The average student loan borrower graduates with over $37,000 in debt — a hefty burden for a twenty-something living off a starter salary. But it is possible to pay it off early, even when it seems like you barely make enough to cover your day-to-day bills.
Check out the crafty ways these recent grads are making serious progress on their student-loan balances, all to become debt-free as soon as possible.
“We live off one income — and use the other to pay down our loans.”
Who: David Ilgenfritz, owner of a lifestyle apparel company, and Jill Ilgenfritz, medical lab assistant, Hamilton, Montana
Total Student-Loan Debt: $34,000
Combined Income: $48,000
Our Plan: “When we got married in November 2014, one of our priorities was to figure out creative ways to pay off our combined debt.
Because my $17,500 loan has a much higher interest rate than Jill’s $16,500 loan — 7.8% versus her 3.7% — we decided to accelerate payments on mine first. Currently, we put at least $1,000 toward my loan and pay at least $375 on her loan.
Since our goal is to pay off both loans as soon as possible, we also decided to live off my paycheck (about $2,500 a month), so that Jill’s $1,500 monthly take-home pay could go toward the debt.
Of course, we're frugal. We don’t eat out other than on planned date nights, and we make sure to shop the grocery sales. We walk or bike to most places to save on gas. And we got a great deal on our house by renting through family friends.
We also have side gigs — I do freelance web design and SEO, while Jill does some freelance writing — which can bring in another $1,000 or so a month. We put almost all of that income toward our debt.
My favorite way to save money, however, is to brew my own beer. I can make an entire batch for about $30, which yields 50 to 60 bottles. So a beer after work costs me 50 to 60 cents — compared to the $10 you’d pay for a good microbrew six-pack.
Our Goal: We’re currently on a 20-year repayment plan, but with more freelancing, we hope to pay off our loans in one to two years.”
“I cut out creature comforts to throw more money at my loans.”
Who: Jessica Lovejoy, content marketing manager, Columbus, Ohio
Total Student-Loan Debt: $60,000
My Plan: “I work for a marketing agency that represents lawyers, and one of my clients is a bankruptcy attorney. Researching and writing about debt-related issues has given me a crash course in personal finance.
I never fully understood, for example, how capitalized interest worked. Any unpaid interest you accrue on your student loans is tacked onto your principal, which means you pay interest on your interest.
That sort of knowledge lit a fire under me to pay off my debt quickly. But in order to do that, I knew I had to change my lifestyle.
I’ve gone from being a gym-goer to running outdoors and doing yoga at home. And I’ve given up vacations for now.
My biggest move, however, was leaving my $600 one-bedroom apartment to share a two-bedroom with a roommate, which cut my rent to about $375.
Any money that doesn’t go toward rent, groceries, gas and my car payment goes to my student loans.
It can be a bummer to live on a shoestring budget when I’m making $50,000 a year. But I was recently able pay $2,000 of my student loans — way above the $600 minimum payment.
My Goal: I’m currently on a 10-year repayment plan,
but if I can continue putting $2,000 or more toward my loan, I could be debt-free in less than two years.”
“I refinanced my loans — and use the snowball method to pay them.”
Who: Robin Rectenwald, nonprofit public relations professional, Pittsburgh
Total Student-Loan Debt: $100,000
Income: Under $50,000
My Plan: “Even though I received scholarships, worked two jobs and had paid internships, I still had to take out a lot of public and private loans to cover my college costs.
By the time I graduated, I had 20 loans to my name, with balances ranging between $1,000 and $12,000.
What made it worse is that I went to school during the recession, so my interest rates were between 6% and 10%.
Before I even got a job, I was stressed about how I’d pay down my student loans, so I sought out some financial planners for advice — but couldn’t afford their fees. Finally, one decided to help me pro bono because his wife had struggled with college debt and he sympathized with me.
With his help, I came up with a plan.
First I made a budget. This was important because my starting pay was only $29,000.
The biggest eye-opener was seeing how much I spent on going out — anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a month. Now, I try to cap my entertainment budget to $200 a month.
The other big decision I made was to refinance my eight private loans. I was able to consolidate them into one loan with a 5% interest rate, bringing down the monthly minimum due across all my loans from $980 to $540.
That helped me put an extra $500 a month above the minimum toward my balances using the snowball method, in which you pay down the lowest balances first — and, incidentally, my lowest-balance loans also happen to be my highest-interest ones since refinancing. So far, I’ve been able to pay off six of my loans, and I expect to pay off another by this November.
But it’s not just my student loans I want to make progress on. To boost my savings, I moved in with my parents, even though I have a new, higher-paying job.
Between cutting out my $625 in rent, working a part-time weekend sales job and bringing home a bigger paycheck, I’m saving between $1,300 and $1,600 a month.
My Goal: I’ll pay off my student loans by the time I’m 30. At times, it’s stressful knowing that each month one-third of my paycheck is going toward student loans. But it’s important for me to be student-loan-free in my thirties, and the sacrifices I’m making now are helping me get there.”