And yet, discussion of the financial impact of some of life’s most important decisions is noticeably missing from a social media landscape that rewards effortlessness and ease. If YouTubers or Instagram influencers fall among the 80 percent of Americans who have some sort of debt, they are exceptionally skilled at editing it out. Except for Aja Dang.
Dang is a popular lifestyle vlogger with a background in broadcast journalism, having earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at private universities. Dang, who has over 260,000 subscribers on YouTube, was posting daily vlogs last December when she ended up spending one of her days figuring out how to make her student loan payment for the month.
The 31-year-old had vowed to share her life with viewers, so she did. Dang revealed she owed close to $200,000 in student loan debt, which she was committed to confronting seriously.
In an influencer milieu where money is rarely acknowledged and only vaguely necessary to acquire goods, Dang’s transparency felt revolutionary. After seeing the response to that first video, she is now is upfront about her earnings ― she makes a Google sheet of her monthly budget available to viewers ― and often concedes that she, like many of us, struggles to put as much toward repaying debt as one is able or intends to do.
As a self-employed entrepreneur, Dang says her income is inconsistent ― she earned over $30,000 in May, but in other months has struggled to earn enough to make her monthly loan payments in the quadruple digits.
Dang spoke with HuffPost about what motivated her to confront her debt and share her journey amid intense scrutiny, how viewers have responded and her advice for young people taking loans to fund an education.
How did your student debt journey start? How did you make the decision to pursue your education and what was going through your mind at the time?
That I needed to go to school. That was really it. I went to private school all my life and I didn’t really understand that my parents went into debt for me. I just always thought, that’s the way it is. You want to go to school, you want to go to a really good private school and you just have to go into debt for it. That’s just the way it is.
I didn’t really understand. I specifically remember in undergrad just signing all these student loan agreements and I legitimately did not understand what I was getting myself into. All I knew is that I needed to go to college.
What motivated you to open up about your student debt at this point?
I think it relates to my journey as a YouTuber. For a while, I tried to be like other popular YouTubers that I followed. I tried to be really sweet and proper, and really creative, but that never really worked for me. I can’t identify as that. Then I opened up during Vlogmas. Vlogmas is during December, you vlog every single day. There’s not necessarily a rhyme or reason for it, you just do it. You show people your day. My day happened to be trying to pay off my student loan payment for the month.
“All the big YouTubers show off their big houses and their fancy cars, but that’s not my life. That’s not my reality. Being in debt and trying to dig myself out of it is, and that’s the reality for a lot of people.”
I used to be really embarrassed about it, but being open about it has actually allowed me to own it and not be as embarrassed. From there, I’ve been able to share my story. A lot of people have found it really helpful. A lot of people have reached out telling me they are ready to tackle their debt or tackle their budget or whatever it is that they need to do — they know it’s inside them to do so.
Was there a positive reaction to that initial reference to your debt last year, and you decided to share more of it?
Yeah, of course. I didn’t really know what to expect when I posted [the first video]. I definitely didn’t know, I didn’t expect the amount of support. In the comments section, there are always those assholes that call me stupid or whatever. But the majority of it, everyone’s like: Finally someone is speaking up about this. Either people who have debt or are about to enter college and don’t want to be in debt, or people who are becoming doctors and have $400,000 of debt.
On YouTube, everything is perfect. Everything is edited. All the big YouTubers are just showing off their big houses and their fancy cars, but that’s not my life, so I can’t show that off. That’s not my reality. Being in debt and trying to dig myself out of it is, and that’s the reality for a lot of people. If anything, now those people don’t feel alone. They know and they’re watching someone struggle through the process of paying that off. Which is really cool.
You share a monthly budget of your earnings and expenses, and you acknowledge you’re in a privileged position in terms of income. Why open yourself up to that kind of scrutiny?
Simply because that’s my next step for trying to pay off my debt, is to budget. It’s funny, because when I started to share my budget, I didn’t have as much coming in. I haven’t ever been paid as much as I am now ever in my life. A part of me feels like its unrelatable, but still I’m still fucking up over my budget, which is relatable too. But this month, I’m not getting those payments. So people will kind of see what I’m used to doing.
It’s just my life. I don’t know how to pretend to be someone else but myself. This whole journey and budgeting and struggling through that is part of my journey currently. There are definitely those people who totally understand the fact that I have been making money, but I also have to pay a lot of money. There are those people who understand it and there are people who don’t, but those people don’t really discourage me from sharing that side of me. I feel like it’s doing more good than bad.
Do you think it’s important that people with some visibility be transparent about debt?
Absolutely. They need to be transparent about whatever it is they’re going through or whatever their passions are. But that’s not necessarily the reality for a lot of people whose brand is to be happy and shiny and bright.
It just depends on what their priorities are. I don’t ever expect Logan Paul to show us his budget or where his money goes, because he doesn’t give a shit. It’s not necessarily a part of people’s brand. Maybe their audience wouldn’t necessarily like them sharing that part of them either. But everything I post on my channel is, 100 percent, authentically my feelings. To include [my debt journey], whether it was going to be this year or in five years, sharing that part of me would have probably eventually happened.
What would you tell someone looking to take out loans now?
I tell them to look at their options in terms of school. You don’t have to go to a private school. You don’t have to go to a prestigious school right off the bat. Community college is great. I know many people who started there and then transferred into the UC system, where they were able to save up and pay their way through college without taking out student loan debt.
I would also recommend maybe taking a gap year. That was my problem and that’s when I went to grad school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in undergrad and then I graduated and I was like, holy shit, I have this degree and I don’t want to be in marketing. So I had go back to school. I think maybe if I had taken a year or two off to travel or work or figure out what I wanted to do, then I probably would have done things right the first time.
“I don’t know what brought me to confront it, honestly, I have no idea. But when I did, I felt relief.”
Do you have any advice for someone who is overwhelmed by their debt? What motivated you to confront yours?
I don’t know what brought me to confront it, honestly, I have no idea [Laughs]. But when I did, I felt relief. I would just tell someone who’s in my position that they’re not alone. Most Americans are in some kind of debt. The fact that you are ready to take a look at it and figure out where you are and make your game plan, that’s already putting you steps ahead.
It’s really uncomfortable. Talking about money is really uncomfortable. Being in debt is really uncomfortable. But you wanting to take that road now, starting that now, is already a great step. The people who are commenting on my videos about to go to college or who just graduated from college who I’m inspiring to start their budgets, they’re already 10 years ahead of me. Because they’re taking control of their finances now. I think that’s so important. You just have to dive in. It’s okay to make mistakes. I haven’t had my perfect budget yet. I’m still overspending. I can’t figure it out. But that’s not going to discourage me. I’m not quitting.