I was 22 years old when I graduated from college with $50,000 in student loan debt.
When I try to think of other financial institutions that would give a 22-year-old with no work experience and no clear plan a $50,000 unsecured loan, I can’t come up with any.
Yet that’s what’s happening for approximately 44 million people — student loan borrowers each graduating with an average amount of $31,172 of debt.
When I got married I gained a wonderful husband and $24,000 more in student loan debt. Add that to my $4,000 auto loan, and we were starting the best years of our lives $78,000 in the hole.
It didn’t help our situation that I couldn’t get more than 25 hours of work per week and my husband couldn’t find a steady job for the first nine months of our marriage.
It seemed the odds were stacked against us. No one would have looked down on us for paying our monthly minimums while trying to get by on an acupuncturist’s and aircraft mechanic’s salaries.
But we had bigger plans for our lives. We wanted more than to just “get by.”
Instead of letting circumstances dictate our financial future, we decided to buck the odds and work toward becoming debt-free. We made changes in every area of our finances, and after 23 months of hard work and long hours, we made our last debt payment.
How to pay off debt when you don’t make a huge income
When you’re trying to dig yourself out of a big hole with a small shovel, you have to get creative and make intense short-term sacrifices.
A lot of the things we did weren’t sustainable. But they changed our routine enough that we could find lower-cost alternatives, more creative ways to earn and eventually build healthier financial habits.
Here are some of the best things we did to make big dents in our student loan debt.
We got side hustles
Because we couldn’t always earn bigger paychecks in our main jobs, we found ways to bolster our finances by earning more income at nights and on weekends.
First, we looked for opportunities to use our qualifications in side hustles. Using what you’re uniquely positioned to do will always be more lucrative than a side hustle anyone can do. I was an acupuncturist so in addition to my main job I did acupuncture one day a week at a rehabilitation center, and my husband assisted other mechanics with paperwork and logistical tasks.
Then we looked for ways we could earn extra income around our schedules. I still had availability on weekends, so I worked at a foster group home Saturdays and Sundays. It was a stressful job; if I could go back, I’d probably do something easier so I could have more energy in my precious little off-time.
We cut our (big) expenses
Saving $1 here or $5 there wouldn’t have been enough to make a dent in our budget. To find savings, we had to look at our largest expenses: housing and groceries.
Driving around neighborhoods close to work, we found a small one-bedroom duplex that wasn’t listed on any websites.
We negotiated with the landlord, and when he wouldn’t budge on the rent price, we agreed for him to include the water bill. Asking for something big that you don’t expect someone to do then following it up with a smaller, more reasonable ask is a negotiating tactic. It doesn’t always work, but it can help.
I also changed where I shopped for groceries. I loved walking down the aisles of my local grocery store. But the beautiful produce section and fully stocked shelves always caused me to leave with more than I came in for.
Shopping at Aldi instead instantly saved me hundreds every month. Its limited selection and unkempt appearance may not have been as pleasurable to shop, but they drastically lowered my impulse buys. The chain’s lower prices didn’t hurt, either.
We made it a game
Paying off debt wasn’t all deprivation and boredom, like some people believe. We got a thrill every time we made progress through an extra loan payment or saw a deposit from a side job. We capitalized on this feeling by adding elements of fun to the journey.
I drew a large thermometer, and we colored it in every time we made a payment. We celebrated milestones by eating out at quick-service restaurants instead of sit-downs. And we challenged ourselves to save money through no-spend challenges, where we couldn’t spend any money on non-essentials. It allowed us to think about our purchases instead of making them out of habit or just because they were in the budget.
Becoming debt free gave us a fresh start
Our student loan debt payoff was the fresh start we needed to make financial goals we would’ve never dreamed possible.
Today, we are investing for retirement, maintain a six-month emergency fund, and afford vacations with no guilt or worry about monthly payments toward consumer debt.
You don’t have to be tied down to student loans no matter what your situation is; you have a choice. Our story is proof that, by working hard for a little while, you can set the rest of your life up to do whatever you want.