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Like many college students, Jeremy Kalgreen had student loan debt and wanted to be free of it. “I hate being in debt,” he says. But unlike many students, he found a creative way to both pay off his debt and launch what turned out to be a lucrative part-time business that morphed into something more.

The T-shirts Kalgreen designed allowed him to pay off student loan debt, about $15,000 worth, well ahead of schedule. And in the process, he learned some valuable lessons that can benefit new grads.

Here’s how it happened. Each summer, Kalgreen says, he tries to learn a new skill. (Lesson No. 1: Try new things.) One summer he tried learning how to silk screen T-shirts. But he wasn’t very good at it, he says. An art student who was studying photography at the time, he did enjoy designing the shirts, but not actually making them.

T-ShirtsHe heard about a website — Spreadshirt.com — where he could upload his designs and they print the shirts for him. He decided to create a few for his personal wardrobe. But the day he went to place his order, his car broke down and he couldn’t afford the $90 or so it would take to purchase them.

“There was an option to make my designs public,” he recalls. “I wasn’t planning to do that but I thought maybe someone would want a T-shirt.” His only thought at the time was that it would be cool to sell enough so that he could purchase a few for himself.

Almost immediately he got a trickle of orders. It wasn’t a lot, but in a relatively short period of time he was making around $300 a month. Then some bloggers saw his science-themed designs and mentioned them on their blogs. Soon the orders started really coming in.

His first order of business? Paying off his student loans.

“The first thing I did was funnel all the money I was making to clear out what I owed,” he says.  (Lesson No. 2: Ditch the debt.) Fortunately it wasn’t a fad. “It stayed stable, and I made enough money to quit my day job school at the photo lab and delivering pizza.”

His T-shirt business, WearScience.com, is what he now does full time.

It’s important to note that Kalgreen took a cautious approach to his finances right from the beginning. He kept his standard of living very low even after he graduated from college in 2005. “I was still living the life of a college art student with a couple of roommates,” he says. (Lesson No. 3: Live like a student for as long as you can.) He knew sales could drop at any moment and he didn’t want to find himself back in debt if they did. It took him roughly two years to pay off the loans, but that was significantly faster than if he had followed the standard 10-year repayment schedule. (You can see how your student loans are affecting your credit by getting your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

He also believes the fact that he wasn’t good at silk screening worked to his advantage, because it forced him to look into other options. He got lucky: he stumbled on a business opportunity that didn’t require him to invest a lot of money upfront on equipment, a website shopping cart, inventory etc. (Lesson No. 4: Keep costs down.) “If I had to do the traditional business model I would have gone bankrupt,” he says.

With his business well established, Kalgreen now has a house (and mortgage) and family. But the lessons he learned while starting his business have served him well. He’s managed to save and invest, and turn his passion into a career.

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Main image: iStock; inset image: Jeremy Kalgreen

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