I first started this site to share our debt free story and help families get out of debt. I’ve shared bits and pieces of our debt free story, but never the full sha-bang. Well here it is. On May 27, 2017 my wife and I became debt free, paying off $73,000 of student loans in just under four years. In this post, I want to show you exactly how we did it and give you hope that it’s absolutely possible to pay off your own student loans (or any debt you have)!
Becoming Debt Free Takes Hard Work and Willingness to Change
I am going to be upfront, becoming debt free is no joke. It’s hard work and sometimes downright sucks. It also takes humility and flexibility to make lifestyle changes. If you can do that and make getting out of debt a top priority, I know you will do what it takes to get it done.
My wife and I officially started tracking our debt in August, 2014, and at that time, we had a combined total of $87,786.12 in student loan debt. It was pretty daunting. We both had careers as middle school teachers at a low income school, making a combined $52,000 or so a year take home pay.
It was awesome to have great jobs that we loved, but we knew that with such low salaries, it would take a long time to pay off our loans. We needed some motivation. We needed a WHY.
For us, it was pretty simple. We wanted to start a family, buy a house, and my wife really wanted to get a dog. Sounds like the classic American Dream right? Except, there was no way we could afford to do any of those things with our massive student loan debt looming over our heads.
The new plan became, get out of debt as fast as possible so we can start a family and buy a house. This was a huge motivating factor when we became frustrated and annoyed with our debt and tight budget. If you truly want to pay off your student loans, you need to have a strong WHY to keep you motivated in the tough times, because trust me, there will be tough times.
We Started Making Some Changes
If we stuck to the minimum payments on our loans, it would have taken us 25 years to pay off our student loans. By that time it would be way too late to start a family. Most student loans have a standard 10 year repayment plan, but I couldn’t afford to make payments on my loans before we got married. So I did something really dumb. I extended the payment plan to 25 years to lower my monthly payments. So, if we wanted our loans gone sooner, we needed to change our lifestyles.
Side note: Never, ever extend your repayment plan! Try to figure out a way around it.
So What Did We Actually Change to Get Out of Debt?
1. We Started Using a Budget
A few months after Jenna and I started dating, we both created an individual budget to actually track our expenses. It was a simple spreadsheet, but it showed us where we were spending our money, how much we were spending, and if we could do anything to free up extra cash.
We prioritized our spending, cutting anything that was unnecessary. I’m amazed at how easy it was to cut expenses out of our lives and save money. The first things to go were cable, clothes, high priced food items like cereal, and entertainment expenses. By doing this, we found that we had extra money at the end of the month that we could throw at our student loans.
Related Post: Breaking Down a Budget
2. We Stopped Going Out to Eat
This was one of the more difficult sacrifices to adjust to. Being in our mid-late twenties, it was pretty normal for us to go out for drinks or grab food with friends 2-3 times a week. It was one of our favorite ways of being in community and having fun. Going from several times a week to never was pretty drastic.
If you’ve never looked at how much money you spend dining out, even if it’s just drinks, I challenge you to track it for a month or two. Don’t change your habits, simply track how much you spend. I think you will be pretty shocked at how quickly it adds up. I know I was! We easily spent $200-250 each month at our favorite spots. Stretch that over a year, and we were wasting $2,500! Yikes!
We made pretty simple rules for ourselves to avoid any gray area. The rule was, we only buy food items from the grocery store and it has to come out of our monthly food budget. At the time our monthly food budget was only $250, or about $60 a week. That meant we couldn’t buy Caribou, Starbucks, or even crappy gas station coffee. No fast food of any kind. No drinks with friends. Absolutely zero!
As a result, we saved boat loads of money every month that we could pour into extra student loan payments. After a few months, we got into a rhythm, and it wasn’t a big deal for us anymore, just part of our lifestyle. We wanted our student loans gone so bad that we were willing to settle for just drinking water when we went out with friends.
3. We Got 2nd Jobs
We both love teaching, but we definitely didn’t get into this career for the money. Paying off mountains of student loans on a teaching salary alone is pretty tough, so we opted to increase our income with a second job. After jumping around in a couple minimum wage jobs, we got hired to work in a fine dining Italian restaurant. Jenna was a server and I was a bartender.
This is when we kicked it into high gear. In the state of Minnesota, we still made minimum wage, but now we were making cash tips on top of that! I think the first summer we made close to $10,000 just at the restaurant. It was pretty unreal, and all of it was extra, above and beyond what we needed for monthly expenses. As a result, all of it went to our student loans.
In addition to working at the restaurant, we took on extra responsibilities at our school. We both coached volleyball for three years, I got back into coaching basketball and ran an after school club, and Jenna joined an extra committee at the school we work at.
None of these extra gigs paid super well, but they did pay, and when trying to reach a financial goal, every penny counts! Looking back at our yearly budgets, we pulled in an extra $15-20K working our second jobs at the restaurant and through our extra responsibilities at the school. If you’re willing to work hard, you can really make progress on your loans!
4. We Planned Ahead for Bonuses and Extra Paychecks
In our budget, we track every single dollar that we make. It’s what Dave Ramsey refers to as the Zero-based budget. At the end of every month, our Income – Expenses = Zero. Always, and without exception. This doesn’t mean that we have ridiculously high expenses, but that we decide where each dollar goes before we make it, which includes savings accounts, retirement fund, etc.
If we know we are going to get a bonus or stipend, we talk about how we will spend it weeks, maybe months before we even see the money. This makes it easier to stick with our plan rather than impulsively spend it on something that runs counter to our goals.
We do the same thing for extra paychecks! Twice a year, the planets and stars align, and there are three paydays in one month. We base our budget on two pay periods per month, so when there are three, it’s all extra money! This is another area where we crushed our student loans. At the end of an extra paycheck month, we had a couple thousand dollars to add to our student loan payments! When you can pay your loans off $2,000 at a time, it really makes a difference!
5. We Paid Cash as Much as Possible
We are huge Dave Ramsey fans, and our early budget education came largely from his money philosophies. While we don’t love and agree with all of his stuff, one thing we still do is pay cash.
Every month, we take out enough cash to cover food, gas, household supplies (toilet paper, soap, etc), our date night fund, and a personal allowance for each of us. It is so much easier to say no to things we don’t need when we are forced to physically fork over the cash. It also helps us not over spend because when the money is gone, we can’t buy anything else.
6. We Declared Tithing a Non-negotiable
I truly believe that our budget worked so well these last four years because we committed ourselves to tithing every single month. If you aren’t familiar with tithing, it’s giving 10% of your income to your local church. As followers of Jesus, we believe that he blesses us for being obedient and tithing is just a small part of that.
Related Post: Why We Tithe
7. We Celebrated Milestones Big and Small
One way we kept our momentum going was to celebrate every milestone. Every time we paid off a loan, we found a small way to celebrate. Sometimes we bought a bottle of wine or champagne, other times we broke our going out to dinner rule to buy dessert and a martini.
These mini-celebrations helped break our goals into smaller pieces and motivated us to keep working hard. It was also a great way to acknowledge all of our hard work and accomplishments. It doesn’t need to big and lavish, but it’s so important to celebrate!
8. We Took Advantage of Loan Forgiveness Programs
When we got married, we actually had $90,000 of student loan debt, not $73,000. However, we are lucky in that one of Jenna’s loans qualifies for federal student loan forgiveness if she works for five consecutive years in a low income school district. Because she does work in a low income district, $17,500 of her federal loan will be forgiven. That’s crazy!
That also means, we get to keep that much money and allocate it toward other goals. I highly encourage you to check to see if any of your loans qualify for forgiveness and don’t pay a penny more than you need to.
9. We Found Tools and Resources to Help Us
I’ve alluded to this throughout the post, but we didn’t do this alone and we most certainly didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. There are tons of great resources available to help you budget, track your spending and debt, and move you toward your goals. I will only share what we actually used and how it helped us.
If you are looking for help tracking your spending and making a budget, Mint is a great tool for you! In our initial budgeting phase, I used the mobile app to set spending goals and track what I was actually spending.
It’s pretty simple to set up. You connect the app to your bank account and every time you make a purchase, Mint automatically records it on the app. The cool part is you can create your own specific budgeting categories beforehand, as well as how much you want to budget per month.
For example, my grocery fund was $200 when I first started. I created a Groceries category and set my maximum spending at $200. Then, every time I bought something from the grocery store, Mint adjusted my remaining budget balance.
While Mint was awesome when I first started budgeting, I no longer use it today. Since I like to pay cash for a lot of everyday expenses, I had to take the extra steps to manually enter my transactions and assign it to a category. This wasn’t a huge issue, but I decided that I would just enter the information into my spreadsheet budget instead. As a result, I only used it for the first six months or so. However, I still think it’s a great tool, and highly recommend it!
Dave Ramsey Debt Snowball Will Accelerate Your Debt Payoff
As I mentioned, I am a huge fan of Dave Ramsey! Two facets of his philosophy I love are his Baby Steps program to find financial freedom and his Debt Snowball to get out of debt. Dave outlines 7 Baby Steps to move toward financial independence and freedom through your lifetime, and the second step is to get rid of all consumer debt. This is where the Debt Snowball comes into play.
I’m not going to explain all the nitty gritty details, here are the basics. First, you need to make a basic spreadsheet either on Xcel or Google Sheets. I prefer Google Sheets because I work with it more often. On the top row is a list of all of your debts from lowest to highest, as well as the minimum payment for each one.
On the left hand column, write the month/year in descending order starting with the current month. The idea is that at the end of each month, you add any extra money to the lowest debt until it is paid off completely.
The fun part comes when you pay off a loan. Now you take the minimum payment of your paid off loan and add it to your next lowest loan amount. Then add that to any extra money you have at the end of the month. This creates awesome acceleration and momentum, like throwing gas on a fire! Then continue the process until you are debt free! This is one of the biggest reasons we were able to pay off $73,000 of student loans in under four years.
Google Sheets is AWESOME!!!
Lastly, and most simply, we used Google Sheets to track our budget each month. They have awesome budgeting templates already built into the spreadsheets. All we did was download one and adjust the categories to match our finances. We found a neat one that helps us track how much we spend monthly, and yearly. Plus, it’s free and shareable to help create accountability and great communication with your significant other.
Related Post: Google Sheets Creates Open Communication
Wrapping it Up
Student loans suck, but you don’t have to be stuck with them forever. We aren’t anything special, and if we can pay off our loans, I truly believe that you can too. I hope our experience helps you to take control of your finances and start a legacy of financial freedom for your family!
Let Me Know in the Comments
How much do you owe in student loans? What sacrifices are you making to pay them off early?