LB Note: I always find debt stories super intriguing and I know you guys love them as well. Today we have a great guest piece from Val Breit at The Common Cents Club.
I was on track to graduate with about $50,000 in debt, which is above the national average but still lower than many Americans these days. This nauseating wake-up call changed my life forever – I realized that with compound interest, I would actually repay nearly $100,000 on a standard repayment plan—double the amount I was borrowing!
I decided I would do whatever it took to not let these student loans be a drag on my financial life for the next decade or two of my life. And after it was all said and done, I repaid all of my student loans plus about 6.8% interest in just 34 months. (And no, I was not earning six figures—or even close to it.)
Here are the key milestones to my debt payoff journey:
“I Stopped Adding More Debt”
Before I could really dig myself out of debt, I had to stop making the hole bigger.
For the remaining semesters of graduate school, I only borrowed student loans I absolutely needed to cover tuition. Nothing extra for living expenses or “just in case.” I also paid off my credit card balance in full at the end of every month so I wasn’t spending money on late fees or interest payments to credit card companies.
Saying “no” to more debt was extremely hard because I could not afford rent to live on my own at the time. I was attending graduate school full-time and working part-time, but not earning a ton of money.
This meant I had to swallow my pride and live at home with my parents for 1.5 years during grad school (instead of borrowing more money to live on my own). After my car was paid off, I built a small savings fund so I could move back out on my own as quickly as possible.
“I Did the Math”
After I graduated with over $42,000 in debt and got my first “real” job, I did the math.
Well, technically a debt repayment calculator did the math for me, but I played with the numbers to see how much extra I would have to pay each month in order to save thousands of dollars in interest over the next 10-20 years.
I knew I had to repay the amount I borrowed, but the amount of additional interest I would pay was completely up to me. When I saw that I could save over $20,000 if I paid my loans off in 8 years instead of 20, I was hooked.
Saving $20,000 for someone who’s entire yearly salary is $36,000 is a game changer.
“I Targeted One Loan on Autopilot”
After playing with the loan calculator, my magic number was to pay $200 extra each month to pay off my biggest loan in 8 years. I used the “Debt Avalanche” method to target the loan that had the highest interest rate first, since that loan was costing me the most money.
Each month, I pretended as if the extra $200 was the amount I owed. I also wrote down my goal (on a post-it note…nothing fancy) and placed it where I could see it. These money mind tricks helped me stay focused on getting rid of my debt fast.
“I Got Frugal and Budgeted”
At first, “budgeting” for me was just making sure I had enough money to pay my bills on time. As I got more serious about eliminating my debt, I started paying closer attention to exactly how much money I was spending and where.
Instead of just noting “credit card” as one lump sum in my budget, I went through each transaction on my credit card statements for 3 months and categorized all of those purchases. This helped me find lots of places I could cut back. (Need an easy way to do a budget? Grab your FREE budgeting template here!)
Little things like gas station purchases, eating out, going places with friends, random gifts, clothing and shoes, it all added up. I decided to intentionally cut back on these things and track them each month. Instead of doing things that cost money, my evenings started to include browsing Pinterest for the best frugal living tips and dream homes that weren’t full of hand-me-down furniture.
Slowly but surely, I was shopping less, eating more leftovers, negotiating my cell phone, TV and internet bills, and finding free community activities in order to have more money to chip away at my debt.
I Found Other “Weird” People to Keep Me Motivated
Through conversations with friends and co-workers at lunch, I quickly realized how “weird” I was with my simple and frugal living habits.
Instead of buying from the latest MLM party, ordering takeout for lunch, or taking exotic spring break vacations, I listened to podcasts like The Dave Ramsey Show and read personal development books about intentionally creating your best life.
Little did I know, I was going to use this entire experience years later to help others get out of debt when I learned how to self publish a book and started an online business. Surrounding myself with doses of debt payoff inspiration and other people who had similar financial aspirations helped me remain motivated.
….Then I Got Ruthless
After many additional payments toward my debt, I finally started to see the principal of my loan shrink. But instead of letting this course run on autopilot, I got even more ruthless.
My clothing and shoes budget turned into an average of only $20 per month. I refused to upgrade to a smartphone because at the time it would have raised my bill about $50 each month.
Tax returns did not take me to Cancun; they went toward my debt (#adulting). And I even used cash gifts for Christmas and my birthday as extra debt payments too. Although this was by no means fun and I badly wanted to spend money on other things, I wanted to experience the taste of debt freedom far more.
These turned into extra payments throughout the month. Whenever my budget verified I had more money in my account than I needed to cover the bills and maintain my emergency fund, I logged into my loan servicer and made an extra payment. $120 here. $35 there. $400 here. Each small payment culminated together to wipe out my debt faster than I ever thought I could.
It was challenging, but I kept my eyes on the prize and knew I’d be free from my college debt soon. These were choices I would not later regret.
BOOM! Outta Here!
After living on an extremely tight budget for 34 months, I logged into my Sallie Mae account for the final time. I paid off my balance with relish.
I felt like I had just conquered Mount Everest. Honestly, I thought Sallie Mae would be so impressed that confetti would fly out of my computer…but I was disappointed that it processed just like any other payment. It was so mundane that I questioned if it even worked!
So I took a screenshot of my $0 balance and added bright red arrows and the text that read “BOOM! OUTTA HERE!” to celebrate.
In the end, I paid off my student loans 34 months after graduation and I saved about $30,000 in interest.
Do I Have Any Regrets?
While the word regret has a negative tone and you’re supposed to “live with no regrets,” in reality, there are things I learned through the process and could have done better.
My debt strategy worked and I saved a ton of money. However, I now know that there are student loan refinancing options I didn’t know existed before. Since I had no plans to wait and hope for loan forgiveness, had I known, I would have refinanced for a lower interest rate in a heartbeat.
The other thing I wish I had known was all the legitimate ways to make more money. Whether you need to know how to make money while pregnant and unemployed or you have a full-time career but want to earn extra cash on the side to pay off debt, there are so many ways to earn money. While I focused primarily on slashing expenses, I could have shoveled my way out of debt even faster had I spent time making extra cash on the side.
In the end, this journey has hugely impacted my life. Now I am blessed to get help others find simple ways to reduce debt overwhelm and intentionally spend their time and money in ways that are important to them.
About Val: Because she destroyed her debt, Val Breit is now a stay-at-home mama bear who spends most of her days trying to keep her two bear cubs out of the toilet and from harassing the dog. During nap and bed times, she authored the book Pay Your Student Loans Fast and runs TheCommonCentsClub.com. Follow along with her mom + money shenanigans on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.