and wanted something new. I thought I would eventually get an MBA, and that was cheaper out in Salt Lake City. The cost of living was cheaper and I wanted to be closer to the mountains. I got a job offer, accepted it, packed up my stuff and left.
How did you hear about the sweepstakes?
I have the NerdWallet app on my phone, and I got a notification about the sweepstakes. It sounded really rad and easy to follow. I had to link my bank account and put in the credit score I wanted to achieve.
The last piece to my student loan debt was getting my credit score up. I know that credit scores are important, but the app showed me a fun way to raise my credit score. I just needed to update my progress and use the app to reach my budgeting goals. Raising your credit score can be so boring and adult, but the sweepstakes gave me something fun to focus on while I was trying to accomplish that goal.
What did you do with the $1,000?
It was the first time I’ve ever won anything. I got the check in January, and I used the money to help pay for a folding kayak from Oru Kayak. I had been eyeing it, but every time I saved up for it, something else came up (e.g., a tire blew out). It wasn’t an easy goal to reach. When I got the check, I was like, “I’m buying this.”
Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Krupka.