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I don’t know about you, but college was an awesome experience for me. It was four years of making new friends, learning how to live by myself, and maybe a little bit of partying.

Not to mention the advanced engineering and management classes that helped to set up my professional career.

The only piece that wasn’t so great was the price tag. At around $18,000 per year, it was not cheap to get my degree. And even more so since I decided to stay an extra year to get my Master’s degree.

Side note: Is an advanced degree worth it? I can’t speak for everyone, but I do know that I landed my first big job and raise due to having a Master’s degree. If your education provides value in a career you’re interested in, it could certainly be a great way to make more money.

Racking Up $88,000 in Student Loans

By the time Jane and I graduated, we had a little over $88,000 in student loan debt between the both of us. That was split with $60,000 for Jane and around $18,000 for myself.

I should note that we both went to a state university that gave us lower in-state tuition rates. This helped avoid considerable costs than if we had decided to go to a more expensive, out-of-state school.

I was lucky enough to get some financial help from my parents and grandparents to reduce my loans. On top of that, I worked for 4 years as a Resident Assistant. As an RA, I was able to get free housing, a stipend, and reduced food costs. Even though I ended up watching other people party more than I did myself, there was a strong financial incentive to work as a RA.

While Jane had to pay for the bulk of her student loans, she did work throughout college at a local restaurant to help defray the costs. Unfortunately, she still graduated with a hefty $60k in student loan debt.

Income & Expenses After Graduation

Once we graduated, we took a few months to search for jobs. We also moved back into our parents houses for about 9 months to help reduce expenses.

When we did land our first jobs, Jane started making $36,000 and I started at $55,000 per year. A combined $91,000 sounded pretty good but, after taxes, it dropped to around $65,000 per year.

By living at home for the first few months of our new jobs, we were able to reduce our living expenses. However, that was short lived after we got engaged and decided to move in together. We were now officially adults who had to fully support every aspect of our lives.

In those first few years, we had a variety of expenses that included:

  • Apartment rent and then a mortgage a year later
  • Two car payments since our cars died at the same time
  • Furniture and other furnishings for our apartment
  • A wedding and honeymoon
  • Food, utilities, and recreation

Even with balancing payments for these other expenses, we made paying off our student loans a priority. We put all of our spare money towards our loans during those first few years.

Paying Off Our Student Loans

When it came to our student loans, Jane and I were on the same page. We wanted to get rid of them as soon as possible. To us, it just didn’t make sense to us to pay 6% to 9% in interest. We wanted to reduce that cost as much as possible by paying them off early.

Getting debt-free would allow us to not have to worry in the future and improve our cash flow. We simply didn’t want loans hanging over our head, so we went to work paying them down.

For the first few years, we had a pretty small amount of income that could be used for the student loans. We split that between putting some towards a savings account and the remainder towards our student debt.

Our one basic rule was to always pay our student loans on time and to try to put more towards it than the minimum. As we got raises, we also increased our rate of contribution. If we got some extra money from side gigs or as a birthday present, we would put it towards our loans.

By remaining dedicated to our goal, we did everything in our power to contribute as much as we possibly could towards our student loan debt. Even with buying a house and two new cars during that time period, we were able to pay off the full $88,000 within 5 years.

Tips for Paying Off Student Loans

Other than paying as much as we could, we did have a few other strategies that helped pay off our debt.

1. Track Your Loans

The first thing we did was to make sure we knew where all of our student loans were held. This sounds obvious, but we had 5 or 6 different loans each, spread across different lenders.

We made sure we knew how to login to each website to track the balances, understand their interest rates, and how to pay them. We then were able to come up with a plan for which ones we would attack first.

2. Consolidate Your Loans

If possible, try to consolidate your loans to simplify the management of your accounts. You may also be able to get lower interest rates by combining them together. Talk with your lender to see if they offer any loan consolidation opportunities.

3. Attack the Highest Interest Rates

We went after the loans that had the highest interest rates first. By paying off the 9% loans first, we were able to save more money that could be put towards the 6% loans later. By paying less in interest, we could put that same money towards the principal of the loans.

4. Use the Snowball Effect

The snowball effect of paying off debt is when you pay off small loans first and put that money towards your larger loans. By repeating this, you’ll have more money to put towards the larger loans that will otherwise take longer to pay off.

We did have a few small student loans that had lower interest rates but small balances. We focused on those early on since we could eliminate them completely. This gave us small wins and the satisfaction of seeing our hard work pay off, encouraging us to keep going.

We used a combination of paying off the smallest loans and the highest interest rates first to quickly pay off our total balance.

5. Pay More than the Minimum

No matter what, we paid the minimum amount due on all loans to avoid extra fees. If we had extra money available, we put it towards our target loans with the highest interest rates.

We would try to round up our payments to an even number, even if it was only a few dollars. By continually paying extra principal, the overall term was drastically shortened.

6. Create a Budget

Once we knew which loans we wanted to focus on, we created a budget to see how much money we could realistically contribute. This gave us confidence that we would be able to pay for our basic bills while still paying down our loans.

7. Pay Early and Often

Whenever possible, we paid early and on a bi-weekly basis instead of monthly. This served to avoid late fees that would have been a waste of money from not staying organized. It also allowed us to make an extra payment each year and stay ahead of the due date, in case we ran into financial trouble.

We also didn’t wait for our grace period to expire after graduation. We started making payments right away to reduce our interest payments later on. As soon as we had some income available, we started paying down our debt.

8. Balance Your Incomes as a Couple

Work as a couple to accomplish your financial goals. I was able to pay off my loans faster because I had less originally and also had a larger monthly paycheck. As soon as I was done with my own loans, I shifted my focus to support all of our living expenses including rent, cars, and food.

Jane then was able to use essentially all of her income to pay off her own loans. Since she didn’t have to worry about contributing towards other bills, she could put large chunks towards her student loans.

9. Live Below Your Means

Since paying down our student debt was a priority to us, we lowered our living expenses as much as possible. We cut back on recreational spending, eating out, and barely turned on our heat that first winter. By saving in other areas, we were able to put more towards our loans.

With our relentless persistence to pay off our student loans, we were successful at achieving this goal within 5 years. Everyone has different financial situations, but it is possible to successfully eliminate debt with minimal income.

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