You’ve probably read a lot of “student debt” facts out there. According to The Institute for College Access & Success, 7 in 10 seniors graduate with student loan debt. Or the average debt burden is now over $28,000. Well, here are my facts:
Fact #1: Student debt is shocking. Right when I graduated from college, I found myself underemployed and underwater with a little over $30,000 in student loans. I didn’t quite know how I was going to afford my monthly loan payments. But worse than that? I didn’t quite know how I got there. Somewhere along the way, that debt had snuck up on me. What seemed like borrowing a few thousand dollars here and there had accumulated into something huge.
Fact #2: Student debt stings. That $30,000 in debt felt like a terrible price to pay for the decisions I made as an 18-year-old. Just because the teenager version of me thought it was a good idea to go to a 4-year private university and take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to pay for it didn’t mean that I thought it was. But I also didn’t know any better at the time.
Fact #3: Student debt doesn’t have to suck your life away. But even though I was shocked and felt slightly victimized by my student loans, I wasn’t going to let it control my life. In fact, I wasn’t going to let it be around in my life much longer. So I decided to tackle them. Hard. And with the right strategies, I was able to pay back all $30,000 in my student loans in less than four years - just about the time it took me to rack up all that debt in the first place.
Here’s how I wiped out all that debt so quickly:
- I earned money on the side: I knew that my measly salary wasn’t going to get me debt free any time soon. So I started earning as much extra money on the side as possible. From selling things on craigslist to finding freelance jobs on the internet, I hustled my way to an extra $100 or $200 or sometimes even $500 each month. Earning extra money on the side isn’t easy; there were plenty of nights and weekends when I was hustling and trying to earn extra cash. But while it was hard work and didn’t seem like a ton of money each month, it added up. Over the course of four years, I earned about $6,000 in side work - and that went a long way toward helping me pay down my debt more quickly.
- I negotiated: This was the biggest financial win for me. Again, I knew that my current salary wasn’t going to get me to “debt-free” quickly. So while I kept working on the side, I also made it my mission to start asking for more. I asked for a raise at work, I asked for a higher starting salary when I started a new job, and I even asked about getting the fees waived on my bank account and credit cards. I knew that if I could ask for more and get a few extra thousand dollars each year, it would pay off tremendously while paying down my debt. But like working on the side, negotiating is also tough work. It’s not something that I was taught to do. So when it came time to negotiate something big like my salary, I knew I needed to do a lot of prep work. I spent hours researching and backing up my requests with numbers. And with a lot of preparation and hours practicing in front of the bathroom mirror, I asked for more. The payoff? I negotiated over $13,000 in raises and bonuses in one year. And most of that money went into paying off all those student loans.
- I prioritized my spending: I knew that earning more money was just one side of the money equation. If I wanted to pay off my debt and pay it off fast, I had to be smart with how I spent my money. And if I wanted to be smart about how I spent my money, I had to pick my priorities. So I made a choice: I picked my top 3 financial priorities and ruthlessly cut down on everything else. For four years, I focused on what mattered most with my money: paying off my debt, eating healthy and traveling to visit my family every few months. Everything else was trimmed to the bone. I stopped buying lunch at work, I spent less than $50 a month on new clothes and I started going to the library instead of buying new books. By prioritizing, I was still able to spend money on what mattered and find savings to go towards my student loans.
Fast forward to the present day, and I’m completely debt free. But not only am I free and clear of that incredible student loan burden that weighed me down so much, but I also have some incredible money skills and habits. I know how to earn extra money, I’m comfortable asking for more and I still keep prioritizing my spending. Yes, the fact is that student loans stink. But at the end of the day, I’m grateful for what they taught me about hard work, extra effort and discipline.
Whether that lesson was worth $30,000 in debt or not… well, that’s harder to calculate.