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Eight Strategies I Used to Pay Off My College Debt

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

College debt got you down? You’re not alone.

With skyrocketing tuition costs, it’s not surprising that more than forty million students nationwide have graduated with debt. CNN reported that combined student debt has climbed to a record high of $1.2 trillion. This is an 84 percent jump since the recession began in 2008. Without a proactive plan to pay back the money, the impact can derail or delay all sorts of life plans—marriage, home buying, graduate degrees, and more.

I know. I was one of those students. When I graduated, I owed about $30 thousand—nearly twice my first salary as a political press secretary making $18 thousand a year. I was able to pay my bills and student loan but not much else. I realized that in order to make any kind of dent in the debt, I needed to do more.

With careful planning and self-discipline, I retired my college debt within ten years of graduating. Here’s how I did it.

01. Get a second job.

This is perhaps the most significant but hardest step in debt reduction. You’re already working full time; the thought of working even more hours seems nearly impossible. But you have to find a way to make as much money as possible. I had waitressed during college. It was fast, easy money, so I thought, why not? At the General Assembly, we often worked from 8 a.m. until midnight a few nights a week. That meant I still had four nights a week, Thursday through Sunday, to commit to a restaurant job. Not only were those the busier nights (meaning better tips), but they didn’t interfere with my full-time job.

02. Reduce your housing expenses.

If possible, live at home with your parents or family. Otherwise, definitely get a roommate. Family wasn’t an option for me, and as much as I wanted my own place after college, I realized it wasn’t practical. So I shared a house with another friend. For ten years following college, before I got married at age 33, I never had my own place. I lived with up to six people at one time. Twice I lived in people’s unfurnished basements (rent-free). Reducing my rent was one of the smartest things I could have done to save money and pay off my debt. Yes, it was a pain at times. One of my friend’s dogs used to do his business in the basement—near my bed! But it was an effective means to an end.

03. Exercise fiscal restraint.

This may seem impossible for some, but my food budget was literally $35 per week. That included all groceries and eating out. I brown-bagged just about every day for lunch. I ate a lot of soup and sandwiches, too. Because I worked at a restaurant, I got to eat free meals. I could also take home food “mistakes.” I didn’t have cable, and I really limited what I spent on clothes. The semester before graduating college, I worked on Capitol Hill and had to wear a suit every day. My work wardrobe was well-stocked from that, so I was lucky.

04. Don’t incur any more debt.

I longed to get my graduate degree in public policy, but I was determined not to borrow any more money. My employer offered a 75 percent tuition reimbursement for its employees. While that was an exceptional perk in the mid-nineties, it is much more common today. I was able to cover my books and the 25 percent of tuition cost from my current employment, so I didn’t incur any other debt. But I also had the temptation of credit cards. As much as I wanted to use them to eat out or buy clothes (which I did on a rare occasion), as a rule, I only kept them for emergencies.

05. Get out of the house.

OK, this may sound bad. But as a single broke girl, I still wanted to socialize. My solution was dating a lot. As an extrovert, I had no trouble getting dates. But I also joined many clubs, so I met a lot of people that way—and it didn’t cost a thing. Filling your time with projects and people you are passionate about will fulfill you in more ways than a well-fed wallet could. There are plenty of free and fun activities that you can do with your friends or dates.

06. About that car . . .

No, not the car, you say. Yes, the car. Mine was a 1972 VW Super Beetle, with little to no heat. It ran. It had great gas mileage. It got me from point A to point B. I also only carried Public Liability and Public Damage (PLPD) insurance. There was no need for me to carry collision insurance. I understood that if I crashed my car, it had better be someone else’s mistake, or I would be out of a car. Depending on where you live, public transportation or carpool options might mean you don’t even need a car. Consider going without one. I actually did this for an extended period of time when I lived in Washington, D.C.

07. Create a budget, and stick to it.

While I state this in a variety of ways above, it’s the heart of getting out of debt. Dave Ramsey, the well-known debt reduction guru, will tell you the same. You simply can’t make much progress in retiring debt without a budget.

Creating and sticking to a budget is quite a sobering experience. One thing Ramsey says, which was true for me, is that a budget is more freeing than it is restrictive. When you have a realistic picture of your situation, it helps you make wiser decisions. Otherwise, you could find yourself spending aimlessly, hoping it will all work out.

Not sure where to begin? Ramsey’s website has several tools on how to create a budget. I did this on my own using common sense, but the free downloadable sheets are helpful if you are just getting started.

08. Take advantage of new resources.

There are a couple resources today that were not available when I was getting out of debt. One is the federal debt forgiveness program. The payouts won’t be available until 2017, but it is at least worth looking into to determine if you qualify. It will not forgive any personal loans that you took out to pay for school expenses. If you qualify, though, it does forgive federal-guaranteed student loans. Also, as I mentioned earlier, many employers offer tuition reimbursement as a benefit. Like myself, you could go on to get your graduate degree without adding to your debt load.

While it might not seem like it now, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Looking back, I was pretty dedicated to these strategies, and it was completely worth it when I paid off my loans five years earlier than planned. Paying off debt is all about your choices, self-control, and perseverance. And by actually following through on this plan, I felt really accomplished. So make a plan, and buckle up! It’ll be a long ride but one that is, in my opinion, completely worth it.