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.

By Julia Dellitt
May 14, 2021
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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. 

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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.