I paid off my student loans almost five years ahead of schedule.
I dedicated every waking hour for a little over a year to stomping out these loans like the parasitic infestation that they were, and now that this monumental task has been accomplished it feels really, really good. I wiped out about the last $18k of loans in 14 months, and doing that required intense discipline and concentration. I channeled the mental fortitude of a Buddhist monk and the austerity of an Irish peasant circa the Potato Famine. Here’s why and how I did it.
Like many Millennials, I started my career in the industry I studied in college with a massive negative net worth. I graduated with about $25k in loans, and compared with a lot of my peers, I was lucky. Also, I didn’t want the lender to get the better end of this deal.
So after making the minimum monthly payments on my loans for several years after graduation, I did some math. The facts were these:
- It took me almost five years of working in my industry before my annual salary matched my annual college tuition. Yeah.
- At the rate I was going, it would take me a total of 10 years to pay off my student loans.
- Over that time I would accrue roughly $9,500 in interest.
- I could save a metric fuckton of money if I chopped my loan payoff time in half.
So that is what I set out to do.
Step 1: Budgeting
The first thing I had to do was take a hard look at my budget to see where I could free up funds to throw into my loans. I eliminated the things I didn’t use (buh-bye, gym membership, we barely even knew each other). I cracked down on unnecessary waste (so long, going out for lunch two or three times a week). And I decided to stop spending money on things I didn’t absolutely need (alas, poor Sunday afternoon day drinking, I knew him well). That meant no nonessential spending at all.
I also stopped putting any extra money into savings, which was risky, but I had enough saved up for emergencies and at the time I felt like my student loan debt was the real emergency. I had to become overall more frugal, more badass, better, faster, stronger.
At the end of this process, I realized that I’d been wasting a lot of money on little things that, when piled together, added up to a lot. Just by being more efficient with my spending, I could afford to put a lot more money into my loans.
At the end of this process, I had freed up an extra $500 a month that I could put toward my student loans. I added that extra $500 to the $200 minimum monthly payment on my loans for a total of $700 per month.
Step 2: Make extra money
When I was in college I worked as a nanny. It was a lucrative gig, but there’s nothing more likely to drive one to drink than the obnoxious only children of the rich and powerful. So when I graduated with my fancy and valuable degree, I swore I’d never nanny again.
Except until two months later when I was living in a new city with no network, no connections, and no job prospects. So I nannied again until I got hired in my industry.
Since then, I’ve done some babysitting here and there for friends and neighbors. But when Operation Loan Decimation began, I started actively pursuing childcare gigs again. Enough babysitting jobs came trickling in that I was netting about $100-$200 per month. So I put that cash toward my student loans too.
Step 3: Start a side hustle
As with babysitting, I’d done a few freelance editing and writing jobs over the years. I’d never thought seriously about doing it on a more permanent basis, because I valued my free time and I mostly only did it to help out friends.
The determination to crush my student loans inspired me to pursue freelance jobs in earnest. So I put the word out. And if you build it, they will come.
I started doing about one freelance editing project every two to three months on top of my day job. This meant putting in 10 or 12 hour days sometimes, but the payoff was often another $500-$1,000 per month I could put directly into my student loans.
I was exhausted, my eyes were strained, and I soon realized that working with freelance clients was a lot more like nannying than I cared to admit. In fact, side hustles in general aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
But banking that cash money planted a tiny, exciting seed in my mind.
I had no shortage of clients. I only had a shortage of time. If I had more time—say, if I didn’t have my full-time job—I could take on more projects. And maybe some day I’d be able to make as much or more than I was making working full time at a publishing house.
Step 4: Renegotiate work contract
During this mad dash to the debt-free finish line, I had my annual performance review. My boss had nothing but good things to say. He gushed with words of praise and extolled my numerous virtues.
But I wanted to be rewarded for all those positive results. So I explained that commuting 40 miles a day between my home and my office was killing me. The cost of gas was absurd, I was losing hours of my life sitting in traffic, and the likelihood that I would be arrested for a road rage related act of violence increased daily.
I asked for, and was granted, one work-from-home day per week. This meant I’d spend less on gas and would have more time to work on freelance projects when I wasn’t commuting. I put the fuel savings (along with my annual cost of living raise) directly into my student loans.
The best laid plans of mice and men
In hindsight, it’s hilarious that I thought everything would go according to plan. Three months out from my planned student loan pay-off date, my car died. Catastrophically, totally, expensively. And while I had paid cash for it as a used clunker seven years earlier, my grand plans to pay off my student loans meant that I didn’t have enough cash on hand to buy a new one.
So I rode the bus to work for awhile–a process that took four hours each day as opposed to the hour and ten minutes per day my commute takes by car. And at the end of that time, I had enough money for a decent down payment on a new car, thanks to all of the money making and saving efforts I’d been doing to pay off my student loans. I just delayed paying off the loans for a few months while I bought the car, and then I was back on track.
It irks me that I wasn’t quite able to wipe out the last of my loans in one year’s worth of blood, sweat, and tears. But once the last payment was made, it all felt rather anticlimactic.
So now I have an extra $1,000 per month at least. It’s like getting a massive raise. What will I do with this money? Will I stop freelancing and babysitting on the side? Will I renew my gym membership? Almost definitely not. But I have options now that my student loans are a thing of the past. And that feels really, really good.