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.”
Interested in refinancing student loans?Here are the top 6 lenders of 2020!
|Lender||Variable APR||Eligible Degrees|
|1.99% – 5.64%1||Undergrad & Graduate|
|1.89% – 5.90%2||Undergrad & Graduate|
|2.25% – 6.28%3||Undergrad & Graduate|
|1.89% – 6.77%4||Undergrad & Graduate|
|2.39% – 6.01%||Undergrad |
|1.99% – 5.61%5||Undergrad & Graduate|
|Check out the testimonials and our in-depth reviews! |
1 Important Disclosures for Earnest.
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 5.79% APR (with Auto Pay). Variable rate loan rates range from 1.99% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.64% 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 July 31, 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 7/31/2020. 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.
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.
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 September 9, 2020. Information and rates are subject to change without notice.
3 Important Disclosures for SoFi.
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. 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 September 10, 2020.
5 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.
Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. 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 0.16% effective Sep 1, 2020 and may increase after consummation.