BY JOHN STOUT + CARLY ZDANEK
“Our goal: trade up to the value of our student loan debt.”
The average college graduate in 2019 walked away with wisdom, enthusiasm, and a $29,000 burden in the form of student loan debt.
We weren’t that lucky. After our tassels were symbolically flipped from right to left, we were facing $131,000 in combined debt. And so we devised a plan to crawl out from under it, albeit at the expense of a minimalist budget spanning the next five years.
At least that was the plan until March. Finding small glimpses of positivity during a pandemic can be daunting, but for recent college grads, the temporary pause on paying student loans has provided some form of relief, and when a unique opportunity presented itself to accelerate the five-year plan, we dove headfirst into it. Here’s how it’s gone so far, as chronicled through sporadic diary entries.
I [John] found myself, like on most days, perusing social media while taking a break from working in the home office to eat lunch. It’s an attempt to maintain a daily structure, and on this occasion I discovered a video of a couple in San Francisco who successfully up-traded items—starting with a single bobby pin, and winning all the way up to a DSLR camera.
As it turns out, that couple used the same strategy that one Kyle MacDonald famously pioneered in 2005, when he successfully traded a red paperclip up to a house. With that as inspiration, a facetious message to my girlfriend suggesting that we attempt a trading project of our own quickly evolved into a challenge for us to embark on together. Our goal: trade up to the value of our student loan debt.
We decided the most symbolic starting item would be a free flash drive received during college orientation; suddenly, we had a tagline: USB to Debt-Free.
We sent out hundreds of messages, signed up for multiple trading apps and social media platforms, and finally the first trade was locked in. Although the flash drive possessed little to no actual value, our first trading partner empathized with our story, being in a similar position herself, and wanted to help kick off our project.
Trade 1: College flash drive ($5) for college dome chair ($25)
Each trade brings repetition and refinement in the process—posting more efficiently, targeting more likely trading partners, bettering the story. The exchanges are finally happening more regularly, at a steady pace of about one trade per week. The dome chair quickly evolved into a mobility kit ($50), which was flipped for a used snowboard ($150). After that, serious validation came from the fourth trade, which got us a Google Nest Thermostat ($250).
Trading a smart thermostat in a city of renters proved to be difficult, and we found ourselves swapping for two items—a lawnmower and an Apple home device—in order to justify a trade. Up until this point, our typical routine had been to post an item on Facebook Marketplace, investigate potential trades, and inquire about 100-or-so different items before finding a single match. Following the split, we focused trades six, seven, and eight on eventually returning to a singular item.
Trade 6: Lawnmower ($100) for two camera lenses ($150)
Trade 7: Apple HomePod ($300) for Canon T6 partial bundle ($400)
Trade 8: Tamron camera lens ($50) for Canon camera lens ($100)
Prior to physically trading for the last camera lens, we began researching our next potential trade. To our disbelief, we only inquired on five items before securing another one, completing our camera bundle ($600), and two days later we traded that for a Segway electric scooter ($800).
Suddenly, we were making trades a bit faster, primarily because people were now becoming interested in the items as well as the journey.
We found our most unique trade yet at a food and beverage equipment warehouse. The industrial cappuccino machine ($2,000) we picked up had only been used for demos, and was considered surplus by the owner. We tested it and following inspection, loaded the 160-pound behemoth into our trunk.
How did we navigate the largest trade of our project so efficiently? We have been asking for advice and looking at examples from across the country, and an experienced trader from Utah shared some valuable insight to enhance our process—by focusing our research, and ensuring the valuation and market are appropriate. We made some tweaks, and were flooded with more than 400 offers for the scooter.
We are currently targeting food and beverage establishments who need a cappuccino machine, and welcome all who are intrigued to contact us. In the meantime, anyone who is interested in our journey can follow us on social media (@usb_2_df). We’ve come a long way from trading our USB, but it’s going to be an adventure to get all the way to debt free.