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I grew up pretty damn poor and have spent all of my adult life in debt. I wish I could say that paid off more in my student loans over a shorter time period, but honestly, it’s easier said than done. It’s been a long journey and I wanted to document how I paid off $47,668 in student loans in 21 months.
While this post is primarily about the last 21 months, I want to give as much insight into how I was handing student loans prior to that as every bit helps.
Click the section below for easier reading: This is going to be a whopper of an article!
- History of My Student Loans
- 1. Mentally Commit to Bettering Your Life
- 2. Look at Your Spend & Set Up A Budget
- 3. Cut Out The Most Wasteful Expenses
- 4. Make Quick Dough Doing Everyday Tasks
- 5. Level Up Your Job or Career
- 6. Plan Your Student Loan Payments To Save Money
- (Not So) Final Words
History of My Student Loans
I started accumulating my student loans in 2004 but never bothered to track them and barely made payments until I took them semi-seriously in 2011 (see my debt story). By year, here are the amounts that I owed on my loans.
By ‘beginning’ of each year:
- 2008 – $63,000
- 2009 through 2011 – $72,000
- 2012 – $71,000
- 2013 – $69,000
- 2014 – $67,500
- 2015 – $65,700
- 2016 – $63,500
- 2017 – $60,704
- 2018 – $39,852 (Down $19,900)
- 2018 (September) – $13,036 (Down $26,816)
Here’s a harsh reality, from 2008 through 2016 even though I paid thousands towards my student loans, I actually owed more after 8 years. I’m pretty sure other dirty basement kids like myself cringe at that fact. But hey, sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.
On the flipside: From Jan 2017 through September 2018 (21 months), I’ve been able to dramatically lower my student loans amount by $47,668. I’m pretty sure I didn’t make that much from 2008-2011 income combined (seriously).
1. Mentally Commit to Bettering Your Life
While some people claim that “money doesn’t buy happiness”, it sure as hell does a great job at making life easier. My theory is that the problem that most people have is that they are content enough to think that they are good with life and they will ‘figure it out’ later.
I used to have that mentality and would have the “everything will figure itself out” attitude when it came to my career, finance, and life in general. The problem with this attitude is that you are preventing yourself to take action and control of your life.
I grew up incredibly poor. Every time I started to make money in my early 20’s, I kept justifying my lifestyle by saying things such as; “well, I grew up super poor so why should this debt matter?“, “things are okay now, it could be better but I’m better off than where I used to be”.
Being content is not a bad thing, that’s probably an end goal for everyone. Who wouldn’t want to be happy? But living in the real world is tough, we tend to get stuck in habits that are justified by thoughts such as “I’m still alive, so what I’m doing is perfect and I won’t need to change“.
Regardless if you make $8K a year or $80K a year, the one main driver into moving up in the world is to tell and convince yourself that you need to achieve a goal that requires you to take effort (Eg: Motivation & Discipline).
Another reality is that this is much easier said than done. Often success snowballs into more success, but the moment you say “I’m good with everything” is the moment your progress is halted.
But until you develop a strong enough resolve to follow through on commitments, following the steps provided in this article won’t matter.
Some Ways I Kept Myself Motivated Over The Years
I can only speak personally about committing to pay down these student loans. Feel free to add what kept you motived in the comments below. As for me, I did the following:
- I met and became friends with people much more successful than me – When I moved to Nevada in 2009 I was fortunate to meet people who made 100K+ a year and had their own companies. I am still incredibly grateful that they befriended me to this day and they all hold a place in my heart. Seeing so many successful people always kept inspired to try to make it on my own.
- I kept a list of people that have helped me in my life – Spend time and think about friends/colleagues/family that have been loyal or have inspired you. I told myself that I want to give back to all the people that have had a major influence on my life. That still might not happen, but I want to be the person who controls my destiny.
- Recall the deep shame or emptiness when you couldn’t take part in an activity due to being poor – I have had this many times:
- Crying to my 7th-grade math teacher who scolded me because my mom couldn’t afford a $7 calculator.
- Saving up my allowance and being $5 short of going to the waterpark with my friends.
- Not partaking in adventures with my ‘successful’ friends since I had no money and felt worse when they offered to pay over and over again. They are amazing people, but when it came to pride it strung.
For me the main driver was pain and disappointment in myself, even writing this article nearly brings tears to my eyes. But these mental wounds are heavily ingrained in me and have been the motivator in everything I do today (even this blog).
2. Look at Your Spend & Set Up A Budget
Even though I kept my motivation to make money in getting raises at my job and was saving money. I never took it seriously enough to set defined goals. I always assumed that if I had more money than I did last month after paying bills I was all set.
It wasn’t until September of 2016 where ‘Mrs. Debt to Dough’ scolded me for spending more money than what we both made in August. I did a mental check and was pretty sure I spent all my free time in August playing video games and didn’t by anything.
So, I did what all loving husbands would do in this situation, try to prove the Mrs. wrong!
I signed up for Mint and connected my debit & credit cards/bank accounts to it so all my tracking was spent. It only was able to keep track of the prior month, but it was good enough for me.
With our combined incomes means combined living expenses. But seeing that we spent over $1600 more in compared to the previous month I looked more into it (Unfortunately mint doesn’t give me the budget breakdown in visual form over 1 year)
- $1K spent on personal care and shopping
- $1.1K spent on bars
Then it hit me–we were spending WAYYY too much on ourselves and even though we were making enough to pay off student loans, car payments, housing, utilities, etc. we were only saving an extra $200-300/month by just winging it.
It dawned on me that any unfortunate event could easily put my wife and me in a world of hurt.
Getting My Budgeting/Spending Cleaned Up
Honestly, that was the biggest wakeup call I had. I had become content enough and if life threw a major financial wrench our way, I wouldn’t be sure if we could handle it. In this case, we were spending more money than ever and our expenses became super high compared to our nearly homeless days.
So we came up with a plan to get into budgeting. With Mint, I was able to categorize where the money was being spent. Some budgets would always be the same:
- Phone bill/internet/cable
While other items would be very in cost:
- Random expenses (air filters/car maintenance/gas)
We realized that lifestyle creep happened. So we didn’t want to blindly come up with a budget that wouldn’t make sense. Here is how we adjusted our initial budgets:
- We looked at our spend over an average of 2-3 months.
- Then created the budget that is lowered by 20%.
- After the month, we’ll see how we did in comparison and then lower the budget again by 10-15% if we didn’t go over the budget, then we would repeat the process until it wasn’t feasible.
NOTE: If you use credit cards (CC) for all payments, budgets are a starting point and could have flexibility. For debit/check/money order people, budgets are pretty damn firm. I’ll discuss the value of CCs later on in another article. Alternatively, you can use spreadsheets to do budgeting.
3. Cut Out The Most Wasteful Expenses
After coming up with new budgets, I wasn’t satisfied at all with how much I was still spending. It also daunted on me that even if I were to save money and make payments, I would still be paying my student loans until I’m in my 40’s. No thanks, I wanted to get super aggressive in paying off my student loans.
I could dedicate an entire blog to cutting expenses, but for the sake of all of our sanity, I’m going to break down all of the top major expenses and how much we have saved over the year.
Our Top Wasteful Expenses
This amount can easily go towards your student loans, and yes, it all adds up MASSIVELY over time. NOTE: NOT ALL SUGGESTIONS ARE ETHICALLY IDEAL.
- We cut cable – Instead of paying $65/month for cable, I realized that I don’t really watch live TV and I could borrow my mother-in-law’s subscription if I wanted to watch Monday night football on ESPN. So I bought a $10 antenna and eventually upgraded to a $50 one. (Total Invested = $60. Cable Cutting Savings = $780 per year. Overall savings = $720 first year and $780 every year after)
- Borrow Wi-Fi from neighbors – It never hurts to see if the house or apartment next to you has unsecured wifi. There are some negatives to doing this, but this blog isn’t about living in the perfect world. We did this when we couldn’t afford the internet for several months until the guy below us moved. (Savings= $50-100 per month -> $500-$1200/year)
- Threaten to cancel your home internet – Assuming you don’t have anyone to borrow your internet from. You can call your internet provider right now and say you are going to a competitor, “because of price”. Almost always you will get sent to someone in retention that will offer a discount (often equal to a promotion price). (Savings=$20/month on average -> $140/year)
- Get a Smart Thermostat – depending on the area you live in. Some energy companies provide a free smart thermostat. This means that you can automatically schedule your thermostat to work on certain hours of the day. THIS IS SUPERCRITICAL especially if you live in an area that charges 5-7x over ‘high usage hours’. Out in Nevada, this alone can save hundreds in the summer. (Savings~$400/year)
- Sams Club or Costo: Get a membership – It’s about $45/$50 per year (or $25 if you have the right credit card). We primarily use it for cleaning & household supplies, workout supplements, buying frozen food in bulk. Even one trip you already save more than what you spend on the membership. (Savings~$400/year)
- Consolidate or Refinance Student Loans – I was paying $600/month in student loans and a majority of that amount was interested. I was able to lower it to $470/month and had a lower interest rate with friendlier payment terms. More money paid towards the principal monthly and less owed monthly, win-win! (Savings~$1560/year).
- We moved all of our loans & debts of interest onto credit cards – Yup…so this is gonna be controversial. (Related: How to transfer balance transfer student loans)
- There is a very specific set of requirement to do this step. Moreso you need to give good credit, some cash flow, and a lot of chutzpah.
- I’ll go more into detail in another article, but essentially I converted all of my loans that were getting 5%+ interest onto credit cards with 0% interest. This alone saved me $4,000 a year in interest. Screw interest my dudes.
For your sanity, I’ll jump to the next subject and will go into more thorough detail post-launch. Just making some of these changes alone can drop your expenses and save at least $3,500 per year that can go directly to student loans.
4. Make Quick Dough Doing Everyday Tasks
I can talk about this forever and I’ve spent hours at parties helping friends and random strangers make some fast and easy cash. I’m going to talk about Mrs. Debt To Dough and I have done in this post.
Use Credit Cards to For Cash Back & Bonuses
I’m sure most of you have heard that “credit cards are the devil” and probably “credit cards are the greatest thing since sliced bread“. I am in the latter part of that conversation but I completely understand the former’s line of thinking.
The biggest problem regarding credit cards is the whole concept of credit and lack of understanding of it. I’ll go into much deeper detail in another post.
I had a bad experience with a credit card at 20 and swore off credit cards until I was about 25. DONT DO THAT! I’ll go deeper into the basics of credit cards at another time. For those on the ropes of getting a CC or those who aren’t aware…using CCs for cash back is a must!
Some credit cards offer up to $800 cash back on $5K spend (Chase Business Ink, for example) over a time frame. There are ways around it and other cards are more lenient with $200 cash back after $1K spend.
So depends on where you are at and where you are comfortable with. I’ll get to creating a ‘Debt To Dough CC Cashback Fav’s’ article one of these days.
I usually get 2-3 credit cards every year or so and make about $2,000 extra each go around. Assuming you have already planned on spending on certain amounts, this is free money.
Also, cards like Chase Freedom, Bank of America Cash Rewards, and Discover’s IT are great beginner cards that offer pretty good day to day cash back (up to 5% in some categories)
Rebate + Survey + Browsing Websites Sites For Cash
I’ll be quick with this one. There are sites out there that will pay you to use them to do normal activities or to spend some extra time filling out surveys. Over the last year, we have earned about $2,200 extra cash on this alone.
- Answering Surveys – I recommend the following survey sites get started. Survey companies I recommend include; Swagbucks, Survey Junkie, Vindale Research, My points, InboxDollars. Others you can try: American Consumer Opinion Clear Voice Surveys, VIP Voice, ProOpinion, YouGov, Pinecone Research, Opinion Outpost, Survey Spot, SaySo4Profit, PanelBucks, PaidSurveys, Prize Rebel, and Harris Poll Online.
- It cost nothing for you to join, all you do is get paid to answer surveys and to test products.
- For me – I do this passively and I get around $1K per year, but I have cousins that dedicate their lives to surveys and can make some solid cash. See how you can make $1,000/month completing surveys.
- Ebates – before you shop anywhere online, hit up Ebates. You can get some nice cash back. My wife lives by this (especially with Groupon). We get about $100-$150 per year.
- Ibotta – You download the app and when you shop at grocery stores, you can scan the barcode, show the receipt, and get cash back! Again, Mrs. Debt to Dough takes care of that.
- Other Passive Active Sites – Digital Voice is one of the sites where all you do is surf the web and make some cash. You can play games, surf the web, and just do several days to day activities for some extra cash.
Other Ways To Make Fairly Passive Cash
I’m only going to be talking about what we specifically did here, there are a lot more I can talk about and I’ll get to write it someday (notice a trend?). But, I figure I’ll include you folks on what the wife and I did. Just doing these three things along netted us about $12,000 which helped pay off my loans since 2017.
- Sell stuff I don’t use – This seems obvious, but hey…if there is anything that you don’t want chances are it’s worth more than $0.00. It all adds up. I still sell my old tech, clothes, and broken items I don’t use and make some noticeable cash.
- Get a Roommate or Rent Out Your Space – I’ve made a conscious decision that until all my loans are paid off, I will always try to get a roommate or rent out a room.
- Do Lyft – Outside of work, my wife spends some of her time doing Lyft (and the driver bonus was nice too). As long as it’s not too far out of the way, she takes fares. Not bad for a couple of hundred dollars once in a while.
5. Level Up Your Job or Career
All of the steps up to this point have made sizable chunks in paying down my student loans (especially step 4). I was able to start making more than the minimum payments on my loans throughout 2015 through today but the biggest strides I’ve made was a culmination of all the hard work I put in since 2011.
I’m going to use my memory for now: But I’m going to give you a brief walkthrough of how much income was made each year for me since 2011.
- 2011: $19K – I started working at slightly above minimum wage working as a data entry specialist at a tech company.
- 2012: $30K – I negotiated a raise after performing well above expectations and then took a position at another company near the end of 2012 that paid almost twice as much compared to my old position.
- 2013: $22K – I quit salary job to start my own company, it didn’t do particularly well but was a great learning experience.
- 2014: $45K(ish) – Started working at an agency at $40K, then after seven months, I got a 10K raise.
- 2015: $53K – Another raise, but spent all of my time learning and improving my craft.
- 2016: $60K – While the money was finally growing, it wasn’t until I followed step 2 before I realized I needed to be disciplined.
- 2017: $106K – (See Below)
- 2018 (estimated): $100K (See Below)
I began to spend my time focusing on internet marketing and improving my craft since 2011 when I first had a ‘big boy job”.
I wanted to get really good at what I did to prove my worth. In all honesty, I could have done that in 2012 much sooner but that’s on me for not having confidence in myself back then. So at this point, I know you are asking, “How did you make that big of a leap in income?”
Be Patient, Develop Skills, and Have Confidence
It wasn’t until 2014 when I started working at an agency that while I was able to make enough to pay bills, I didn’t think I was making what I should so I did what I could to prove my worth.
- I took on all the bad projects
- Whenever someone said no to a task, I would say yes and took it upon myself to learn skills outside work hours.
- I told myself that every 6 months if I wasn’t feeling appreciated or improving that I would find another job.
- I forced myself to learn and get skills out of necessity.
- Kept my “hunger” and wanted to prove that I was capable in every role I put into.
It wasn’t until early 2017 when I felt confident enough to start asking other professionals in my network if they were interested in services (mainly marketing). The first 6 months of 2017 I took on my first major client on top of working full time at the agency.
After 6 months, I stopped working at the agency and became a full-time contractor. This is a double edge sword, I no longer had a salary and now I give Uncle Sam money 4 times a year :(.
Sacrifices Are a Reality If You Want to Move Up
When I started doing contracting full time, I made a new goal: To pay off my student loans by the end of 2018.
I was able to impress my clients with the results I’ve given that I started getting offers to do more work than I ever imagined from referrals alone.
I’ll write an article about some very viable career paths that will help you get paid with a much quicker turnaround then 6 years).
When you create goals for yourself that seem reachable, you become obsessed. During the Fall I said yes to every project that came in. During that time, I saved up enough to pay over $20,000 in a single payment off my loans.
As much as I can fist pump and say “HELL YEAH”, it wasn’t without sacrifice.
- There was a 55-day stretch of working at least 8 hours in a row.
- I worked 2 months of 300 hours of work committed each.
- At times my vision became randomly blurry.
- I spent zero family time with Mrs. Debt to Dough (we talked ahead of time about the commitment and she was okay with it).
- 0 time with friends or a social life.
- I gained 20lbs ordering takeout all the time and felt like garbage.
- By December I couldn’t really turn my neck without feeling sore/tense.
My health took a major hit during that time frame. Since then, I’ve taken more time to get a work-life balance in 2018. I created this blog as a means to hopefully not be dependant on contracting the rest of my life and to hopefully help out others.
6. Plan Your Student Loan Payments To Save Money
PROTIP: I set up my credit card payments and student loan payments to arrive all on the same day so it makes tracking bills easier.
The reason for this is that I can plan out how much money I owe and compare that to how much money I’m making all in one swoop
Example: Say with loan payments you pay a minimum of $300/month.
- Your other expenses (food, utilities, rent, etc.) equate to $1500/month.
- Expected monthly expenses: $1800/month
- Your income is $2,500/month after taxes
- In theory: You have $700/month extra to spend
For the sake of simplicity, you have two options
- Focus on paying off outstanding debts like CC or student loans.
- Putting it into savings.
There are a lot of opinions regarding the priority of payment depending on who you ask. But the reality is you can do whatever the heck you want with your money. Blow it all on hookers in Vegas for all I care. But if you want to be financially sound (which I recommend), I would do the following.
- Set up a ratio of your extra income (example: $700/month) and allocate it in a way that you feel comfortable with – Let’s say we set the ratio to 50/50. 50% goes to savings and the other 50% goes to loans.
- Go to your student loan account online and you can change automatic payments. So instead of paying the $300 minimum, you change it to $650.
- Make sure you transfer the other $350 to your savings at the end of the month.
RELATED: How to change your payment dates to one date -> pay all your bills at once.
How much money do you save for the long haul?
Assuming you are on 15-year loan with about a $35K debt and are paying $300/month. By moving it up to $650, you save a lot!
Using a calculator: You save 9 years of payment (only 6 years of payment) and knock off $10K of interest. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like spending $10,000 and getting nothing of return.
(Not So) Final Words
This is probably the longest article I’ve ever written, and this is only version 1.5! I hope to update this as I continue to pay off my loans and will provide more details per request. I’m sure I left out a lot. But I hope this is a decent guide for others in years to come.
My Remaining Student Loan Debt (Since Site Launch)
- May 2018: $22,500
- June 2018: $20,627 (-$1,873)
- July 2018: $17,906 (-$2,721)
- August: $15,636 (-$2,270)
- September: $13,036 (-$2,600)
- When Are Student Loans Worth It?
- How To Do A Balance Transfer For Student Loans: The Ultimate Guide
- Why People Consider Student Loans To Be Terrible
- How To Keep Track & Budget For Balance Transfers