How One Woman Paid Off $28,000 in Student Loan Debt Within 3 Years

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For the average student loan borrower, it can take several years – if not decades – of patiently making monthly payments to get that balance owed to zero. That’s assuming, of course, a good salary and no major money trouble.

But take the statement “Debt Free after Three” and it perfectly summarizes what Zina Kumok was able to do that most other grads can’t: she paid off $28,000 in federal student loans in just three short years.

“Sometimes,” Kumok recalled, “I look back and I think, ‘How did I do that?’” Though it seemed like some insurmountable financial feat, Kumok relied on simple discipline and proactive ways to decrease her expenses, increase her income, and combine both to completely pay down her debt.

So how did she do it? Keep reading to learn the steps Kumok took to quickly become debt free, and how she’s used the experience to inspire others to do the same.

Year 1: New degree, new job, $350 in monthly payments

Kumok graduated in 2011 with an undergraduate degree in journalism, but no immediate employment opportunities – not very encouraging with nearly $30,000 in student loans to pay off.

”Honestly, the first year was really tough, because that was the least amount I made, and I had no savings,” she said.

Luckily, within six months of graduation, Kumok landed a staff writing gig at a newspaper, but the salary wasn’t much more than her total debt load. According to Kumok, the $350 monthly loan payment equated to 20 percent of her take-home pay. While she was able to live within her means and cover her other expenses, this wasn’t an acceptable option for her.

“I knew I wanted to pay off my loans, but I couldn’t do that on a salary,” she said. “I stuck to a budget and was very deliberate in what I was spending.”

Year 2: Better paying job, expenses cut, $750 in monthly payments

By year two, Kumok was able to more than double her monthly loan payment, both with a new job with a better salary, and several frugal lifestyle changes.

To start, her new writing job afforded her more pay, which meant more money towards reducing her debt. By this point in 2012, Kumok had relocated to the same city as her then-boyfriend/current husband, which helped her save at least $200 in gas money from the long distance driving she’d been doing every weekend.

By 2013, her debt balance was whittling down more quickly than she’d expected. At the end of year two, nearly half of her debt was behind her.

Year 3: Roommates, $950 in monthly payments, no more debt

By the third and final year it took Kumok to completely pay off her loans, she was able to increase her monthly payments to about $950, aided in no small part by finding roommates who could help reduce her rent. Instead of spending the remainder, Kumok applied it towards her monthly loan repayment.

In November 2014, three years and six months after graduating college, Kumok was debt-free – a remarkable accomplishment considering the alternative. Kumok had nearly resigned herself in 2011 that she’d be paying her student loans off for a least a decade. That means today, in 2016, she’d still have five years left to go.

Regrets and lessons learned

If three years to pay off $28,000 seems like lightspeed, consider she may have eliminated her debt even faster, in retrospect. According to Kumok, one regret was how much money she’d spent in college rather than saving.

“I had money for going out and had plenty of money in college,” she said. But, “I spent money like an idiot. I could have saved more if I had a savings account. I just spent so much of it and thought, ‘No problem, I’ll pay off those loans when I get a job.’ But i didn’t know how much it’d pay when i got a salary.”

During undergrad, Kumok’s parents had covered her living expenses, gas, groceries, and utilities, freeing up plenty of cash that could have gone towards monthly loan payments.

Though she wasn’t in debt at the time, she “didn’t have the mindset,” Kumok said.

Kumok ultimately credits her parents’ candor about their own financial missteps in life as a critical influence for her own financial awareness.

“My parents always talked about their personal finances as they related to their own lives,” she said. “It just interested me that they were always open about their mistakes. I was able to see how being in debt affects you firsthand and affects the ability to have the life you want.”

Helping others avoid student loan debt

The experience of aggressively paying down her student loan debt was so profound that Kumok has since become a crusader to help others do the same. Now a full-time freelance writer, her blog, DebtFreeAfterThree.com features articles and tips on how to maximize one’s finances, save money, and escape from debt.

“For everyone, there are really two strategies to pay debt: usually spend less or make more,” said Kumok. “I would really encourage people to make more money, whether it’s negotiating a better salary, getting a bonus, finding a way to make money on the side.”

That may include anything, she says, from saving $100 by eating out only once a month, or getting a part-time job at the mall. For the recent college grad, it may not seem like much. But over time, when your momentum builds, you’ll see the impact it can make in paying down your debt.

“It’s like dieting,” she said. “We all know you should exercise and eat less and burn more calories than you eat. Yet this country is obese. It’s the same with money; you just spend less than you make, yet the whole country’s in debt. It’s simple, yet requires a lot of hard work and discipline.”

Don’t beat yourself up for taking a bit longer to pay down your student loans. Everyone’s balance, interest rates, income, and financial situation are different, so work at your own pace. What’s important, according to Kumok, is not the speed in which you eliminate your debt, but having a realistic goal in mind to attain.

“I would say definitely having a goal in mind is good,” she says. “It’s really easier to say, ‘I’ll pay them off sometime.’ For me, I knew when I sacrificed something, I knew what it was going towards. If you don’t know where it’s going, you don’t have the motivation.

“I think we all need to see there’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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Published in Pay Off Student Loans, Student Loan Repayment, Success Stories

  • Um, she didn’t pay it off on a $30k salary. It looks like she was making more than that in years 2 and 3.

    I already live at home with my mom because I can’t afford to make the minimum payments AND pay rent on a modest apartment on my salary, so I’d love to see more advice that don’t include moving in with roommates or picking up a part-time retail job (I travel sporadically for my full time job so this isn’t feasible).

    • Hey Lauren,

      Thanks for your comment. Sorry if this was confusing. We mistakenly put “$30k income” in the image, but we realize this wasn’t accurate based on Zina’s story. We’ve since updated the image, so thanks for pointing this out.

      As far as other advice, we definitely recommend other ways to find side income other than working a retail job. You can read about some of them here:

      http://studentloanhero.com/featured/how-to-make-extra-money-with-side-hustle/

      http://studentloanhero.com/featured/how-to-make-extra-money-without-mowing-lawns-or-founding-the-next-tesla/

      I hope this helps. If there’s anything else we can do, let us know!

      Cheers,

      Jeffrey
      Student Loan Hero

    • the Boss.

      Hey Lauren,

      If I were you, if you haven’t done it already, I would look into the different repayment plans offered (especially the revised Pay as you Earn plan). When I graduated, I had 7 public loans and 1 private loan. Combined, I was supposed to pay 800 dollars a month, which was insane. When I consolidated them, I ended up with 2 big loans and my one small private loan (since you can’t consolidate private loans). I owe 51 grand. My current salary is 54K and I’m on the income based repayment plan. I didn’t realize it until 2 years into repayment, but my brother lives with me and barely contributes which makes him a dependent. I now pay $337 a month. On top of that, I work for the state, so I’m enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which means that whatever balance I have after 10 years will be forgiven.
      Sorry that was so long! But I originally thought that I had one option, and that I’d be paying an arm and a leg for 25 years. I was unemployed for 4 months after I graduated, and thankfully my student loans didn’t go into repayment until 6 months later.

    • Hi Lauren! Thanks for reading. I actually made $28,000 in year 1, $30,000 in year 2 and about $31,000 in year 3. You’re lucky to live at home – rent is the biggest expense in many people’s budgets so it’s awesome you’ve been able to cut that!

  • James Hui

    Looking for some advice on my situation. Graduated as an engineer. Was hoping to pay off my 100k+ loan with public service loan forgiveness. I got a job as a county engineer but found out that the loan was a parent plus so my dad had to be the one that works in public service. Instead of the original plan of paying the 2-300 a month and being forgiven after 10 years, I’d have to pay 1.3k a month to even try to pay it off within 10 years. On top of that, I have to support my family and finance a part of their mortgage. There are hardly any alternatives to parent plus loans and stretching the payments would make it a little cheaper per month, but could increase my total balance by double. Looked into refinancing through one of the recommended companies we got a rate that is 1% lower than the 7.9% that I’m currently at. Are there any other alternatives that could possibly be better? I’m just stretched really thin between loans and my parents financial situation.

  • Hi James,

    Thanks for your question. Are all your loans Parent PLUS? I’m asking because $100k+ sounds like a pretty high balance for Parent PLUS loans.

    But yes, you’re right that there aren’t many federal options for repaying these loans.

    In terms of refinancing, we usually recommend applying to a few refinancing lenders and shopping around. I’m not sure if you can get a better rate or not, although I agree that 1% lower isn’t all that helpful.

    I hope this helps. Let us know if you have other questions.

    Best,

    Jeffrey
    Student Loan Hero

  • Jessica

    I have 60k in debt and my goal is to pay 15k in this first year alone. My salary is 50k. Hoping to pay it all off in 4 yrs.

  • HankHill/Back the Badge

    $28k is hardly massive loan debt. I paid off $85k in 3 years.