In some ways, Jason Lowery is a typical Millennial. And in other ways, he's completely not. He's been beset by extreme financial challenges -- not uncommon to members of his generation -- but he's been able to employ rare financially savvy to get himself out of a jam.
He has no student loans and paid off over $60,000 in student loan debt, as well as over $20,000 of his mother's credit card debt. He's also got a great manner of telling stories about himself in no small part due to his dry, self-deprecating sense of humor. Did we mention that he's a rocket scientist who drives a 1969 Chevelle? Lowery has recently gotten some attention online because of his stunning ability to pay down debt. So how did he do it?
Right now, Lowery is a full-time student pursuing a master's of science degree in astronautical engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology. As a rocket scientist in training, he makes six figures to go to school for the military. Not bad work if you can get it, but he works at least 60 hours a week, sometimes closer to 80. "There's a reason they pay us as much as they do," he said. "Our schedules are pretty brutal."
The Air Force never gave him a deal to pay off his debt. Baylor University, where he attended undergrad, costs $40,000 a year. Yet he has no outstanding student loan debt. "I got interested in the Air Force in high school," he says. "I ended up doing ROTC and competed for a scholarship that paid 60% of my education." So in addition to school, he was drilling and doing PT. He needed to get a waiver to take extra classes to meet his ROTC requirements. "They paid for a lot of it, but they basically considered it a job," he said. "I was in the reserves, and I had mandatory things I had to go to."
His life changed when his mother revealed to him that she had gotten in over her head with credit card debt. She was two months away from bankruptcy. "Ten different credit cards is a lot of variables from an engineering standpoint," he says. But Lowery did what he does every day -- he plotted it all out on Excel to figure out the fastest way to pay it all off. He ended up using a slightly modified version of "the snowball method." This isn't an easy thing to do when you're mostly living on an Air Force stipend of $500 a month.
The big difference maker for Lowery was a radical approach to living within his means.
"I was used to living in the ghetto, having creepy roommates, bad carpet and no dishwasher," he said. "Those had all been the norm for me during my five years at Baylor." So when he graduated, he rented the top floor of a grandma's house downwind from a paper mill that, he says, "smelled like poop." He decorated his room with moving boxes purchased from Wal-Mart. "Everything else went toward credit cards," he says, explaining that at the time, he was driving a 1986 Cutlass Sierra with a free Budweiser tarp for a window. He didn't even have a cell phone. If he needed to make a phone call, he'd just ask the person next to him.
Didn't he have social problems thanks to his extreme frugality? "A creepy dude is a creepy dude, but a nice guy who willingly admits he drives a crappy car," he said. "I mean, girls wanted to ride in my car. They thought it was funny."
Lowery admits that his advice might not be right for married folks with kids who are mid-career. However, for people just graduating college or entering it for the first time, the basics can go a long way: find a way to graduate college with little debt, then once you graduate, make paying off your debt your top priority. Once that's done, all that money you're spending on debt can go toward your social life and investing for retirement. And who knows, you might get earn some internet cachet like Lowery has.