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How to pay off your student loans early: Guidance from two college grads

Young people high five each other at the gym

Eager to start paying off your student loans ASAP? These grads share their strategies.

Meet Patrick Ortman and Zina Kumok. Both are college graduates, and they both paid off their student loans early — though in different ways and for different reasons.

Patrick’s college expenses totaled nearly $150,000. While he was able to reduce some costs by earning a scholarship and working part-time jobs, he also had to take out $79,000 in student loans over the course of four years to cover the gaps. But he didn’t wait until graduation to start paying off that debt.

Zina graduated with 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.

Below, these two grads share their strategies for how to pay off student loans early.

Know why you want to pay off student loans early

Paying off your loans early can be challenging, and you’ll likely need to sacrifice fun Friday nights so you can stay on track with your savings goals. Knowing your motivation for getting a head start on your repayment — becoming debt-free sooner to achieve other goals — is key.

“Though you typically have a six-month grace period after graduation to start paying off your student loans, I knew I didn’t want to delay the inevitable,” says Patrick. “Nothing in particular motivated me to start paying off loans while still in college — I just wanted to knock that balance down as quickly as I could!”

Zina, on the other hand, says her mental health was a key factor in her decision to pay off her loans. “I had so much anxiety around my debt. I didn’t want to live like that for the life of my loan, which was 10 years. So, I made a decision that I would become debt-free as soon as possible.”

We’re all different, and maybe neither of these reasons resonates with you. The important thing is that you know why you’re motivated to pay off those student loans early.

Get a game plan for how to pay off student loans

These students took different approaches to paying off their loans: earning extra money and aggressive budgeting.

As soon as he started to earn a paycheck from his on-campus job, Patrick began making monthly payments on his first loan. “I knew I wanted to make a payment of about $200 per month, so that kept me motivated to work,” he said. He started to pick up more gigs: a job on campus, two different jobs waiting tables, an internship with a commercial real estate firm, and a position as a translator for a film company.

After graduation, Zina was earning $28,000 at her first job — the exact amount of her student loan.

“Since I wasn’t earning much, I decided to focus my changes on my spending,” said Zina. She created a budget, tracked every dollar — seriously, she debated if a $1 rental movie was worth it — and cut unnecessary spending. She started shopping at discount grocery and clothing stores, using coupons, and applying for free products online. And instead of going out with her friends, she invited them over to save money.

Zina added up everything she saved and put it toward her loans every month. And if she ever got a windfall or gift of cash, she put it toward her payments, too.

“Pretty soon, instead of paying $350 per month on my loans, I was paying $750 on average,” she said.

The results

“By the time I graduated, I paid off a total of $24,700 in student loans — almost one-third of what I owed,” said Patrick. About $15,000 of that came from his own earnings, while the other $10,000 was a gift from a family member.

Zina paid off $28,000 to become debt-free in three years — seven years earlier than the life of her loan.

By the time I graduated, I paid off a total of $24,700 in student loans — almost one-third of what I owed.

— Patrick Ortman

You can do it, too

If you want to start paying off loans early, know that it can be done — but be ready to work really, really hard. It paid off for Patrick and Zina, as they were more prepared for the professional world and less burdened with debt stress.

It will take a few years, but you can make it easier for yourself. Target the highest interest rate loans first, and save the loans with lower rates (like 2% or 3%) for later. That strategy alone can help save you hundreds of dollars.

If you can afford to work while in school, or pay more than your minimum monthly payment, it can make a big difference in your repayment plan, not to mention teach you valuable financial lessons to take with you long after graduation.

10 potential ways to earn money on campus

  1. Be a barista at a campus coffee shop.
  2. Motivate others as a fitness instructor.
  3. Tutor fellow students.
  4. Become a research assistant.
  5. Join the campus events staff.
  6. Take on a paid internship.
  7. Walk dogs.
  8. Fill out online surveys.
  9. Edit and proofread your peers’ assignments.
  10. Work in the campus bookstore.

Creating a budget can be as easy as 1-2-3

In less than five minutes, learn how to create a college budget to help make your money go further.

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