How we paid off $50k in student loans
Some people get uncomfortable talking about money, but I (and Tyler) find it really interesting. I think a main reason why so many Americans have financial problems is because we don’t talk about it. We think we need to buy tons of stuff to keep up with others or look cool. It seems like some of this is changing, but I’m probably biased since I seek out this kind of content.
I enjoy listening to Dave Ramsey’s podcast and read his book, “The Total Money Makeover”. I read blogs about how people paid off their debt. I talk to my siblings about their student loan debt and we share our strategies to get rid of it. I discuss finances and salaries with my MBA friends. Every week I update a spreadsheet with tabs for my balance sheet, annual income statement, debts, and financial goals.
All this is to say, let’s talk about it. Wherever you are in your finances, someone is worse off than you and someone is better off. And wherever you are, you can definitely do better. Our society runs on debt, but it doesn’t have to. Pay it off. You will feel incredibly better mentally and financially. So, let me tell you about how we paid off $50k of student debt.
1. Only take what you need
The first step to not having debt is to not acquire it. Most of my 6 years of private education at Pacific Lutheran University and Willamette University was paid for by scholarships and grants, which was not by accident. My parents couldn’t pay for all of my education, although my mom did take a loan out for me, so it was largely up to me. Both of my parents remarried people with four kids, so I had nine siblings total. No way we were getting free rides. In high school, I was the girl reading the thick scholarship book my mom bought me and then applying for anything that I had a slight shot at. I wasn’t going to pay $200K out of pocket for my education.
2. Live within, or below, your means
My undergrad loans equated to $15K and grad school equated to $35K. I lived cheaply for all 6 of these years and pretty much only took out enough loans to pay for my tuition – not any extra living or spending expenses. I paid for all my living expenses through part-time jobs. My rent was about $350/month. At one point I lived in a house with six women and one bathroom. We are all really close to this day! It takes discipline and sacrifice, but it’s totally worth it.
My closest friends were also pretty frugal so I didn’t feel like I had to take lavish vacations with them and people understood when I didn’t do something because I couldn’t afford it. We still had tons of fun and I count my 4 years at PLU some of the best of my life.
Even after I started working and eventually got a well-paying job, Tyler and I lived within our means. I try to make a lot of homemade meals and rarely eat out for lunch. I commute on the Sounder train for an hour each way (plus driving and walking time) to work in Seattle, but live in cheaper Tacoma. We didn’t buy a super expensive house once our incomes increased.
3. Increase your income
People sometimes forget that Net Income = Revenue – Expenses. You can only do so much on the expenses side. You need to increase revenue too.
My first few jobs out of grad school did not pay much and weren’t exactly what I wanted to do. I kept trying to get a job close to home, but when I finally realized the jobs I wanted were all in Seattle (about 1-1.5 hr commute), I bit the bullet. This switch increased my income fairly quickly. I worked at a small market research firm for a year, which increased by income by $10k. Then, I got a market research job at a big consulting firm and my income almost doubled. That was a wake up call to realize I could, and should, have a higher salary. Talking to my MBA friends about their incomes was also major motivation and reassurance that I should be making more money.
Also, Tyler makes about twice as much as I do and we combine everything. If he wants to increase his income, he works more hours, especially overtime. His income definitely helped me pay off my loans faster. I’m salary, so in order to increase my income, I had to upgrade jobs or do great work to get bonuses or raises.
People seem to get stuck in jobs or feel loyalty to companies who really don’t have any loyalty to them. Or they are scared that the next place won’t be as great or they don’t think they deserve more money. I encourage you to talk to people about their income and benefits, especially if they have a similar industry, job, or experience as you. Chances are, you can increase your income too. If you really can’t get more money through your main job, consider a second job temporarily.
4. Budget and track
We aren’t zealots about having super lean budgets because we still want to enjoy life, invest, and improve our home. We go on one big vacation every year and a few smaller ones. We eat out a few times a week. The main reason is because we can afford it though! We buy these things with cash and always have a big savings built up in case of emergencies. The fun stuff is our last priority.
I use Mint and my own custom spreadsheet to budget how much we should be spending and forecast how much money we will have throughout the whole year. This also allows me to see how much extra we can put toward debt.
5. Emergency Fund
Having an emergency fund is hugely important to staying on track because you won’t accrue more debt when something on your car breaks, your basement floods, or someone has surgery (all of which have happened to us). We have 3-6 months of expenses saved up at all times. Tyler, who makes the most money, was out for four months due to back surgery at the same time our chimney leaked and flooded our basement – oh and I had just found out I was pregnant. Between a lower income (just disability/unemployment) and having to remodel our basement and living room, we were still totally fine. I’m so glad we saved our money instead of dumping it all into paying off debt right away. This is a major point we disagree with Dave Ramsey. He says you only need $1000 emergency fund while you’re paying off debt, but we needed way more than this because of our lifestyle and owning a home.
Hopefully hearing my story will help motivate you to tackle your loans of think about your education more critically. For me, talking to other people or reading online stories about people I don’t know helped me rethink my finances. It also helped me set realistic goals, such as paying off my loans before our baby arrives, which we are doing a week before her due date!