I paid off my student loans 12 years early! I paid off the 20-year loans within 8 years. Cue sigh of relief.
People don’t like talking about money. But I’m going to be brutally honest in how I did this for several reasons. I’m proud, I made sacrifices, and I hope people can learn from my tactics.
Although I’m not a financial planner / adviser, I’m going to share with you what I’ve done to accomplish my financial goals.
- Four years at a private college, including:
- 3 years of living on campus paying room and board
- 1 semester abroad
- 1 semester living off campus
- $74,175 – Total loan amount at graduation in 2008. First payments were due November, 2008.
- $80,000 est – Total loan amount, including interest in November 2009 when I first decided to really hunker down and pay my student loans off early.
- $127,453 – Estimated total loan over the course of 20 years at an average of 6% interest. I used on online interest calculator to figure out this amount.
- $50,000 – Starting salary
That’s an estimated $47,453 in interest alone. I figured if I got serious about paying off my student loans, I’d pay less in the long run. Yup $47.5K not coming out of my pocket sounded awesome enough to get serious.
What I did not do:
- I did not stop contributing to my 401K. The last thing I wanted to do was steal from my future to pay my off my past, so I kept contributing 8 – 12% of my pretax income to my company sponsored 401K. I started at 8% and each year increased my contribution by 1%. Some financial advisors would suggest contributing only up to what your company would match (in my case, 5%), then put the rest of the income toward debt repayment. I’d rather see those small amounts earn compounded interest.
- I did not stop contributing a little bit to my emergency fund each month. I had saved up to 3 months of living expenses for an emergency and continued to contribute $100 per month. I did this because, in the past, I’ve been in a job I didn’t like and couldn’t quit because I had minimal savings. I didn’t want to put myself in that situation again. I’d want to be able to resign from a position that made me unhappy and have enough in savings to support myself through the job hunt process. Pragmatic Girl strikes again!
Analysis- I analyzed all of my recurring debts, which included 12 student loans and a car loan.
When interest rates started to decrease, I consolidated my loans. My grandmother cosigned on my student loans and all but one of the loans changed to my name when I consolidated. I prioritized paying off that one loan with my grandmother’s name on it because I knew my grandmother was concerned that if I didn’t pay it, it would be left to her and my grandpa. So I focused on that one to give my wonderful grandparents peace of mind.
I read a lot on personal finance:
- The Money book for the Young, Fabulous and Broke by Suze Orman
- Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki
- The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey
- Learn to Earn by Peter Lynch
- and articles from the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and Forbes, to name a few. Basically the Internet gave plenty of personal finance articles in my feeds. Thank you search engine optimization and targeted marketing.
Budget– After analyzing my debts, I created a budget. I calculated how much I needed each month:
- Food/utilities/ entertainment / and discretionary ($600)
- Rent ($385 – 720)
- Transportation ($200)
- Savings ($100)
I had a zero-sum balance, budgeting for each available dollar and putting extra toward my debt. At the end of each month, any money I had left over went to a loan payment. So even if I had $22 left the day before my next paycheck came, that $22 went to the loan I was focusing on. Small wins. Small wins.
Sticking to a zero-sum balance prevented me from overspending because I knew exactly where my money went and how much I had to spend on discretionary items like eating out and entertainment.
Not only did I implement zero-sum budgeting, I also planned to use the Snowball Method to pay off my debt. In brief, with this method, you prioritize your debts according to how you want to pay them off, and you put every extra amount of payment to that first debt while still paying the minimal amount on all other debts. Once that first debt is paid off, the extra amount + the monthly payment amount of the first debt gets put toward paying down the next debt and so on and so on. Eventually, the last debt to be paid off gets the most amount of money contributed to it.
First loan to pay off had a minimum monthly payment of $121 and I was able to contribute an extra $50 a month to pay $171 a month. Once that debt was paid off, the $171 ($121 min monthly payment + $50 extra) rolls over to the next debt to be paid off, in addition to that debt’s minimum monthly payment, say $23. So now debt #2 is being given $144 a month instead of the $23 minimum payment. Once that debt is paid off the $144 a month is added to the monthly minimum payment of debt #3 so on and so on until your last debt basically has the biggest snowball contributing towards it to pay it down, in my case, my last loan was getting a minimum of $800 paid toward it just through the Snowball method.
The great thing about this method is that your standard of living never changes. You don’t miss the money because you’re still paying the same amount of money toward debt you always had. The difference is that you’re not getting used to having that that extra $121 a month from when you paid off loan #1. Because let’s face it, $121 a month isn’t going to get you much anyways, maybe a couple of dinners out? Maybe a shopping spree?
I wanted to start with the small wins. I prioritized my debts by the following criteria:
- First debt for me to tackle was my car loan, with a relatively small balance of $9,967, but a high interest rate of 12.6%.
- Next, I wanted to pay off the student loan that was still cosigned by my grandmother, which had a balance of $10,450.
- I prioritized the remaining 11 student loans to pay off first by highest interest rate, then the smallest balance so that I could get the “small wins” and keep the momentum going. Small wins helped me to keep my confidence and prevented me from getting overwhelmed.
It’s one thing to set a budget and goals; it’s another to follow through with action.
The hard part was finding ways to cut my current expenses so that I could put more than the minimum amount toward that first loan. This is where I got creative and tough.
At the beginning of my career, I moved to a bigger city where my job prospects were better than near my home town. I was able do this by having roommates who were reliable. We split everything three ways, including the groceries. They were also my good friends from college, so it was fun living them! They also had financial goals and constraints, so they were cool with cutbacks.
Here are some of the ways we saved money:
- Cut the cable – using Hulu and Netflix, instead
- Cooked dinners and pack lunches
- Used coupons and apps like Groupon
- Hosted friends instead of going out
- I think at one point I put a brick in the back of our toilet so that less water would be used and saved some on the water bill (sorry for my craziness T & R)
Other ways I saved money on my day-to-day living expenses:
- Shared a phone plan with my family (thanks mom and dad!)
- Used public transportation and took advantage of the pre-tax transport dollars my company offered as a perk. I’d park my car on the street near the train station so I didn’t have to pay for parking.
- Meal Plan for the week using the grocery store weekly flyer, coupons, and a look in our pantry to determine what to buy ahead of time. I tried to use food we already have in our cupboards before buying new items. For example, if we have rice, I picked a meal that needed rice instead of pasta. When I go shopping, I don’t go hungry and I stay away from the center aisles. The center aisles are where I’m more likely to buy items not on my list, since that’s where the junk food is shelved. I stick to my grocery list and know where items are located in my grocery store so that I don’t have to meander down every single aisle. Meandering is how you end up with a $200 grocery bill instead of a $75 bill.
I also set some rules:
- Buy lunch out only once a week and only if going with colleagues. Though, I did cheat on this one occasionally.
- Any additional expenses needed to be paid in cash, no use of credits cards unless I could pay the balance off immediately.
- Set expectations / budgets for gift giving.
- When I can’t avoid going out to bars or nightclubs, I try to stick to one or two drinks, and then switch to water or soda. Keeping the bill under $20 is my goal when going out.
The Tough Calls
I said no. I said no to my family’s “No Dudes, No Drama” annual girls vacation. Every year I suggest they come to Malibu (which is practically in my back yard). Hopefully one year they will take me up on the offer. I also said no to a couple of bachelorette party trips that would have cost me airfare and hotel.
I said no to people asking for loans. This is particularly hard when it comes to family. However, you can’t take care of others if you can’t take care of yourself.
I said no to myself for new clothes, new shoes and other nondiscretionary shopping trips. Saying no to clothing was pretty easy; saying no to new books was not so easy. Amazon was my down fall, so instead of buying new books I’d only read once, I got a library card. I can order any book or audiobook I want and it will be sent to my local library to be checked out.
When I Couldn’t Say No
Being a bridesmaid / maid of honor or even being invited to a wedding is an honor. So when I couldn’t say no, I saved. I saved a certain amount each paycheck for the 6 months – 2 year length of my friends’ engagement so that I could afford the dress, travel, and all of the expenses that come with being a member of the bridal party. The average cost of being a bridesmaid is roughly $2000. That’s a lot of money to pay at once, but $20 a paycheck is much easier to manage. It’s one less pizza to order.
I also got creative (or desperate) — once I ate dinner before going out for a friend’s birthday dinner. Since I wasn’t really hungry, I ordered just a bowl of soup. Everyone else ordered appetizers, entrees, drinks and dessert and ended up with a $50 – 75 bill. Mine was $8, including tip. A bit embarrassing, but no one made a fuss over it after I said I really wasn’t hungry. My soup was served as an entrée and I still had a fantastic time.
I told my friends and family. Having moral support of the people around you is a good thing. If you tell your friends of your financial goal, they’ll be more inclined to suggest free or less expensive activities for fun. There’s no shame in getting your house in order.
Sometimes if I was craving take out, but could easily make food for myself, I’d take the money I would have spent on takeout and add it directly to my student loan. I did this quite often and it became fun to see how many times in a given month I could make extra payments simply by using my discretionary fund.
I got a free graduate education by working full time in academia. This could be a catch-22, since I probably could have made a higher income from the getgo if I had gone into the private sector from the beginning of my career. But I’m glad I have an MS and an MBA in Project Management. And even more so that I earned those degrees without adding extra student loan debt.
To prevent from overspending I removed my credit card information from my store profiles (Macys.com, Amazon.com) so that every time I wanted to make a purchase I had to physically get my card and type in the numbers and address. Sometimes I’d be too lazy to get my card.
Another trick for reducing online spending was to put things in the cart and wait a day or two to buy. Most of the time the urge to buy those items vanished.
When I did need to buy new shoes or clothing, I did so during the major sale weekends (Christmas, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day). I would shop online to minimize the spontaneous buys and return everything that didn’t fit properly. I also regularly checked the price on the items for the next couple of weeks and asked for a price adjustment if the advertised price was lower than what I purchased it at.
Increasing Income and Windfalls
Any extra income such as bonuses, tax returns, overtime pay (when I had an hourly job), and monetary gifts went toward my student loan debt.
I also earned more money by getting a second job teaching at my alma mater. At one point I was working two jobs and taking grad classes.
I made extra income by selling Jewelry, electronics, and textbooks online. If I wasn’t using it, it went on eBay and Amazon Marketplace. I think I earned about $800 by selling my used items.
I changed jobs. My parents and grandparents’ generations lived in a world where you remained loyal to your company and were treated well in return by earning a pension and receiving raises and promotions. That’s not always the case for my generation. Sometimes it takes making a move to increase your earning potential and progress your career.
I changed jobs twice within a 15 month period (not ideal) and my income jumped 40%. Even though I was earning significantly more – enough to bump me to a higher income tax bracket – I maintained my original standard of living. I continued to drive my old car, cook my own meals, pack my lunch, and live in an affordable apartment. The extra income went to my student loans.
The Finish Line:
I was on track to pay off my student loans in 2015, but then I got engaged! I reprioritized my finances so that my husband and I could have our dream wedding without using credit to pay for it, saving for two years. This meant pulling back on my student loan contributions. I was okay with this sacrifice and set a new goal of paying off my loans by the end of 2016. And I did so on October 30, 2016!
All this craziness and frugality paid off in the end. I’m 30, with three degrees, and debt free.
What I am doing now:
- Still living way under my means. My debt to income ratio is now 10%. I also have an excellent credit score.
- Continue saving an emergency fund, which is up to 7 months of living expenses.
- Saving for a down payment on a home. In Los Angeles, that’s a lofty goal.
- Saving for a new car. Remember I paid off my car loan in 2009 and have been driving the same car since 2007.
- Saving a discretionary fund: vacations, shopping, holiday travel—those flights are pricey!
- I use credit cards for every purchase, but pay off the debt each week. This means that I earn cash back and don’t accumulated interest. It also helps keep my credit score healthy since I no longer have revolving debt. I haven’t had to pay a credit card fee since 2008 and it’s pretty awesome I earn money from using the credit card. But this is only recommended for very diligent people.
Things I wish I had done differently:
(Mistake 1) I had scholarships and financial aid, but I should have applied to be a Park Scholar for full tuition and living stipend. I possibly gave up free money because I didn’t fill out a form.
(Mistake 2) I should have also called the Financial Aid office and negotiated a better package. But as one of the first kids in the family to go to school, I didn’t know this was a possibility.
(Mistake 3) I lived on campus the first three years. I should have moved off campus to save on room and board earlier.
(Mistake 4) I loved my college, and it was the only undergraduate program that had a specialized communication program that included Instructional Design. Most people in my field don’t get that education until grad school. Although I didn’t know I wanted to study Instructional Design when I first applied to colleges, it was worth it. However, I wish I took more classes each term to graduate a semester early to save on room and board, and other fees.
(Mistake 5) I studied abroad for a semester. It was the best experience. It opened up my eyes to a larger world. It made me realize I could live in a large city. It made me realize I did not enjoy event planning. Taking out an additional student loan to make sure I could afford the cost of living and exchange was not a good idea.
Well there you have it folks: how a programmatic, frugal, and driven millennial paid off nearly $80,000 in student loan debt in 8 years.