Paying Off $18k in Debt While Getting Paid to Travel the World

My name is Gina Saladino, and my lifestyle, well, it's very unconventional.  

I’m 27 years old, and I share a 4 ft. x 4 ft. bunk-bed outfitted cabin on a super yacht (yes, that’s a thing). I am not climbing a corporate latter, or necessarily even building a career. 

I’m traveling the world, living in the moment and, as of last week, just finished paying off $18k in student loans that, up till 20 months ago, I never knew I had.

 

Here’s my story. 

I grew up in a middle class neighborhood in central New Jersey. I wasn't really financially aware as a young kid — is anybody, really? — and my parents never discussed finances with my brothers and I. 

After building some of the greatest friendships of my life at UC Santa Barbara and not having much genuine interest in continuing school or the work force, I scooted off to Thailand to teach English after graduation.

I landed a Kindergarten teaching job within a month.  The next thing I knew, I had an apartment, a motorbike, and 30 non-English-speaking 5-year-olds staring up at me for 3 hours a day.  It was a pretty wild time in my life.  

 

I was making 40,000 baht/month, which is equivalent to about $1,150. In terms of saving, I wasn’t thinking long-term at all. I spent any spare change I had island hopping around Thailand with friends on the weekends, and would save up just enough to take bigger international trips during school breaks - Bali, Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, to name a few.

After two years of living this way when I decided to come home I was completely broke, but my heart was so happy. It was the trip of a lifetime, and something that I will never forget.

My last few months in Thailand I met a guy from New Zealand who was an engineer on super yachts. And a few months later, I was on a plane to the Seychelles to work on my first yacht. 

Yachting is unlike any job I’ve ever encountered for a few different reasons:

  • It’s not your normal 9-5, Monday-Friday job. When guest’s are on it can be 13-15 hour days for 20-30 days at a time. It's utterly exhausting.

  • Because your life basically revolves around the boat, you are compensated pretty damn well.  As a brand new stewardess, I was making $3,500/month and traveling all over the gorgeous Indian Ocean.

  • If you do it right, you can have no expenses while working on a yacht. You live on board, so you don’t have to pay for rent. There is a full-time chef that cooks for the crew, so you don’t have to pay for food. And... well you get the point. :)

In my opinion, working on a yacht is hands down the best possible way to save money while still having the opportunity to travel the world. It’s pretty incredible.

I was making more money than I ever had in my life, and was actually saving some for once. 

 

After 8 months on the yacht, some life stuff happened and I decided to quit and went back to California where I was met with a couple of life-changing hurtles. 

In July of 2015, less than a month after returning home, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. And on top of that my parents were going through a break-up which left my mom out of the picture.  

Amidst all of the chaos, it was brought to my attention that she was the one who had been in charge of my student loans. These were loans that were taken out in my name — loans that I didn’t even really know existed.  

Talk about being hit by a ton of bricks!  

I immediately took complete control of the situation, and I found there were 4 loans taken out in my name from 2008-2011, totaling $20,500.

When I took them over, the balance was at $18,100, so my mom had really only been paying interest (at rates of 5.75%, 6.55%, and 6.8%). 

I was extremely overwhelmed by it all, but I decided that I would start small and do what I could.

 

The day that I took over my loans, I paid off the smallest one in full — $1,900.

From there, I set up automatic monthly payments that were about $70 over the minimum due (roughly $300), which was an amount that I thought I could sustain over a long period of time with no income. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.  

Luckily my dad’s cancer was easily treated through surgery (he’s now over a year cancer-free!). After a few months, I felt comfortable enough leaving and decided to head back to Australia to meet back up with my boyfriend.

But as the months dragged on, I started to get some very serious anxiety about my debt.

I was hardly making a dent in it, and with each day that I wasn’t working I began to feel more useless and irresponsible. In a way this debt made me lose my sense of self-worth.

In February 2016 — for my birthday and without my knowing — my boyfriend paid off $10,000 of my loans with the intention that I would pay him back interest-free on my own time.  

It was so incredibly kind! But it made me feel a bit uncomfortable, which probably is what lit a fire under my ass. 

So now I had two separate things going on: I still owed $5,000 to the loan company, and now I owed him $10,000.

About 1.5 months later, still with the commitment that I’d pay him back, he and I decided we’d go our separate ways. 

At that time I realized that the best way for me to pay off my debts was to get back into yachting. So I started sending my CV out to all of the crew agencies and applying to every single job posting that I saw, and by May I was on a plane to Florida to join a new boat.

This is where the magic happens.  

 

The boat that I joined and have been working on for the past 10 months is private with selective charters, which means not only do I make a monthly salary, but there are opportunities for tips as well. Little did I know how huge this would be!

I joined the boat May 9th, and a week later we were on our way to the Bahamas for a 7-day charter. I was on deck at 5:30 every morning, and most nights I wasn't sent down to bed until 10:30 or later, with a 2 hour break at some point in between. 

Our guests that trip were incredible, but we worked our asses off that first week. And that’s what yachting is — you work insanely hard and when it’s all over, you sit back and watch the money roll in.

Upon returning back to Florida, I was handed a personal check for $5,500 — and that was just our tip for the week!  I earned my salary on top of that.  So in my first 3 weeks on board I had made almost $8,000. I couldn’t even believe it.  

 

I bought myself a few essentials, and put the rest of the tip money toward my student loans.  

On September 13th, I made my last payment to the loan agency. I had paid off almost $5,000 in 3 months, and was feeling really good about it.  

Now on to the big boy!  

I made my first payment to my ex at the end of October - $1,000. The second week of November we had another 7-day charter which earned me yet another $5,500 tip. I immediately transferred $4,000 of it into my ex’s account.

In 2 months, I was already halfway done!  

In January I made two separate payments of $1,000 each, and on February 28th I made a payment of $1,500.  This left me with a balance of $1,500. I was planning on saving my final payment for next month, but I decided why wait when I can be debt free TODAY?!  

On March 1st, I transferred the final $1,500 to my ex’s account, and a huge feeling of relief came over me.

Ten months and two charters later, I was free! 


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Not only had I paid off $18,000 worth of debt in 20 months, I paid off $10,000 of it in 4 months alone!  

Let me tell you, it’s such an amazing feeling knowing that the savings that I created for myself in the process is entirely mine to keep.

I’ve gained back a big sense of financial independence and self-worth. I feel more free than I have in a really long time. And more importantly, I’ve learned a valuable lesson in financial awareness and responsibility.

So what am I up to now?? 

Well, I’ll be taking a break from yachting at the beginning of April to travel. I’m treating myself to a couple of months of traveling — USVI, New York, India, Thailand, Bali, Hong Kong, California, and beyond.  

 

Taking in all of the yoga, nature, vegan food, culture, beach, and sun that I possibly can.  I don’t know when my next job will come along.  Everything I own fits in a 70 liter backpack and a medium-sized suitcase, and there’s something so beautiful about that fact. For me, it’s important to work to live, not live to work, and being debt free allows me to do so without restriction for right now.  

It also allows me to follow my heart and my passions wherever they may take me. There’s something to be said for saving for the future, but I think it has to be balanced with using your money to LIVE in the present.

This whole journey has helped me find a happy balance between the two, and I hope it helps you too. :)


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