Why a 28-year-old earning $81,000 in Georgia changed careers

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This story is part of CNBC Make It’s Millennial Silver series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.

In 2021, Leila Kartforosh was doing important research on Covid-19 as a microbiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – but she was unhappy with her career.

The 28-year-old’s work was crucial in tracking the spread of the disease, but she didn’t find it as interesting as the research she was conducting before the pandemic.

And while she had a master’s degree in microbiology, she only earned $67,000. To get a raise, she had to get a doctorate, which meant going back to school and getting into more debt, which she didn’t want to do.

So in March 2022, she quit to start a new career in sales.

Leila Kartforosh, near her home.

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Although she is about to pay off the $82,200 debt she incurred while studying microbiology, Kartforosh is convinced she made the right choice in changing her field. “I was very excited to take this leap in my career and I knew it was a bit risky, but what could be worse?” she told CNBC Make It.

Kartforosh now works as a certified consultant specializing in Salesforce customer management software in Decatur, Georgia, earning $60,000 a year. That’s less than she used to earn, but the role comes with a 10% bonus and the chance to eventually earn six figures. She also earns $15,000 through her YouTube channels and blog, bringing her total annual earnings to around $81,000.

A balance sheet of student debt

Kartforosh’s journey into microbiology was partly born out of circumstance: As an undergrad, she wanted to be a dentist, which led her to major in biology at Georgia State University.

However, after three years of college, Kartforosh realized that dentistry wasn’t really for her. She didn’t want to change majors so late in the game, so she finished her degree in biology.

In 2015, the year she graduated from Georgia State, she went back to school to earn a master’s degree in environmental microbiology. Her tuition was covered by a research program at the university, but she still had to take out student loans to cover her living expenses.

Leila Kartforosh (L) at her graduation.

Courtesy of Leila Kartforosh.

After earning her master’s degree in 2016, she worked multiple times before landing her job as a CDC microbiologist in 2018.

By then, Kartforosh had racked up $82,200 in debt, including $48,400 in student loans. The rest of the debt came from a mix of credit cards, car payments, and money she owed her sister.

Almost a quarter of her total debt was for car payments she couldn’t afford. She had co-signed a car loan with her then-boyfriend, who eventually stopped making payments. Kartforosh says the loan was the “worst financial mistake” she has ever made.

“I ended up taking that person to court. I garnished their wages at one point,” she says. “It cost me a lot of money, but it also affected me a lot mentally. This whole ordeal was very stressful.”

A turning point with its debt

Kartforosh grew up in Georgia in what she describes as a middle-class family, but didn’t learn much about money as a child. “We definitely had everything we needed, but it was completely normal for my family to be in debt,” she says. “It’s something I wore as an adult.”

Leila Kartforosh (bottom right) as a child with her family.

Courtesy of Leila Kartforosh.

In 2018, Kartforosh said she had “so much debt I couldn’t afford to live on” and was overdrawn in her checking account, “taking on more debt every month and constantly stressing over her finances”.

That’s when she started learning about personal finance by watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, and reading blog posts. She decided to take paying off her debt seriously and began tracking every dollar spent or earned in meticulous spreadsheets that she constantly updated.

In 2020, Kartforosh made a “year without expenses”. She spent money on necessities like groceries and rent, but cut all discretionary spending, including clothes, shoes, books, tech upgrades and home decor. It sounds extreme, but Kartforosh says it was relatively easy because “there was a pandemic going on and there wasn’t much to do.”

In 2021, she brought in between $1,000 and $1,500 a month through her blog and YouTube channelseither from ads, sponsorships, financial coaching, or advice via Venmo, totaling around $15,000 for the year, which helped her pay off more debt.

Kartforosh says it is currently on track to be debt free by the end of the year.

How she spends her money

Here is an overview of how Kartforosh spent its money in January 2022:

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  • Rent and charges: $1,640
  • Discretionary: $1,008 includes entertainment, travel, clothing, charitable donations and pet expenses
  • Student loans: $1,000
  • Assurance: $707 for renters, life, auto and health
  • Savings: $700 for an emergency and a new car fund
  • Investments: $610 towards a brokerage account, Roth IRA and cryptocurrencies
  • Food: $400 on groceries and restaurant meals
  • Professional expenses: $150 on web hosting and email services
  • Transport: $97 for gas registration and permit
  • Medical fees: $50 for medication
  • Subscriptions: $27 for Netflix, Spotify and Lingo Pie

Although she’s focused on paying off her student loans, Kartforosh thinks it’s “important to invest while paying off debt.” She has about $5,600 in brokerage accounts, $9,000 in her Roth IRA, and $515 invested in cryptocurrency.

Along with her new job, Kartforosh says she will also begin contributing to a 401(k), up to 6% of her earnings, to take advantage of employer matching contributions.

Kartforosh is saving $1,000 a month to fund its student loans, but is waiting to pay off the balance when the student loan freeze ends. By February, she had saved about $13,900, which, if paid, reduces her remaining student debt to $22,100.

She’s willing to splurge on travel and experiences, but cut costs in other places, including forgoing manicures and pedicures and cutting her hair.

In her spare time, Kartforosh creates content for her YouTube channel, reads and hangs out with her boyfriend, either watching Netflix or hitting the gym together. Exercise and wellness are two of her passions.

Look forward

Kartforosh’s immediate goal is to be debt free by the end of 2022. After that, she wants to save up and buy a property, either to live in, to rent out, or to return to.

She also wants to be financially independent within 45 years. “For me, that means having $1 million to $2 million invested so I know I could retire early,” she says.

Leila Kartforosh outside her apartment in Decatur, Georgia.

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