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

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life after debt

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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 2021!
LenderVariable APREligible Degrees 
1.89% – 5.99%1Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Splash

1.99% – 5.64%2Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Earnest

1.99% – 6.84%3Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit CommonBond

1.91% – 5.25%4Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Lendkey

2.25% – 6.53%5Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit SoFi

2.17% – 4.47%6Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit PenFed

Check out the testimonials and our in-depth reviews!
1 Important Disclosures for Splash Financial.

Splash Financial Disclosures

Terms and Conditions apply. Splash reserves the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. Rates and terms are also subject to change at any time without notice. Offers are subject to credit approval. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. If approved, your actual rate will be within a range of rates and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, income and other factors. Refinancing or consolidating private and federal student loans may not be the right decision for everyone. Federal loans carry special benefits not available for loans made through Splash Financial, for example, public service loan forgiveness and economic hardship programs, fee waivers and rebates on the principal, which may not be accessible to you after you refinance. The rates displayed may include a 0.25% autopay discount.

The information you provide to us is an inquiry to determine whether we or our lenders can make a loan offer that meets your needs. If we or any of our lending partners has an available loan offer for you, you will be invited to submit a loan application to the lender for its review. We do not guarantee that you will receive any loan offers or that your loan application will be approved. Offers are subject to credit approval and are available only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers will receive the lowest rates, which are available to the most qualified borrowers. Participating lenders, rates and terms are subject to change at any time without notice.

To check the rates and terms you qualify for, Splash Financial conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, the lender will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull and may affect your credit.

Splash Financial and our lending partners reserve the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen and meet our lending partner’s underwriting requirements. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. This information is current as of Feburary 1, 2021.

2 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or possess a 10-year (non-conditional) Permanent Resident Card, reside in a state Earnest lends in, and satisfy our minimum eligibility criteria. You may find more information on loan eligibility here: Not all applicants will be approved for a loan, and not all applicants will qualify for the lowest rate. Approval and interest rate depend on the review of a complete application.

Earnest fixed rate loan rates range from 2.98% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.49% APR (with Auto Pay). Variable rate loan rates range from 1.99% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.34% APR (with Auto Pay). For variable rate loans, although the interest rate will vary after you are approved, the interest rate will never exceed 8.95% for loan terms 10 years or less. For loan terms of 10 years to 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 9.95%. For loan terms over 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 11.95% (the maximum rates for these loans). Earnest variable interest rate loans are based on a publicly available index, the one month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Your rate will be calculated each month by adding a margin between 1.82% and 5.50% to the one month LIBOR. The rate will not increase more than once per month. Earnest rate ranges are current as of October 26, 2020, and are subject to change based on market conditions and borrower eligibility.

Auto Pay discount: If you make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic, monthly deduction from a savings or checking account, your rate will be reduced by one quarter of one percent (0.25%) for so long as you continue to make automatic, electronic monthly payments. This benefit is suspended during periods of deferment and forbearance.

The information provided on this page is updated as of 10/26/2020. Earnest reserves the right to change, pause, or terminate product offerings at any time without notice. Earnest loans are originated by Earnest Operations LLC. California Finance Lender License 6054788. NMLS # 1204917. Earnest Operations LLC is located at 302 2nd Street, Suite 401N, San Francisco, CA 94107. Terms and Conditions apply. Visit, email us at [email protected], or call 888-601-2801 for more information on our student loan refinance product.

© 2020 Earnest LLC. All rights reserved. Earnest LLC and its subsidiaries, including Earnest Operations LLC, are not sponsored by or agencies of the United States of America.

3 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown. ‍All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 0.15% effective Jan 1, 2021 and may increase after consummation.

4 Important Disclosures for LendKey.

LendKey Disclosures

Refinancing via is only available for applicants with qualified private education loans from an eligible institution. Loans that were used for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not eligible for refinancing with a lender via If you currently have any of these exam preparation loans, you should not include them in an application to refinance your student loans on this website. Applicants must be either U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents in an eligible state to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account and any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to accept a loan offer from a credit union lender. Lenders participating on reserve the right to modify or discontinue the products, terms, and benefits offered on this website at any time without notice. LendKey Technologies, Inc. is not affiliated with, nor does it  endorse,  any educational institution.

Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments. The lowest advertised variable APR is only available for loan terms of  5 years and is reserved for applicants with FICO scores of at least 810.

As of 02/17/2021 student loan refinancing rates range from 1.91% APR – 5.25% Variable APR with AutoPay and 2.95% APR – 7.63% Fixed APR with AutoPay.

5 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Student loan Refinance: 1. Fixed rates from 2.99% APR to 6.99% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 2.25% APR to 6.53% 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 2.25% APR assumes current 1 month LIBOR rate of 0.12% plus 2.38% 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. See eligibility details. 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. The discount will not reduce the monthly payment; instead, the interest savings are applied to the principal loan balance, which may help pay the loan down faster. Enrolling in autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi. *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.Terms and Conditions Apply. SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE.

6 Important Disclosures for PenFed.

PenFed Disclosures

Annual Percentage Rate (APR) is the cost of credit calculating the interest rate, loan amount, repayment term and the timing of payments. Fixed Rates range from 2.99%-5.15% APR and Variable Rates range from 2.17%-4.47% APR. Both Fixed and Variable Rates will vary based on application terms, level of degree and presence of a co-signer. These rates are subject to additional terms and conditions and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. For Variable Rate student loans, the rate will never exceed 9.00% for 5 year and 8 year loans and 10.00% for 12 and 15 years loans (the maximum allowable for this loan). Minimum variable rate will be 2.00%. These rates are 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.