When Zina Kumok graduated from Indiana University in 2011, she had a bachelor’s degree in journalism — and a sizable amount of debt that was a daily source of stress. She decided she didn’t want to carry around the burden of repayment for 10 years, and launched a plan to pay back her loan early. Three years later she was completely debt-free.
I’d never had any debt until I took out my student loans. No credit card balance, no car loan — not even a loan to a friend. So the concept of struggling under the weight of sizable debt was completely foreign to me.
Then I saw the first bill for my student loans.
I thought I had been careful not to take out too much debt when I went to college; I knew most financial experts said you shouldn’t borrow more than what the average person earns in your field annually.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that even owing $28,000 would be a strain on my entry-level salary. Ironically, I was making that exact amount at my first job, at a newspaper, and 20% of my take-home pay went toward my minimum student loan payment of $350 per month. After my student loan payment, rent, my car payment, and daily spending cash, I realized how little money I had left over. It was depressing.
I didn’t want to live like that for the life of my loan payoff, which was 10 years. So I made a decision that I would become debt-free as soon as possible.
How I paid off my loans
Since I wasn’t earning much, I decided to focus my changes on my spending. I created a rigid budget and tracked every dollar. Yes, every dollar — I remember spending five minutes deciding if a $1 Redbox movie was worth the price. Immediately I was able to cut unnecessary expenses from my budget: things like buying lunch every day, dropping $40 on a new pair of heels I really didn’t need, and picking up that new bestselling book were all eliminated. I started shopping at discount grocery stores, using coupons, and applying for free products online. I bought clothes at Goodwill and borrowed books and movies from the library. I cut back on my social expenses by inviting friends over instead of going out. I took everything I saved by cutting expenses and added it to what I could put toward my loans every month.
And if I happened to get extra money — like from a tax refund, checks from Grandma, or working a freelance gig — I put it toward my loans and other debt, too. Pretty soon, instead of paying $350 per month on my loans, I was paying $750 on average.
Should you pay off your loans early?
Everyone is different, and you may not feel compelled to pay off your loans as quickly as I did. Being in debt affected my mind more than my finances. When I spent money on myself, I often felt angry and guilty. I had so much anxiety around my debt that I couldn’t imagine not paying it off right away.
So how do you know if that decision is right for you? Ask yourself if you feel chained by your debt. Do you feel guilty for traveling to a friend’s wedding, splurging on a nice dinner, or going out to a movie? Do you worry about burdening your future spouse with debt? If so, getting rid of your debt as quickly as possible may be a good choice for you.