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

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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?

Interested in refinancing student loans?

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1 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

  1. VARIABLE APR – APR is subject to increase after consummation. The variable interest rates are based on a Current Index, which is the 1-month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) (currency in US dollars), as published on The Wall Street Journal’s website. The variable interest rates and Annual Percentage Rate (APR) will increase or decrease when the 1-month LIBOR index changes.

2 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Student Loan RefinanceFixed rates from 3.999% APR to 7.804% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 2.480% APR to 7.524% APR (with AutoPay). Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at either 8.95% or 9.95% depending on term of loan. See APR examples and terms. Lowest variable rate of 2.480% APR assumes current 1 month LIBOR rate of 2.07% plus 0.91% margin minus 0.25% ACH discount. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. If approved for a loan, the fixed or variable interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, and the term of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. *To check the rates and terms you qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit inquiry. Unlike hard credit inquiries, soft credit inquiries (or soft credit pulls) do not impact your credit score. Soft credit inquiries allow SoFi to show you what rates and terms SoFi can offer you up front. After seeing your rates, if you choose a product and continue your application, we will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit inquiry. Hard credit inquiries (or hard credit pulls) are required for SoFi to be able to issue you a loan. In addition to requiring your explicit permission, these credit pulls may impact your credit score
  2. Terms and Conditions Apply: SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet SoFi’s underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. To qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. If approved, your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, years of experience, income and other factors. Rates and Terms are subject to change at anytime without notice and are subject to state restrictions. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. Licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp., NMLS # 1121636. (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org)

3 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

  1. Offered terms are subject to change. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900). The following table displays the estimated monthly payment, total interest, and Annual Percentage Rates (APR) for a $10,000 loan. The Annual Percentage Rate (APR) shown for each in-school loan product reflects the accruing interest, the effect of one-time capitalization of interest at the end of a deferment period, a 2% origination fee, and the applicable Repayment Plan. All loans are eligible for a 0.25% reduction in interest rate by agreeing to automatic payment withdrawals once in repayment, which is reflected in the interest rates and APRs displayed. Variable rates may increase after consummation. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 2.08% effective July 25, 2018.

4 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

  1. Education Refinance Loan Rate DisclosureVariable rate, based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of August 1, 2018, the one-month LIBOR rate is 2.07%. Variable interest rates range from 2.72%-8.17% (2.72%-8.17% APR) and will fluctuate over the term of the borrower’s loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a cosigner. Fixed interest rates range from 3.50%-8.69% (3.50% – 8.69% APR) based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a cosigner. Lowest rates shown require application with a cosigner, are for eligible, creditworthy applicants with a graduate level degree, require a 5-year repayment term and include our Loyalty discount and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. The maximum variable rate on the Education Refinance Loan is the greater of 21.00% or Prime Rate plus 9.00%. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change. Please note: Due to federal regulations, Citizens Bank is required to provide every potential borrower with disclosure information before they apply for a private student loan. The borrower will be presented with an Application Disclosure and an Approval Disclosure within the application process before they accept the terms and conditions of their loan.
  2. Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer with the Education Refinance Loan. Borrowers should carefully review their current benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans and replace those with the benefits of the Education Refinance Loan. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/. We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision at http://www.citizensbank.com/EdRefinance, including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review.
  3. Citizens Bank Education Refinance Loan Eligibility: Eligible applicants may not be currently enrolled, must be in repayment of their existing student loan(s) and must make the minimum number of payments after leaving school. Primary borrowers must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or resident alien with a valid U.S. Social Security Number residing in the United States. Resident aliens must apply with a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. The co-signer (if applicable) must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident with a valid U.S. Social Security Number residing in the United States. For applicants who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer will be required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at anytime. Interest rate ranges subject to change. Education Refinance Loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/consumer credit agreement, verification of application information, certification of borrower’s student loan amount(s) and highest degree earned.
  4. Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.
  5. Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.
  6. Co-signer Release: Borrowers may apply for co-signer release after making 36 consecutive on-time payments of principal and interest. For the purpose of the application for co-signer release, on-time payments are defined as payments received within 15 days of the due date. Interest only payments do not qualify. The borrower must meet certain credit and eligibility guidelines when applying for the co-signer release. Borrowers must complete an application for release and provide income verification documents as part of the review. Borrowers who use deferment or forbearance will need to make 36 consecutive on-time payments after reentering repayment to qualify for release. The borrower applying for co-signer release must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. If an application for co-signer release is denied, the borrower may not reapply for co-signer release until at least one year from the date the application for co-signer release was received. Terms and conditions apply.
  7. Average savings based on 18,113 actual customers who refinanced their federal and private student loans through our Education Refinance Loan between January 1, 2017 and December 31, 2017. The calculation is derived by averaging the monthly savings of Education Refinance Loan customers whose payments decreased after refinancing, which is calculated by taking the monthly student loan payments prior to refinancing minus the monthly student loan payments after refinancing. The borrower’s savings might vary based on the interest rates, balances and remaining repayment term of the loans they are seeking to refinance. The borrower’s overall repayment amount may be higher than the loans they are refinancing even if their monthly payments are lower.
2.57% – 5.87%Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit Earnest
2.80% – 6.38%1Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit Laurel Road
2.48% – 7.52%2Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit SoFi
2.47% – 7.99%Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit Lendkey
2.57% – 6.65%3Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit CommonBond
2.72% – 8.17%4Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit Citizens
Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.