For aspiring lawyers, there’s only one way to pursue your passion: by attending law school. Even if you make a high salary after graduating, you’re stuck with repaying high education costs. The average law student loan debt is about $140,000.
That’s the situation Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation, found herself in after graduating from Pepperdine University’s joint JD/MBA program with $80,000 in debt.
“I was lucky enough that my parents paid for my undergraduate degree,” she says. “But my law and business school cost me about $30,000 a year plus living expenses, which I had to pay on my own using a combination of federal and private student loans.”
Despite having an advanced degree, Sweeney was confused and overwhelmed and didn’t know how to pay off her mountain of debt. So she took time after the bar exam to hammer out an aggressive repayment plan. Her dedication yielded results — by age 28, just over five years after graduating from law school, Sweeney was debt-free.
4 tips for getting out of law school debt quickly
Here are Sweeney’s tactics for loan payoff that you can use to tackle your law school debt fast.
1. Work while you’re in school
Law school is demanding, but taking on a side hustle or part-time job can make a huge dent in your student loans. Sweeney taught aerobics, did paid internships, and worked for professors.
“You won’t necessarily pay off the debt with the amount you make,” she says. “But you can minimize the amount you take in loans by earning money while in your studies.”
You can look for teaching assistant positions for graduate students, search for firms that offer paid internships, or make use of the booming sharing economy to take on a side hustle — which you can continue after finishing school.
That’s what Kevin Han does. He works for Airbnb, Rover, Wag, Postmates, DoorDash, and more to make extra cash while working full time as a lawyer.
Every dollar you set aside from your earnings can go toward your student loan payments, and you can start paying down the debt while you’re in school. If you want to save the money for now, you can use it to make a big payment once you graduate.
Remember, you’ll spend months studying for the bar exam before your paychecks start rolling in. A side hustle can help cover that gap.
2. Don’t spend more than you need
Budgeting 101 says you should buy only what you need. Being especially frugal in the short term can help you pay off debt in the long run.
“I maintained a tight budget for my living expenses while in school and after I graduated,” Sweeney says. “Even though I made a good salary as a lawyer, I kept my spending in check and still do. I never have outstanding credit card debt. And about every three months, I adjust how much more my husband and I can afford to pay off so that we can pay off our home mortgage sooner.”
As you make more money, your goal should be to save more rather than spend more. This will help you not only pay off student debt but also establish good habits for other major purchases in the future, such as a car or a home.
Check on your needs before buying. Do you need a three-bedroom apartment with a wraparound terrace, or could you settle for a two-bedroom home? The money you save could make a big difference in accomplishing your financial goals.
3. Consider student loan refinancing
When Sweeney graduated, she was confused by her loans and knew she had to devise a simple plan to pay them off.
“Before I got my bar results, my loan payments started, and I was so confused because there were federal loans and private student loans,” she says. “It was all over the place. I recall that the loans kept getting moved around to different companies, which only added to the confusion.”
So the new grad worked hard to understand her payments and refinance her student loans at a lower interest rate with a single monthly payment.
Refinancing could help you get a lower interest rate and allow you to make just one payment per month rather than multiple payments on different loans. This can make it easier to track your money and increase your savings because you pay less in interest over time.
“Consolidating helped me gain perspective,” says Sweeney. “Once I had that information, I created a schedule for myself to pay more when I could afford to ($1,100 a month instead of the $700 I owed) in an attempt to pay down the loans quickly.”
Here’s a caveat: If you refinance your federal student loans, you could lose access to benefits such as income-driven repayment, deferment and forbearance, and loan forgiveness.
4. Use any extra money to pay down your debt
Bonuses are common for some lawyers, and you might be tempted to splurge with the extra cash. But you shouldn’t give in.
“When I started practicing law, I would get year-end bonuses,” Sweeney says. “I put every penny into paying off my loan. I always figured that if I kept earning and growing at this pace, eventually I’d have the loan completely gone. It worked!”
Even if you’re not getting big bonuses at work, you could use your tax refund or the cash your grandma gave for your birthday to pay down your debt. You should be living on a set budget, so any unexpected money shouldn’t affect your daily spending.
Sweeney is a good example of how simple budgeting habits can make a huge difference in paying down your student loan debt faster. The bonus of being a lawyer is that you might be able to command a higher salary and put more toward your debt repayment.
It all comes down to having a plan and budget you can stick to. That might take some effort upfront, but once you’ve established a routine, the debt will melt away.
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