As a millennial, I fell into that period of time where it was expected that if you had any intentions of being at all successful in life, you must go to college. And lucky for me, my parents are not college grads nor had they saved any money for my college expenses. Society (and my parents) told me utter lies like “it’s an investment into your future” and “college debt is good debt.” But let’s just be clear here. There is no such thing as “good debt.” Both my husband and I went to a state school, worked hard for scholarships, lived on shoestring budgets, and had jobs all through college, but our parents left us to fend for ourselves financially, and we both graduated with around $25,000 in student debt. This is slightly below average, but when you get married shortly after college to someone in the same boat as you are, you hit the student loan jackpot and double your winnings! And then we got even more lucky when we graduated during the recession and struggled to find jobs. Hooray! In short, we spent the first few years out of college living abroad, job-hopping, working part-time, struggling to pay our bills…yet we managed to pay off $50,000 in student debt within 4 years of graduating, and we really didn’t even start making progress until the last year and a half. How did we pay off $50,000 of debt in a year and a half while both working at nonprofits? With a whole lot of determination and a big slice of discipline! Here are some of the key factors:
You gotta want it.
Paying off a large amount of debt on a little bit of income is not for the weak of heart. It is hard – sometimes, brutally hard with literal blood, sweat, and tears involved. I’ll tell you right now that it is absolutely worth it to experience the freedom of debt-free living, but when you’re in the middle of the fight, it can feel like nothing could be worth the stress. But don’t give up. Get mad and get fired up – WANT it! You have to make a plan, and you have to stick to it. This isn’t your mama’s New Year’s Resolution!
Become a budget ninja.
You can find more details about how I budget, but the key point is that you need to track every penny you spend in order to be fully in control and aware of your money. You need to set limits on how much you will spend, and you need to stick to them!
See the light at the end of the tunnel.
Creating a budget will also allow you to plan for the future. You’ll be able to see how much you can put towards your debt each month and create a timeline for when it will be paid off completely. Knowing when you’ll be done and having that to look forward to will help keep you on track. Creating the goal for myself to pay off our debt before my 25th birthday was a huge motivating factor.
Don’t give into peer pressure.
We interact on a regular basis with a lot of different people. Some help motivate us to stay on track, but some make it really, really hard. When we look around seeing our friends going out to eat every night, buying new and expensive clothes on the regular, moving into fancy houses, or pulling up in a brand new ride…it can be very hard to not feel like we need those things, too. It can be hard to resist invitations to go out for drinks or go to the movies, and it can be hard to not feel inadequate when you’re still living in that small apartment driving that same old vehicle. But you know what feels really good? When you’re debt-free and those people are trying to fend off bankruptcy. Delayed gratification is a beautiful thing.
Work hard to play hard.
Maybe you work at a near minimum wage job even though you have a Bachelor’s degree. Maybe you work part-time because you’ve applied to over 60 full-time jobs and didn’t get one interview. Maybe you have to take a job that you’re overqualified for just to get your foot in the door. Maybe you are working full-time but just want to speed up the process. These are all true scenarios that my husband and I went through while we were trying to pay off our loans. It actually wasn’t until about the last year and a half of our four-year debt-battle that we were both working full-time (and both at not-particularly-lucrative nonprofit jobs, at that!). But when you’re determined to pay off debt, you have to be ready to work. We were always picking up odd-jobs – dog-sitting, house-sitting, baby-sitting, playing music for weddings, etc. My husband taught himself to code so he could do freelance web development in addition to his day job. If you want to play hard in your debt-free future, you have to work hard today.
Celebrate your wins!
Being debt-free is truly a reward in and of itself, but don’t be afraid to add a little more motivation. Maybe you want to plan to take a vacation or get a puppy or go out to a fancy dinner or even just experience the pure pleasure of bragging on social media! Don’t be afraid to celebrate and shout it from the mountaintops that you are debt-free!