Goodbye, Student Loans (for now)!

Hello, friends! Do you know what has been on my mind a lot lately? Money has! In particular, the words debt and student loans have been buzzing around in my head for the longest time because I am currently applying for graduate school scholarships — financing a graduate education can be a stressful thing! The reality of student loans is not new for me. Like most college students have experienced, the cost of attending a four-year university today is astronomical and often requires the infamous student loans to pay our way through college. Fun fact: the average student loan debt as of 2020 was a whopping $37,500 according to Investopedia. And this is just talking about a bachelor’s degree. Now, I personally am blessed enough to say that I did not accumulate that much debt throughout my few years in college. However, thinking about all the things that I can do with $37,500 only for it to be used toward student loan repayment is tragic.

At the beginning of 2020, I wanted to build a much better personal relationship with money. I am not saying that I was a frivolous spender in the past, but I knew that I could do better with my money. As I grow older, I realize how important my relationship with money is and how tied it is to physical, mental, emotional, and other dimensions of wellness. Now, I admit that having a healthy relationship with money is HARD, particularly when you don’t have it in abundance (such as myself as a recent-ish college grad with an unsteady income flow). The hard reality is that unfortunately, money does make the world go round — just take a look around you! However, I wanted to finally prove to myself that I could attain some kind of financial goal of saving an X amount of money or paying off in full a significant bill in my life. Thus, in 2020, I established the most notable financial goal I have ever set for myself: pay off my student loans before I begin grad school. So, did I do it?

YES, I DID!!!

In December 2020, I officially became debt-free, whoohoo! To see the email titled “Payment Fulfillment” from my loan provider was one of the most beautiful emails I had ever received.

All in all, my total student loan debt remaining in 2020 was exactly $4333 and I accomplished my 2020 financial goal of paying it off fully within 11 months. To be specific, I started to aggressively pay off my debt at the beginning of February 2020, and as an early Christmas gift to myself, I finished paying it off toward the end of December 2020. So, I actually achieved my goal MUCH earlier than what I initially set it out to be (paying off my debt right before grad school began). Now, to many, $4.3k is really not a lot of money at all. In fact, I am thrilled that my college debt did not match the U.S. average student loan debt I previously mentioned. However, an accomplishment is an accomplishment, and given my personal and financial circumstances in 2020 (times were rough, lol), I found that it was harder to effectively budget enough money to continuously pay off my loans. Thus, to be able to say that I now do not owe $4.3k to a loan company is an achievement that I will bask in for some time.

In a nutshell, my ability to successfully become debt-free had to begin with my mindset and how I view my relationship with money. I found that listening to podcasts about financial literacy and financial independence as well as hearing others’ debt-free testimonies tremendously set the stage to make my written financial goal a reality. One podcast that continuously inspired and motivated me throughout my journey was the Clever Girl Finance (I highly, HIGHLY recommend).

After rebuilding a healthier, positive outlook on my money, the following is what helped me pay off my debt within a year:

  1. Increasing my work hours
  2. Using my other talents to generate additional income — aka “side hustling”
  3. Giving/tithing
  4. Stashing away money in my piggy bank

Before I elaborate specifically on these key actions that helped me along the way, I took advantage of the freeze on student loan repayments due to the COVID-19 pandemic! I do understand that most people have been hit financially due to the pandemic, including myself. I do want to validate that for many, making payments during the freeze was not a feasible option. Because I was not being charged interest on my federal loans, I took advantage of my forbearance status and continued making those payments. Therefore, I was really able to see my principal balance decrease significantly throughout 2020. Seeing this amount dwindling was the reinforcement that I needed to continue paying it off aggressively.

  1. Increasing my work hours: Time is money, right? After receiving more free time in my schedule since I was no longer working on OT prerequisites, I was able to commit more time to see more clients more days out of the week for my job. As a result, I did start to see my paycheck increase since I no longer worked 6 hours a week, lol! Though it was nice to have time to myself, I knew that it could better be spent making an impact in my clients’ lives while also getting paid for it.
  2. “Side hustling”: People tend to say things such as “I should get paid for this” regarding altruistic services that go unnoticed after a while. I have definitely had those moments throughout my life (altruistic or not), whether it was trying to get an allowance for doing house chores (I never got an allowance, by the way) or constantly helping a struggling classmate with their math homework. For me, I thought deeply about some of the hobbies and talents that I like to do such as photography and making hair products, and then start to add monetary value to them! In 2020, I got to do several photoshoots that earned me extra income per month. Not only was I able to grow in my photography skills, but I was able to witness how my talents can help me financially (Shameless plug: I totally still consider myself an amateur photographer but you can check out my website here to see what I was up to!). Additionally, I began to sell homemade Ayurvedic whipped shea butter that I have been using for my hair and skin (another shameless plug: If you are interested in purchasing my shea butter, visit me here to connect!). Over time, these sales were also able to help me pay more than my usual minimum monthly payment for my loan. Therefore, capitalizing on my talents truly did earn me some additional cash that I was able to directly put into decreasing my loan balance.
  3. Tithing/Giving: Honestly, tithing initially was quite difficult for me because all I could think about was the lack of money and the daunting thousands of dollars that I had pending. However, I reminded myself that the money that I received was not my money, but God’s money given to me to utilize. I do believe that by giving and tithing, I was, in turn, blessed financially as well. I can honestly say that there were many times throughout my financial journey that I felt the money in my bank account was in abundance (for my standards) even after paying off all of my major bills. I very much believe that if I tithe and give in any capacity, whether it is financially, personally, etc. I receive what I put out. I’m telling you, God always provides!
  4. Stashing away money in my piggy bank: Back in 2017, I bought a $3 piggy bank (it was a steal for Target) and decided to start a yearly savings plan after being inspired by my mom’s impressive results from saving throughout the year. I worked my little part-time job on campus and really thought that I was the bank with my weekly bougie brunch dates. Thus, I decided to reallocate some of my brunch ‘budget’ to my piggy bank. I followed a 52-week money-saving challenge where I essentially put away X amount of money that corresponds to the week of the year it is. For instance, if it is week 33 of the year, I would be required to add $33 into my piggy bank. Since then, I can say that except for 2019 (times were also rough for me), I saved over $1,000 each year! Weeks 1-10 were very good to me, whereas weeks 40-52 were quite challenging — especially given the fact that October, November, and December are always my high spending months. However, saving over $1,000 in a year with consistency and discipline did pay off tremendously as a nice bonus in the end. Without having to tap into my paycheck, I utilized a small portion of this money to make one final FAT loan payment.
    • Quick tip for the 52-week money challenge: Try reversing the saving plan so that you begin putting $52 into your piggy bank instead of $1! That way, the money required to complete your money challenge won’t be as difficult to set aside, especially during the peak spending holiday months.

Overall, these are intentional actions that I took to free myself of my college student loans! I know that I will be facing future debt for the cost of graduate school and other life milestones because, in this society, debt is mostly inevitable. But, I now know that I am capable of eradicating my student loans after being consistent, intentional, and optimistic throughout my debt-free journey in 2020. For those who are currently grieving about student loans, I hope that my reflection gives you some inspiration in tackling your debt-free journey! It is difficult and it requires a lot of mindset shifting, and everyone’s financial situation is completely different. However, I refuse to believe that we are destined to die with our debt because that just can’t be it! I would suggest finding your why in why you want to pay off your debt before proceeding on this journey. Is it for financial independence? Early retirement? Less stress? As you go through your debt-free journey, remembering your why will be essential when times are really hard. I would love to see how my mindset changes regarding my student loan repayment journey when I finish grad school, haha!

You got this, and let’s all strive to become debt-free because we deserve financial freedom!

Peace and love,

Irene

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