Money can be emotional. Few experiences compare to the joys of earning a long-awaited promotion or receiving a raise. Sometimes those experiences teach us that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I learned this lesson the hard way.
In June 2015, I earned a promotion as a public school administrator. Two weeks later, my wife, Megan, secured a new job as a teacher in the same school district. Our new jobs came with significant raises. I thought we had it made.
Before starting our new jobs, my wife and I celebrated with a vacation and spent a week basking in glory. Life finally seemed perfect.
Getting a Wake-up Call
But everything wasn’t as perfect as it seemed. Like many millennials, I found myself sitting on over $17,000 in student loan debt at 6.5% interest. I was horrified when I read a statement which showed that the typical 10 year repayment plan would cost us $10,000 in interest – over $27,000 in total.
The facade of our perfect life began to crumble in early 2016. One cold February day, after much soul-searching, I came to the conclusion that I hated my new job. I wanted out even more than my supervisor wanted me to leave. But our debt was suffocating, and it limited my options.
From that day on, I was entirely consumed by paying off my student loan debt. Nothing could stand in our way.
Our Payoff Strategy
When my wife and I decided to pay off my loans, we decided to do it quickly. We knew we could sacrifice for a short while, even if it hurt, as long as it freed up cash in our budget to make large payments. We cut out almost every unnecessary expense: eating out, non-basic groceries, movies, clothing, and unused subscriptions and memberships. We ate very simply and spent many quiet evenings at home.
Much to our surprise, few people noticed our extreme frugality. Most who did were surprisingly supportive and understanding of our sacrifices, but we still had our detractors. A few people suggested that we were “going overboard” with our new plan. Others told us to “lighten up a bit” and “have some fun.” We stopped spending time with those friends for the duration of our payoff plan.
Our frugality alone propelled our plan forward and allowed us to pay off nearly $2,400 in February, our first month of our journey. I don’t remember seeing the inside of a restaurant, Target, or Banana Republic during this time. We encountered a few unexpected expenses over the next several weeks which followed, but we were still able to pay off an additional $1,100 in March.
April was a dream month for our monthly budget: my wife and I each received three pay checks. Even our modest educator salaries, when combined with our ongoing frugality, allowed us to pay off over $4,000 that month. Yet the finish line still seemed like a faint mirage on the horizon.
After over a month of sacrifice, we still owed $10,166.37.
I became discouraged around this time and thought about giving up. My wife urged me to keep my eyes on our goal and suggested that I finally start my own website to share about our journey and help others who were struggling to make sense of life’s money problems. I officially launched FinanceSuperhero.com on April 1, 2016.
Reaching the Finish Line
In my discouraged state, I reviewed our financial big picture and found a glimmer of hope. Some quick math revealed that we had more than enough money in our emergency fund to wipe out my remaining student loan debt.
We faced a dilemma. Our large emergency fund was our security blanket. It gave us peace. But neither of us could shake the uncontrollable urge to wipe out our debt.
We knew that if the situation were reversed, we would not take out a loan at 6.5% to build an emergency fund. And we knew that even after spending this money, we would still be in position to protect ourselves against virtually any unexpected emergencies. Moments later, my hand trembled as I submitted a payment in the amount of $10,166.37 and ended our 54 day journey toward freedom from student loan debt once and for all.
Lessons Learned During the Journey
I’ll always remember the day we made our final student loan payment. We learned so much during our 54 day journey. Paying off my student loans so quickly was a big challenge, but the resulting freedom and opportunities to pursue my passions are benefits which I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I would be lying if I said it was easy to focus on the finish line for 54 straight days. Our methods may not be realistic in your circumstances. But don’t be afraid to bet on yourself and take reasonable risks to achieve debt freedom. It may be uncomfortable, even scary, but it is worth noting that sometimes the biggest risks are those which you do not take.
Living frugally did not come naturally to us. Each day was a new battle which tested our resolve. But we were willing to do nearly anything to break free from our debt as soon as possible. In the darkest moments, our vision for a better future was what kept us moving forward.
Life Without Student Loan Debt
It has been nearly a year since we escaped student loan debt. Even though the excitement has worn off a bit, the benefits of freedom continue on. Before paying off my student loans, I was unhappy, unmotivated, and stressed out. I felt stuck. Today, we are able to save for retirement, give to others in need, and pursue meaningful, enjoyable work.
If you’re stuck in student loan debt, the best step you can take is to search your heart and mind for the reasons why you want to achieve debt freedom. Once you’ve found your “why,” remind yourself – daily – of what is at stake. Let your vision for a better future for you and your family provide the constant motivation you need to succeed.
Ultimately, there is no quick and easy way to finesse your way out of any debt. It will require hard work, sacrifice, and dedication. Your mountain of debt might seem insurmountable. But countless debt freedom stories like ours prove that it can be done. Your circumstances may be challenging, but your story of breaking free from debt can be just as sweet.
David Cahill is a former school administrator who returned to the classroom. He and his wife paid off over $17,000 of student loan debt in only 54 days. Today, he owns the personal finance website FinanceSuperhero.com, where he writes about life’s money problems and living your best life.