How To Pay Off Your Soul-Crushing Debt (A lot) Faster

Want to pay off debt faster? Need some budgeting tips you haven't head a million times? I paid off $50,000 of school debt 5 years ahead of time - without hating my life or cutting coupons. Click through to find out how >> yesandyes.orgOn an overcast day this fall, I checked a few boxes, entered a few numbers, and felt a small but significant weight lift from my shoulders.

10 years after finishing my B.A. and 7 years after turning in the final paper for my M.A., those degrees were finally paid off – five years ahead of time.

(This is how I felt about it.)
As of 2014, 70% of American college graduates have school debt. The average graduate is $33,000 in debt by the time they collect their diploma. After undergrad and graduate school, my school debt was around $50,000 – even with a little help from my parents, scholarships, and working while I was in school.
Just like everyone, I hatedhatedhated those monthly payments. I’d fantasize about how different life would be when I had an extra $350 a month with which to buy cheese and brightly colored skinny jeans.
So in the last two years, I committed to paying off those horrible loans ahead of time. The ‘tricks’ I used are hardly tricks. They’re fairly obvious, relatively well-known budgeting methods, but combined they work like magic. If you’re trying to pay down debt – school or otherwise – these will help.

1. Pay as much as you can (but not so much that you hate your life)

I know it’s incredibly tempting to lower those monthly payments when you find your dream apartment and it’s $200 a month above your budget. I totally, totally get it. But before you lower you payments, I’d encourage you to check out a loan amortization calculator.
The longer you take to pay off debt, the more money you’re giving your lenders.
Paying off $40,000 at 4% over 20 years = $58,174
Paying off $40,000 at 4% over 15 years = $53,258
That’s almost $5,000! And your monthly payment would only go up by $50! Which is, like, one Target impulse buy and one fancy cocktail, right?

2. Teach ESL in Asia

Drastic? Yes. An awesome adventure that will help you save money like whoa? Also yes.
I spent the 25th and 26th years of my life chasing kindergartners around a classroom in Nei Li, Taiwan and stuffing my face with stinky tofu. With a 10% tax rate, a great exchange rate, and a very low cost of living, I was able to save $1,000 a month without even trying! I ate out a lot (like dan bing for breakfast most days), lived in a nice apartment, and even flew home and vacationed in The Philippines, all while wiring home a grand every month.

3. When you travel, do it cheaply

I’ve nearly perfected the art of cheap travel (all my tips are here) and I’ve snuck in tons of trips while still paying down my loans every month. Travel can be surprisingly affordable if you use Airbnb or stay with friends, stick to public transport, visit cheap places (or expensive places in the off-season) and cook your own meals.
I think it’s really important to continue to live a life you actually, you know, enjoy while sticking to your budget. I call it “putting my money where my happy is.” When I make time and space for the activities that bring me joy I’m less likely to self-medicate via expensive boots.

4. Buy a used car – with cash if possible

My car is not particularly sexy or impressive. It is, however, reliable, cheap to repair, and not so fancy that anyone wants to steal it. More importantly? I bought it with cash.
Or more accurately, I put it on my credit card to get a bunch of miles and then immediately paid it off. I’ve never had a car payment! Sure, sometimes I get jealous of my friends’ heated seats and climate control but then I realize that I am not my car.
And even if I was, I’d be little and zippy which really wouldn’t be the end of the world.

5. Buy just about everything secondhand

True Story: I furnished my entire apartment (from nothing!) for about $700. Yes, even including that cute couch. Nearly everything I own came from a thrift store, Craigslist, or the Ikea as-is section. And I’d like to believe that’s not painfully obvious!
Pro tip: if you’re looking for something specific on Craigslist (“midcentury dresser St. Paul”) but you always see the postings too late, use IFTTT to send you Craigslist alerts.

6. Learn to cook

We all know eating out is expensive and unhealthy. Yes? Yes. Cooking at home is more fun, more healthy, and a jillion times cheaper than eating out. I’ve been obsessed with this cookbook lately and if you want to get really frugal, check out the Good And Cheap cookbook. It teaches you how to eat well on $4 a day!
Also (and this probably goes without saying) drinking is ridiculously expensive. Did you know that cocktails made with bottom self liquor have a 1,026% (!!!) markup? Let’s pre-game at home, shall we?

7. Cut the cable and land line

But I’m sure you already knew this, right? That’s what Hulu, Netflix, and Skype are for.

8. Use your library

For books, sure! But also magazines, cds, dvds and events. The public libraries here in the Twin Cities are always hosting movie nights, readings, and other events. All completely free!

9. Plan for a cheaper social life

It’s hard to be the friend who’s sticking to a budget when everyone else is chugging $13 cocktails and being all “Oh, let’s just split the bill three ways” when you had a Diet Coke.
One of the best ways to deal with this is to take initiative during the planning stages. When friends are talking about getting brunch, be the one to suggest the place with the $5 breakfast. When your friend wants to see a movie with you, suggest a cheap matinee or the second run theater. It’s easier to steer the initial decision than change someone’s mind.

10. Honor the ‘immediate yes’

Living on a budget means living with less. But how, pray tell, does one live with less and not come to hate their life? I’ve made peace with less by honoring the ‘immediate yes.’ The ‘immediate yes’ is that gut reaction you have when you see a dress/necklace/piece of art from the across the room, stop your conversation and drift towards it. Your vision practically narrows and you’re pretty sure you can hear the Hallelujah chorus.
When you experience this, you should probably buy that thing. Even if it’s expensive. If it doesn’t make you feel this way, maybe you should leave it on the shelf.
(It’s my experience that when you wait for the ‘immediate yes’ you buy a lot less but you’re much, much happier with what you buy.)

11. ‘Snowball’ your debt payments

When you’re paying off tens of thousands of dollars over decades it’s really easy to feel like you’re Sisyphus in ballet flats. Snowballing your debts doesn’t make a huge difference financially but it does make a big difference psychologically.
When you Snowball your debts you make minimum payments on all of the debts except the smallest one, attacking that one debt with a vengeance. Once you’ve paid off that first, small debt run around your apartment yelling “High five, self!” and then get to work Snowballing the next smallest debt.
Have you paid off significant debt? If you have, share your best tips in the comments – we’d love to hear them!

Edited to add: As with any conversation about finances, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my privilege in this situation. I’m white. I grew up in a two-income household with parents who encouraged and (slightly) financially supported my education.

If you’ve read Nickel and Dimed or this blog post, you know that it’s actually very hard to save money when you’re really, truly broke. I want to acknowledge that these tips are for those of us fortunate enough to have cable and the occasional fancy cocktail – people who do, in fact, have a bit of money to spare.

P.S. You can choose to want less + How to (at least start to) get your finances under control

Photo by STIL on Unsplash

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  1. Meghan Arnold

    "When you're paying off tens of thousands of dollars over decades it's really easy to feel like you're Sisyphus in ballet flats." Best reference ever.

    I've been hearing a lot about debt snowballing lately and am kind of kicking myself for not thinking about handling it that way sooner. I have two credit cards and a massive amount of student debt to contend with, but getting those credit cards out of the way will help a lot faster.

    My best tips: (1) Adding to cutting the cable and land lines — Pretty much anything along the Chromecast/Roku line will make you feel like you have cable. No more squinting at a laptop for me! (2) I'm changing careers to something that will pay double what I make now (not saying much, I'm a substitute teacher). Instead of going nuts with all the extra cash, I'm just going to lead my current lifestyle and direct HALF of my salary to paying off my debt. If I maintain that, I can be out of debt in 7 years. Granted, I have no idea what may come along to change my budget, but taking huge chunks out of it will be so satisfying.

    Thanks for all the great advice — loved this post!

    –Meg @

  2. cantaloupe

    $40000 student loan debt would be a dream, haha.

    My tip: Leave the country and never pay student loans back. It's legal, I swear. I'm on income based repayment, but since my taxable income is $0, guess what my monthly payment is? And after 20 years of this income based repayment, the government eats my loans and I just pay taxes on the remainder. I've also almost totally paid of all my credit card debt thanks to not even thinking about my student loan debt. It's cute. And should I decide to return to the land of expensive education, I would only have to pay a certain percentage of my income for the rest of the 20 years and the government would still eat whatever's left (which will still be a lot….) at the end. When I discovered IBR, I giggled for like an hour with happiness.

    • Caitlyn

      And by the government eating your loans, you mean US taxpayers – i.e. me and many others reading this blog. Yeah, that's real cute.

      Income based repayment plans are supposed to help people who make low incomes not people who CHOOSE not to pay their debts. You are abusing a system set up to help people who need it. Just because you can, doesn't make it right.

    • Sonya

      I worked for a student loan call centre and, at least in Canada, this doesn't happen and if you don't pay, say goodbye to your good name credit wise and hello to never coming back to your home country. After 9 months of not paying (and all those non payment reports to the credit bureau), the loan goes back to the government who then hounds your ass and garnishes your tax return.

      And for those low income plans, way to be an asshole. Those are for people who actually need it.

    • Anonymous

      cantaloupe sounds like a real piece of shit.

    • Kaylin Lydia

      Wouldn't it make more sense to stop payment on your credit cards, bankrupt that debt and then focus the money you were spending to pay off your credit cards and avoiding your student loans on actually paying off your student loans? This seems to make more sense as it would offer you more flexibility – a lot could happen in 20 years that would necessitate you coming back here. Just a thought…

    • cantaloupe

      The assumption that I'm not low income is really ridiculous. I make around $25,000 a year, how the hell would I pay off a $100,000 debt in this lifetime? That's the normal salary of a full time teacher. With tutoring side jobs, I should add. It's literally not possible for a teacher to pay off a $100,000 debt in the allotted ten or twenty years. I am exactly the person IBR was intended for. I mean, there are multiple debt-forgiveness plans for teachers for a very good reason….

      Seriously, ya'll are mad bitchy. And judgy. And naive. What is this "taxpayer money" nonsense? That's not even a thing, really. China will probably pay for my loans. And America will give them an IOU they'll never cash in. I highly recommend reading up on how countries' economies work…

      Kaylin Lydia: My credit card debt is only like $5000 by this point. It's not worth the blow to my credit to declare bankrupt. If I did have to return to the US, I feel like the credit hit would be more detrimental, you know?

  3. Alli Lizer

    I love this post. Going to a private pharmacy school since it's the only one in the area where my husband has a job means we're racking up the debt. I appreciate the realness of this post.

    My favorite piece of advice is using ITTT for craigslist furniture. Right now we're looking for a sectional and this is such a smart way to do it! Sometimes it drives me up a wall that we have mismatching furniture but it definitely gives me piece of mind as far as finances go!

  4. LL

    The library is such a great resource! I go through phases where I sort of forget about it and then get excited when I remember it. Check and see if your local system has an app. The one for my city is actuall pretty decent–you can make holds, check the catalog, etc–all from the comfort of your phone! And, my library has options where you can check out passes to the state parks, the zoo, and other things like that, for FREE! So fun.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I TOTALLY FORGET AND THEN REMEMBER THE LIBRARY TOO! Every time I want to post on Facebook "Did you guys know you can get all the free books you want at the library?!" 😀

      • Katie

        I’m in a big love affair with the library right now after forgetting a bit!! And side awesome: no extra clutter—it all goes back. I paid off my car a couple months early and it felt AMAZING. Still does. Now it’s just my school debt left!!

      • Anonymous

        Libraries also have e-books now!!! ?

  5. Danielle

    Sarah these are all really really great points! Even though I don't have student debt (thank god!) I don't make a lot of money from my job, so I am accustomed to living exactly how you've described above! Sometimes it's hard, when all of my friends work at Amazon and make heaps more than me, but I've never once felt like my clothes or secondhand furniture didn't look as good at the new stuff they have, or that my idea to drink at home and make dinner would taste worse than an overpriced, tiny-portion-sized restaurant's! 🙂 Thanks for writing about the way the other half lives–the more price-conscious half!

  6. Kate

    AHhh how incredibly relevant! I was planning to have my loans forgiven through the public service forgiveness act (and had 7 years of payments in) and then I found out in November that my loan wasn't actually the right kind of loan. Dun dun dunnnn. So now it's a matter of figuring out what my options are. And in the meantime, I'm trying to prioritize–making the life I want while also being smart about money. I currently live in the burbs in a two bedroom, but I'm planning to move to a smaller apartment closer to work to save wear and tear on my car. And that also puts me closer to a cute little neighborhood in the city that I love. You've been a huge inspiration in that regard, so thanks!

    I've also been reading The Financial Diet. Have you heard of it? As a 32-year-old, I feel like I'm a bit past their intended audience, but it's still really quite inspiring.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Thanks so much, Kate! And that site looks great!

    • Raquel Moss

      I second The Financial Diet! It's been in my Feedly for a few months, and they're full of great suggestions.

  7. Julie

    THANK YOU for this post! Currently paying off my husband's student loans–I somehow managed to graduate debt-free, only because I lived at home, ate Ramen, relied on dates for any meals including meat, borrowed clothes from the costume department I worked in, paid cheap tuition because I was the right religion to get that deal at my school, and literally graduated with two shirts and a pair of leggings to my name. Oh, and a dresser I bought secondhand for $30. Haha. But anyway, I've been utilizing the library lots lately, and it's helping with that urge to buy every book I see and want. And music. Etc. Something else that's dawned on me lately is to create a Pinterest board on which to pin all that stuff I see online every freaking GD day that I think, I NEED NEED NEED this, or, I at LEAST NEED TO HAVE THE TAB OPEN UNTIL I CAN AFFORD IT OR I'LL FORGET ABOUT IT. That way, they're all in one place, and if I eventually DO decide that I can't live without one of them (which honestly is very rare), I can feel less panicked knowing I can go back and find it there. It also helps me track the types of things that tend to be my impulse purchases.

    Again, great post.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I love the idea of that Pinterest board!

  8. Abbigail Kriebs

    The day I paid off my student loans was one of the best days of life! It feels so wonderful! And worth forgoing cable and magazine subscriptions and (gasp!) even new shoes. You feel so in control of adulthood when you are making good financial decisions!

  9. Cait Berg

    I love that you referenced Dave Ramsey in this post! He's the best.

  10. Veronique

    We're in our 50s and 60s and 15 years into soul inspiring career changes. Our student loans from our retraining were more than we ever expected and we lived a long time by the principles you describe, which we love! College student living and used furniture in my 30s and 40s while back at school. Used car until it was 24 years old and made one unknown noise too many.

    One day last summer after the annual-or-so spur-of-the-moment in-depth review of our finances, we realized that the return of higher home prices in our neighbourhood would enable us to refinance at a lower interest rate and turn our 22 year mortgage into 15 – snowballing had gotten us there. A day later we realized we could take out the extra money to invest either in paying off our remaining student loans or in building a home office where we could apply the money that currently goes into renting an office while also investing in the value of our home. It had that first part of the "immediate yes," but we then watched ourselves drag our feet as we got contractors names but didn't fee ready to call any of them. Just before the New Year, we started wondering how we would live with the months of disruption during construction and had our final aha moment. We used that money to do what we've always learned was best – pay off our remaining debt before investing in more. We felt deliriously happy. We're now applying the student loan payment to getting our new used car paid off as a Christmas Present to ourselves next year instead of in 2 years. We could pay it off today but with the super low interest rate we'd decided to keep our survival fund fully stocked instead. Progress feels so good!!

  11. kathrynoh

    We don't have student loans as such in Australia but do pay through the tax system. I ended up overpaying mine and getting about $10,000 back at the end of the financial year. Which was like "YAY!… hey, wait a minute, I could've had that in an interest earning account…"

    To save money, I'd suggest doing without a car unless you absolutely need it – as in, you can't earn your salary without it. I saved a ton of money (around $30,000) to move to Japan and the first thing I did was get rid of my car. No fuel costs, no paying insurance and rego, no having to dig into savings to pay for unexpected repairs. It's been five years now and I never want that expense again — plus I can feel a bit sanctimonious about my contribution to the environment 🙂

  12. Ashley

    Go you! Go us! I have 1 year left and I can see the end of the tunnel. SO MOTIVATED.

    I also recommend the "More with Less" cookbook for cheap, delicious meals.

    The library is my answer to everything. Have an impulse to shop? Go to library. Old computer too expensive to replace? Use library. $60/month for internet a drag (and would add $700 a year to loan payments)? Need a place to hang out for cheap/free? Library! I also get my workout videos from the library instead of going to the gym.

  13. Suzy @ The Mediterranean Dish

    Hi! Thyme is Honey sent me here. Loved browsing your site! These tips are great, I especially loved #6 and #10. Look forward to receiving your newsletters!

  14. fawn

    @Sarah Your addendum seems to be a huge understatement. Surely you are getting close to the 5-1%?

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I was raised in rural Minnesota, by two public school teachers, eating food we grew and meat from animals my dad killed. I went to a state school and paid for 80% of it myself by working the entire time I was in school. Up until four years ago, I worked two jobs almost all the time and I'd never earned more than $35,000 a year, while working those two jobs. I don't earn anywhere close to six figures.

      So no. I'm not close the to the 5-1%.

    • Darcie

      Sarah, you've worked hard for everything you have. It's the truth, privilege or not.

  15. Jenny O

    Just wanted to say I really appreciate your ETA. Most "Save money! Pay off your student debt!" pieces I've read have the same tips about cutting cable and not eating out without acknowledging that some (a lot, probably) of us already did those things just to keep the lights on. It can be really hurtful to hear "Just bring lunch to work!" over and over again, as if the fact that we already do that and still don't have savings is an additional failing.

    I recognize that I'm very privileged that college (with a bit of parental financial help) was assumed, not something I had to fight for. But like a lot of people who graduated, or were early in their careers in the recession and may have a job, but have had wages frozen for years, I'm still in a place where saving and paying off debt is a dream for now. Based on your reply to the comment above mine, I think you get what that can be like and just hearing you acknowledge that your tips aren't doable for everyone means a lot to me.

  16. Athena

    Congratulations on paying off your student loans! I also really appreciated your editor's note. I've had a hard time growing up ( being orphaned at 15, etc) so finally being in a place where tricks like this can save me money means a lot. And it reminds me that as bad as I think I have it sometimes, it could be so much worse.

  17. Christel

    Awesome article! Buying (almost) everything second hand is definitely the way to go. I say almost because obviously second hand toliet paper won't do. Although, I think someone has created recycled toliet paper, not sure how I feel about that. Debt is a terrible thing and it hangs over your head. I think when I was a bit younger I didn't understand how bad it could be and so I formed bad spending habits. I'm learning for to be wiser now, but it's a slow process. Holding yourself accountable for what you're spending money on is super important. Tracking everything that you spend money on is a pain in the ass but important, I think. Thanks for the great article!

  18. Laura Rezko

    At the end of this month, I will have paid off my Canada Student loans. I still have Alberta Student loans, but the amount is less than what my Canadian loans were.

    I also did the snowballing thing, but in reverse. My Canadian loans were the bigger amount and had a bigger interest rate, so I put most of my money towards that. Now I can snowball that larger payment onto my Alberta loan debt!

    I learned a great tip from Gail vaz Oxlade(Canadian financial guru) about monthly debt payments. Find out how much of your minimum payment will be paying the interest. Take that interest amount and add it to your minimum payment amount- and that becomes your new minimum payment. I did that with my Alberta loans. I also switched to bi-weekly payments. Interest generates daily and decreases as your debt goes down, so why not speed up the process slightly?

  19. Selene G.B.

    I wish I had read your post a loooooong time ago. Really. I am in the process of paying off my loans and hope to be done next year (total of 5 years). I teach in Korea and that has allowed me to pay HUGE amounts back. I came here right after receiving my MA. My first year I was horrible at paying it off because I had no idea how to manage my money. It was my first time earning a full-time salary so of course I was spending like crazy. Anyways, now I am in total frugal mode so I can finish up, yay! It does help to be a vegetarian because I am not too tempted to eat out since my choices are limited. I buy a lot of things online to save a little here and there. I still get to have fun and have even done some cheap trips to Cambodia, Indonesia, and next is Thailand. After reading your post, I’ve reconsidered my budget even more, and I changed it so I can be done even earlier. Thanks!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yay! I’m so glad you found it helpful! And it’s always fun to hear about other people teaching ESL in Asia!

  20. Eleanor Burke

    Hi Sarah and others-
    great post! I paid off my undergrad debt last year and since graduation I have eeked by working as a farmhand, barista, waitress, and as a single mama later in life too! It definitely felt good to have it lifted off my shoulder. I HIGHLY recommend the book Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. From just one year’s tracking in and out I was able to meet many of the financial goals I had set!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! I read that in college actually!

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