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10 Things I Learned From Paying off 80K of Student Loan Debt in Three Years

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The average class of 2015 college graduate left school with a degree, and just over $35,000 in student loan debt. Some of you reading this may have graduated or are on track to graduate with even more than this. I did, and so did my husband. To me, this is nuts, but why not find a way to deal with it if we can? It’s a mountain we must climb. Where there is a challenge there is also an opportunity! This is no exception.

Ahh, student loan debt. Either we choose to complain about it or we choose to kick it’s butt to the best of our ability. Whether you’re at the beginning of that challenging road or somewhere in the middle, it can be overwhelming and discouraging to the nth degree. I know the struggle very, very well.

It’s not just about buckling down financially, a perspective shift is also so incredibly important when it comes to surviving the process of paying off your student loan debt. There ARE ways to make the process better, faster, and much less of a soul-sucking complain-fest. Here are some of the important things that I learned during the process of paying off our student loan debt. Any “I’s” in this story also include my husband’s hard work and efforts. He rocks. Having a partner was and is a HUGE help to stay motivated and on track, and of course sharing expenses is excellent. BUT, we can all do this regardless.

I’m going to use the mountain reference about as an opportunity to share some hiking photos, if you haven’t noticed. 😉

10 things I learned from paying off 80K of Student Loan Debt in Two Years


Student loan debt is the worst kind of debt.

Why lead off with something so negative?! Because it’s real. It’s like this: Ooh! What do I get when I make a payment? NOTHING. How about when I pay extra? NOTHING. Am I building equity?! NO. Retirement savings? NO. Tax deduction? SORT OF. This reality can be a little discouraging, but with the right perspective, it’s conquerable. Student loan debt can sometimes feel like being on the bad end of a one sided relationship. You give it your all but the other person is just like, meh, whatever. For many of us this bad relationship is a necessary part of the amazing privilege and gift of attaining a higher education. Remember how lucky we are to have that opportunity. Another silver lining for you too, you’re building your credit, hopefully good credit, yay! If I had a chance to do it all over again, I WOULD. It was all worth it.


You need to develop a WRITTEN budget/plan of action and stick to it.

WRITE THINGS DOWN. By that I mean use whatever works for you, pen and paper, Excel, app., etc. Take an inventory of all of your student loan lenders, loan balances, and their corresponding interest rates. If you can, setup auto debit monthly payments for all of them. Just do it. Lenders will usually give you a break on the interest rate when you do this. It’s not much, but even .25% helps when you’re talking about hard-earned-money-draining-for-no-reason interest accruals. The next even more crucial step is committing to making extra bulk principal payments whenever possible. I’m talking whenever possible, $100, 500, $1,000 here there and everywhere. Oh, you got some overtime this week? Student loan payment. Oh, you got a bonus? Student loan payment. I know, this is not fun, but it works.


Attack the highest interest rate loans first with extra principal payments.

You’ve setup your accounts on auto pay, great. You have everything written out so you are well aware of what you’re up against, wonderful. In order to really make the balances shrink, you NEED to pay extra. I focused all of my EXTRA payments on ONE loan at a time, the one with the highest interest rate. The only time I strayed away from this is in cases where there was one loan with a mid-range rate but a very high balance. I brought that one back to reality a bit and then moved forward with the highest rates again. Once you payoff one, move onto the next, and so on.


Lenders don’t want you to pay your loans off early.

It’s really up to you to develop a plan of action to pay off your student loan debt in an efficient and financially beneficial way. Don’t expect your lenders to offer you magical options. Rather, once you start paying extra principal payments every few weeks or months, you’ll see that the “next payment due” date moves further and further away into the future. Yes, you paid extra, take a breather and not pay anything for the next few months so as to accrue more interest and negate any extra payments you just made! No. Don’t buy into it, just keep plugging away.


Acceptance is half the battle.

I know you may think that student loan debt will be a part of your life for the next 15 or 20 years or whatever they say on your payoff paperwork, but, it doesn’t HAVE to take that long. It WILL take that long if you just keep paying the minimum amounts. If you dislike the feeling of blowing a rent payment’s worth of your HARD EARNED MONEY on student loans every month as much as I did, I encourage you to use the tools around to figure out a way to make it disappear faster. You can do this. There are always areas to pinch and save. If I can, you can, trust me. Accept that student loans are going to be a part of your life for a little while longer, but remember that it’s not forever.


There’s a BIG difference between want and need.

SIMPLIFY your spending as much as you can. Committing to allocate additional money to extra student loan payments is the opposite of fun. This commitment requires an analysis of your spending habits, and a determination of what things you really NEED, and what you don’t need. Ask yourself, what can we throw into the want category? For us, it was new clothes, going out to eat. Those things add up. We started seeking out low cost or FREE options for entertainment. Ask yourself, where can we adjust our spending just slightly, so we can still be comfortable and happy during this process? That answer is entirely unique to you!


Tracking your student loan payoff progress is a huge motivator.

Remember the student loan balance inventory I talked about above? Record this in your budget spreadsheet or other finance app that you use to track your spending. Hopefully whatever you use has the capability to track your loan balances and provide a calculation of how much you’ve paid off to date. This is really important. Seeing the “paid to date” figure go UP as your student loan balances go DOWN is an amazing motivator. I made my own budget spreadsheet in Excel where I did just that. Very simple, I would go in every month, login to my student loan accounts, and record the updated loan balances. In a neighboring cell, I added a formula to take my TOTAL starting debt amount when I began this plan, less the total current balances, which leaves me with the amount I’ve paid off to date. Holy cow, talk about motivation. The whole process took about 5 minutes each month and provided me with DAYS of feeling like a rockstar. When the scale tips and the total amount paid OFF is greater than your total balance remaining, you will dance. Oh yes, you will dance.


You ARE a money saving ninja.

I’ve approached finances in two polar opposite ways, one way involved shutting my eyes, blocking my ears and hoping for the best. “Ahhhhh, I don’t even want to see how much I spent last weekend!” kind of thing. This didn’t last long and it doesn’t work. Unawareness of your financial position also produces some seriously unnecessary stress. The more you become comfortable and in tune with your income and expenses, the more control you have over how well things go. It becomes like a game. Awareness leads to better planning. Embrace it and become a money saving ninja. Get the task of paying off your student loans DONE.


Vacations are a sweet, sweet (did I mention sweet?) privilege.

Sometimes paying off your student loans early means putting off certain fun things/plans. Actually, it definitely means that. BUT the extra payments cut down your loan payoff time so significantly (how much exactly depends on your situation), it makes it all worth it in the end. Trust me. A week after making our last loan payment, we spent an amazing week roadtripping through northern California. This was our light at the end of the tunnel. The funny part was that we were SO conditioned to save, and find the best deals, that we continued to do so during our vacation. Remember the perspective shift I talked about earlier though? We truly enjoyed the simplicity of it, and didn’t feel like we were being restrictive. Now we’re working on converting a bus into a tiny home. The simplicity train rolls on!


Life is so much better without student loans.

It just is. Think of all the wonderful things you can accomplish with those student loan payments going instead into your bank account, or toward a much better piece of debt like a home, or business of your dreams. Use that as motivation to buckle down and develop a plan that works for you and your current situation. I know being frugal sucks at times, but I’ll tell you 100 times over that it’s worth it. Our generation is graduating with the highest rates of student loan debt, ever. But all is not lost. It’s just another challenge attached to an opportunity to kick ass and conquer.


BOTTOM LINE: You can do this. Whatever light you want to put at the end of your student loan debt tunnel to help motivate you: a trip to Europe, a new car, saving for a home, just make it AMAZING. Remember, there IS a light at the end of the tunnel.

How long did it take us to go from $80,000 to 0 balance?

It took us three years total, but only 24 months of REALLY applying the principles above. Prior to that we had a higher balance and were only paying the MINIMUM payments each month and that, my friends, just takes too long. We started applying these principles in October of 2013, and made our last payment in October 2015.


SO, I’d love to hear from you…

Who’s conquered their student loan debt? How did YOU tackle the beast? Still on your way through the process? Let me know if you have any questions! 🙂



source in 1st paragraph: Wall Street Journal

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