Paying off a large student loan balance always seems to come with the understanding that you’ve got to put your life on hold for years until you’re done with your debt.
For Mary Grace Stocker, part of what makes her debt success story so inspiring isn’t only the fact that she’s on track to fully pay off $21,000 by her birthday next March. It’s her embracing of technology that’s allowed her to pay her loans ahead of time and still afford to do the things she loves.
How has she managed this for the past three years without going broke? After starting a job post-graduation for a financial startup, Stocker has used an assortment of online tools and apps (including our own prepayment calculator) to hone her budget and loan repayments while still having enough discretionary income to save and spend.
“Distracted by life”
Stocker aimed to graduate early from college to avoid more student loans than she needed. After earning her degree in December 2013 as an art major with a focus in graphic design, Stocker moved to Colorado and landed her first job, where she dove right into hacking away at her loan balance.
A trio of loans, all financed through Nelnet at a 6.55% APR, brought her total loan balance to $21,000. Paying more than she owed was her original goal, but fronting $1,000 each month became difficult on a $30,000 starter salary.
“That was kind of tough because it was a big portion,” she says.
Initially, Stocker was able to put a dent in her student loan interest to prevent it from accruing beyond belief, freeing up money towards paying off her principal balance. But then, she got set off course a bit.
An avid outdoors enthusiast, climber, hiker, and skier, she shifted her focus to buying gear and paying for trips and excursions. Though this didn’t put her into more debt, it meant that she wouldn’t pay off her loans early, as intended.
“I always wanted to pay it off,” Stocker says. “I just got distracted by life.”
By last fall, Stocker felt she had stretched her finances too thin. After a Yosemite climbing trip, she realized that she didn’t have enough money to reimburse her boyfriend, who’d paid for the excursion.
Though she’d been paying the minimum on her student loans, she had little awareness to her day-to-day finances. She also had zero emergency fund or cash reserves of any kind. “I felt really all over the place and not responsible,” she recalls.
Her first step was downloading the tried-and-true Mint app, setting up a budget, and syncing her bank accounts to monitor all her monthly expenses, including student loans, rent, utilities, car payment, gym membership, and other recurring bills.
Looking for another app to use in tandem with Mint, Stocker contacted the folks over at Dobot; its app, MyDobot, hadn’t launched yet, and she reached out to their representatives to inquire about it to manage her finances.
Impressed with her enthusiasm, Dobot offered Stocker a job as a product manager at the growing startup. The opportunity dovetailed perfectly with her foray into using money apps; now, she was promoting an app that she began using personally to start saving money.
Using apps like MyDobot and Mint was the moment Stocker’s finances began to fall into place, allowing her to see exactly how and where her finances were coming and going. Now, she could divide up her accounts, determine a budget, and see how to cut back in one area to free up money in another.
Since she had the specifics of her finances laid out in front of her, she could use it as a baseline to pay off her loans, build an emergency fund, and save money for discretionary purchases without being in the dark about her money.
The key piece, according to Stocker, is to treat saving money as a fixed expense, paying yourself each month as you would pay a bill from a creditor.
“Now I’m working at Dobot and thinking about goals,” Stocker explains. “Once you set a goal, you’re more likely to achieve it, especially when you have details.”
Outlining and mapping those goals became simple. The biggest and most important? An early student loan payoff.
Stocker set a deadline of March 2017 — her 25th birthday — to be completely student loan-free as a present to herself. But she also wanted to continue to her passion for outdoor adventures, and according to her calculations on Mint, her current financial state wouldn’t allow any leeway.
So, the time came to refinance her loans.
This past July, Stocker secured a new 5-year consolidated loan with CommonBond, refinancing all three of her unsubsidized federal loans with the lender at a reduced interest rate of 4.88%. Her new balance of $16,783 shaved off several thousand dollars from her original balance.
“It made it easier to mentally pay them all off together,” she says. “The snowball effect [paying down debt from smallest to largest] wasn’t so appealing. I wanted to lower the rate and have it all together.”
Climbing to the top
At the time of this writing, Stocker has $12,551 left on her student loan balance. Thanks to her usage of financial apps, she was able to configure the exact amount she owed — right down to the very dollar — and set a payoff date.
With Mint, she could budget for her student loans and other expenses to reach goals. Her status so far:
- She’s built up $5,000 in emergency cash
- She took on a side hustle babysitting, helping her average $1,600 in monthly student loan payments
- CommonBond awarded her a $500 credit that she also paid towards her loans
- For her efforts, Stocker’s parents gifted her with $1,000 towards her loans
Working with the Dobot app allows her to automatically set aside cash for “fun money,” pursuing her passions without dipping into other finances — something that may slip up other people without a clear-cut money plan in place.
For instance, she reserved a special climbing fund saved out of sight to avoid temptation. It recently afforded her $450 in new gear without the need to dip into her emergency fund.
It’s not all on the apps, though; Stocker is a strong advocate of monitoring her credit now that she’s got a hold on her student loans and finances.
“When I was getting more organized, I was checking my credit score almost every day,” she said. “It’s kind of like part of my daily money check-in.” Her current FICO score’s been increasing regularly as her loan balance quickly decreases.
For Stocker, taking advantage of mobile apps (and working for one) was the motivator she needed to find transparency with her finances and fit them into her life.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t concessions or sacrifices. “It gets tougher because you have to say no to going out,” she says. “But it’ll be worth it when you’re debt-free, for sure.”
As her student loan debt gets smaller and smaller, Stocker says her biggest inspiration in life is “living free.” Living free of debt, however, means first living a life of intent and focus on your finances.
“If you actually want to use something, you need to keep it in sight,” she says. “Not obsessively, but be focused — because if you get distracted, you’ll lose the focus.”
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