Facing massive amounts of student loan debt can feel like a journey you have to take alone. If you’re patient enough, it’ll eventually get paid off in a decade or two.
But make it a joint effort, and it’s remarkable how quickly the debt payoff process can be expedited.
That’s precisely what Lance Cothern did, helping his wife pay off $80,000 of her own student loans in just three quick years — barely enough time for most people to make a dent in their debt. Through a combination of budgeting, thrifty living, and earning extra income, the couple was able to become debt-free, all while buying two homes in the process.
If you have high student loan debt, keep reading to see how the Cotherns made their success story happen.
Building a budget
By the time Lance and his wife Victoria were married, they had already paid off about $28,000 of her existing debt. That left the couple with $50,000 to tackle.
“Thankfully, I knew this debt was taken on to improve her financial future and wasn’t frivolous spending that quickly spiraled out of control,” remembered Cothern. “Had it been credit card debt, it would have been a completely different story.”
The Cotherns knew that they had no choice but to pay down the debt, but they had a big say in how they would go about it. First, they made a list of each loan and, according to Cothern, the couple decided to pay off the one with the highest interest rate first: a whopping $20,000 loan.
The next step was deciding how they’d get there. Even before they were married, the soon-to-be-wed couple began their plan. They set aside money for a monthly budget that allowed Victoria $50 a paycheck to spend freely. Lance set aside every extra dollar he could get into a special savings account dedicated to the debt.
There were other frugal efforts, like cooking in instead of eating out, combined with a minimalist lifestyle. “We continued to live with hand-me-down furniture and a sparsely decorated home in order to throw as much money as possible toward paying off the student loans,” Cothern said.
Two homes forward, one step back
The Cotherns weren’t without some financial setbacks along the three years it took to pay off the debt.
Victoria underwent two foot surgeries, compelling the couple to dip into their emergency savings. They also managed to juggle the purchase of two homes, which complicated paying down the student loan debt, albeit only slightly.
Cothern described the situation: “The first home I bought completely on my own, before we got married. I had been saving money to eventually buy a home, as well as money to pay down the student loan debt after we got married.”
“An opportunity arose to purchase a townhouse that resulted in a mortgage payment that would have been about half of what we would have had pay in rent for a similar home. That even included insurance and taxes! So, we decided it was the best move and I took some of the money I had saved to buy the first house,” he explained.
Afterward, said Cothern, the couple decided the timing was right to buy a permanent home. Though the 20 percent down payment would have initially gone towards their student loan debt, it was just a slight delay: by renting out the townhouse, it became an extra source of income that inspired more inventive ways of earning money.
A money manifesto
The couple didn’t hesitate to continue their frugal lifestyle if it meant freeing up some cash. But Cothern, an accountant by trade, said the main source of side income came from an unlikely, unexpected source.
“The massive amount of student loan debt led me to read many personal finance blogs,” he said. “After reading blogs for many months, I decided that I had a story that I could share as well.”
The result was MoneyManifesto.com, Cothern’s personal finance blog filled with practical advice on getting out of debt, investing, saving money, and homeownership. “I had no plans to make any money from the site at the time, but it ended up contributing tens of thousands of dollars that we ended up using for house down payments and the accelerated payoff of the student loan debt,” said Cothern.
By March 2014, the Cotherns made their last student loan payment. Totally debt-free, it was a testament to how a little planning and a lot of teamwork can surmount any financial problem if you work towards it.
According to Cothern, the couple’s initial loan payments averaged $700 a month, but in one standout month, they put down more than $10,000.
“Paying off massive amounts of debt is 100 percent possible if you put your mind to it and make things happen,” Cothern wrote on his blog. “If we just sat back, defeated, made the minimum payments on my wife’s debt and made no extra income, we’d still have $700 in student loan debt payments today and every month for at least the next 7 to 17 years.
“I’m so glad that isn’t the case.”
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