When you’re in school, your student loan balance might seem like just a number on a piece of paper. But once you graduate, it hits you: You have to actually pay back that $30,000. Or $100,000. Or more.
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed by debt when you can’t see an end in sight and when your minimum payments don’t seem to lower your balance. Amanda Marie, 30, a Dallas-based freelance writer and editor, says she couldn’t believe it when five months of paymentsafter her grace period ended in 2008 brought her principal down by just $200.
“I remember looking at it and going, ‘What happened? This is going to take forever,’” she says. “And that is when I buckled down and just made a lot of sacrifices.”
Within two years, Marie had paid off $28,249 in student loans with creativity, determination — and strategic use of a Sam’s Club membership. Read how she and other grads did it so you, too, can pay off your loans faster than you ever thought you could.
1. Pay for some expenses with cash
Getting rid of your loans means paying more than the minimum each month, and the faster you want your debt gone, the more you’ll have to pay. But just increasing your payments isn’t enough: Tell your loan servicer that any additional money beyond the minimum should go toward your principal, not a future monthly payment. That will make sure your balance goes down faster. So how do you free up that extra money?
Danielle Lee, a singer-songwriter in Nashville, Tennessee, and a 2014 graduate of Indiana University, says she and her husband have used the “cash envelope” system of budgeting to pay down $13,000 of their combined $72,000 in student loans. They pay their fixed bills, such as rent, utilities and minimum loan payments, from their bank accounts. But they pay for variable expenses — such as groceries, entertainment and personal care — with a predetermined amount of cash they keep in an envelope.
Any extra cash they have left over each month goes toward their loans, which works because Lee says she saves money when she pays with cash. “It hurts less to use a card, but when you give five hard-earned twenties away to pay for two weeks of groceries … ouch!”
Plus, as a touring musician, it’s hard for Lee to track her spending. “It’s tough to save when on the road, so this budgeting system works for us by letting us literally see what we have,” she says.
2. Drive for a ride-sharing service
Christine Edmond, 24, took out $92,000 in student loans to pay for her communications degree from American University in Washington, D.C.
“With my debt I feel like I can’t pursue my dreams; I can’t pursue the things that I want,” she says. “I’ve really been trying to figure out, if my job’s not going to give me a raise that’s going to pay off this debt, what other sources of revenue can I do?”
So even though she works full-time as a community manager for a trade association in Washington, a month ago she started driving for the ride-sharing service Lyft after work three days a week. To make more money, she plans to join Uber, too, and to start working during lucrative weekend shifts.
Driving for ride-sharing services is fun, Edmond says, even though it will eat into her social life when she takes on more shifts to meet her goal of being debt-free in five years.
“Because I’m such a social person, I think it might satisfy my need for being in the presence of people,” she says.
If you don’t have a car, or Uber and Lyft aren’t available where you live, there are plenty of other ways to earn money in the sharing economy. You can also:
- Shop for and deliver others’ groceries for Instacart
- Be a pet sitter on your own schedule through Rover
- Sell professional services on the online marketplace Fiverr, which lets others hire you to do projects like graphic design, translation or songwriting
3. Keep your loan money separate
Lots of grads say isolating their loan repayment money from other funds in their bank accounts helps them allocate extra to their loan bills each month.
Every penny Edmond earns from driving for Lyft and Uber will stay in one place and only go toward her loans, she says. “It’s going to go in another account that I have access to but I barely use, so I can keep track of how much is coming in.”
You can also enlist friends or family to keep you accountable for setting aside your extra loan payments. Amanda Marie moved back home for a year and a half after she graduated from Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas. She paid her parents the equivalent of rent each month, but instead of charging her to live there, they put it toward her loan payment.
“I didn’t have it in my checking account or in my hands where I could spend it on other things,” she says. “That helped keep me disciplined.”
4. Find small ways to save
Amanda Marie also paid off her loans so quickly by picking up side gigs that helped her save money — waiting tables at a restaurant at night and on weekends where she could eat for free, for instance. When she moved out of her parents’ house and in with roommates, they bought food and toiletries in bulk from Sam’s Club and split the cost.
Amanda Page, 40, a college professor and freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio, has paid off almost $36,000 of her $47,554 in student loans since December 2014 using similar methods. She teaches extra classes, joins paid focus groups and takes small steps that have added up to big payoffs: opening a new bank account for the bonus that bank offered; rolling coins; selling action figures, furniture and books on Craigslist; and holding off on replacing her 12-year-old car. She also blogs about her payoff plan, which helps her stay on track.
“The relief I feel from that number not staring down at me on the screen anymore — I mean, it’s empowering,” Page says. “Now I suddenly feel capable of things that felt almost impossible before.”
Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website.