How I Paid Off My Student Loans
Ever since I was a little girl, I remember learning about personal finance. My parents would share money lessons over the dinner table the same way they’d teach me about history or math.
As new immigrants, my parents had learned about money the hard way. They got into credit card debt in their 20s and spent the next decade clawing their way out. Instead of hiding in shame or denying any problems, they shared their mistakes with me. They taught me why debt was bad and how to avoid it. I watched them celebrate being debt free after years of payments, and I vowed to never be in that position.
When I went to college, I knew I would graduate with student loans. My parents were prepared to chip in, and I received some scholarship money. But that wasn’t enough to cover out-of-state tuition. Still, I wasn’t worried.
Everything I read about student loans said not to borrow more than you’d earn in your first year out of school. I followed those guidelines to a T, and I wasn’t concerned about how I’d pay them back.
Four years later, I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Journalism and $24,000 in student loans. Armed with a job as a newspaper reporter, I started the task of paying off my student loans and becoming debt free.
My Debt Free Journey
I had never taken out loans before I signed up for financial aid, so it was a shock to see my first loan payment. Even though I always knew how much debt I’d graduate with, I never really calculated how much I would pay every month and how that would compare to a journalist’s salary.
It was hard. The minimum payment on my loans equaled 20% of my take-home pay. Between that, rent, utilities, gas and groceries, I had little left over every month. I was so ready to be a responsible adult, save for retirement and have an emergency fund. But my income didn’t allow that.
Instead of ignoring the problem or wallowing in despair, I threw myself into my finances. I started budgeting for the first time in my life, tracking my expenses regularly and sticking to the strict guideline I had made for myself. Gone were the days when I’d shop at the mall to relieve my boredom or browse through Amazon to see if I needed anything.
I learned to be frugal. I read countless blogs, scouring the Internet for advice on how to live well on a budget. Could I still find ways to enjoy my life even when I felt so poor? Could I actually try to pay off my student loans early?
I hated the feeling of being in debt. It felt like every month I had to pay money for something that I had already benefited from. I wanted to save for the future, for my retirement and for other goals like going on vacation or saving for a house. But I was chained to the past.
Since I had little leftover money, I started by adding $10 extra to my loans every month. I called Sallie Mae, and they said I would reduce my debt payoff by one year.
I was thrilled. If that’s what $10 could do, what could $20 or $50 do? I became obsessed with tracking every dollar. Once, I debated for 10 minutes whether or not it was worth renting a $1 movie from Redbox. I wanted to be sure that if I spent my money on something other than my student loans, it was worth it.
But I managed to find a balance. I traveled to Spain and Israel while paying off my loans. I learned to love thrift stores and finding bargains at Goodwill. I got excited when I found more money to throw toward my loans.
As my lifestyle changed, I threw any extra money toward my loans. When I got a small raise, I added the difference to my loans. When I moved in with roommates, I increased my payments. My lifestyle didn’t change much during those three years, but my payments kept increasing.
In the meantime, I also started this blog where I chronicled my journey to debt freedom. I shared my frustrations, my mistakes and my victories. When I felt happy or sad about my loans, I wrote about it on the blog. And in November 2014, after exactly three years, I made the last payment on my student loans.
Can Anyone Become Debt Free?
When I first started my journey to debt freedom, I wasn’t sure I would make it. It’s easy to look back now and assume that I was confident in my ability. But the truth was, I wasn’t. I had really bad spending habits coming out of college. I was one of those people who had outfits in my closet with the tags still on. I would order pizza even when I had a fridge full of groceries.
When I got my first job out of college, I was only earning $28,000 a year. That low salary, coupled with my spendthrift ways, felt like a one-two punch to my bank account. I would hear about friends who were earning more than me and still struggling to pay off debt and think, “How am I going to do this?”
When I tell my story now, it sounds like a fairy tale. Who could someone who didn’t earn more than $31,000 a year pay off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years?
But that’s what makes my story so wonderful. It wasn’t because I had a six-figure salary or rich parents. It’s because I focused on my goal, I committed all my resources and I stuck to it even when it was hard.
That’s why I think anyone can become debt free. I didn’t have any special ability. I wasn’t even that financially savvy. I just decided I wanted to be debt free more than I wanted anything else.
What Does It Feel Like to Be Debt Free?
I remember making the last payment on my student loans. It felt surreal. I’d been focusing on my debt for so long that it didn’t seem possible. Was I actually debt free? Had I made the last payment on my student loans?
Then I realized what I could afford now that I was free of my student loans. No, I’m not talking about designer shoes or fancy cars. Now, I could save for a real emergency fund and for my then-fiance and I’s impending move to Colorado. Now I could save for the time when we’d quit our jobs and work for ourselves.
Being debt free is the only reason I’m able to be self-employed. When you don’t have debt, you have no limitations. You can live on so much less, which allows you to really follow your dreams. Don’t believe me? Add up how much your loans cost you every month and then make a list of what else you could do with that money. You could donate to charity, travel to Africa or buy a lake house. The options are endless – but only if you’re debt free.
How I Help Others
Throughout this process, I discovered that I loved writing about money. Money is one of the last taboo topics. You’re more likely to hear about a friend’s sexual history than her credit score. But it’s also more important. Having money can let you travel the world, start your own business and pursue your passions. Not having money can force you to choose between a vacation with your girlfriends and saving for retirement.
The more we talk and learn about money, the more empowered we are. Getting out of debt is what allowed my husband and I to quit our jobs, move to a new state and start working for ourselves. If I’d been too scared to confront my loans head on, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.
I love hearing from my readers who are still in the throes of student loans. I love being able to solve their problems and help them see the light at the end of the tunnel. I even created a course that outlines the steps I took to pay off my student loans, so others can break free too. When you have student loans, it’s hard to see a way out. That’s my job – I help people find ways to pay off their debt while still living a vibrant life.
I used to pay off my loans!
Want to learn more about budgets?
Download The Anti-Budget Budget Guide for a hassle-free way to track your money.