Matt writes about his personal finance journey at Spills Spot. One of his biggest passions is to help fellow millennials become better at managing their finances. After paying off close to $20,000 of student loan debt in the past year, he hopes to show others that it's possible to win with money and reach their goals! Follow along his journey on his blog, and Twitter.
Student loans continue to be on the rise, and are one of the biggest issues millennials are currently facing. Over 70% of college graduates finish school with student loans, averaging around $35,000 in total.
My wife and I both graduated with student loan debt as well, combining for about $40,000. I guess you could consider us better than average with that amount, but it still felt like a huge burden that would take many years to successfully pay off.
After using the 6 month grace period and then making minimum payments for about a year and a half, it started to sink in about how serious our debt was and how much of a burden it felt on our shoulders.
This sparked me to want to learn as much as possible about personal finance. I started reading blogs, books, and listening to podcasts. I grew up with good financial advice from my parents and I was naturally a saver, but I hadn't taken enough ownership of my financial situation.
In January 2016, our student loan balance stood at about $27,000. At this point, we started to aggressively pay down our loans. As of March 1st 2017, our balance is down to about $7,400 and we see a light at the end of the tunnel!
It took us over 2.5 years to pay down our balance from $40,000 to $27,000. Now, in the past 14 months we've paid down the balance from $27,000 to $7,400!
There are obviously a lot of people out there with student loan debt, and I think a lot of times it can be incredibly daunting on how to get started. It can feel hopeless when you're bogged down with debt payments, yet struggling to get by every month.
Like many other concepts in personal finance, there's no "one size fits all" approach. What works for some people may not work for other people's situations. You may have different circumstances, values, and goals to consider.
This post is meant to share some of the ways we've been able to start paying off our debt faster, and hopefully a few of these methods can be applied to your particular situation and help you reach debt freedom sooner.
Build up a starter emergency fund
Our first goal was to build up a healthy emergency fund. After experiencing some inconsistent employment, we wanted to be sure we were protected from future hardships. This also helps avoid going into additional debt when expensive emergencies comes up. Many financial advisers recommend at least $1,000 to start. Since we live in an area with higher cost of living, we saved up more before fully focusing on our debt. Also, when times got hard during our debt re-payment process, we were able to look back and realize that we had already accomplished one goal together and we just had to continue pushing forward.
Dave Ramsey and Gazelle Intensity
What really sparked us to ramp up our debt repayment was attending Financial Peace University, a financial class that teaches the methods of popular financial teacher Dave Ramsey. Ramsey's methods helped get us "gazelle intense". This means attacking your debt with the intensity of a gazelle fleeing a hungry cheetah! While some people may not agree with all of Ramey's philosophies (me included), viewing our debt with this level of seriousness was paramount for us to speed up the process. I'm a huge believer that motivation is the single biggest key to paying off debt quickly. You HAVE to make it your number one focus in your budget to start seeing the most progress.
One of the biggest keys to managing our money better and paying down our debt quickly has been a result of being more aware of where our money is going each month. We utilize Mint to track our expenses and set up a monthly budget. This helps us avoid spending too much in any particular area and be intentional with how much money we allocate towards debt repayment each month. This was a life changing process for us, and is one of the best steps you can take to start seeing significant progress in your financial stability.
This step is all about identifying areas in your budget where you can improve, and challenging all your regular expenses. After tracking our expenses and budgeting for a few months, we found areas where we were spending more money than expected. I went through every one of our bills to see what we could cut back on. This included switching companies for our car insurance, switching cellphone providers, cutting down on food costs, and selling unwanted items. All of this freed up money went straight towards paying off our debt.
There are a ton of ways to cut back on your expenses, but be sure to cut back on the spending that you care about LEAST. Don't cut out the areas of your spending that bring you the most joy, focus on the expenses that are most forgettable.
I work a second job with a minor league baseball team during April through September. The biggest benefit is that all money you make from a side hustle can be considered "extra." Presumably, you're already making ends meet with your full-time job, so you don't "need" the side hustle money to get by. For us, we kept our budget exactly the same as it had been the rest of the year. Every time one of my paychecks came in from my second job, it went right towards attacking our debt. See 5 Reasons Why You Need To Start a Side Business.
Before the month started, we set up our monthly budget in Mint, and allocated as much as possible towards debt re-payment. Then I broke down that amount into four automatic payments and scheduled them one per week. Scheduling a month's worth of payments before the month starts, meant there was no way of talking ourselves out of it. Psychologically, it felt really bad to cancel a payment, so we avoided doing so at all costs.
Small Rewards and Celebrating Progress
The road to debt freedom is often a long and arduous one. Take the time for some small indulgences along the way. We made sure to recognize the progress we were making and celebrate our big milestones. It's also important to not sacrifice what you find the most joy in. Yes, paying off debt is difficult and requires a lot of dedication, but it's also necessary to avoid making your life miserable at the same time. Your celebrations don't have to mean spending a lot of money, the point is to take a step back and appreciate the progress that you've made!
Debt feels like a big weight on your shoulders. It can be overwhelming and stressful, and if progress doesn't appear to be happening it can get really discouraging. During debt repayment it's extremely important to remain patient and focus on taking small steps forward. Running a marathon starts with taking the first step. While I'm anxious to get out of debt as quickly as possible, I also recognize the importance to appreciate the journey. One bad month doesn't undo all the progress you've made, let it go, and get back on the right track.
My wife and I wouldn't have made this much progress in such a short amount of time without each other's support. Encouraging one another and continuing to push towards our long term goals has helped us when times got tough. It's helping us stay on course from an emotional standpoint. Having two incomes to work with has made a huge difference as well. If you're married, I'd encourage you to lean on your spouse during your debt repayment journey. If you're single, find a support group of family members and friends to check in with throughout your progress.
These steps may not be groundbreaking, or fit your situation perfectly, but I've experienced firsthand that they work. I'm confident that anyone can take a few of these principles and improve their finances. It all starts with gaining awareness of where your money is going, and having the motivation to improve. Good luck in your journey!
Here's an infographic with all the tips too: