How I Paid Off $68,000 in Student Loans in Less Than 5 Years

A few weeks ago, I did something I’ve been dreaming of for years but hardly thought was possible: I made my very last payment on my student loans.

After seeing the balance at zero, I was hit with a flood of emotions — relief, joy, and disbelief.

My journey into student loan debt started innocently enough at age 17 when I headed to college. Loans were my only option to pay for school, so I signed up without flinching, not truly knowing what I was getting into.

I graduated with my B.A. and had $23,000 in student loans. Over the next few years, I paid the minimum. Then I decided to go to graduate school.

I knew more about student loans this second time around, but I still ended up going to graduate school at my dream school and taking on an additional $58,000, making the total amount borrowed $81,000.

How to Pay Off Student Loan in 5 Years

When I graduated in May 2011, after paying the minimum on my loans for five years, I had $68,000 left. In December 2015, I made my very last payment. Here’s how I did it.

I Moved to a Cheaper Location

I went to graduate school in New York City and absolutely loved it. But when I graduated, I couldn’t find consistent work. After six months of giving it my all, I realized I couldn’t afford my rent in NYC and make sufficient payments on my student loans.

I could have opted for an income-driven plan, but I considered it a last resort since I knew interest would keep accruing. At the time, my loans were already generating $11 in interest per day — and it made me sick.

So I ended up moving to Portland, Oregon to be reunited with my partner (after doing long-distance for nearly two years, which also isn’t cheap) and lower my rent. In fact, I cut my rent in half.

I Side Hustled Like Crazy

Portland proved to be more affordable in a lot of ways, but wasn’t great for my employment situation. I continued to struggle, making $10 to $12 per hour for a year and a half.

I could pay my bills, but was dipping into my savings to continue to put more towards my debt. I knew I didn’t want to completely wipe out my savings, so I began to side hustle every chance I got.

Over the past four and a half years, I have:

  • Sold water at a rave
  • Participated in a medical study
  • Worked as a coat checker for a party
  • Worked as a brand ambassador (which increased my income by $5,000 per year with a few gigs per month)
  • Worked as a housecleaner
  • Worked as a pet sitter
  • Worked as a registration assistant for a race

Since I didn’t have full-time work, I made my job finding work. Weekends and holidays were especially lucrative, and Craigslist and TaskRabbit were my best friends.

I would venture to say that I’ve worked the majority of weekends and holidays for the past four years. At certain points, I was so tired and sick of working, but the dream of being free of my debt kept me going.

I knew I didn’t want to spend one more day than I had to with the burden of student loans. To me, student loans felt like a ball and chain, holding me back from everything I wanted to accomplish.

Although it seemed never-ending at the time, I can now say that working so hard was worth it. It wasn’t always glamorous and it wasn’t always fun, but it helped me pay off student loans even faster.

I Lived Like a College Student

I’m 31 years old; many people my age are “settling down” with houses, new cars, and little ones on the way. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and it seems like a natural progression in life. However, I knew if I wanted to make debt repayment my priority, I had to continue to live like a college student.

I focused on the big three expenses first: housing, food, and transportation:

  • My partner and I live in a small studio apartment together (it’s romantic!).
  • I don’t have a car and mostly bike or walk everywhere.
  • I limit my food expenses by buying fewer packaged foods and cooking instead.

In addition to the big three expenses, I also said no to having pets, cable, clothes, makeup, a gym membership, and most other luxuries.

That’s not to say I had no fun — I still budgeted for some travel and restaurant outings, as I believe it’s important to have some fun and rewards while paying off debt, or else debt fatigue will set in.

I Quit My Job

Now, this is not a standard tactic I would recommend for most people. But quitting my job and starting my own business was one of the best financial decisions I made.

After a year and a half in Portland, I eventually found a full-time job paying $31,000. I was ecstatic about a nearly $10,000 raise over the year before, plus benefits. At the same time, my side hustles became more specialized. I started freelance writing on the side, managing social media and more.

Though there was a huge learning curve for managing my own side business, I started to see that it could potentially be more lucrative than my full-time job at a nonprofit. And having been a longtime nonprofit employee, I knew the probability of me making much more was small.

So after I built up my client base and was making at least what I made at my day job, I quit my job and struck out on my own. It felt like a huge risk at the time, quitting my steady job when I had so much debt.

But a funny thing happened when I quit my job. My mindset shifted and I was determined to make it work. I would not fail and I would make sure that I made more than my day job, so I could pay off student loans.

It didn’t happen overnight, or easily, but after six months of trial and error, I started making more money than I ever had. After a year, I more than doubled my income.

I had always put roughly 50 percent of my income towards debt. When you’re making $31,000 before taxes, that’s not a lot. After quitting my job and doubling my income, I was able to put $30,000 toward debt this year alone.

Many people in personal finance extol the virtues of cutting your expenses. I think that’s one important part of personal finance, but there’s only so much you can cut back on. You’ll always have some expenses. I found that earning more — even if it required more “work” — was far more fruitful for my debt payoff efforts and helped land me a new career.

Now that I’m debt-free, I plan on replenishing my savings, some of which I used to help make the last payment and get laser-focused on investing. I also plan to enjoy more travel.

Want to Pay Off Student Loans?

I know just how hard, long, and annoying the debt payoff process can be, but here’s my advice:

  • Know that being debt free is possible, even if it doesn’t happen overnight.
  • You have to change your lifestyle.
  • Paying off debt is a lot about mindset and not just money.
  • You have to always remember why you’re doing it (for me, it’s freedom and travel).
  • Don’t beat yourself up over debt — we all make mistakes, some months are better than others.
  • You have to be ruthless about your goals — what you’re willing to spend money on and what you’re not (and some people may not agree with you/be offended by it, and that’s okay).

What strategies have you used to pay off student loans?

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Published in Pay Off Student Loans, Student Loan Repayment, Tips for Paying Off Student Loans

  • Natasha Josephine

    I’m in the same exact position only I have $74,000 in student loan debt accruing daily interest at $14.00 a day. I transitioned to Las Vegas where the cost of living is a heck of a lot cheaper than New York and I couldn’t be happier. Since I didn’t have a job lined up, my money fluctuated and it took a year to finally be settled but I got through it and have set all new goals for myself. Even though I was in between jobs I still managed to contribute some of my income towards my student loans but, now that I’m settled with a job and living situation I can focus my efforts on a few side gigs that I have in mind. Patience is a virtue but just like yourself, I’m determined. I think there’s more of us out there with the same issues so it’s important that someone be vocal about it. Thank you for sharing your story, gives me (and I’m sure others) hope and assurance.

    • Glad we could help, Natasha! I’m happy to hear you’re determined and on the right track. I hope we can feature your story on here someday soon 🙂

      Let us know if there’s anything else we can do to help!

      Best,

      Jeffrey
      Student Loan Hero