How I Paid Off My Student Debt in Two Years by Taking a Job in Agriculture

The year was 2007. I graduated from the University of California, Davis with a degree in Crop Science and Management with no job. My future wife had moved to Texas for veterinary school and I had procrastinated on deciding how I would start my career, and my time had expired.

Most of my friends had jobs waiting for them in California. My significant other lived out-of-state and I was always the type of person who wanted to be different, I lined up a couple of job interviews in Texas and the Midwest. I loaded up all my belongings in my pickup truck, and headed out to discover what my future had in store for me. There were plenty of job openings for graduates with an agricultural degree, but I still needed to decide what exactly I wanted. Did I want to live in Texas or stay in California? Should I limit my search to a really specific geography like College Station where she was going to Veterinary school? Or should I look at larger cities that would have more opportunities? What type of job did I really want anyway?

What was also on the forefront of my mind was that I was in debt. I managed to graduate with less than others, but I still had over $10,000 in student loans and credit card debt. On top of that I had living expenses and no income. I ended up getting two job offers: one of which was in agricultural lending in a large city, and another in grain merchandising in the Texas panhandle. While the lending job would have been a more desirable location and closer to my girlfriend, I was more excited about the work of grain merchandising, so I chose to pursue the latter.

This was a great choice for me on multiple levels, but one factor that I didn’t realize until after accepting the position was that I could live very cheaply. The dress code was jeans and collared shirts which I already owned plenty of, the apartment in the small town where I lived costed me $400 with utilities included. I worked at a rural grain elevator so there was no pressure to drive a fancier car than the seven year old pick up I arrived in. Eating out got old quick with the handful of options in the area, and most of my entertainment took place grilling out at friend’s houses. In comparison to my friends in California, my gas, groceries, taxes (no state income!), and utilities were all much cheaper.

And what I couldn’t believe is that the pay in this rural position was the same OR BETTER than what I could have made in much more expensive areas!

I was fortunate enough to read some really good books in college like Stanley & Danko’s “The Millionaire Next Door”, Dave Ramsey’s “Total Money Makeover”, and Dominguez and Robin’s “Your Money or Your Life”. These helped form my habits of paying off debt quickly and saving early and often. I hung a dry erase board in my spare bedroom (oh yes, $400 for a 2 bedroom – utilities included!) and wrote in bold letters on top “My Balance Sheet”. On the left in blue ink was my assets (which when I started was just my bank account – I didn’t count my pickup because it was depreciating in value), and on the right ink was my liabilities (student loans, and credit card debt). When I moved into my apartment I needed to buy my own refrigerator, washer, and dryer, which I found locally for $900 total with 90 days interest free. Add that to the liabilities side.

I committed myself to keeping my expenses low and paying off one liability at a time. Three months in I had the appliances paid for and started on the credit card bills while making minimum payments on the student loans. I used a variation of Dave Ramsey’s “Debt Snowball” method where I paid the minimums on all my liabilities except one of them that I paid as much as I possibly could until it was done. Six months in, I became eligible for my company’s 401k plan so I enrolled enough to receive the full company match. A year in, all of my credit card debt was GONE. I no longer had any other minimum payments to make, so I could dedicate all of my extra money to getting rid of the student loans.

About 18 months after starting my first job out of college my balance sheet turned positive. This means that I had more in total assets (bank account and 401k) than I owed in liabilities (student loan balance). But I wasn’t done yet. I spent the next 6 months wiping off the last of my student loans. Two years into my first job I was debt free. I had received full company match on my 401k (100% on my money!). We were in the recession, and many people I knew lost their jobs, doubled down on their debt, or moved back in with their parents. Some had taken out mortgages right before the crash and bought high-priced real estate with interest only loans. If they were able to stick with it, they are maybe just now starting to return to positive home equity 8 years later!

Working in agriculture in a rural setting, I was very fortunate that the recession did not affect my job security or my income. In fact, about the bottom of the stock market was when I got my first 401k match so I was able to start my life savings on a market drop which actually boosted my returns dramatically.

I can look back now in gratitude that I chose the path of a grain merchandising job in rural west Texas. It allowed me to pay off all my debts and get a head start financially vs many of my peers. I realize that my debts were small compared to others, but the way to pay them off is always the same: live within your means. Getting a job in agriculture, in my experience is a great way to do just that.

If an agricultural job is something that you’re interested in, or if you would like to know more about what it’s like to live in a rural environment, join our mailing list and start corresponding with us via email or on Twitter @AgGradJobs! We’d love to hear from  you. If you’re wondering which career may be right for you. Here is our list of our Top 7 “In Demand” Ag Jobs. Good luck and let us know how we can better enrich your career path in the agricultural industry!

Tim Hammerich

Tim is a strategic communications consultant, founder of AgGrad, and the host of the "Future of Agriculture" podcast. Originally from California, he is now based out of Boise, Idaho.