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This interview with Gavin and Layne Buckland highlights their incredible and improbable story of paying off $87,000 in student loan debt. Like a lot college grads, the Bucklands felt the tightening grip of student loan debt shortly after graduating from Judson University, a private Christian college near Chicago.
Their escape from debt is nothing short of extraordinary—so extraordinary, in fact, that a video they created to tell their story was recently named the grand prize winner of the SoFi Ditch Your Debt Life competition.
If you haven’t caught their hilarious and down-to-Earth submission, here it is:
Without further delay, here is the interview:
Thank you for your willingness to share your story, Gavin and Layne! First, tell us a bit about how yourselves: where are you located, where did you go to college, how did you meet, and what have your career paths looked like so far?
We both grew up in the Quad Cities in rural Iowa (as if there’s any other option in Iowa). We met our freshman year of high school at church and started dating 3 years later. Gavin actually asked Layne to be his girlfriend at church. We’re still not sure why she said yes but man we’re glad she did.
We both graduated from Judson University, a private college in Chicago, Layne majored in architecture for two weeks then switched to graphic design. Gavin first attend the Art Institute near Chicago to major in filmmaking…and be close to Layne. Then Gavin transferred to Judson University as well to major in film…and be even closer to Layne.
Gavin started working at a creative agency called OX Creative in Chicago as an Assistant Film Editor during college and is now a Director, directing films for OX. Layne got a few part time jobs after college as she was trying to figure out what she wanted to do. She was a graphic designer for a church and worked as a bank teller. The hours were tough managing both jobs so she made the leap and went full time and is now Lead Graphic Designer at a culinary R&D firm.
We bought an old historic home in the area, adopted a dog named Millie, and now we call Chicago home…for now. We can’t believe we’re lucky enough to make a living doing the things we love and are good at full time.
When you were in high school and started looking at colleges, did you have a plan to pay for your education? Did you just assume student loans would be a part of the equation? Or did that happen by accident/surprise?
We both had a plan, but it was different for both of us. Layne’s parents set up a college fund when she was young so her college was completely covered–for which we’re so incredibly thankful. All of the college debt we had was from Gavin, but when we got married it became “our college debt” because–marriage. It wasn’t until senior year of highschool did Gavin really start to think about the cost of college, and because of that lack of foresight, rising tuition, and choosing to attend a private school–student loans had to be part of the equation–pretty much the entire equation.
How much student loan debt did you graduate with, individually and collectively? What type of loans were they (federal, parent plus, etc.)? And how did you use the student loan funds you received each semester?
We graduated with $87,000 of student debt which was all from Gavin but became both our weight to bear together when we got married before our senior year of college. $43,000 of it was government subsidized/unsubsidized and $44,000 was a private loan of which my father cosigned with me. Tuition costs were around $36,000/year so the loans were used for tuition and housing.
While you were in school, did you have an idea of how much student loan debt you were taking on and what your eventual monthly repayment cost would be when you graduated?
Gavin: I did have an idea about my student debt amount. But it was very vague, arbitrary, and unimportant to me at the time I was in school. I had no reference to the impact that owing that amount of money would have on my life. It only became serious to me once I got engaged to Layne my junior year and really started to look at what our financial state would be once married and post college.
Your SoFi Ditch the Debt Life contest video shared a bit about your early struggles with paying off your student loan debt as newlyweds. What were the biggest challenges you faced at this time?
Because we were fresh out of college, our incomes were low and our expenses were high because of our student debt monthly payment, so the biggest struggle was making our budget balance. Our expenses were outweighing our income and we were losing money, fast! And that caused a lot of stress for us. So we decided to cut back our other expenses which meant things like getting rid of subscriptions– even small ones like Spotify premium.
We did the classic things to save money like not going on vacation, not spending as much money eating out, not buying new clothes. And that was really tough. We not only love to do fun things with our money but with our friends and family–with people we love. So it was very defeating to turn down doing things like going out to eat or going on vacation with the people that we love. Obviously, it was not fun to not have fun with the money we were earning.
So cutting back on our expenses could only get us so far, so then we asked ourselves, “well why not try and increase our income so that we can do this even quicker?” We listed our guest bedroom on Airbnb which was a great income boost, but as you can imagine, it was difficult at times to share our space and host people for years. It’s like speed dating–meet a stranger, get to them quickly and for a short amount of time, but then you share a bathroom, and food, and get to know people really well, really fast.
Layne also picked up a driving for rideshare companies on top of her full time job. She would drive at night after working all day and on weekends. That was a huge sacrifice for both of us as well.
Gavin would pick up film jobs on the weekends like shooting weddings. So times we would have liked to spend with each other we were spending working to make more money to pay off this debt which bummed us out.
We did, however, get really thrifty with the money that we allowed for “fun.” We both love movies and going to the movies. So we’d budget for that, but we’d agree to not spend money on food or drink at the theater.
It’s about finding a balance. At the beginning of our debt payoff journey, we knew we’d be sacrificing the next few years, but we also wanted to be able to look back and not totally hate that season so we definitely allowed for fun memories to be made on the cheap. Like camping with friends instead of flying to a beach resort, or having people over for dinner instead of eating out with friends.
We can proudly say we can look back at the last few years as some of the best of our lives even though we were sacrificing financially, it made us appreciate what’s actually important to us in life.
There are generally two schools of thought on repaying student loan debt: pay it off as fast as possible or delay repayment in order to tackle other goals (saving to buy a home, investing, etc.). Did you research and consider both options after college? Why did you choose to prioritize debt repayment?
We not only researched all options, we lived them. For a while, we lived with the idea that we’d just pay off the debt in the 10-20 years that was planned and put the money towards things we wanted now, like buying a home, vacations, investing, etc.
But when we saw how the debt payments were actually going to not only slow us down but actually prevent us from hitting those financial and life goals, we knew it was the smarter option to tackle the debt with everything we had and pay off the debt as fast as possible. We had to resolve that it would delay those more fun things, yes, but for a shorter amount of time than if we were to live with the debt for most of our lives!
By all accounts you both worked hard to pay off your student loan debt, even before the Ditch Your Debt Life contest. How much debt were you able to pay off through these side hustles?
We listed our guest bedroom on Airbnb and while we haven’t tallied our Airbnb earnings from when we first listed, it does bring in about an extra $500-$1000/month. That all went to paying off our debt.
Driving for Uber would bring in about $100/month.
Shooting weddings would bring in about $4k/year.
We would estimate that the side hustles helped pay off around $30,000 of the student debt.
So you’re essentially cruising through life with your nose to the grindstone when the Ditch Your Debt Life contest opportunity surfaces. How did you hear about it? And were you both on board with the idea to enter the contest from the start?
We had just paid off our government student loan two weeks before we got the email from SoFi announcing the competition. They were asking for people that had paid off a student debt to make a 60 second video telling the story of how we paid it off.
We were so on board as soon as we got the email because we had around $15,000 in student debt left and we knew winning this could eliminate the rest of the debt. Since we both are in the creative industry we knew we had to take a crack at this thing.
Your video is equal parts hilarious and laser-focused on the authentic problems which plague the average college graduate with student loan debt. How did you come up with the idea for your video?
The idea for our video was such a collaborative process. Coming up with the idea for the video started while we were on a weekend camping trip with friends. We had gotten the email as we were headed out of town. It ended up raining a lot that weekend so we had a lot of time to all sit around and talk in our tent. We have some incredibly talented and creative friends so we brainstormed that weekend and left with a solid idea of what we wanted to make.
We knew the winning video would be decided by public voting so we had to come up with something that was funny and relatable. A famous film director named Wes Anderson is known for his quick paced humor so we definitely used his films as reference for the tone of our film.
We also collaborated with our friend who’s an awesome screenwriter named Jeff Cox. He’s a hilariously talented writer. Together, we crafted the script and visuals. He also plays our roommate in the film.
We knew we had to open up with an image that would get people’s attention so we asked, “what is something you don’t want the internet to see?” and that resulted in one of the first images we came up with in the process was the idea of opening with Gavin in a bathtub. We apologize for everyone having to see that, but hopefully it worked to our advantage.
All in all, we could not have done this without our amazingly talented friends. It started with their encouragement to do it and wouldn’t have happened without them.
Obviously your professional background in film played a big role in creating your video; you even give it mention in the video. How did your experience in the industry influence this project?
Through this competition, I realized that I went into debt to learn filmmaking and funny enough, filmmaking ended up being the thing that helped get me out of debt. Getting to make films full time is such an incredible honor that I do not take for granted.
Because of the great people I’ve gotten to work for and with through the years, I’ve picked up on a few things about the filmmaking process and that definitely helped when approaching creating this piece. I had opportunities to get feedback on the story outline and my approach to producing this piece.
I treated this like any other project I’d be making and pitched it to filmmakers that I respect and got their feedback. Knowing the process to run this through was so helpful but it is half the equation. Having the right people and tools is the other half. I am so incredibly grateful to have access to both.
What level of time and resources went into producing your Ditch Your Debt Life video?
We had about 2 weeks from the moment we decided to make the film to when it was due to write, shoot, and edit the piece so we knew we had to hustle. We used every minute of those two weeks. OX Creative, the creative agency I work for, was so incredibly integral to this coming to life. They supported us with the gear, team, and studio to shoot in.
Because this video was going to be promoted, we had to make sure we didn’t break any laws with music copyrights, so we even had an original score made for the film by a talented composer named Jonny Mendez and had the piece sound designed by an industry professional, and friend, Ryan Pribyl.
Here is the question everyone wants to know – Did you think you could win the contest?
The most honest answer we can give is this–we didn’t know whether we’d win or not, but we knew we wanted to be proud of what we made whether we won or lost. This was a major part of our story so our goal was to tell it as well as possible. We are so amazed at the response of everyone sharing and voting for our video.
Voting for a contest like this is probably a mix of organic votes from people who don’t know any of the contestants and obviously friends and family of contestants. I first learned about the contest and your video on Facebook and immediately was floored by two things: the quality of your video and the effective voting campaign you put together. You did a great job of making the contest a sort of tribal thing; I personally felt like I had won the contest along with you two (even though I did nothing but vote) and I’m sure others felt this way, too. Talk a bit about the process of marketing your video and how you tried to get votes.
To be honest, it wasn’t stressful coming up with the film idea, or even pulling it off in a short amount of time. The most stressful part of the whole journey was the final voting stage of the competition. Layne and I don’t have a big social media following, we aren’t even that fond of social media platforms but it became this necessary evil for us.
Our strategy was consistency. When we found out our video had made it as one of the ten finalists, we knew we had to make a plan for posting (somewhat) fresh content regularly–we couldn’t just keep posting the same video and telling people to vote every hour for two weeks. So we created a series of “cut downs”, 15-30 second versions of the longer piece. We used shots that didn’t make it into the final edit.
We wanted to thank the people that helped us so we featured each person in posts across the social media platforms. We felt bad because we were posting about this competition constantly but people kept telling us that they wanted to vote, they just needed to be reminded, and the posts were helping remind them, so we kept at it.
But it wasn’t enough that just Layne and I posted about it. We were absolutely floored by the support we got from every one. Our family, friends, and even strangers were consistently sharing with others asking them to vote. You were allowed to vote once every hour but people got so into it, they were finding ways to vote more efficiently and even encouraging others to do so. We never supported it, but it meant a lot to us that people cared so much.
About halfway through the voting period, we even got contacted by the organization running the competition telling us to tell our friends to stop voting so much or else we would be disqualified. So we had to ask people to stop voting as much as they were for us, which we never thought would be something we were going to have to do.
So voting ends, and the big reveal day finally arrives. Did SoFi invite all finalists out for the award party?
Because our video was chosen as a finalist, we did get to fly out to New York City where SoFi was hosting an event to award the winner the $50,000. It was held on a rooftop bar of a hotel in Manhattan. They had an emcee from California host the night who was a little too excited to be there, a live band, some intriguing workshops about financial topics, and free food drink!
Jeff Cox, the writer of the short, and his girlfriend came along as well. It was great to experience that together with some solid friends that had helped from the beginning.
Obviously winning the contest—and $50,000—is a huge accomplishment. How did you feel when you learned you had won the contest? How does it feel now several weeks later?
When they announced our names as the winners, we were in total shock. We were so surprised. We couldn’t believe it. That shock has only recently worn off.
It feels so amazing to have the hard work from not only the last few weeks, but the last few years, pay off. We feel so blessed to have had this opportunity and experience in our life. We know this is a once in a lifetime experience and we do not take it for granted.
In your video, you mentioned that you would like to help others pay off their student loan debt. What plans do you have to help people do so?
Yes, we absolutely feel called to help others experience the freedom we have from our student loan debt. It was because our family was so generous to us that we were able to pay off our first student loan to be eligible for the video competition. We want to share that joy with others.
So we are in the beginning stages of creating what were calling “joy boxes.” It’s essentially a gift were intentionally sending out to people we’ve come into contact with that, like us, could benefit with a reminder of joy amidst the hard process of paying off debt.
We’re in the early stages of creation, but the boxes will consist of items that help guide through the process of paying off debt, personal notes of encouragement and prayer from Layne and I, and of course a financial donation for them to put towards their student debt. We found that we experience a deep joy when we’re generous with others, so you’re also encouraged to give part of the donation from the Joy Box to donate to someone else paying off debt.
When word got out that you won the contest, several people asked you what you were going to do with money? Was there any doubt in your mind about how to use it?
There was no doubt in our mind. We would use the money to pay off the rest of our student and finally be completely debt free (besides our mortgage). And now we are, completely, utterly, and forever debt free!!
Your story is incredible and inspiring, but unfortunately, everyone can’t win a contest and wipe out their student loan debt. What is your biggest advice for people who are staring at a mountain of student loan debt?
There are the obvious things, like living off of a budget. Know where your money is going and how you are using it. We try to make every dollar work for us. It all has needs to have a place.
But more important than following a budget, Dave Ramsey, etc. whether you are just starting your debt pay off journey, in the midst of it, or have yet to even begin, we encourage everyone that it is not a journey to be walked alone.
It’s not encouraged to hike a mountain alone, so when we refer to our debt as that, we should treat it with the same strategy. I found solace, encouragement, accountability and strength in Layne and her in me.
The support and understanding of our friends and family was crucial throughout the process as well. The debt struggle doesn’t need to be kept to yourself. We found people helped us when we asked, so don’t be afraid to ask. We’re all in this together.