When 31-year-old Priscilla Jones completed her MFA in film in 2011, she was left with a total of $96,000 of student loan debt from both her undergraduate and graduate studies. (She requested that we change her name for privacy reasons). Over the next three years, thanks to compounding interest charges, the original amount ballooned to $118,000. On her current payment plan, it would take another 15 years to pay off all her debt.
Rather than dragging the process out, she and her husband (we’ll call him Nathan), decided to aggressively pay down her debt. Over the next 22 months, they paid off $100,000 of the original loan balance — all while raising a young child in Los Angeles.
Here’s how they did it:
Making a pact
While Nathan, 41, was fully aware of Priscilla’s debt load when they got married in 2011, it wasn’t until 2014 — on Valentine’s Day, to be exact — when the couple opened the hood on Priscilla’s student loans to uncover what was lurking underneath.
“For the first few years of our marriage, we just couldn’t afford to buckle down to pay them off, so we didn’t really take a close look,” says Nathan.
The catalyst for examining Priscilla’s loans? In less than two months, one of the largest loans Priscilla carried — a total of $88,000 — would come out of forbearance. The additional loan payment would triple their monthly bill from $300 to $900. Two weeks later, they decided to dump their savings accounts, putting $24,000 toward her largest debt.
And then they made a pact: They would do everything they could to pay off the loans within three years.
On top of working a full-time job in operations at a tech startup, Priscilla took side jobs, working an additional 20 to 30 hours a week. She kept $600 a month from her salary for personal spending and used the rest to pay off her student loans. She and Nathan made sure to keep $5,000 to $10,000 in an emergency fund at all times.
Bonuses and promotions
They lived off of Nathan’s salary in management at a tech startup, and Nathan’s work bonuses went straight toward paying off the debt. When Nathan started his current job in 2012, he earned $53,000, including bonuses. His company soon saw tremendous growth. As a result, Nathan quickly ascended the ranks, and his income spiked dramatically. The couple’s combined salary in 2014 was $170k and $160k in 2015, and every penny they could pinch went toward their debt load.
“We think of ourselves as being very fortunate,” says Nathan. “But even if my income hadn’t grown as it did, we would’ve used the same mindset and tactics to pay off our loans. Instead of it taking three years, it would’ve taken 10.”
Never ‘act your wage’
Although they were in a high income bracket, no one would have guessed as much by looking at their spending habits. They lived as frugally as possible to focus on paying off the student loans. They stayed in the two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Venice that Nathan had locked down at a low rate during the recession. They drove two beat-up cars that were paid off in full and had good gas mileage.
“We really had to examine our needs versus wants,” says Priscilla. While they’ve never been big spenders, and value community and experiences, they had to put some of their wants on hold. For instance, Nathan, who loves to invest, contributed just the minimum toward his employer’s 401(k) to qualify for the full matching contribution. Priscilla curbed any frivolous spending on clothes. They also put off getting new carpet and furniture, both of which needed desperately to be replaced.
They shopped at the Dollar Store, didn’t buy clothes that required dry cleaning, and refrained from traveling for pleasure. They paid as many bills as they could on their credit cards, which were paid in full each month. Any reward points they racked up went toward gift cards for restaurants and movies. A rare dinner out would be at El Pollo Loco or In-N-Out Burger.
“We turned it into a game, and had fun with it,” explains Priscilla. For instance, the couple placed a chalkboard in their kitchen and wrote on it the outstanding debt amounts and interest rates, along with specific dates for hitting their goals.
The ‘avalanche’ method
To prioritize which debts would be paid off first, they decided to use the ‘debt avalanche’ method. They aggressively knocked off the loan with the highest interest rate first, then worked their way down. They would challenge each other to save as much as they could toward paying off the loan. “Working together to pay off debt helped us bond,” adds Nathan.
“To stay motivated, we would obsessively calculate how much interest we were paying each day,” says Priscilla. “At one point we were paying $37 a day in interest alone.”
Taking time to celebrate
When they reached a debt payoff total of $100,000 in February 2015, they decided to ease up on their loan repayments. To celebrate, they rented a limo and had a night out on the town. They also finally were able to give their apartment a facelift. “We no longer have to move furniture around to hide the holes in the carpet anymore,” Priscilla says.
In September of this year, the couple made their final loan repayment and are completely debt- free.
They say that it’s essential to maintain perspective when paying off student debt.
“Remember, you’re not dying,” Nathan says. “Just focus on paying it off, and your debt will get crushed.”
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