Student loans are a drag, but only until you pay them off. It’s like having a monkey on your back that you’re gradually trying to pry off, but it nevers seems to happen fast enough.
That’s what it felt like when I was paying off my student loans after graduating in 2011. Eventually, I committed to paying those loans off in three years – which I did. It wasn’t easy, but the steps I took to get there are feasible for anyone. At the time of my last payment, I was making less than $30,000 a year.
If you’re willing to make some changes, it’s possible to significantly speed up the debt payoff process. Here are some tips I learned along the way.
There are few ways to pay off your student loans faster without changing your lifestyle. Refinancing is one of them.
When you refinance your student loans, you can choose to get a lower interest rate and/or a lower monthly payment. When you refinance and get a lower monthly payment, you can continue to make the same payment you were before, which will accelerate your repayment process considerably.
For example, if you owe $20,000 and refinance from a 6.8% interest rate to a 4.45%, your payments will decrease by $93 a month. But instead of making your new payment, you could continue to pay the same amount you were before the refinance. That will accelerate your debt payoff and save you thousands in interest.
There are many companies that do student loan refinancing:
Lenders that do student loan refinancing look for borrowers with excellent credit scores, good salaries and steady jobs, so make sure your credit history is in great shape before you apply. In other words, you need to take advantage of this option while your finances are doing well, not after you’ve lost your job and need a little extra cash every month.
Get a second job
There are only two real strategies to paying off your student loans early: spend less or earn more. If you’ve already done the former, then it’s time to find a way to earn more money. You can do this by finding a new position, negotiating with your boss for a raise or even getting a second job.
You can do anything from working at the mall, delivering pizzas or working as a bartender. Make a list of the qualifications you have and what you’d be interested in doing. If you love photography, could you do graduation and baby photos on the side? If you’re a wiz at web design, could you start creating websites and offering tech support? You’ll earn the most amount of money doing what you’re talented at. The more specialized your skill, the more you can charge.
If an opportunity to make extra cash seems too good to be true, it probably is. Some people desperate to pay off their student loans sign up for MLM companies in their quest to raise as much money as possible. But these companies are difficult to crack and you might end up spending more money on inventory and supplies than you earn.
If you’re too swamped at work to find the time for a side gig, consider inquiring about a promotion or raise. You’d be surprised how often you can get a salary boost just by asking, and it never hurts to try. Managers are used to negotiating, so don’t worry about offending them or seeming too greedy.
Everyone gets windfalls a few times a year. Whether it’s a tax refund, a birthday check or an inheritance, you’re likely to end up with surprise sums of cash every once in awhile. But what do you do with it?
One of the many reasons I was able to pay off my student loans in three years was because I applied most of my windfalls towards those loans. When I got a bonus at work or a random check from Grandma, I added the total to my student loans.
I’m not the only one who has taken advantage of this strategy.
“When I was paying off my student loans, I put 100% of every bonus and tax refund right into my debt,” said Eric Rosenberg of Personal Profitability. “This, along with making the biggest payments I could afford each month, helped me get debt free exactly two years and six days after graduation.”
The next time you get a windfall, consider adding the balance to your student loans. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing – you can treat yourself with 20-40% of the total and still have a significant chunk left over for a loan payment.
Many jobs provide yearly cost of living increases to employees, along with bonuses. When I had a job that did this, I tried to pretend that it didn’t happen and automatically increased the monthly payment on my student loans.
Every time you get a raise or bonus, increase the automatic payment on your student loans. Doing that will allow you to add how much extra you’re paying on your student loans without changing how much you spend on other things.
You can also apply this strategy to cost of living reductions, like moving to a cheaper apartment or switching to a more fuel-friendly automobile. Just take that left over amount from your budget and put it towards a payment.
Once you’ve committed to paying off your student loans faster, it’s time to look at how you’re spending money and where you can cut expenses. When I decided I wanted to pay off my student loans in three years, I made some difficult changes. I stopped buying craft beer, I gave up my Hulu subscription and I started bringing lunch to work. These changes helped me allocate more money toward my loans.
Go through your bank and credit card statements to find what you can cut. Can you get rid of the monthly beauty subscription box service you love? Can you start borrowing books from the library instead of buying them online? There are so many changes you can make to find more money for your student loans, including:
- Raising the deductible on your insurance to lower your premiums;
- Calling your internet, cable and cell phone providers to compare rates;
- Buying food from a cheaper grocery store;
- Fixing your clothes and shoes instead of throwing them out;
- Switching to a cheaper health insurance plan;
- Limiting the amount you spend at bars and restaurants;
- Buying cheaper pet food;
- Making DIY gifts for birthdays and holidays;
- Flying economy class with budget airlines;
- Switching to a cheaper data plan for your phone.
Spend less on housing and transportation
For most people, housing and transportation are the biggest line items in a budget. Together they can make up 40% of your expenses. The less you spend on them, the more you’ll have to throw at your student loans.
The biggest reason I paid off my student loans in three years instead of 10 is that I avoided replacing my 1999 Toyota Avalon and I kept my living expenses as low as possible. I moved in with my boyfriend and mutual friend which cut my rent from $625 to $266. The difference automatically went toward my loans.
Finding roommates is crucial to being debt free quickly. When you have roommates, you can split rent, utilities, internet and even groceries. Sure, it might not be glamorous to share a bathroom with two other people, but if it can help you be debt free faster, it’s worth it.
Continue to drive the same car you have and avoid upgrading. Not having a car loan was another factor in my speedy debt payoff. Sure, it meant that I had the oldest car in the parking lot, but I didn’t have any car payments to worry about.
Sell what you own
When I was paying off my student loans, one of the ways that I made extra money was selling stuff I owned online. I sold anything, including books, DVDs, clothes, even old makeup. I didn’t make tons of money selling stuff, but I used the proceeds to pay off my debt.
These sites are popular for reselling:
Some people go a step farther and start flipping items they buy at yard sales or thrift stores to sell online for a tidy profit.
The bottom line
Throwing everything you have towards your loans is admirable, but not always sustainable. If you push too hard too fast, you may end up with something financial psychologists call “debt burnout”.
Rather than making strides in fits and spurts, consider adopting a more restrained approach. It’s much better to follow a mildly aggressive payoff schedule for the duration of your loan than paying off as much as you can and then struggling to make payments. Debt payoff is a marathon, not a 100 meter dash – measure your effort accordingly.