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How a 22-year-old earned $2M in scholarships, graduated debt-free

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

Not many 22-year-olds can say they’re debt-free, saving thousands for retirement and working for themselves. But Gabriella Carter is different.

The young entrepreneur made waves as a teenager by scoring over $2 million in college scholarships, which allowed her to graduate debt-free from Princeton University in 2022. But she didn’t stop there.

After sharing her story and tips for others to find similar success on social media, Carter realized she could turn her expertise into a profitable side hustle by partnering with brands to advertise scholarship opportunities and coaching individual students. 

Through brand deals, digital products and private consultations, her business, Growing With Gabby, earned $177,000 in 2022. Carter expects it to bring in closer to $300,000 this year.

Gabby Carter, 22, earned $133,000 last year from her corporate job and her business, Growing with Gabby.

Tasia Jensen | CNBC Make It

But even before she started applying for scholarships, Carter’s parents helped set her up for success by being transparent about money.

“One thing I really used to do a lot with my dad was watch the Suze Orman Show,” Carter tells CNBC Make It. “Even though I didn’t necessarily know all the financial terms, it made me really privy to debt and how it can impact your life and the different ways that you could use money to invest and increase your quality of life.”

Things are working out for Carter so far. After expenses, Growing with Gabby made her just over $87,000 last year. Coupled with $45,000 from her full-time job and around $1,000 in earned interest, her earnings totaled about $133,000 for 2022.

Though she’s achieved a fair amount of success early in life, Carter is just getting started. She has big dreams for expanding Growing with Gabby and finding new ways to use her passion for storytelling. 

Racking up scholarships: ‘There’s free money out there’

Carter was born in Jamaica before moving to London, where she spent most of her childhood. Her family relocated to Florida when she was 13 and starting middle school.

A dedicated student-athlete, Carter had an impressive high school career academically and through extracurriculars like softball and track. College was the next logical step to continue building on her success, but she was initially shocked by the price.

The eye-popping cost of attending college — anywhere from an average of $25,707 per year at a public in-state school to $54,501 a year at a private university, according to Education Data Initiative — scared Carter. She knew millions of people throughout the country are burdened by student loans and didn’t want to join their ranks.

That’s when she started researching and applying for scholarships.

“Once I figured out that there’s free money out there that other people could give to me because they believed in me and my dreams so that I could go to school for free, I jumped on it and applied to every opportunity that I saw,” Carter says.

Carter won $20,000 in 2018 from the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation.

Gabby Carter

The application process was grueling, but Carter was persistent, applying to over 100 different programs, she says. “The more scholarships I applied to, the better applications I was able to submit and ultimately have more success down the line.”

Success took time: At one point, she got rejected from 30 scholarship programs back-to-back before winning a $20,000 check from Coca-Cola. But throughout high school and during college, she won 35 different scholarship awards totaling over $2 million — enough to graduate debt-free and with over $100,000 in savings.

From side hustle to solopreneur

Carter’s scholarships made her even more of a stand-out as she finished high school in 2018. Her peers were impressed with her scholarship collection and started asking her how she did it.

“We had our scholarship banquet at my high school, I had to get up at least 20 times to collect my different awards,” Carter says. “That made people very curious about how I was able to have scholarship success.”

In this way, Carter says Growing with Gabby really began offline. She started using social media to answer some of the questions her peers were asking and reach a larger audience.

Right after high school, Carter began posting videos about her scholarship experience online, sharing her success on YouTube and experimenting with content creation. While she was studying at Princeton in 2020, she started using the name Growing with Gabby and building her brand on Instagram.

“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” helped inspire Carter’s decision to attend Princeton University.

Gabby Carter

Carter spends about 30 to 40 hours a week creating content, setting up partnerships and doing consultations for Growing with Gabby.

Tasia Jensen | CNBC Make It

In February of this year, Carter was able to quit her full-time job to focus on Growing with Gabby, as well as a newer endeavor: being a part of NBCUniversal’s inaugural Creator Accelerator program. The program tapped Carter and 10 other social media creators for a year-long, paid learning experience that gives the creators an inside look at television production and helps them develop content for NBCUniversal platforms.

“Quitting my job was liberating, but very scary as well, especially since I’m pretty young and very early in my corporate career,” Carter says. “But I realized the uniqueness of my business, the opportunity to scale and the rare opportunity that I have with NBC, so that gave me a lot more confidence.”

How she spends her money

Despite being relatively young and earning a decent living, Carter aims to be financially responsible.

Though her family didn’t have a lot of money when she was growing up, her parents helped her understand the importance of having a healthy relationship with money and knowing how to use it “so that your money is working for you and you’re not consistently working for your money,” Carter says.

When it comes to managing her money now, Carter pays herself first, putting a major share of her income toward saving and investing for the future.

“I just want to give myself a good head start and to be able to do what I want,” Carter says. “If I want to travel, I don’t want to have to be worried about that, or if I want to start a different business venture — money opens up a lot of doors to be able to explore your dreams and have really unique experiences.”

Here’s how Carter spent her money in March 2023.

Elham Ataeiazar | CNBC Make It

  • Savings and investments: $8,300 toward her high-yield savings account and retirement investment accounts
  • Housing and utilities: $1,442 on rent, Wi-Fi, gas and electricity
  • Transportation: $385 on public transportation and Ubers
  • Discretionary: $371 on concert tickets and social events
  • Food: $368 on groceries, dining out and ordering in
  • Subscription and memberships: $126 on a social club membership, Spotify, Microsoft Word and Amazon Prime
  • Phone plan: $40

Carter charges most of her expenses to her credit card, then pays it off in full each month.

She splits rent with two roommates and primarily relies on public transportation to get around, though she does splurge on Ubers. She goes to restaurants and social events pretty regularly, but takes advantage of discounts through sites like Groupon and gives herself space to spend on the things that are truly important to her.

“I’m cognizant of the fact that the way that I spend has shifted because I moved to New York — I’m in a major city now with more access to different types of food that I never got to experience before,” Carter says. “And I moved here to be social, so part of that [spending] is on social events.”

Carter enjoys reading in her free time and plans to write a book in the future.

Gabby Carter

Eventually, she hopes to invest in real estate and retire early. However, she doesn’t plan to stop her creative pursuits and hopes to perhaps write a book during early retirement.

“I definitely plan to retire early,” Carter says. “And when I say that, that doesn’t mean that I don’t plan to do work, I just don’t want to have to be working to make a living.”

How scholarships set her up for success beyond college

Carter’s cache of scholarships didn’t just allow her to attend college without worrying about money, but granted her the freedom to decide what the near future looks like. While the success of Growing with Gabby was primarily responsible for Carter’s ability to leave her full-time job, not having to put any of her hard-earned dollars toward student loans has helped too.

“Debt doesn’t have to deter you from making the decisions that are best for you in your life, but it definitely can make some decisions like [quitting] harder,” Carter says.

She’s had early success, but Carter isn’t slowing down soon.

Tasia Jensen | CNBC Make It

This story originally appeared on CNBC

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