The average American college student leaves school with $37,172 in student loans.
And that’s difficult enough to manage. Can you imagine trying to handle $600,000 worth of loans?
That’s the situation Amber and Danny Masters found themselves in.
And while they were completely overwhelmed by their debt, they’ve taken action to get their lives back on track. With their current plan, they are on track to pay off their debt in just five years.
Here’s how the Masters are getting ahead of their debt (and how you can, too).
Winding up with $600,000 in student loans
When the Masters first started out, their loan debt was very modest. Amber had just $3,500 in loans from her undergraduate degree, and Danny had none.
They both knew exactly what they wanted to do with their future, too. Amber wanted to become a lawyer, and Danny wanted to become a dentist.
Amber found a surprisingly affordable law school and was able to get her law degree for just $44,000. But to increase his chances of getting accepted into dental school, Danny got a Master’s degree at a cost of $60,000.
Originally, Amber was going to wait a year to start school so she could continue working. But at the last minute, she decided to start school as soon as possible.
She rationalized that it meant she would graduate sooner and would thus start making more money faster. But it also meant she missed out on scholarships and other financial aid opportunities that could have reduced her costs.
So before Danny even getting into dental school, the couple already had six figures of debt. And although a dental school accepted Danny like they dreamed, it was a private school that cost over $84,000 a year.
With interest rates as high as 7.9 percent, their student loan balance ballooned pretty quickly.
While in school, Amber and Danny lived relatively frugally. They did not buy much, rarely ate out, and they worked during the summers to earn extra money.
But while they handled their budget well in school, it didn’t occur to them to start making payments while in school. They had heard about income-driven repayment plans and figured that would work for them.
A horrible realization
After Danny graduated in 2016, the couple looked at their debt and had a horrifying realization; their student loan debt had ballooned from about $400,000 to over $600,000 due to interest.
“We were shell-shocked,” said Amber. “We knew we had six figures of debt, but I don’t think we fully understood what interest would do to the balance.”
As a dentist and a lawyer, the Masters make good incomes. But facing such a huge debt balance still felt overwhelming to them.
Amber did tons of research on student loans and their options. Advisors continually told her to consider income-driven repayment plans to get the lowest payment possible.
So they signed up for the Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) plan, where their minimum payment due is just $100 a month on their huge balance.
But as Amber did more research, she found out that REPAYE is not a long-term solution to their problem.
The problem with REPAYE
With REPAYE, after making 25 years of qualifying payments for graduate education, the government forgives the remaining loan balance.
In the case of the Masters, if they kept just to the minimum payments REPAYE requires, that means the government would forgive up to $325,000.
And while on paper that sounds amazing, to Amber and Danny, it was horrifying.
That’s because income-driven repayment plans and loan forgiveness come with one caveat; the forgiven loan balance is taxable as income. So Amber and Danny would owe an enormous tax bill on that forgiven amount.
For the Masters, they decided the tax bill just was not worth it. Instead, they designed an aggressive plan to pay off their debt ahead of schedule.
How the Masters are paying down their debt
The Masters have cut their budget way back to maximize how much they can put towards their student loans.
“We’re living like college students,” says Amber. “We moved to Midwest, where the cost of living is much cheaper.”
“Danny and I keep a strict monthly budget,” Amber adds. “We live off $2,500-$3,000 a month, and everything else goes to debt.”
They do several side hustles as well. From a photography business to selling household items, they access a range of options for earning extra income
They also stick to a meal plan, batch cook, and freeze leftovers to save money on groceries.
For their young son, they only try to buy only the essentials. And much of what they buy is secondhand.
Thanks to their sacrifices and budgeting, they allocate a staggering $12,000 a month towards their debt.
And when they’re more established, they plan to refinance their loans to reduce their interest rate and make more headway against their principal.
It’s more than just about getting to zero
Amber and Danny also hold weekly meetings to discuss their finances and ensure they stay on track. This helps prevent debt-fatigue, too.
“It’s really hard to stay motivated,” says Amber. “We’ve been in school forever and are just now making real money.”
The Masters do give themselves some “fun money” each month to try and keep themselves from feeling deprived.
“We worked our butts off, and we want to reward ourselves sometimes,” Amber explains. “We work in some small freedom money, about $60 a month.”
They also acknowledge that there’s more to their lives than just working at their jobs to pay off their debts.
“We often feel so restricted, so we routinely make sure we go out and celebrate by doing fun, free things, like celebrating milestones with a road bike ride or visiting friends,” Amber says.
“But when we have a moment of weakness, we look at the numbers to keep it fresh,” adds Amber. “It reminds us that going out to eat for $30 worth of sushi isn’t worth it.”
Thanks to all of their hard work, the Masters are on schedule to pay off their $600,000 in student loans in an astonishing five years, saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest.
Amber and Danny also run a blog detailing their journey called to Deeply in Debt, where they share what they learn, how they are paying down their debt, and inspiring others.
“What I’ve found is that most people are like we were,” says Amber. “They want to bury their heads in the sand, and they aren’t ready to think about their student loans.”
“But the best thing you can do is take the bull by the horns, open up the loans on your servicer’s website, and figure out how much interest is accruing each day,” she states. “Just start making whatever payments you can to bring down the interest.”
So if you’re ready to get serious about your student loans and want to find out how much you can save by making extra payments on your loans like the Masters, check out our prepayment calculator below to get started.
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