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

 September 17, 2018
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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 9 lenders of 2022!
LenderVariable APREligible Degrees 
1.74% – 8.70%1Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Splash

1.74% – 7.99%2Undergrad
& Graduate

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4.44% – 8.09%3Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit CommonBond

1.74% – 7.99%4Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit SoFi

1.89% – 5.90%5Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Laurel Road

1.74% – 7.99%6Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit NaviRefi

2.05% – 5.25%7Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Lendkey

1.86% – 6.01%Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Elfi

& 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 May 4, 2022.

2 Rate range above includes optional 0.25% Auto Pay discount. Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

Student Loan Refinance Interest Rate Disclosure Actual rate and available repayment terms will vary based on your income. Fixed rates range from 2.99% APR to 8.24% APR (excludes 0.25% Auto Pay discount). Variable rates range from 1.99% APR to 8.24% APR (excludes 0.25% Auto Pay discount). Earnest variable interest rate student loan refinance loans are based on a publicly available index, the 30-day Average Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The variable rate is based on the rate published on the 25th day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month, rounded to the nearest hundredth of a percent. The rate will not increase more than once per month. The maximum rate for your loan is 8.95% if your loan term is 10 years or less. For loan terms of more than 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%. Please note, we are not able to offer variable rate loans in AK, IL, MN, NH, OH, TN, and TX. Let us know if you have any questions and feel free to reach out directly to our team.

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 Apr 22, 2021 and may increase after consummation.

4 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

Fixed rates range from 3.49% APR to 7.99% APR with a 0.25% autopay discount. Variable rates from 1.74% APR to 7.99% APR with a 0.25% autopay discount. Unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law, Variable Interest rates on 5-, 7-, and 10-year terms are capped at 8.95% APR; 15- and 20-year terms are capped at 9.95% APR. Your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on the term you select, evaluation of your creditworthiness, income, presence of a co-signer and a variety of other factors. Lowest rates reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. For the SoFi variable-rate product, the variable interest rate for a given month is derived by adding a margin to the 30-day average SOFR index, published two business days preceding such calendar month, rounded up to the nearest one hundredth of one percent (0.01% or 0.0001). APRs for variable-rate loans may increase after origination if the SOFR 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. This benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit lowers your interest rate but does not change the amount of your monthly payment. This benefit is suspended during periods of deferment and forbearance. Autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi.

5 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

All credit products are subject to credit approval.

Laurel Road began originating student loans in 2013 and has since helped thousands of professionals with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees consolidate and refinance more than $4 billion in federal and private school loans. Laurel Road also offers a suite of online graduate school loan products and personal loans that help simplify lending through customized technology and personalized service. In April 2019, Laurel Road was acquired by KeyBank, one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial services companies. Laurel Road is a brand of KeyBank National Association offering online lending products in all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. All loans are provided by KeyBank National Association, a nationally chartered bank. Member FDIC. For more information, visit

As used throughout these Terms & Conditions, the term “Lender” refers to KeyBank National Association and its affiliates, agents, guaranty insurers, investors, assigns, and successors in interest.

  1. Checking your rate with Laurel Road only requires a soft credit pull, which will not affect your credit score. To proceed with an application, a hard credit pull will be required, which may affect your credit score.
  2. Savings vary based on rate and term of your existing and refinanced loan(s). Refinancing to a longer term may lower your monthly payments, but may also increase the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Refinancing to a shorter term may increase your monthly payments, but may lower the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Review your loan documentation for total cost of your refinanced loan.
  3. After loan disbursement, if a borrower documents a qualifying economic hardship, we may agree in our discretion to allow for full or partial forbearance of payments for one or more 3-month time periods (not to exceed 12 months in the aggregate during the term of your loan), provided that we receive acceptable documentation (including updating documentation) of the nature and expected duration of the borrower’s economic hardship. During any period of forbearance interest will continue to accrue. At the end of the forbearance period, any unpaid accrued interest will be capitalized and be added to the remaining principle amount of the loan.
  4. Automatic Payment (“AutoPay”) Discount: if the borrower chooses to make monthly payments automatically from a bank account, the interest rate will decrease by 0.25% and will increase back if the borrower stops making (or we stop accepting) monthly payments automatically from the borrower’s bank account. The 0.25% AutoPay discount will not reduce the monthly payment; instead, the discount is applied to the principal to help pay the loan down faster.

Assumptions: Repayment examples above assume a loan amount of $10,000 with repayment beginning immediately following disbursement. Repayment examples do not include the 0.25% AutoPay Discount.

Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): This term represents the actual cost of financing to the borrower over the life of the loan expressed as a yearly rate.

Interest Rate: A simple annual rate that is applied to an unpaid balance.

Variable Rates: The current index for variable rate loans is derived from the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) and changes in the LIBOR index may cause your monthly payment to increase. Borrowers who take out a term of 5, 7, or 10 years will have a maximum interest rate of 9%, those who take out a 15 or 20-year variable loan will have a maximum interest rate of 10%.


This information is current as of April 29, 2021. Information and rates are subject to change without notice.

6 Important Disclosures for Navient.

Navient Disclosures

You can choose between fixed and variable rates. Fixed interest rates are 2.99% – 8.24% APR (2.74% – 7.99% APR with Auto Pay discount). Starting variable interest rates are 1.99% APR to 8.24% APR (1.74% – 7.99% APR with Auto Pay discount). Variable rates are based on an index, the 30-day Average Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) plus a margin. Variable rates are reset monthly based on the fluctuation of the index. We do not currently offer variable rate loans in AK, CO, CT, HI, IL, KY, MA, MN, MS, NH, OH, OK, SC, TN, TX, and VA.

7 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 5/17/2022 student loan refinancing rates range from 2.05% APR – 5.25% Variable APR with AutoPay and 2.49% APR – 7.93% Fixed APR with AutoPay.

8 Important Disclosures for PenFed.

PenFed Disclosures

Fixed Rate Loan Terms: 5 years/60 monthly payments, 8 years/96 monthly payments, 12 years/144 monthly payments or 15 years/180 monthly payments. Annual Percentage Rate is the cost of credit calculating the interest rate, loan amount, repayment term and the timing of payments. Fixed rates range from 3.29% to 5.43% APR. Rates are subject to change without notice. Fixed APR: Fixed rates will not change during the term. This rate is expressed as an APR. Since there are no fees associated with this loan offer, the APR is the same percentage as the actual interest rate of the loan. 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.