Kate’s total student loan debt from her undergraduate degree and her law degree totaled $104,901. Her original principal balance was only $81,241, but that number grew to over six figures due to a combination of deferments and income-based repayments which didn’t even cover the interest that accrued on the loans.

“I had so much student loan debt to begin with because I used student loans almost exclusively to fund my education,” the voice behind the blog, That Debt Free Life said. “Sure, I did get some scholarships, particularly in law school, which was very helpful, but my parents weren’t able to contribute financially to my education. And though I did work some while in undergrad, I used the money to live on, and not for tuition.”

Kate shares how she paid her student loans off, and her advice for how you can to: 

Tell us about the process of paying off your student loan debt? How did you accomplish this?

I use a zero-based budget to budget my income down to the penny. With a zero-based budget, you budget every single penny of income you earn. For example, if your monthly income is $3,000, your budget should allocate $3,000 across all budget categories. That way, you know exactly where your money is going.

When I decided to get serious about paying off my student loans, I started with my budget as a guide to determine how much extra I could send to my debt each month. I created a budget that allowed me to send an extra $1,000 per month to student loans, but even that plan wouldn’t get me debt free for six years. And I wanted the debt gone sooner than that. I knew somehow I could get paid off faster, even though the numbers didn’t add up.

So, I stepped out in faith, and did whatever I could to speed the process up. I religiously budgeted down to the penny and sent anything extra to the debt. I sold clutter from my home — items that I wasn’t using and that were just taking up space — furniture, tools, toys, books, jewelry — you name it, I decluttered and sold it.

I also consistently looked for ways to both increase my income and decrease my expenses.

On the income side, I worked a lot of overtime. I worked overtime consistently, making sure to rack up at least a few hours every week. I also brought in some additional income through blogging and offering my services as a financial coach to the readers of my blog and Instagram followers.

On the expenses side, we cut lots of things we don’t even miss including paying for a storage unit, a family membership to the YMCA and satellite radio. I also stopped getting my nails done, and we cut our monthly memberships.

Finally, I used the debt snowball method to pay down my student loans. With the debt snowball, you pay off your debts from smallest to largest. You simply list all your debts, by total amount owed, from smallest to largest. You pay minimums on all your debts. Then, you throw every extra penny you can find at the smallest debt. Once that debt is paid, you take the amount you were sending to that debt (minimum + extra) and throw it at the second debt.

Your debt snowball starts rolling and gaining momentum, and before you know it, your knocking out debt left and right.

What’s one of the most memorable ways you saved money during this debt repayment time?

We tried to avoid spending money on anything that wasn’t an absolute necessity. We weren’t perfect all the time, but we did manage to sacrifice in a few areas. The tile in our kitchen, for example, cracked in several places, but we vowed we could deal with a few cracked tiles while we paid off the debt. The sheets on our bed split at the seams—we didn’t replace them until we got out of debt. Our gas cooktop is terrible—it takes at least half an hour to boil water, but it still worked, so it wasn’t an absolute necessity to replace. We lived by this tenet espoused by financial guru Dave Ramsey: “To the exclusion of virtually everything else, I’m getting out of debt!”

What do you think is the biggest mistake people make when paying off student loan debt?

Thinking that they won’t be able to pay them off and not starting sooner as a result and/or simply paying the minimums according to the lender’s plan.

If I stayed on my lender’s plan, it would have taken me 20 years to make off my student loans instead of 3. What’s more, I would have paid thousands upon thousands more in interest if I had simply paid the minimums my lenders wanted me to.

The sheer amount of student loan debt a borrower has can be enough to overwhelm him or her into immobilization. I felt the same way before I aggressively began paying off my loans. I thought the loans would never be paid, and so I didn’t even try to pay them off. But when I sat down and started making a plan and when I finally got tired of the lack of options student loan debt brought to my life, I took action.

What advice would you give to others dealing with student loan debt?

Make a plan to pay it all off as fast as humanly possible. Student loan debt doesn’t have to be a life sentence.

Pick a debt pay off strategy and work that plan with unshakeable determination. Use a zero-based budget—it is the number one tool that has helped me get my finances in order and be able to get out of debt.

Throw every extra penny to debt. Ask yourself before you spend money on anything — “Do I want [this thing] more than I want debt freedom?”

Surround yourself with like-minded individuals. The #debtfreecommunity on Instagram is full of hundreds of borrowers working enthusiastically to pay off their debts in record time.

Forget about motivation. This may sound counterintuitive, but it doesn’t matter if you’re motivated or not. People always say things like “I’m just not motivated to do X.” Or, “I’ve lost my motivation to do Y.” And they use that lack of motivation as an excuse to do nothing. But you know what? The difference between those who get out of debt and those who don’t, isn’t that those who succeed are more motivated. Motivation literally has nothing to do with it. Regardless of your motivation level, there is one thing that will always drive your behavior: your level of discipline. 

Stated another way: You will never always be motivated, so you must learn to be disciplined.

Being disciplined means you do that thing you know you are supposed to be doing even when you don’t feel like doing it. Working more overtime. Giving up eating out because “we have food at home.” Committing to staying within budget. Making a budget in the first place. Staying out of stores that encourage you to spend money. Saying no to that fancy vacation.

When you are disciplined, you do it even when you don’t feel like it.

When it comes down to it, you only need 2 things to be successful with money: (1) knowledge and (2) discipline. So, forget motivation. Suck it up, and do it anyway. It won’t be forever, even though sometimes it may feel like it! You can do this!

Dealing with student loan debt?

If you’re dealing with private student loan debt, consider if refinancing your student loan is right for you. You can potentially lower your interest rate and save more money. Credible allows you to compare rates from various lenders without impacting your credit. 

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