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How to Pay Off Your Film School Student Debt FAST!

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How I Paid $30,000 of Film School Loans in 11 months Working as a Freelance Videographer/Editor

By Hari Mitar Khalsa

Eleven months ago, I set a personal goal to become debt free in 1 year. Almost all my debt was film school student loans, but I also had a few thousand dollars of credit card debt along with a few thousand left over from a loan I had taken out for some way too expensive equipment purchased after graduating from film school. Turns out you don’t actually NEED a top of the line Kino Flo light kit right off the bat.

I decided to try and accomplish this goal of being debt free by doing what I was already doing, working as a freelance videographer and editor. Eleven months later, I was debt free and had increased my income by 40%. Here are the strategies that got me there.

“I’m debt free!”

That is the inspirational war cry shouted by countless individuals and families on The Dave Ramsey Show, a popular financial podcast hosted by, you guessed it, Dave Ramsey.

Dave is a very popular financial personality whose program and podcasts teach people how to get out of debt and how to manage their money. I was attracted to Dave because his logic was simple and intuitive. His program was straightforward, and most importantly, it seemed to be working for the average Jane. I also liked that he sets you on a path that requires a lot of discipline but allows you to get rid of all your debt FAST. I get way too distracted for anything too long term to be successful for me. Here is a quick summary of Dave’s philosophy:

  • Debt is Dumb: Debt is the primary thing holding us back from building wealth. Stop borrowing money and using credit cards. Aggressively pay off your debt as quickly as possible by increasing your income, decreasing your expenses, and by temporarily stopping any other form of saving or investing to maximize how much money you can throw at your debt.
  • Reaching financial security is 20% education and 80% habit: Pay off your debt in the order of smallest debt to largest debt. He calls this the debt snowball. This strategy gives you small wins quickly, which keep you motivated as you build momentum. Create a monthly budget and stick to it. When I did this, I was shocked by how little I knew about where my money was being spent. Good financial practices are easy to understand; the real issue is developing these good habits and changing the learned bad ones.

I have only briefly touched on Dave’s program here. I highly suggest checking out his website and learning about his 7 baby steps to financial freedom. Paying off all your debt is baby step 2, so there is a lot there on investing and saving as well. Another great way to learn about his program is to listen to his podcast, The Dave Ramsey Show. It’ll get you all fired up, and plus it’s entertaining.

Creating a Freelance Business that Made Me Money

Dave Ramsey’s plan was great because it gave me a strategy for paying off my debt as well as taught me a new way of looking at how to manage money. What it didn’t tell me was how to maximize the income side of things. As a freelance videographer and editor, it can be difficult to develop a consistently high income. Here are the strategies I implemented to grow my income by 40% in one year.

You are Running a Business Dammit!

This is what I had to tell myself. You are running a business, just face it. You started out making videos because you wanted to express yourself through the magical medium of film, inspiring the people of Earth and beyond! Now you’re running a capitalistic, PROFIT (sorry for swearing) focused business!

Calm down, I told myself. You can still make art and still be proud of the work you’re doing. Thing is, once I started treating my freelance work as the business it was, I began seeing with way more clarity, how to set myself up to be more creative.

If I could banish the Nosferatu-like specter of student loans and credit card debt that was looming over me, I could relax a little, compromise less, and make more art.

Basic equation: Financial freedom = creative freedom.

Get Your Overhead as Low as Possible:

Business success relies on another simple equation.

Sales – Expenses = Profit

You want to get that profit number as high as you can, while of course making sure your clients and everyone you are working with are taken care of and the quality of your work is high. There are only two ways to increase that profit number, increase sales, or reduce expenses.

Here is how I reduced my business expenses:

  1. Have clients agree ahead of time to pay any travel expenses associated with the work you do with them.
  2. Leverage relationships with fellow video professionals by borrowing and lending equipment.
  3. Estimate jobs 15% higher than you think they will be to make up for unforeseen expenses and time because that is almost always the case.
  4. Have a rock-solid “Statement of Work and Contract” that clearly states how the video process will work from start to finish. In this contract, state how many rounds of editing you will include as well as other aspects of the scope of the work. State that there will be a high hourly charge for any work that exceeds this. Here is a link to my Statement of Work and Contract.
  5. As a freelancer, your personal expenses are also a part of your business overhead. Reduce expenses in every area possible: rent, groceries, entertainment, etc. Pull that belt as tight as you can.
  6. Set up an LLC and make sure to track all your business expenses to save money on taxes. Use the app Mile IQ to track your mileage. Doing that alone saved me a ton of money last April.
  7. Hire an accountant to set you up with QuickBooks and to make sure you are saving the proper percentage of your income to pay your taxes. Maybe you have the mind for doing your own accounting, but I do not. It was worth paying an accountant a couple hundred dollars to do this. A good accountant will also provide advice on how to separate your business expenses from personal expenses so that you can stay organized.

The Magic of the Monthly Retainer:

Reducing expenses is a big part of increasing your profit, but the other part is increasing sales. The most valuable thing I learned to increase my sales was this: Get clients that pay a monthly retainer vs. a per-video fee and avoid hourly work like the plague.This allows you to have a consistent income and frees you up to build your business. This was THE key change I made in my business that opened my schedule way up, improved my relationships with my clients, and put me on the road to a 40% growth of my income.

Of course, this is easier said than done. How do you get a client that is willing to pay you a lump sum every month? Here is the process that I went through, learning through trial and error, to get these monthly paying clients.

  1. Identify the clients that have come back to hire you more than once. These clients need outside video help. Most importantly, identify the clients that pay you what you’re worth, pay on time, and that you enjoy working with.
  2. Focus your video services on their needs. For example, I worked with a nonprofit that frequently needed interview-style videos, and so I purchased a teleprompter that helped streamline my clients’ scripted interview-style videos. Prioritize work with these clients over clients you like less or clients that don’t provide you consistent work.
  3. Be proactive and pitch new ideas to these clients on a regular basis. It’s easier to sell an existing client who you already have a great relationship with than finding a new one.
  4. Once you have been doing consistent work for them for a few months, it’s time to pitch them on the monthly retainer. It is not only in your best interest to work under a retainer, but it’s honestly best for your client as well. They will be able to know exactly how much they are spending on video production each month and will feel comforted knowing they are guaranteeing your availability.
  5. Do good work. This one is necessary for anything good to happen ever, no matter what you are trying to accomplish. It’s always better in the freelance video world to be the quality option, rather than the budget option.   

I’ve learned that nurturing your existing clients is the easiest way to increase your income. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also be looking for new clients, but by focusing on your best clients and serving them as well as possible, you will start attracting more high-quality clients. That is because these high-quality clients relate and socialize with people just like them. Birds of a feather flock together. And don’t be afraid to ask for referrals. Your clients will be more than happy to share their great experience working with you, and you will likely find that you won’t even have to ask, they will be bragging about you.

Debt freedom is a worthwhile goal.

Being debt free is liberating. Setting a goal like paying off all your debt helps to motivate you to make more money. I put my future goals on hold while I focused on maximizing my income. We are all dreamers, and it’s good to be a dreamer, but it helps to have a focus. I tend to be easily distracted because I am interested in so many things, but success in any one goal requires focus. Limit distractions and pay off your debt quickly so you can get started with those other dreams. Being debt free means you have way less monthly expenses so you can travel more, focus on your screenwriting and filmmaking more, pick and choose the creative gigs you want to be a part of, and stop taking work from those clients that it sucks to work with.


BONUS EPISODE: How to Pay Off Your Film School Student Debt FAST!

Student debt is a serious problem in the world today. It has become the #1 form of debt in the world, surpassing credit cards. Film students have it pretty rough in general but when it comes to student debt it downright abusive. They come out of film school with $20K, $40K or even $100+K in student debt and unlike doctors they are entering an industry that doesn’t pay large salaries right away. There is also no set path for them to get a high paying job.

Today’s guest, filmmaker Hari Mitar Khalsa, figured out how to pay off $30,000 in student debt in 11 months working as a freelance videographer and editor. We go into a deep dive on his methods, habits and tips on how you can pay that student debt off fast. If you keep scrolling down you’ll find a detailed article where Hari breaks everything he did down. It’s a great companion piece to the podcast.

Enjoy my conversation with Hari Mitar Khalsa.

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