Too often, loan repayment success stories are shrugged off. Even when we can appreciate how someone paid off thousands in debt, we might forget to ask: What was it like when you made that last payment?
Welcome to The Moment: A recurring series that aims to rehash memories from ex-borrowers for the benefit of current borrowers. Our hope is that hearing these tales just might push you closer to your final payment, too.
“Miss Gala, I just want to be the first to congratulate you for paying off your student loans,” the voice said.
Annie Gala was stunned. She had spoken to dozens of customer service representatives over the years. This Navient rep wasn’t all that different — until he ended the conversation.
Before Annie had a chance to hang up, she was overcome with emotion.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” Annie says. “[Crying was] not something I anticipated doing at all, but these loans have been such a growing process for me. I had — and have — such a sense of achievement.”
Falling into the trap
For Annie, the last payment was meaningful because of everything that came before it. She had spent 10 years paying off $42,233 in debt that sprung from attending her dream school, New York University.
Federal and private loans made up for what her parents, scholarships, and grants couldn’t cover. As a high school graduate who’d never even had a credit card, she just didn’t realize her loans would eventually turn into a monster.
“I hadn’t wrapped my head around what paying that off was going to look like,” she says. “When I graduated [in 2007] and my loans started to kick in, I was floored.”
Starting after the financial crisis in 2008, the loans began changing hands. They ultimately landed in the laps of Navient and Discover. Unaware of the steps to take when your loan servicer changes, she missed payments.
And when she was out of work, she received no unemployment protection from servicers.
“I encountered so many [customer service reps] who failed to see the human [part] of it,” Annie says.
Getting aggressive with repayment
When Annie got serious about repayment, she returned to the very same customer service reps who proved unhelpful in the past. Hoping to say goodbye to debt faster with the avalanche method, she asked to make more than the minimum payments. One servicer proved to be an obstacle, saying that Annie couldn’t choose the amounts of her extra payments.
Still, every time her fledgling business, Guilty Goose Productions, signed a new client, she had more ammunition to tack onto her loan dues.
Without having a lump sum extra payment calculator handy, Annie ran the numbers herself. She realized in 2016 that making $250 payments on one loan would clear her balance in a year and a half. She also found that making $275 payments would shave four months off that timeline.
“Once the numbers were calculable in my head, I could say, ‘OK … I just have to keep moving this forward,’” she says.
Her first milestone was paying off the Discover loan in early 2017.
“It was anticlimactic,” Annie says. “They didn’t send a letter out. I expected there to be an email or something along the lines of ‘Hey, we’re done taking money out of your account every month.’ There was nothing.”
Closing one loan did give her more funds to work with to tackle the Navient debt. With her automatic payment being transferred on that account in September 2017, Annie noticed that she was one additional payment away from calling it quits.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, I can finally achieve something here,’” she says.
Submitting the last payment
Two-hundred and fifty-three dollars and fifty-seven cents. Annie checked her math before making the last loan payment on Sept. 28, 2017.
The Navient rep confirmed that she could drop her debt to zero with one more online payment of that exact amount. So she hung up and logged in. With her emotions on edge, she pressed submit with her mouse.
Annie was surprised that tears rolled down her cheeks not long after her Navient rep said it would all work out.
“I myself have been super rude to plenty of student loan customer service agents,” Annie says. “I worked really hard to pay off these stupid things … and to have a stranger say, ‘Hey, you did it, that’s great,’ was a nice human-to-human moment.”
Annie picked the phone back up. She called her mom and told her she wouldn’t be receiving any more calls to the house about late payments. “Done and done,” Annie recalls saying.
“I told anybody who even asked me how my day was that day: ‘Oh, I paid off my student loans actually,” she adds, laughing.
Close in on your last payment
You might hear Annie’s memory of her last moments as a student loan borrower and think you’ll never be where she is today. Maybe your balance is still large, your income still small.
But look at it this way: Annie was in your shoes, right where you are today. So she knows how burdensome student loan debt can be, how awful it can make you feel.
She did something about it, and she hopes you will, too.
“Keep going,” says Annie. “I know it sucks to have that money taken out of your account every month when you’re trying to be aggressive about it. But it’s all worth it in the end.”
If you’re nearing or recently made your last student loan payment, we want to hear about it. Your story might inspire someone to follow in your footsteps. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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