I was the first person in my family to even consider a four-year college, and two degrees left me with six figures in student loan debt. Here's how I paid it off to become debt-free in a decade.
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Growing up middle-class in a blue-collar Midwest town, I was the first person in my immediate family to even consider a four-year college degree. My dad worked as a police officer, and my mother put herself through nursing school while cutting hair. College, for me, was a financial question mark—one undoubtedly requiring some combination of student loans and scholarships.  

So, I did all the "right" things. I sought out admittance at the best university possible, and I majored in my passion, English literature. I studied hard, and eventually got a masters degree. Although good grades paid for half my tuition at both places, I ended up with $100,000 in student loan debt at age 25, which was... not the plan? However, I felt determined to make a living as a writer and also pay off those pesky loans. Now, 10 years later, that loan balance is zero.

The day I hit submit on the final payment felt surreal; I couldn't believe the debt I agonized over for so long was finally gone. Honestly, I felt a little nauseated imagining that money in my bank account instead of disappearing into thin air. But then I poured a glass of bubbly, high-fived my husband and embraced a sense of freedom. Here's how I paid off six figures of student loan debt, and the lessons I learned along the way. 

1 I nixed credit card debt first.

Before I could be more aggressive about paying down student loans, I had to assess my entire financial picture. TBH, it wasn't pretty—I had a couple thousand dollars in savings and nearly $10,000 in credit card debt, mostly due to trying to make ends meet on an entry-level salary in an expensive city. I spent a few intentional years focused on a "debt avalanche" approach: slowly but surely making regular payments across the board, then applying any extra money to cards with the highest interest rate until they were entirely paid off.  

2 I monetized my hobbies.

In true millennial fashion, I held down a full-time marketing communications job and then figured out how I could side-hustle for extra cash. I taught yoga at a local studio, picked up a semester of adjunct teaching at a community college, and built up a burgeoning freelance writing business. Those small paychecks added up over time, and turned into lump sum payments toward my loans. (True story: One particularly good year, I made more money freelancing than I did in the abovementioned entry-level role—and I also snagged my first book deal.) All in all, my side hustles ultimately paid off about a third of my entire loan amount.  

3 I treated salary raises and career bonuses as money I never had.

Every time I received a salary increase or bonus as part of my corporate day job, I acted like it didn't exist. I just put it toward my student loans. Boring? Yes. Effective? Very. To keep resentment at bay—after all, I worked hard for the money!—I set aside about 10 percent of each raise or bonus to put toward something fun, like a wardrobe upgrade or weekend trip. This allowed me to pay down another $10,000-15,000 over the course of several years, and also enabled me to stick with standard monthly payments versus exploring income-based repayment options. 

4 I refinanced my loans.

Since my student loan debt included a mix of both federal and private, I wasn't eligible for basic consolidation. But after I paid down about $50,000, I refinanced to combine my loans into a single private loan with a lower interest rate. That approach provided some much-needed momentum to decrease the actual amount of debt I owed—known as the loan principal—versus only making a small dent each month. Even though refinancing technically added another 10 years to the life of my loan, I intended to try to be really aggressive paying it off, so I wasn't worried about the extra time and potential interest build. (Note: Lots of lenders offer student loan refinancing, so be sure to check the qualification criteria and get quotes for the lowest interest rate possible.)  

5 I didn't do it alone.

I knew many people who paid off their student debt with a loan from family members, or some type of inheritance or savings passed down. That wasn't my situation, but I did benefit from the support of my husband, both financially and emotionally. Even though this was "my" debt, he never made me feel like I had to tackle it by myself, and instead viewed paying off student loans as an investment in our shared future. His well-established career in software engineering also gave us some crucial stability—we could pay the bills and devote extra funds to this particular mountain of debt at the same time, which was a privilege. I also spoke openly with friends and loved ones about my goal of paying off student loans, who cheered me on at various milestones. 

6 I realized what a debt-free life could look like.

Sure, the idea of not having $100K of debt weighing on my shoulders felt amazing. More importantly, I dreamed of redirecting that $600 monthly payment elsewhere, in a way that aligned with my personal values. Now, I can more easily do things like invest in community initiatives, donate to scholarships for local students, save for my own children's future education—heck, even put money in a fund for a long-awaited post-COVID vacation.