Life After Debt: New Survey Reveals What Paying Off Student Loans Is Really Like

Advertiser Disclosure

Student Loan Hero Advertiser Disclosure

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.

Editorial Note: This content is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the financial institution.

life after debt

We’ve got your back! Student Loan Hero is a completely free website 100% focused on helping student loan borrowers get the answers they need. Read more

How do we make money? It’s actually pretty simple. If you choose to check out and become a customer of any of the loan providers featured on our site, we get compensated for sending you their way. This helps pay for our amazing staff of writers (many of which are paying back student loans of their own!).

Bottom line: We’re here for you. So please learn all you can, email us with any questions, and feel free to visit or not visit any of the loan providers on our site. Read less

When you’re struggling with student loans, life after debt can seem like a faraway fantasy. But millions of borrowers have managed to make it real, passing the finish line by sending in their very last student loan payment.

We wanted to get a snapshot of the journey to pay off student debt — and life after it’s gone. To that end, we surveyed former student loan borrowers who have completely repaid their college debt.

Key takeaways

  • Most borrowers who paid off student debt had low initial balances. With our survey limited to borrowers who have completely repaid their student debt, it was unsurprising that most had below-average balances. Lower balances are easier and faster to pay off. Additionally, 69% paid off student debt in just five years or less.

  • The most common repayment strategy was paying more than monthly minimums. That’s the proven method that 61% of respondents used to help them conquer their student debt. Other popular strategies were using extra cash to make lump-sum payments (32%) and cutting their budgets (17%).

  • Student loan borrowers made big sacrifices to pay off their debt. Repaying student loans meant putting major life goals on hold. Forty-three percent of survey respondents delayed buying a home and 15% put off parenthood. Respondents also sacrificed non-necessities, such as taking vacations (46%) and eating out (36%).

The state of student debt for borrowers who’ve paid it off

When it comes to student debt, a lot of factors can influence how much (and how fast) you’re able to repay it. Our survey revealed that respondents who paid off debt both borrowed less and were able to pay off these smaller balances in surprisingly short order.

From the time they left college until they made their final payment, 7 in 10 respondents paid off student debt in five years or less. Just 8% of respondents took longer than 10 years — the length of the Standard Repayment Plan for federal student loans — to completely pay off educational debt.

With this survey limited to respondents who have fully repaid student debt, it’s unsurprising that initial balances are lower. Borrowers with lower balances have less to repay to get out of debt. A high 77% borrowed $30,000 or less, which is well below the $39,400 average student loan balance among 2017 graduates.

The survey also highlights proven methods these borrowers used to pay off their student debt (respondents could select more than one response). The most common strategy by far was paying more than the minimum each month, with 6 in 10 respondents selecting this.

Just about a third of respondents made a larger lump-sum payment when they could, and 17% cut expenses to pay more toward debt. Allea Grummert, a personal finance coach at Ask Allea, used a lump-sum payment to knock out the last $4,000 of her $21,000 student debt in March. “I decided I just wanted my student debt gone,” she said. “I didn’t want to worry about the cash flow anymore.”

And about 1 in 10 respondents also took advantage of each of the following: refinancing student loans, applying raises to student loan repayment, and picking up a side hustle to pay more toward student debt. Grummert had a side hustle, working one shift a week at a coffee shop that netted her an extra $180 a month to put toward student debt.

The rarer strategies were moving to a lower-cost city and pursuing a career that could qualify the borrower for student loan forgiveness. It makes sense that these strategies are less popular since both include a major life change that won’t make sense for every borrower.

The setbacks and sacrifices of paying off student debt

Another theme among respondents was that repayment wasn’t an easy process — and didn’t always go according to plan. Respondents shared what it took to pay off their student debt, from setbacks encountered to sacrifices made.

Respondents commonly wished they’d done more to pay off their student debt. Three in 10 respondents said not making extra payments set their repayment back the most.

Borrowers also regretted living beyond their means (24%) and not refinancing student loans (11%). Some regrets also stemmed from choices made in their college years, with 14% saying their biggest setback was taking out more student loans than they needed.

The burden of student debt also held many respondents back from working toward other important money goals. Most commonly, 2 in 5 borrowers felt their student debt kept them from saving for a down payment to buy a home.

Three more financial goals were commonly delayed because of student loan repayment, with a third of respondents selecting each. Respondents said their debt stood in the way of contributing more to retirement savings, fully funding their emergency savings, and paying off other forms of debt.

The sacrifices made to take out student debt touched more areas of respondents’ lives than just their finances. They often made other sacrifices, too.

Most commonly, borrowers who have paid off their student debt report skipping non-necessities such as taking vacations (46%) and eating out (36%). But some borrowers also put major life steps on hold to focus on paying off debt. The most common was buying their first home (43%).

Grummert was in this position. She considered buying a home a few times while repaying student debt. “But the responsibility of that mortgage, based on the cash flow I had available to me, meant it wasn’t an option,” she decided. Without as much in savings, she knew that “if anything happened, I’d be screwed.”

Respondents also sacrificed living in their dream city (17%), becoming parents (15%), getting married (14%), and even owning a pet (15%).

Even a few necessities ended up on the chopping block for some borrowers. An alarmingly high 13% said they sacrificed health insurance coverage because of their student debt. Others didn’t have a car (10%), and some also skipped a cellphone plan (8%).

When asked how they felt about these sacrifices, responses were mixed. A little less than half (42%) felt they missed out because of the sacrifices made to pay off student debt, while the rest (58%) didn’t.

Most respondents are still confident that making these sacrifices was the right thing to do. Only 15% said they would have taken longer to pay off their student loan debt to be able to afford the things they sacrificed.

What life is really like after student debt

Besides seeing how borrowers paid off their student debt, we wanted to see how they’re feeling about their finances now that the debt is gone.

Nearly half (48%) of borrowers who have paid off their student loans said accomplishing this debt goal positively affected how they view their finances.

Another 46% felt that paying off their debt had little to no effect on how they felt about their money. Grummert fell into this group. “Honestly, paying off my debt was a little anticlimactic,” she said. “It was a transaction — get it over with and done.”

Only 6% said paying off their debt changed how they viewed their financial situation for the worse.

Fortunately, most borrowers feel they are spending their money responsibly now that they are done paying off student debt (91.5%). Many who chose this response said they primarily spend on needs, with one saying: “I feel that I am carefully managing my money.” Another said they were saving for the future, citing retirement and a child’s college fund as goals.

In fact, we asked these borrowers what money goal they plan to focus on next now that their student debt is gone.

Money goals that increased financial security were among the most popular. Many former student loan borrowers said they would like to focus next on contributing more to retirement (39%), saving up a full emergency fund (35%), and eliminating other debt (27%).

Continuing a common theme tying student debt to homeownership, almost a third of respondents are saving up for a down payment on a home now that their student debt is gone.

Others are taking advantage of the cash flow freed up by eliminating student debt. Almost 3 in 10 respondents said they plan to travel.

To get out of student debt, borrowers pay the price

The vast majority of borrowers — 85% — feel that the sacrifices they made were worth the payoff of getting out of debt faster. With student debt gone, these borrowers enjoy more financial freedom and prove that paying off debt can be done.

Yet this survey shows that the major achievement of paying off student debt is reached only by leveraging smart strategies and making significant sacrifices.

The 44 million borrowers still repaying student loans can take a page out of these respondents’ handbooks and focus on strategies proven to get results. Making extra payments toward student debt, for example, is a smart place to start.

Interested in refinancing student loans?

Here are the top 6 lenders of 2018!
LenderVariable APREligible Degrees 
Get real rates from up to 4 Lenders at once

Check out the testimonials and our in-depth reviews!
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. (

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 We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision at, 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.