When you’re facing tens — or even hundreds — of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of paying it off and difficult to imagine a time when you won’t be saddled with monthly payments. The good(ish) news? You’re not alone. While millions of borrowers in the U.S. owe money on student loans, every day people are figuring out how best to eradicate that debt. Here, seven people who managed to make it to the other side share how they did it.
1. Use the “snowball method.”
“I owed around $18,000 when I graduated in 2009. Today, that doesn’t seem like that much, especially given the six-figure debt students are taking on today, but it was a horrible recession and journalism wasn’t exactly a lucrative field. The first five years of my career I was making less than $45,000 a year and could only afford the very minimum payments (one of which was $50 a month). As I got more money, I started paying off the smallest ones more aggressively while still paying the minimums on the larger ones (roughly adhering to Dave Ramsey’s ‘snowball method’). I started putting my annual bonus and tax refund toward them, too. Once I got pregnant, I really wanted to pay them off because I knew the added expense of my loans would be a burden during my maternity leave. So with five weeks to go before my due date, I paid off the final $1,200 or so using my bonus.
Without downplaying the seriousness of student loan debt, it’s important to remember that for the most part this is the ‘good’ kind of debt to have and pretty much everyone has it. My advice is to pay what you can without being uncomfortable — this is where a monthly budget helps tremendously. There were a few occasions where I’d overpay my loans and then have to charge groceries on my credit card. Not my finest moment. You will eventually make more money and you will eventually pay off your student loans. Just make sure to pay them on time and be mindful of your overall credit standing. [That said], I wish I had considered my student loans more when negotiating salary. I was often just so grateful for the jobs that I never pushed to see if there was wiggle room. Of course, this is a highly gendered conversation for another time…” —Rachel Skybetter, 32, senior copywriter
2. Adhere to a budget.
“When I graduated [in May 2014], I owed between $105,000 and $110,000. ...For the first two years after graduation, I paid only the minimum payment, which was a little under $1,000 per month. Around that time, my husband and I had our first child and began thinking about how we would like to raise our family. Having fewer expenses would give us more options and flexibility in the future, so we made a plan to pay off our debt. I was shocked to see that I still owed about $104,000 on my student loans after all those payments. We started our plan in January 2017 and paid off all my loans in September 2018. We used the debt snowball method to pay off my loans. With this method, you pay your debts off from smallest to largest balance without regard to interest rates. I had 14 separate student loans ranging from about $1,500 to $23,000. We paid the minimum on all of the loans when the payment was due and then made a larger extra payment on the smallest loan at the end of each month.
Our budget was also key in helping us free up money to pay extra on the loans. ...We didn’t have a budget before, so we knew about how much our bills were, but we just spent on other things, such as eating out or Target runs, with no plan for our spending. With the budget, we set how much we plan to spend in each category. [For example], for regular expenses, like groceries, gas [and] electricity, we use an average of how much we spent over the previous three months or so and check it periodically to make sure the number is still accurate. ...Once we started doing the budget, we could see how much money was left after our expenses were accounted for [and] started allocating that money for extra debt payments. We waited until the end of the month to make the extra payment on my loans. That way, if some unexpected expense that we didn’t budget for popped up, we could shift the budget around to cover the expense and just make a smaller extra payment that month. The reverse was also true. If we were under budget or got extra money that month, such as a refund or bonus, we could make a larger payment than originally expected.” —Rho Thomas, 29, owner of their money goals
3. Minimize borrowing in advance.
“I graduated in 2009 [with upwards of $40,000 to $50,000 in loan debt] and completed paying my loans off this year. I wish I had inspiring advice like you always read in the news — but the truth is, I leaned on my parents heavily, especially in the years just after graduating when I was living in Manhattan and not making much of anything! I know not everyone is able to do that. Whenever I had any extra money, it always went to the loans. As I got older and made more money, I took on more responsibility for paying them. Automatic payments are great because they helped me budget and know what wasn’t going to be available for other stuff.
The part I think a lot of people don’t talk about is working to save money before you ever get to college. A huge blessing for me [was the] college credits and AP [advanced placement] courses [that] allowed me to graduate a year early and save on paying for a whole year of college. [Students] should work hard to get as many of [those] as possible, and factor whether the college will take those credits into your decision on where to go.
Overall, I just tried my hardest not to let loans stress me out because I know I’m not the only one suffering through this, and to be okay carving out some funds for fun.” —Andrew Mercier, 31, editorial director at Muck Rack
4. Consolidate high-interest loans.
“When I graduated from [University of Pennsylvania], I owed $32,000, and I made my last loan payment one month before I turned 30. In all honesty, I was pretty lucky. In addition to the loans I took out, I had also applied for a few grants, which was very helpful as I didn’t have to pay that money back. As soon as I entered my loan repayment period I did two things: I paid double the minimum amount due every month, [and] I consolidated my high-interest loans, so instead of having four separate monthly payments, I was able to only have two. As I started to pay off some of the smaller loans, rather than decreasing each monthly payment, I kept it the same so that I could pay off my remaining loans [more quickly].
This wasn’t easy, especially at the beginning. I was making less than $40,000 a year and living in Manhattan, so I had to seriously manage my budget. I would only buy food that was on sale at the grocery store (hello, frozen pizza!), I took the subway [and] bus everywhere and only allowed myself to take cabs if it was really late and I learned very quickly how to take advantage of all the free things there were to do in NYC. At one point, I was laid off from my job, so I had to reduce my monthly payments to the minimum until I found another full-time job. Luckily, this was only for seven months. I did dip into my savings a bit, and my money saving tactics really went to the next level (think: having canned corn with mustard for dinner — gross, I know). Sometimes I wish I had deferred my payments during that time.
For those who are graduating with loans, the best advice I can give you is to prioritize paying off your loans. Yes, it might mean putting off going on that big vacation or buying that new car, but it will be worth it in the long run. And for anyone still working on paying them off, I would seriously consider consolidating or refinancing your loans. Both options will help you lower your monthly payment and potentially lower your interest rate. For anyone who is applying for loans/grants/all kinds of financial aid, apply for everything you can. Seriously. Some loans and grants have a cap on the amount they will give you each year, so don’t limit yourself to only one. If you qualify for it, then just apply. Some help is better than no help!” —Stephanie Ortiz, 32, director of brand partnerships at Viacom
5. Be wary of credit card debt.
“I graduated with $20,000 in debt. I did community college before a four-year school, so that really helped keep my debt lower. ...I started paying [off] my loans in the fall of 2009, and I finished them off in 2016. I don’t really have any advice other than to pay more than your minimum payment, though I didn’t pay much more. But here’s the deal: I have no more student debt, but I have plenty of credit card debt that came from the student debt. I think many people put their loans in forbearance because they see that they can’t afford to pay for their life and pay off their debt. I didn’t do that, and so I have no student debt left, but I accrued quite a lot of credit card debt paying for my life. I finally have that under control, but it really is a double-edged sword.” —Brett Gould, 33, associate director in higher education fundraising
6. Ask for help.
“I owed $53,000 from my undergraduate degree. It took me three years to pay it off, and I didn’t take out any loans for my graduate program. I knew I wanted to rid my undergraduate student loan debt as soon as possible because I didn’t want to pay interest on it longer than what was necessary, so I crunched numbers. I calculated what I needed to pay for things each month, and I put the rest of my paycheck toward my loan. Initially, I didn’t know much at all about loans, so I asked a lot of questions. I wanted to know the difference between subsidized, unsubsidized, consolidating, etc., and thankfully, my loan company, ISL (Iowa Student Loans) was more than happy to educate me and inform me of the options I had to pay off the loans. [My advice is to] ask your loan provider questions. Figure out what route is best for you and pay more than the minimum when you can.” —Alissa Trowbridge, 32, english language/bilingual teacher
7. Consider a side-hustle.
“I studied for six years in total at medical school [in the United Kingdom, and] took three years worth of student loans to cover my fees which totaled £13,000 ($16,000 roughly). For the other three years, I paid one year myself using money I had saved from working three jobs while studying at medical school; and I applied for various grants and scholarships for the remaining two years. During medical school, I [worked as] a personal trainer and used this as a way to make money on the side...so I could pay for that one year myself. I did this alongside tutoring and a job in a call center.
I paid off my loans within 18 months of graduating. I continued to live at home for around 12 months of this time, paying very minimal amount of rent and bills to my parents. I consistently paid £400 toward my loans on the day[s] I got paid, [which] was roughly 20 percent of my wages. On top of this, I continued to work as a personal trainer [a job I started while in school] alongside my shifts at the hospital because I had generated a decent client base. The majority of this money went toward paying off my loans [and] typically added £300 extra per month. I made simple savings such as taking public transport to work or walking; taking lunch from home rather than buying it outdoors and being creative in spending time with friends. I’d [suggest we] exercise together [rather] than go for a meal, for example, or I’d offer to cook for them rather than going out. Any monetary gifts [I received] also went toward clearing my loans.” —Aisha Muhammad, 27, doctor and weight loss coach