There is a lot of talk these days about the rising cost of post-secondary education. Despite that reality, I knew that the money I put into funding my degree would pay off in the end, even if I had to start my adult life with some school loans. Three years later I got married and inherited my husband’s college debt, which brought us to $24,000 we needed to pay back.
My degree, combined with my passions, led me to work at a small not-for-profit. My husband held an entry-level bank teller job until I finished my last year of schooling and then we moved so he could take his dream job as a youth pastor. I went five months without working after we moved, then joined the staff at another not-for-profit. As you can imagine, our career paths were not chosen for the paychecks they brought, but we both loved our lines of work, so we had to figure out how to pay off our debt, stay on top of our monthly bills, and still put food on the table. We followed five rules to help us accomplish these goals and were able to get debt free in just three years.
1. Set a budget and stick to it
As soon as we had a salary offer, my husband and I sat down and looked to see how much money we had to work with for groceries, toiletries, eating out, gas and car maintenance, and our other expenses. We diligently tracked and made sure we stuck to the budget, which left far more than the minimum payment amount for our loans each month. Any money we did not spend at the end of each month rolled into the next month’s loan payment, which shaved years off of our reimbursement schedule every few months. There are few things more exciting than watching the payoff date slide closer and closer on every month’s statement.
2. Live small wherever you can
Everyone has their own story about how their first apartment was a dump, but my husband and I can usually beat people at this game. The apartment was half of the second story of an old lake house. The house was built at a time when most people came to my college town for summer retreats and camp meetings and then left the area the rest of the year, so the house was not taken care of for many a harsh northern Indiana winter. It had settled at an angle so drastic that even though I used my crockpot to cook for just the two of us, I had to double or triple the sauce or it would all run to one side so that one chicken breast would cook perfectly while the other would be burnt to a crisp (yep, that definitely happened!). The kitchen was large enough for one person to stand in, but if the oven was open you had to stand in the living room and close the oven before opening the refrigerator. There were a whopping four cabinets (two of which were small ones over the sink) and three feet of countertop space. The bathroom afforded the luxury of being able to use the toilet, wash your hands, and take a shower, all without moving more than three inches. But that apartment cost a frugal $300 a month and we were able to put all of those savings into getting debt free fast. Seven years later I can wholeheartedly say that living in that tiny apartment was entirely worth the sacrifice.
3. Make the most of hand-me-downs and freebies
Our first apartment was furnished as follows: television from my husband’s parents, breakfast table and chairs from my brother-in-law, bookshelf left over from my college dormitory room, bed from my sister-in-law’s parents, nightstand from my parents, dressers from my childhood bedroom, and a futon we purchased brand new with gift cards from our wedding. When it came to filling our new home we said “yes” anytime a friend or family member offered us a used piece of furniture. We knew that someday we would buy furniture that we picked out (and that actually matched the rest of our house), but for the first few years we had to set aside our costly desires and make the most of what was available to us.
Just because you have a college degree and a fancy new job does not mean you have to live extravagantly—especially if those extravagant ways are beyond your means. We made the most of gift cards, coupons, and library movie rentals for date nights that kept us within our family budget. We walked around the beautiful parks and lakes in our area and loved our time together without spending money.
4. Set Priorities
While we certainly wanted to enjoy new cars, a nicer apartment, a television that did not require rabbit ears, and a real couch (not a falling apart futon), we knew that those things would come down the road. Actually, physically making a list of what really matters can help keep things in perspective when new financial temptations arise. For us, being debt free would free up around half of our monthly income to indulge in more permanent fixtures once we purchased a home. Once our college loans were paid off we switched our extra money towards paying off a new car. The next item on the list came when our son was born and I got to leave my job and focus on raising him full-time. Had we still been in debt five years after we finished school, there would not have been a way for me to be a stay-at-home-mom. Because we stuck to our priorities we were able to make that dream come true.
5. Save vacation for after the debt is paid off
We put all of our extra money into paying off our college loans each month, so there was no money for vacations during the years we were paying off our debt. BUT THEN, we took a much-anticipated vacation. We both wanted to go on a cruise, but we knew it would be an even more rewarding vacation when we were free of debt. One month’s worth of our typical payments covered the cost of a five-day Caribbean cruise, so the very month after the loans were paid off we boarded a cruise liner. That was truly the most fulfilling vacation of our lives. Knowing we had spent three years working hard to earn it made the saltwater air smell even sweeter and those beaches look even more spectacular.
So, do not let the protestors scare you away from taking on some debt for school. Odds are you will walk away with some money to repay, but if you approach paying off school loans with the diligence you put into getting your degree, you can pay off those debts fast and move on to more exciting expenditures.