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

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life after debt

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.

Methodology: This online survey collected 1,000 responses on April 19, 2018. The survey used the following screening questions, allowing only “yes” responses to proceed: “Do you or have you ever had student loan debt?” and “Have you paid off your student loan debt?”

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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.