Bottoming Out Financially, Rocking Out Proactively

12/03/2010 01:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Justin Cox @CoxJustin &

In hopes of making my loan payments, I play guitar in the subway. Here are a couple of reasons why:

1. My payments are crippling.

2. I'm in an artistic rut: I don't play music or write songs nearly as often as I did when I was in college.

Since I'm a massive fan of killing several birds with one stone, I developed the following plan, which I think any person who finds themselves busted up by education-related debt should consider:

For the next year, I will drag my guitar to work and play songs in public at least once per week -- in a subway, on a corner, in a coffee shop, wherever. I'll keep a tip jar in front of me and every single rusty penny I make will be kicked in the direction of those monthly payments.

I chose music, but the options are virtually endless: Whether it's cooking, painting, jewelry making or working on your car, your debt can be the motivational catalyst that forces you to revive a dying passion or hone a natural talent. It definitely will not kill your balance, and it won't make you famous, but it can be counted on to provide at least some financial relief, eventually. And more importantly, it'll knock the dust off something you enjoy and make it a structured part of your daily life. It's the ultimate, lemons-into-lemonade approach.

Here's what it's done for me in the last two months:

I work for a small media company in downtown San Francisco. Rather than hop on the bus and go directly home after my shift, I duck into a nearby subway station and rattle off about an hour's worth of songs one night per week. I was extremely nervous the first time I did it, but the butterflies flocked away as the first dollar bill came to rest in my guitar case. I realized, Hey, some people actually dig this.

It's not that I need to be paid to know how much I enjoy playing music, but the truth is I require the tiny financial motivator. Especially after a long and tiring work day, when all I want to do is go home to my couch and watch SportsCenter. It was also pleasant to find out that the thud of a nickel is (almost!) just as satisfying as the soft landing of a five-dollar bill, because both were given voluntarily by people who, on some level, were pleased with what they were hearing.

That said: it's incredibly enjoyable and gratifying to count dollar bills on the bus ride home and then fold them into a debt-designated piggy bank (shaped like a porcelain cat) when you get home. It feels like very healthy progress, pure and simple.

I made 37 dollars in my first full month, all of which went toward my $700 loan payment. I realize that's very little in comparison to what I owe, but it helps a little, and I'm confident I'll be making more in the future.

Last Saturday I played my first live show in more than two years, at a small café in San Francisco. I contacted the planner, sent her some of my music, and we booked it. There's no way the event would have taken place if I hadn't decided to pursue this college-debt-related project. And there will definitely be more shows to come.

So, for those of you in similar debt:

Are you an artist? A hard worker? Do you enjoy stringing beads together? Then do it, and then lay out a sheet at a farmers market and sell the fruits of your labor at a very low price. Pick up some canvas and build a few hours into your daily routine to exercise yourself artistically. Start a blog and push your stuff. Write fiction? Landscape? Wrench on cars? Same approach.

If you go into it with the right expectations, committed to forking every penny in the direction of your porcelain-cat piggy bank, the experience can be only positive. .

The goal is not fame and fortune; it's art and, hopefully, a little bit of financial relief. I still get stressed by the fact that I'm staring down the barrel of decades of deb, but I take some very real comfort in the fact that I might strum a few of those years away.