Student Loan Hero Success Story: How Blake Paid off $380,000 in Student Loan Debt in Just 21 Months

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Here’s a story from SLH reader Dr. Blake Hillstead. Blake graduated from dental school with a tremendous amount of debt, which he recently finished paying off. Take it away, Blake!

Well, I finally did it. I paid off my $380,000 student debt load just 21 months after graduating.

Dr. Blake Hillstead

Dr. Blake Hillstead

A recently graduated orthodontist, I finished school in August 2013. I worked throughout undergraduate and dental school, and even moonlighted during my residency. Paying off my student loan debt this fast wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth it. Here’s how I did it.

How I got into so much student loan debt

As you can imagine, becoming an orthodontist is expensive. My journey included taking out a ton of student loans.

So, how bad was it? Well, for a few years, I couldn’t bear to even sign in to look at my student loan balances. While my Stafford loans at 6.8% APR didn’t seem so bad, I also started to build a massive loan at the Grad PLUS level of 7.9%.

I tried to make interest payments whenever we could save up some extra money—just a few thousand here and there to minimize the compounding nature of interest. But when I graduated, I was shocked to see that my loans had reached a staggering figure of $380,000. The weighted average interest rate on my loans was 7.1%.

I felt overloaded and stressed by having to now repay this debt and interest, and at the same time, trying to support a family and raise young children.

Creating my payoff plan

My wife and I had many conversations about how we would pay off our student loans. We discussed whether we should pay them down aggressively or opt for the slow and steady approach so that we could immediately upgrade our lifestyle and spending habits.

We decided that we’d save a lot of money and stress if we could just pay my student loans off quickly, even if it meant making some short-term lifestyle sacrifices.

For starters, I realized that the annual interest alone would cost me about $26,000! With this in mind, my first goal became clear: refinance my student loans to save money on interest.

I used a few different options to accomplish this—

  1. Graduate loan refinancing program. I refinanced $55,000 in loans down from 6.8% interest rate. This was a 7-year term with a variable interest rate tied to the LIBOR. While I thought that choosing a variable rate loan might be risky, I figured the economy was still going to be slow for awhile, so I took the risk.
  2. I took out a home equity line on our house. This was a little gutsy—and in retrospect probably a little too aggressive. But I was able to completely get rid of my 7.9% APR loans and change them to a 3.75% fixed rate! The fixed rate was nice here since it balanced out some of the risk of my student loan portfolio.
  3. I refinanced through a private student loan lender. Through one of Student Loan Hero’s refinancing partners, I refinanced the remainder of my loans. This reduced my interest rates from 6.8% to 2.74% variable.

With these three refinancing options, I was able to reduce the annual interest paid by about 70%. Now my hard-earned money would go even farther as more of it started getting applied to the principal than to the interest.

Paying off my loans—as fast as possible

After refinancing my student loans, the second part of my strategy kicked in—work as hard as possible and earn as much as I could to pay off my student loans.

I not only bought a private orthodontic practice but also continued to work as an associate at other orthodontic offices to supplement my income. I worked long hours and Saturdays, and for six months, I even worked at a job where my shifts were 11 hours long with no scheduled lunch breaks!

To have more money to pay off student loans, I kept my expenses down as much as possible. Some of the best advice my brother and a close friend gave me when I graduated residency was not to make ANY big purchases in the first year after I graduated. Given that my income was about to increase dramatically compared to my student days, I knew this was going to be a challenge.

My brother told me not to buy a bigger house or a new car. Instead, he advised me to save money, pay off loans, and not get in over my head with other big expenses.

With this advice in mind, we moved out of the “starter home” we had purchased a few years ago and found tenants to move in. We decided to rent a smaller house that was comfortable yet inexpensive when we relocated after I graduated.

To keep other expenses down, we kept our old cars, didn’t do anything extravagant, and paid off a good little chunk of our student loans. It was a sacrifice.

In addition, I kept on reading and thinking about how to pay off my debt. Student Loan Hero’s blog posts helped me strategize and stay focused. It was a great resource for me and got me on track to pay off my loans and save TONS in interest.

In addition, reading student loan payoff success stories on the Student Loan Hero blog helped me stay motivated along the way, too.

As I started paying down my loans, it was like a snowball gaining size and momentum—once I got a taste of that feeling of satisfaction, it got easier and easier to commit more money to getting them paid off.

My final student loan payments

All the struggle and effort paid off. Pretty soon I had cut my loans down substantially! When I had only $150,000 left in student loans, I felt the burden had lifted. My loans were now much more manageable than the massive $380,000 balance I started out with. I kept at it, knowing that the end was within reach.

In May I celebrated my 31st birthday, and I had saved up quite a bit of money. For a birthday present to myself, I sent a check in the amount of roughly $120,000 to my last student loan servicer. I just received the letter saying my check had cleared. Now I can proudly say I am free from my student loans!

Lessons learned – how you can pay off your loans too

We traveled a hard and disciplined road to get where we are now—in a tremendously powerful financial situation.

I would recommend that student loan borrowers try their best to pay their student loans down early. It reduced the stress in my life and has made me feel so much better about my professional career decisions. It’s also opened the door for me to start saving now for my children’s college educations, our retirement, and other financial goals.

No matter what amount of debt you have (or what your income is), I believe the principles for paying off student loans remain the same:

  1. Figure out how to pay off student loans as efficiently as possible. In my case, refinancing my loans helped me save a ton of money, which I could then put toward loan principal instead.
  2. Work REALLY hard. Earn as much as possible and pay it toward your student loans. Although I worked incredibly hard, I knew I only had to do it for a short time until my student loans were paid off. In my opinion, making sacrifices early in your career to pay off student loans is a smart decision.

My education has been the best investment of my life. And after my choice of career, my next best decision was to pay off my loans fast and free up the rest of my life from having to worry about payments every month!

Interested in refinancing student loans?

Here are the top 6 lenders of 2020!
LenderVariable APREligible Degrees 
1.89% – 6.66%1Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Splash

1.89% – 5.90%2Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Laurel Road

2.25% – 6.09%3Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit SoFi

1.99% – 5.34%4Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Earnest

1.97% – 8.54%5Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Lendkey

2.39% – 6.01%Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Elfi

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 October 1, 2020.


2 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 www.laurelroad.com.

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%.

KEYBANK NATIONAL ASSOCIATION RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE.

This information is current as of December 1, 2020. Information and rates are subject to change without notice.
 


3 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Student loan Refinance: Fixed rates from 2.99% APR to 6.09% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 2.25% APR to 6.09% 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 0.18% plus 2.32% 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. *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. Terms and Conditions Apply. SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. 

4 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: https://www.earnest.com/eligibility. 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 https://www.earnest.com/terms-of-service, 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.


5 Important Disclosures for LendKey.

LendKey Disclosures

Refinancing via LendKey.com 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 LendKey.com. 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 LendKey.com 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 11/13/2020 student loan refinancing rates range from 1.97% to 8.54% Variable APR with AutoPay and 2.95% to 8.77% Fixed APR with AutoPay.