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How to Pay Off Student Loan Debt if You Don't Have a Rich Family

Five young women who pulled it off explain their strategies, including part-time jobs, longer commutes to save on rent, and understanding their interest rates.
Photo by Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury via Getty.

If you’re a 20- or 30-something who went to college, it's highly possible that you're drowning in debt. And if you’re really lucky, you’ve faced that while listening, at one point or another, to some baby boomer pompously insisting that, if you just chilled on the avocado toast, your financial situation would magically improve.

We know it’s not that simple. The financial well-being of millennials, as a demographic, looks pretty bleak! Many of us are underemployed, living at home, and saddled with so much student loan debt that it’s affecting our happiness. Outstanding student loan debt among all demographics was a whopping $1.4 trillion as of March 2018. Nearly 17 million student loan borrowers under the age of 30 have a total of $383.8 billion in student debt. Older millennials don’t have it much better: Twelve million people between the ages of 30 and 39 are carrying a student debt total of $461 billion.


Despite this depressing narrative, some young people have emerged from the rubble of our financial ruin. They’ve done the seemingly impossible: They climbed out of the student debt hellhole, and they did it all on their own (read: without the help of a wealthy family member or a winning lottery ticket). How, exactly, did they get the job done? Broadly spoke to five women to find out.

Katelin Anderbery, 29, attorney

Total debt paid off: $87,000

“I was able to keep my cost of living down during law school by working two part-time jobs, one as a law clerk and another as a live-in house manager for a sorority. I didn’t wait for the six-month grace period to pass [before beginning to pay down my loans]. Starting from the day I graduated, I used money in savings to make monthly payments. After taking the bar exam, I began working full-time and put about 40 percent of my take-home pay toward my loans.

My goal throughout law school was to pay off my loans in five years, which is much faster than the typical 10-year repayment plan. Most of my loans were provided at interest rates of 6.8 and 7.9 percent. Anyone considering taking out loans should calculate the total cost of their education using the applicable interest rates and repayment period.”

Danielle Desir, 27, grants specialist

Total debt paid off: $63,000

“I decided that I wanted to pay off my student loans ahead of schedule when I calculated how much interest I was responsible for per day. When I first started paying off my loans, I had to pay more than $10 in interest a day. By making frequent payments—I made one every pay period whether a payment was due or not—I paid off my student loans in four years. I also signed up for auto-pay to get 0.25% off my interest.


Whenever I got a bonus or a tax refund, I put it toward my debt. I lived at home with my mom, which meant that my commute was longer. I could have moved out and gotten an apartment in New York City—much closer to work—but I decided to live at home and substitute my rent for making extra payments toward my debt.”

Britta Gidican, 32, corporate communications consultant

Total debt paid off: $40,000

“When I graduated, I moved into a cheaper part of Seattle rather than the high-cost neighborhoods to save on rent. I put a hold on traveling, shopping, and the nights of going out of a typical 20-year-old. I worked a lot. I just didn’t live like a typical person in their 20s would.

I consistently paid my monthly loan payment, and as often as possible, I worked to pay more than the monthly minimum. I’d put at least an extra $50-100 on top of my minimum payment. Anytime I had extra money through bonuses from work, tax returns, and selling some shares at a company I worked at, I put as much of it as I could toward my loans.”

Shana Lombardi, 31, healthcare IT consultant

Total debt paid off: $107,000

“I disregarded the minimum monthly payment amounts and paid as much as I could every single month. Almost all of my expendable income went to loan payments. At first, that wasn't much—maybe $100-150 extra a month. I had five Sallie Mae loans and three government loans, and they all had varying and variable interest rates. I always put that extra amount toward the loan with the highest interest rate at the time. Once the highest interest rate loan was paid off, I moved onto the next one.


I also began making twice-monthly payments to help chip into the principal. That was when I really started to see results. Every month I was actually making a tangible impact on my overall balance due—I wasn't giving each loan enough time to gather interest that would have worked against me.”

Bevin Morgan, 35, sales and marketing director

Total debt paid off: $40,000

“My husband and I combined our incomes to become completely debt-free. We used his income to pay our bills, and I put my entire paycheck toward debt. We went full Dave Ramsey. We rarely went out, didn't buy any extras, and lived way below our means.

While I'm proud of us for paying off the loans, I would encourage young people to consider alternative paths that don't require getting into debt in the first place. I wouldn't replace the friends I made in college, but there was a lot I could have learned on my own through work experience, or, these days, online. I've spent the first almost ten years of my ‘real life’ just trying to build up and get out of debt. It's not a great way to start. If I had known there were other ways to get where I am today—and there definitely are—I would have taken them.”