In 2015, I set an intention to pay off as much of my student loan debt as possible. I kept the goal vague because I didn’t want to set the bar too high and fail. Instead of emphatically stating that I wanted to pay off all $47,554 of debt that I carried, I considered the possibility of paying off in one year. I wondered what it would look like. What would it take? I got curious. Then, I got to work.
As of December 14, 2015, I paid off $42,851. In one year, I paid off almost $43,000 in student loan debt. (In January, 2016, I’ll pay off approximately $2,800 more.) I’ve learned a lot of lessons from the experience. For instance…
1. Start where you are.
When I started my debt payoff project, I was a 39-year-old adjunct professor. For each of the five years prior, I didn’t make over $30,000. For a few of those years, I made less than $20,000. I took a long, hard look at what I was working with. I listed out all the tools I had at my disposal – my car, people I could ask for work references, technical skills, stories to tell, wardrobe pieces, people to call in my network if I needed a referral. Once I had my list, I realized: You have more resources available to you than you might think. Even listing “internet access” can make you understand how many tools you have for changing your life.
That list did something else for me, as well. It made me see how much I had to be grateful for – despite my financial predicament. Good things are built from gratitude. If you’re going to start where you are, then be where you’re most able to be grateful.
2. It’s a numbers game.
Never in my life have I had so much fun with math. I didn’t just love all the subtraction (in watching the balance go down) but I also loved all the addition (in watching the payments take shape.) Every day, I applied some type of side hustle: focus groups, part-time tutoring or scoring jobs, writing assignments, etc. Some of them I interviewed for and didn’t get. Some of them I did get. A few of them I didn’t really want, but thought it was worth throwing my hat in the ring as a message to the universe (that I was serious.) As I took on extra work, I took in extra income. I put together larger debt payments. I loved to see what I could pull together in a month.
The more you put yourself out there, the more opportunities you’ll create to make money. Only you can manage your time, but it is beneficial, during a debt payoff project, to take on as much extra work as you can. The more work you take on, the more money you make, and the more you can pay off – quickly.
3. Your support system is invaluable.
Your parents and friends might think that it’s “neat” that you’re taking on such a project. Or, they might feel threatened. They might see your progress as an affront to their own consumer lifestyles. Your project may be met with trepidation and misunderstanding. It might be met with flat out hostility. Don’t get discouraged. There is a very large and welcoming online community that is ready to cheer you on and help you out. The personal finance blogosphere is filled with enthusiastic folk who are ready to champion your cause: debt freedom.
Start a blog, get on Twitter, and comment on other personal finance sites. You’ll suddenly find yourself surrounded by like-minded individuals who understand that mindful spending makes for a much happier life. These are people who are paying off mortgages, retiring early, building impressive net worths, successfully creating workable budgets, and pursuing their dreams with considerable peace of mind. And they’ll continuously lift your spirits through the daunting process of paying off debt.
4. You are not exceptional.
You know all those folks in the personal finance community that I mentioned? Well, a lot of them have done what you’re doing. When I first started my debt payoff journey, I thought, “What if I could pay off all $48,000 in one year?” I thought it would be unheard of. I thought that I’d have to field media calls and that I’d be featured on the TODAY show. (I might be exaggerating a little.) As I got more involved in both my project and the personal finance community, I discovered more and more inspirational stories to read. I realized that the story of rapid debt repayment is no longer novel. More people are taking back their power and paying off their debt. I read these stories and realize that I am not exceptional – and that is a VERY good thing.
The more people who do it – who pay off their debt – means the more people who CAN do it. It’s possible. Look at all these other debt fighters! Reading their stories can keep you afloat. Becoming one of them can save your [financial] life.
5. You can follow through.
One of my biggest fears during my debt payoff project was that I would pay off some – or even most – of the balance and feel like that was good enough. For years, I’ve struggled with follow-through. I’ve let drafts and dreams sit for years for a variety of reasons. A few reasons involve fear. A few reasons involve indecision. Mostly, though, I told myself that my lack of follow-through had something to do with my poor character. I was lazy and unreliable. I couldn’t always finish what I started.
Well, some combination of determination and support (from friends and the personal finance community) kept me on track. I felt as if I were accountable, and I didn’t want my story to be a let down. I wanted my story added to the pile of inspirational success stories. That motivation alone kept me taking on extra work and keeping a close eye on my spending. When I felt my motivation wane, I wrote a post about it on Dream Beyond Debt. The personal finance community offered their support and encouragement.
As the end of the year approached and I looked back on my progress, I realized how disappointed I would be if I didn’t follow-through. I finally created stakes that I cared about. When I make that final payment, I’ll be over the moon. Not only will I have paid off $48,000, but I will have followed through. I had something to prove to myself. I have follow-through. I just had to find it – somewhere in the midst of the tools at my disposal, the personal finance community, my own self-importance, and the willingness to learn more about myself as I pass a major financial milestone.
If you take on a big financial project or goal, you will learn a lot about who you are and what you can do. Don’t be afraid. A few of the lessons are harder than others, but each and ever one of them is a revelation that can change your life if you let it.
Update: Since this is one of my more popular posts, I wanted to come back and give you all some of my favorite resources for paying off student loan debt and for paying off debt in general. Not all of the information in each of these may be for you but I think you’ll find at least parts of them very helpful. If you have any other suggestions please let me know!