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

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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. 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 to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with 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.

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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 7 lenders of 2019!
LenderVariable APREligible Degrees 
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1 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 3.45% APR (with Auto Pay) to 7.49% APR (with Auto Pay). Variable rate loan rates range from 2.14% APR (with Auto Pay) to 6.79% 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 September 6, 2019, 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 09/06/2019. 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 hello@earnest.com, or call 888-601-2801 for more information on our student loan refinance product.

© 2018 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.


2 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Student loan Refinance: Fixed rates from 3.49% APR to 7.94% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 2.14% APR to 7.84% 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 2.14% APR assumes current 1 month LIBOR rate of 2.14% minus 0.15% 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.  
  2. Terms and Conditions Apply. SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet SoFi’s underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. To qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. If approved, your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, years of experience, income and other factors. Rates and Terms are subject to change at anytime without notice and are subject to state restrictions. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. Licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp., NMLS # 1121636. (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org)

3 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

FIXED APR
Fixed rate options consist of a range from 3.50% per year to 5.55% per year for a 5-year term, 4.00% per year to 6.00% per year for a 7-year term, 4.30% per year to 6.40% per year for a 10-year term, 4.60% per year to 6.80% per year for a 15-year term, or 5.05% per year to 7.02% per year for a 20-year term, with no origination fees. The fixed interest rate will apply until the loan is paid in full (whether before or after default, and whether before or after the scheduled maturity date of the loan). The monthly payment for a sample $10,000 loan at a range of 3.50% per year to 5.55% per year for a 5-year term would be from $184.00 to $193.00. The monthly payment for a sample $10,000 loan at a range of 4.00% per year to 6.00% per year for a 7-year term would be from $138 to $148. The monthly payment for a sample $10,000 loan at a range of 4.30% per year to 6.40% per year for a 10-year term would be from $104 to $115. The monthly payment for a sample $10,000 loan at a range of 4.60% per year to 6.80% per year for a 15-year term would be from $79 to $91. The monthly payment for a sample $10,000 loan at a range of 5.05% per year to 7.02% per year for a 20-year term would be from $68 to $80.

However, if the borrower chooses to make monthly payments automatically by electronic funds transfer (EFT) from a bank account, the fixed rate will decrease by 0.25%, and will increase back up to the regular fixed interest rate described in the preceding paragraph if the borrower stops making (or we stop accepting) monthly payments automatically by EFT from the designated borrower’s bank account.

VARIABLE APR
Variable rate options consist of a range from 2.43% per year to 6.05% per year for a 5-year term, 3.75% per year to 6.10% per year for a 7-year term, 4.00% per year to 6.15% per year for a 10-year term, 4.25% per year to 6.40% per year for a 15-year term, or 4.50% per year to 6.65% per year for a 20-year term, with no origination fees. APR is subject to increase after consummation. The variable interest rate will change on the first day of every month (“Change Date”) if the Current Index changes. The variable interest rates are based on a Current Index, which is the 1-month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) (currency in US dollars), as published on The Wall Street Journal’s website. The variable interest rates and Annual Percentage Rate (APR) will increase or decrease when the 1-month LIBOR index changes. The variable interest rates are calculated by adding a margin ranging from 0.25% to 3.80% for the 5-year term loan, 1.50% to 3.85% for the 7-year term loan, 1.75% to 3.90% for the 10-year term loan, 2.00% to 4.15% for the 15-year term loan, and 2.25% to 4.40% for the 20-year term loan, respectively, to the 1-month LIBOR index published on the 25th day of each month immediately preceding each “Change Date,” as defined above, rounded to two decimal places, with no origination fees. If the 25th day of the month is not a business day or is a US federal holiday, the reference date will be the most recent date preceding the 25th day of the month that is a business day. The monthly payment for a sample $10,000 loan at a range of 2.43% per year to 6.05% per year for a 5-year term would be from $179 to $195. The monthly payment for a sample $10,000 loan at a range of 3.75% per year to 6.10% per year for a 7-year term would be from $137 to $148. The monthly payment for a sample $10,000 loan at a range of 4.00% per year to 6.15% per year for a 10-year term would be from $103 to $114. The monthly payment for a sample $10,000 loan at a range of 4.25% per year to 6.40% per year for a 15-year term would be from $77 to $88. The monthly payment for a sample $10,000 loan at a range of 4.50% per year to 6.65% per year for a 20-year term would be from $65 to $77.

However, if the borrower chooses to make monthly payments automatically by electronic funds transfer (EFT) from a bank account, the variable rate will decrease by 0.25%, and will increase back up to the regular variable interest rate described in the preceding paragraph if the borrower stops making (or we stop accepting) monthly payments automatically by EFT from the designated borrower’s bank account.

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.


4 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.


5 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900). 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 2.19% effective August 10, 2019.


6 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.


7 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

College Ave Disclosures

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

1College Ave Refi Education loans are not currently available to residents of Maine.

2All rates shown include autopay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

3$5,000 is the minimum requirement to refinance. The maximum loan amount is $300,000 for those with medical, dental, pharmacy or veterinary doctorate degrees, and $150,000 for all other undergraduate or graduate degrees.

4This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a refi borrower with a Full Principal & Interest Repayment and a 10-year repayment term, has a $40,000 loan and a 5.5% Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $434.11 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $52,092.61. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 08/01/2019. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.

2.14% – 6.79%1Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Earnest

2.14% – 7.84%2Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit SoFi

2.43% – 6.65%3Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Laurel Road

2.43% – 7.60%4Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Splash

2.14% – 8.01%5Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit CommonBond

2.06% – 8.93%6Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Lendkey

2.74% – 7.24%7Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit College Ave

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. 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 to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with 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.