Anyone with a JD knows how expensive the degree is. With the average amount of law school debt coming in at more than $139,000, it’s the second-most expensive graduate degree out there. Only medical school beats it.
The high cost doesn’t have to mean a lifetime of debt, though. Below are stories of three lawyers who graduated with serious law school debt — but managed to beat it back.
Each had their own method, from leveraging a well-timed investment to using strategic repayment tactics. They’re lawyers just like you who turned an expensive education into one that paid for itself through work they feel passionate about. Here’s how they did it.
$125,000 paid off in eight years
Joshua Berman’s law school debt repayment was untraditional. But so was his foray into the field of law.
In 2009, Joshua graduated into one of the worst legal job markets in history and had a $100,000 job offer rescinded because of the market. He ended up in a paralegal position earning $50,000 per year, and even that job was difficult to get given the number of lawyers looking for work.
Still, Joshua paid off his $125,000 of student loan debt in only eight years. And it was all because he bought a home that turned into a great investment.
“I bought a house in an area I thought would have great potential for growth,” he explained. “A year and a half later, my home’s value skyrocketed. I refinanced the mortgage, cashed out the equity, and paid off the loan.”
Although this payoff method might be untraditional, Joshua has no regrets. His student loan interest rate was 7.785% — much higher than his new mortgage rate of 3.50%.
That fact speaks to the important question of whether you should pay off your student loans or invest your money. Many times, the answer reveals itself in the interest rates.
Of course, it’s not easy to buy a home when you’re deep in debt. For Joshua, several things helped.
He and his wife chose to buy a foreclosure from a contractor, who then renovated the home. They also designed a basement apartment for his brother to live in for one year, which he was willing to pay for in advance so they’d have enough cash to close on the home.
Between those factors and the gift money he and his wife received from their wedding, they were able to purchase the house that would eventually enable them to pay off his law school debt. And Joshua kept his wife in mind the whole time.
“I wanted to get rid of the loan as quickly as possible because I felt it was holding me and my wife back,” he said. “She married into my loan, but I wanted it to be as little of a burden as possible for as short of a time as possible.”
Joshua’s story highlights the changing tides of luck — and the importance of making the most of every opportunity you have.
Here’s Joshua’s advice to young lawyers in debt: “When I graduated law school, I truly felt like I would never pay off my loan. Every month I made a payment, it seemed like I would never be done. But the best thing I think you can do is focus on developing as a professional, and the opportunity to pay off the loan will follow.”
$120,000 paid off in three years
Evan W. Walker’s loans came in close to the national average, as he graduated with $120,000 in debt.
But with the help of the debt avalanche method, he paid it all off.
“I paid down the loans with the highest interest rate first,” he explained. “I took the smallest of those and paid it off first. Then, I moved on to the second-highest, etc., until I paid off all of those loans. Then, I started paying the smallest of the lower-interest-rate loans and set a weekly limit of money I was willing to spend.”
Even with a strategy in hand, it wasn’t always easy. During that intense three-year repayment period, Evan drove an old beater car, and his wife covered the rent, utilities, and groceries — without having anything extra to save.
That’s a large reason Evan credits not only discipline but also a supportive spouse with the success.
“My wife is a generous and kind woman,” he said. “We both knew it was best for us both that my loans were paid off as soon as possible. I was determined to see it done.”
Now that he’s debt-free, Evan has the future in mind. He plans to “run a successful solo practice, support [his] family, and give.”
$70,000 paid off in eight years
Kyle Dickmann, founder of Dickmann Tax Group in Denver, graduated with a student loan balance of $120,000.
But since his graduation in 2009, he’s paid off more than $70,000. Here’s how:
- He chose a 30-year student loan repayment plan rather than a 20-year plan, lowering his monthly payments and making them more manageable.
- Whenever he had extra money, he paid an individual loan in full rather than applying it toward his total debt. That strategy aligns with a method called the debt snowball.
- He tried to think of his law school loans as a “mortgage” for his career, which inspired him to keep current on his loans.
Because the interest rate on his loans is relatively high, he isn’t tempted to use his funds for investment instead of repayment.
“My average [interest rate] exceeds 7.00%,” he explained, “so there really isn’t a better ‘investment’ tool to use than the repayment of my student loans.”
Kyle also finds motivation in his work, especially because his firm helps people settle their tax debt. He helps others experience the same relief he feels when he pays off more of his law school debt.
“Most of our clients are struggling financially, and we end up being their last option before bankruptcy,” he said. “Hearing the appreciation in their voice after the debt has been settled never gets old.”
But that doesn’t mean staying the course on debt payoff is easy, even for Kyle. He and his wife love to travel — but his debt means taking more quick road trips rather than grand world tours.
Although Kyle and his wife have made this and other lifestyle sacrifices, he sees it as a reasonable trade-off for having gone to law school. And as frustrating as debt can be, it has helped Kyle create the life of his dreams.
“I would certainly do this all over again,” he said, “but I’m kind of lucky in that I’ve been able to start a company (which is something that I’ve always wanted to do). And so far it’s gone well enough that I’ve been able to pay my debt off faster than I would have expected going into it.”
There is a light at the end of the tunnel for law school debt
Graduating with six figures of debt isn’t easy. But as these stories illustrate, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
If you need some tools to help you along the way, try refinancing your student loans at a lower interest rate (although you should be careful if you have federal loans, as refinancing can mean you lose access to federal loan forgiveness programs and other options). You also could consider an income-driven repayment plan to ease your monthly burden (although you should increase those payments as soon as you’re making enough to do so).
You survived four years of undergrad study, three years of law school, high-intensity internships, and the bar exam. If you can do all that and come out the other side, what could student loan debt possibly have on you?
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