Modest Salary, Epic Student Loans: How 3 People Are Paying Off Big Balances

Modest Salary, Epic Student Loans: How 3 People Are Paying Off Big Balances

$35,051.

That’s how much student-loan debt the average class of 2015 graduate carries, according to college-resource site Edvisors.

That’s more than the price of a new car, higher than the average home down payment—and nearly five times what the average household has accrued in credit card debt.

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In other words, it’s a hefty burden for a twenty-something living off a starter salary—and no doubt questioning how they’ll ever pay it off.

But it is possible to put a dent in that balance—and pay it off early—even when it seems like you barely make enough to cover your day-to-day bills.

Don’t believe us?

Check out the crafty ways these recent grads are making serious headway on their five—and six!—figure student-loan balances, all in the name of becoming debt-free as soon as possible.

davidjill“We live off one income—and use the other to pay down our loans.”

Who: David Ilgenfritz, owner of a lifestyle apparel company, and Jill Ilgenfritz, medical lab assistant, Hamilton, Mont.

Total Student-Loan Debt: $34,000

Combined Income: $48,000

Our Plan of Attack for Paying It Off: “When we got married in November 2014, one of our priorities was to figure out creative ways to chip away at our combined debt.

Because my $17,500 loan has a much higher interest rate than Jill’s $16,500 loan—7.8% versus her 3.7%—we decided to accelerate payments on mine first. Currently, we put at least $1,000 toward my loan and pay at least $375 on her loan.

Since our goal is to pay off both loans as soon as possible, we also decided to live off my paycheck (about $2,500 a month), so that Jill’s $1,500 monthly take-home pay could go toward the debt.

Of course, being frugal is a huge part of being able to live off one paycheck. We don’t eat out other than on planned date nights, and we make sure to shop the grocery sales. We walk or bike to most places to save on gas. And we got a great deal on our house by renting through family friends.

We also have side gigs—I do freelance web design and SEO, while Jill does some freelance writing—which can bring in another $1,000 or so a month. We throw almost all of that income toward our debt.

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My favorite way to save money, however, is to brew my own beer. I can make an entire batch for about $30, which yields 50 to 60 bottles. So a beer after work costs me 50 to 60 cents—compared to the $10 you’d pay for a good microbrew six-pack.

Our Ultimate Pay-Down Goal: We’re currently on a 20-year repayment plan, but by putting more time into freelancing, we hope to pay off our loans in one to two years!”

jessica“I cut out creature comforts to throw more money at my loans.”

Who: Jessica Lovejoy, content marketing manager, Columbus, Ohio

Total Student-Loan Debt: $60,000

Income: $50,000

My Plan of Attack for Paying It Off: “I work for a marketing agency that represents lawyers, and one of my clients is a bankruptcy attorney. Researching and writing about debt-related issues for him has given me an eye-opening crash course in personal finance.

I never fully understood, for example, how capitalized interest worked—that any unpaid interest you accrue on your student loans is tacked onto your principal, which means you pay interest on your interest.

That sort of knowledge lit a fire under me to pay off my debt quickly. But in order to do that, I knew I had to change my lifestyle.

“I went to school during the recession, so my interest rates were through the roof, between 6% and 10%.”

For instance, I’ve gone from being an active gym-goer to sticking to running outdoors and doing yoga at home. And I’ve given up vacations for now, recently turning down a trip to Hawaii with friends because it would have cost me well over $1,000.

My biggest move, however, was giving up my $600 one-bedroom apartment to share a two-bedroom with a roommate, which cut my rent to about $375.

In a nutshell, any money that doesn’t go toward rent, groceries, gas and my car payment goes to my student loans.

It can be a bummer to live on a shoestring budget when I’m making $50,000 a year. But as a result of my cost-cutting, I was recently able to throw $2,000 at my student loans—way above the $600 minimum payment.

My Ultimate Pay-Down Goal: I’m currently on a 10-year repayment plan,
but if I can continue putting $2,000 or more toward my loan—which I’m definitely striving for—I could be debt free in less than two years.”

Robin Rectenwald“I refinanced my loans—and use the snowball method to pay them.”

Who: Robin Rectenwald, nonprofit public relations professional, Pittsburgh

Total Student-Loan Debt: $100,000

Income: Under $50,000

My Plan of Attack for Paying It Off: “Even though I received scholarships, worked two jobs and had paid internships, I still had to take out a lot of public and private loans to cover my college costs.

By the time I graduated, I had 20 loans to my name, with balances ranging between $1,000 and $12,000.

What made it worse is that I went to school during the recession, so my interest rates were through the roof, between 6% and 10%.

Before I even landed a job, I was stressed about how I’d pay down my student loans, so I sought out some financial planners for advice—but couldn’t afford their fees. Finally, one decided to help me pro bono because his wife had struggled with college debt and he sympathized with my situation.

With his help, I came up with a plan to tackle my loans.

Foremost was starting to keep a budget. This was important because my starting pay was only $29,000—a small amount to live off.

The biggest eye-opener from learning to track my spending was seeing how much I spent on going out—anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a month. Now, I try to cap my entertainment budget to $200 a month.

The other big decision I made was to refinance my eight private loans. I was able to consolidate them into one loan with a 5% interest rate, bringing down the monthly minimum due across all my loans from $980 to $540.

These moves have helped me put an extra $500 a month above the minimum toward my balances using the snowball method, in which you pay down the lowest balances first—and, incidentally, my lowest-balance loans also happen to be my highest-interest ones since refinancing. So far, I’ve been able to pay off six of my loans, and I expect to pay off another by this November.

But it’s not just my student loans I want to make progress on. To boost my savings, I moved in with my parents this year, even though I have a new, higher-paying job doing PR at a nonprofit for veterans.

Between cutting out my $625 in rent, working a part-time weekend sales job and bringing home a bigger paycheck, I’m saving between $1,300 and $1,600 a month.

My Ultimate Pay-Down Goal: At the rate I’m going, I’ll be able to pay off my student loans by the time I’m 30.

I’ve read a lot of articles about how my generation is waiting to make big purchases, like houses and cars, because of student loans—and that’s 100% accurate.

At times, it’s stressful knowing that each month one-third of my paycheck is going toward student loans.

But it’s important for me to be student-loan-free in my thirties, and the sacrifices I’m making now are helping me get there.”

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LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc., that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed, linked to or otherwise appearing in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies. LearnVest, Inc., is wholly owned by NM Planning, LLC, a subsidiary of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company.

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