Music videos, popping balloons, vacations: How people celebrate being debt-free
To celebrate paying off her loans, Garrido wrote "DEBT" on big black balloons, filled them with green confetti, and posted a video to Instagram of herself popping them.
Garrido isn't the only millennial to throw herself a "student-debt-free party." Instagram hashtag #debtfreecommunity has over 600,000 posts of people sharing pictures from their celebrations, as well as memes and inspiring messages encouraging others to get there. Popular personal finance speaker Dave Ramsey even has a part of his podcast where people who paid off their loans can call in and scream, "I'm debt-free!"
"It's kind of a mammoth task," said Cherie Lowe, a personal-finance author who threw a 150-person party to celebrate paying off over $120,000 in mostly student-loan debt back in 2012. The party, which featured the custom song "Sallie Mae Is Not My Lender" her friend wrote for the occasion, attracted people from across the country and made national headlines.
"We as a society don't celebrate those milestones that revolve around money often because we're embarrassed it took us that long or we feel inadequate in some ways," Lowe added. "It's as important as a diploma and some of the milestones we have in our lives."
Student debt hit a record high this year. If too many people default on their loans, experts worry it could have economic consequences similar to the 2008 housing crash.
The crisis has spurred political conversation. Canceling student debt mostly or entirely, once a progressive fringe policy, has become a mainstream talking point due to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders' policy proposals. Their fellow democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris even got called out for offering too limited of a debt-cancelation plan.
The fact student debt has entered mainstream conversation could be why more people are being open about celebrating the moment they leave it behind, Garrido said. "With student loan debt becoming the 'norm,' paying them off, especially while under 40 years old, I think is a pretty big deal," she added.
Others, like blogger Chelsea McDonnough, say the increased media attention will only lead to more people celebrating finally paying off the debt.
After helping pay off her husband's $125,000 student loan in three years, blogger McDonnough considered throwing a college-student-themed party that would have served ramen noodles and cheap beer.
She ended up opting for a trip to New Orleans, as her birthday and the long weekend for Martin Luther King Jr. Day coincided with the milestone (though in retrospect, she wishes she could have thrown the party instead).
McDonnough had been blogging about do-it-yourself projects and home improvement since before getting serious about helping pay off the loans her husband racked up from his master's degree. The blogger then switched gears to talking more about how the two were paying off debt.
"We're not as embarrassed about having student loan debt because chances are most of your friends had or have student- loan debt, so they can relate," McDonnough told Business Insider. "It's our like our generation's milestone: to get rid of the debt we incurred to go to school and try to get good jobs."
There's even a rap song that many use as the 'turn up anthem' to celebrate paying off loans.
When New Orleans-based hip-hop artist Dee-1 paid off his loans, he felt a level of joy he "hadn't felt from anything else in life up until that point."
The former middle school teacher (who had been rapping in his free time) had an undisclosed amount of debt he finally paid off after getting a signing bonus from his record deal with RCA Inspiration. The moment inspired him to the point where he made a song, "Sallie Mae Back," The 30-year-old graduated from Louisiana State University in 2008.
Similar to Dee-1, 25-year-old Gavin Buckland also made a video to celebrate paying off his student-loan debt.
The video depicts him disappointingly replacing steak with rice and beans to cut spending, and finally celebrating with confetti after he paid his debt.
Buckland, along with Garrido, won a trip to personal-finance company SoFi's annual party to help others celebrate paying off their student loans. He finished paying off $87,000 of student-loan debt he incurred after graduating in 2016 from Judson University.
"We hear from our members that carrying student debt is a major source of stress and the moment of paying it off is a huge accomplishment," SoFi CEO Anthony Noto told Business Insider when asked why the company hosts these parties. "We think these are moments that should be celebrated."
Some people post elaborate videos to celebrate paying off debt to inspire others struggling with their payments.
Caitlin Boston, a 35-year-old tech worker, recently posted a video of her dancing with two friends in a flashy purple leotard to celebrate paying off her student loans.
Boston graduated in 2009 and incurred over $200,000 worth of loans and interest. She worked low-paying jobs for years before landing a tech job at Google, where she discovered she earned less than her male colleagues. After negotiating for a better salary, Boston was finally able to pay off her loans.
Boston told BuzzFeed News she wore a traditional Korean wedding crown to celebrate herself and her accomplishments. She also said she wanted the video to help destigmatize discussing debt and salaries openly.
"I wanted the video to be a genuine expression of joy and celebration that reflected that in spite of this debt that has taken so much out of me, spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally," Boston told BuzzFeed.
Some, though, say spending money to celebrate paying off loans is counterintuitive
"I felt like if we were going through a weight-loss journey and you lost a ton of weight and you celebrated by eating a lot of pasta," said Ashley Wilson, who spent just $25 to decorate a small party she had with her husband. "It didn't make sense."
Wilson paid off $22,000 in student debt in three years by cutting back massively. She did not have cable or internet during this time, and says she did not eat out once.
Zina Kumok, a personal-finance blogger who paid off $28,000 of student loans in three years as well, said that the point of paying off debt is less about achieving the moment, and more about building good money habits. Kumok said once when she was still in debt, she saw a $300 dress at Anthropologie and told herself she could've been able to buy it, had it not been for her loans.
But even after paying off her student debt, she realized that she didn't need to spend $300 on a dress. Similarly, she didn't feel the need to splurge on a debt-payoff party.
"Everything I learned by paying off my student loans taught me I don't need a lot of money to be happy, I need financial security," Kumok said. Her one splurge when she paid off her loans was on a $20 pie.
Yet Wilson said if she could go back, she may have splurged on something bigger.
"It was a huge deal — emotionally it was big; financially it was big," she said. "Maybe I should've celebrated in a bigger way."