Debt Free by 30

Psst… I recently accomplished something huge that I’m super proud of! I paid off all of my student loan debt before my 30th birthday!

Having student loan debt was very stressful but unfortunately (as for most Millenials) was just a fact of life. Whenever I’d receive my 1098-T tax form at the end of every year, I’d cringe seeing how much interest I’d paid on my student loans. I felt like I was literally throwing money away and yet it was something I had no choice but to do.

With all that circulating in my head (all too often), I knew that I wanted to pay off my student loan debt as soon as I could, while still living a modest lifestyle with room for fun, leisure and pampering. So I buckled down and paid off a total of $85,000 in less than six years!

How did I do it?

Before I get into the specifics, I want to acknowledge the privileges I’ve had and currently have that helped me pay off my debt as quickly as I did. Everyone’s financial situation is different and these are just some of the unique variables that impacted where I am today.

Privileges I had and currently have:

  • I am white, cis-gender and heterosexual
  • I received a full-tuition scholarship for my undergraduate studies (based on my academic performance in high school)
  • I had a graduate assistantship which helped pay part of my grad school tuition
  • Since finishing school, I’ve always had a steady full-time job
  • My partner and I split shared expenses such as rent and groceries based on our incomes, not 50/50 (he makes more than I do so I pay less than 50% for our joint expenses)
  • My partner has a car, making it easier for me to live without one
  • My employer offers great health insurance and a 401K match

Privileges I did not or currently do not have:

  • I was born and continue to identify as a woman
  • My parents divorced when I was young and my dad was the only parent supporting my sister and I
  • I did not receive financial assistance from my family after graduating high school
  • I did not receive financial counseling or education from my family
  • I was ineligible for many types of federal school loans and grants (until I figured out how to declare myself an independent part way through college)
  • I have no trusts or inheritances from family

Also, I do not have kids (of the human variety), a mortgage or a car. These are huge financial burdens that I do not currently have so while I became debt free by age 30, it probably won’t stay that way forever!

Alright, so here’s what I actually did to pay off my student loans. It’s nothing unheard of or impossible. The key is persistence!

There are many different strategies for paying off debt but I knew that I wanted to build savings for retirement while also paying down my debt. Therefore I chose to contribute a generous amount to a 401(k) (which my employer generously matches) in addition to making monthly loan payments. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing you can save and pay off debt at the same time!

While I knew I would pay off my loans in no more than 10 years (because that is what my repayment period was), I got antsy to pay them off sooner. Once I had a date in mind (my 30th birthday), I crunched some numbers to figure out what I needed to do to make that happen. I always considered my income as my income minus my loan payments. In other words, I never considered the money I paid toward my loans “mine” and therefore spent and lived as if I made less money than I actually did. Looking back, these seven strategies were key to my loan repayment success:

  1. I started repayments as soon as I got my first job, right after grad school ended.
  2. I always paid at least the minimum payment, usually more (this helps you attack your principal balance faster and pay less interest in the long run)
  3. I made payments manually (rather than auto payments), paying as much as I could based on my disposable income that month
  4. I refinanced and consolidated my higher interest loans (I didn’t do this until halfway through and I regret not doing it sooner!)
  5. Once I refinanced, I paid the minimum amount on my lower interest loans and paid double the minimum on my higher interest loans (this is known as the avalanche method and totaled about $1,500 per month)
  6. Once my higher interest loans were paid off, I attacked my lower interest loans (still about $1,500 per month)
  7. I rarely looked at my balance as it was discouraging to see a large number that seemingly changed so little month to month

See — nothing fancy. I don’t make a six-figure salary or even close to it. The key to freeing up the income to pay off your debts is to spend as wisely as possible.

Prioritize Your Expenses

One thing that really helped curb my spending was becoming more of a conscious consumer. The first step to eco-ethical consumerism is to REDUCE (then reuse, then recycle). Compared to other middle class Americans, I don’t buy that much stuff. When I do, I head to my local thrift stores or online resale marketplaces.

Most of my money goes to rent, groceries and other expenses such as utilities, phone, gym, etc. I also save up for one relaxing vacation and one backpacking trip a year. And I always contribute a small portion of my paycheck to personal savings (in addition to my 401(k) savings that come out of my paycheck before I get it).

It’s helpful to consider what really matters to you and where you want to spend your money. For me, I invest in eco-friendly, cruelty-free and vegan personal care and home care products, which can be pricey. But there are also lots of DIY options that are very affordable.

Could I have paid off my loans even sooner? Yes. I could have gotten super scrappy and really pulled back my spending. I could have never gone out to eat or traveled or gotten massages. But that is not a life I want to live. I found a balance between steadily paying off debt and living a comfortable lifestyle.

To set yourself up for an excellent credit score and financial freedom, there are some key strategies to consider.

But first, I think it goes without saying: do not spend money you do not have. I remember being super skeptical about credit cards when I was 18 because I had heard horrors about credit card debt. But, they are an important part of building credit. I’ve had between one and three credit cards my entire adult life and I have never met the limit on any of them. Only spend on your credit cards what you can pay off at the end of each month. Avoid carrying a credit card balance  — this should only happen in case of emergency. If that happens, pay it off ASAP.

5 Strategies for Paying Off Debts Fast and Maximizing Savings in Your 20s

  1. Refinance loans sooner rather than later
  2. Pay as much toward your debts as you can
  3. If available, meet your employer’s 401(k) match (any then some)
  4. Save a portion of every paycheck
  5. Go on a spending freeze for a period of time

20 Ways to Live Frugally in Your 20s

  • Brew coffee at home rather than buying at a coffee shop
  • Pack your lunch rather than dining out
  • Buy secondhand clothing and furniture
  • Host clothing swaps with friends
  • Ask for cash or gift cards for birthdays and holidays
  • Sell your stuff on Craigslist, Poshmark, etc.
  • Paint your own nails rather than getting regular manicures
  • Get your hair cut at a cosmetology school rather than paying salon prices
  • Choose credit cards with rewards that you’ll use (cash back, airline miles, etc.)
  • Host nights in rather than going out
  • Take public transportation or ride a bike rather than driving a car
  • Make freezer meals
  • Check out books from the library rather than buying books
  • Take advantage of any discounts offered through your employer
  • Consider camping instead of staying at hotels
  • Eat less meat (beans, lentils and tofu are less expensive)
  • Do home workouts instead of paying for a gym membership
  • Buy generic instead of name brand food, medicine, etc.
  • Forgo cable and opt for one streaming service only
  • Buy in bulk when you can

I understand that paying even a small amount toward debt is challenging for a lot of people. There are resources out there to help you. If you can’t make your payments, contact your lenders and discuss your options. For federal student loans, you can defer payments if you meet economic hardship criteria.

Everyone’s financial situation is unique and the topic of money can come with a lot of baggage for many of us. I was demoralized about my student loans for a long time before I decided to change my attitude and take action to pay them off quickly. Keep making those payments month in and month out and before you know it, that balance will be getting close to zero!

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