(Zina Kumok writes about paying off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years. She has been featured in Time, RetailMeNot, and Daily Worth. You can read her blog, Conscious Coins, to get more advice on budgeting, saving and paying off debt.)
When I was in school, I knew I was racking up thousands in student loans. But so were all my friends. We’d joke about it and mention it casually, but no one ever worried about paying them back. Even I, a journalism major, didn’t wonder how my reporter salary would allow me to pay back all my loans and live like I was still in college.
It was only when I started my first job, right before the six-month grace period on my loans ended, that I realized how little I made. After paying all my bills and saving for an emergency fund, I only had enough to make the minimum $350 payment on my student loans.
Getting mad and taking action
I was so frustrated. I couldn’t believe I had worked so hard in school, sent out hundreds of job applications only to be poor. It’s not like I couldn’t afford food or bills, but there was no way I could pay back my loans quickly, let alone travel or enjoy my 20s.
So I got mad. I started thinking about every dollar I had and where it would go. One day I stopped by a Redbox and spent 5 minutes deciding if I should really spend $1 on a movie. Every cent that I spent couldn’t be put toward my loans.
I hustled. I put birthday money, freelance income – anything extra I had, I put toward my loans. Twice a year I got an extra paycheck a month – that also went toward my loans. It wasn’t until I got a new job and moved down to where my boyfriend lived that I could finally start putting an extra $400 toward my loans. A year later I moved in with my fiancé and a friend. Finally having roommates meant that I could put another $200 toward my loans. I spent about a year putting more than 50% of my take-home pay toward my debt.
The burden of debt
My debt was financial, but it was also emotional. It was a burden I couldn’t shake. How could I justify going on vacation with my friends, buying new clothes, having a nice apartment when I owed just as much as I made?
I can’t count how many times I would buy something only to feel guilty and return it. These were the years that I discovered Goodwill and thrift stores. I scrounged for the best cash-back credit card deals and opened and closed more bank accounts than I can count just to get the opening bonuses (sometimes up to $200 each).
I think the craziest I ever got was when I was going on vacation for 10 days and called my internet company to see if I could cancel the service while I was out. But the reinstall fee would be more than I would save.
How I stayed motivated
What kept me especially motivated to pay off my loans quickly was my boyfriend. We had been dating for two years when we graduated, but he didn’t have any student loans. I knew that we would get married in a few years and I didn’t want my debt to become ours. I wanted to pay off my loans before we got married and I didn’t want to make him wait too long.
Now that I’ll be debt-free in a matter of weeks, I find myself loosening up. When I go to the grocery store, I don’t worry about buying things I really want. For a while I worried that when I got rid of my debt, my old spendthrift ways would come back to bite me.
In college I would get take-out even when my fridge was full, buy clothes when my closet was packed, go shopping even when my savings account was empty. But last week, even on my birthday, I found myself leaving the mall earlier than I planned. I’m excited to create my new budget and live a debt-free life.