How I Paid Off Nearly $80,000 in Student Debt in Less Than Five Years

Hong Kong

Last weekend, my classmates from Colgate University celebrated our five-year reunion. I am on the other side of the world, in Hong Kong, so I couldn’t join the festivities. Although I was sorry to miss the reunion, I am not sorry to be here. I borrowed nearly $80,000 to join the Colgate Class of 2009. Because I moved to Hong Kong, I am now completely debt-free.

A small liberal arts college on the East Coast was my dream. My middle class parents couldn’t pay for a private education, but between financial aid and student loans, I was optimistic that I could make it work. At seventeen years old, I had little sense of what $80,000 in student debt actually means.

The reality began to take shape when the global economy collapsed during my senior year at Colgate. Job prospects in my chosen industry—book publishing—were non-existent, and there was no way I could manage New York City rent anyway. As soon as my payments kicked in, I would be sending $935 to the bank each month.

So, I moved into my parents’ basement in Arizona and took a teaching job. My loan payments took 40% of my paycheck each month. Every time I logged into my loan dashboard, it was frustrating to see just how little of that money actually went to paying off the principal balance. The interest, which ranged from 2.36-8.25% on my various loans, was going to be an ugly companion for the next ten years.

If I continued making my regular payments, that $80,000 debt would cost over $110,000.

Then, in 2010, I moved to Hong Kong. I took a well-paid job teaching English in a local primary school and received a monthly housing allowance. That $935 payment only took 20% of my income. I didn’t want to keep losing money to interest, so I started to save, determined to pay off my debts early.

I attacked my loans one at a time, starting with the smallest first. Every time I had a bit of extra cash, I dumped it on top of my loan pile. It was exhilarating. Every lump sum payment came with a sense of accomplishment, something that could be channeled into the next goal, the next debt.

Finally, last December I transferred the final payment. I was free.

My grand total? $99,821. I saved more than $10,000 by paying off my debt early. If that’s not motivating, I don’t know what is.

Although I love Hong Kong, it’s troubling that I had to leave the country in which my education took place to pay off my student loans. Living abroad means I must make personal sacrifices, such as missing reunions and friends’ weddings. I have to buy a $1500 plane ticket to see my family—usually just once a year. But in this age of extravagant college debt (the national average is approaching $30,000), getting out of debt takes extreme measures.

I hope my story will encourage people who are struggling with debt. Paying off student loans is possible, and the sooner you can do it, the more money it saves in the long run. For me, the magic number was $10,000.


Pay Off CoverShannon Young is the author of a Kindle Single entitled Pay Off: How One Millennial Eliminated Nearly $80,000 in Student Debt in Less Than Five Years. She lives in Hong Kong.


28 Comments / Post A Comment

garli (#4,150)

Are you tempted to stay longer to save money, or have you had enough?

ShannonYoung (#6,818)

@garli I am going to stay in Hong Kong, but will stop teaching and hopefully work in publishing here after my current contract.

boogers mcgee (#4,474)

I wish this actually gave some information on *how* you paid off that $80k, rather than “I moved to HK and earned more money.” For example, did you change your lifestyle? What compromises did you have to make in order to put those lump sums towards your debt?

@boogers mcgee I imagine she wants us to buy her kindle single to find out.

boogers mcgee (#4,474)

@polka dots vs stripes I hope it’s just as informative and helpful as this post

@boogers mcgee I took out student loans to get a specialized graduate degree; moving abroad to teach English would kill any hope I had of returning to America and working in my chosen field (without having to be an unpaid intern or something for awhile first). I wonder what she would suggest I do.

(I do not wonder enough to buy her kindle single, though.)

boogers mcgee (#4,474)

@polka dots vs stripes Exactly! As for me, sure my field isn’t exactly niche, but I *hate* the idea of teaching. Someone with social anxiety or introversion would have no way of applying these totally amazing lessons to one’s own life. All those eyes staring at you…

@boogers mcgee ::shudder::

I’m spending my day reading some documents at my desk and I like it that way!

rhinoceranita (#5,858)

@boogers mcgee I agree. I was disappointed by this post.

beastlyburden (#6,122)

@boogers mcgee I was excited to read this–I love debt payoff stories!–and I get that the writer doesn’t want to undersell her Kindle Single, but yeah, I also would have appreciated something more substantive.

@beastlyburden I hate advertorials! I mean, I’ve been kind of a bear lately about expressing my ire to linking to things you have to purchase to read, but I hate it. This article is basically one long jump. It’s title should read more like an upworthy article.

So the solution to paying off your loans is “get a job that pays a lot of money”?

@mirror_father_mirror And pays for your housing.

This was possibly the least helpful post on reducing student debt I’ve ever seen, second only to “stop the lattes” advice maybe.

ECW (#2,765)

@mirror_father_mirror What other advice do you think is out there though? Stop buying lattes and get a job that pays a lot of money are pretty much distillations of the only ways to pay off that kind of a loan, make more or spend less. Plus, her advice is not just “make money” but “be willing to do things you would rather not do in order to make the money needed to get out of debt” which is actually a theme on the billfold that I like. As someone with a slightly larger debt load than was addressed in this article, I appreciate reading about anyone paying it off, just because knowing it can happen is inspiring.

@ECW See, but I didn’t get the vibe that she’d rather not move to HK, just that it was a choice with pros and cons and she decided the pros were worth it. She didn’t discuss why this was a good idea for her, or what the drawbacks were (besides missing a few weddings), and what she’s going to do now that she’s paid off her debt.

Not to mention, she saved $10,000 on her loan – but what were the costs of living in Asia? She paid at least $4,500 in flights home to begin with, so already she’s only saving $5,500 over living in America.

I love stories like this! I just hate the way this one was presented, like of course, everyone has the desire or the option to teach abroad for a few years. What would happen if every college graduate left America? What would I do with my specialized graduate degree (the one I went into debt for) in a foreign country? What if I had a sick relative I couldn’t leave?

I wish this had more context about what she did to pay off her loan other than moving abroad. I would be really interested to hear about what it was like to try to save in HK, what things cost more or less, etc etc! As this article stands, it was pretty much just the same basic and boring debt payoff advice you always hear.

@polka dots vs stripes All your suggestions on details that could have been added are great, and would have made for a more interesting article. (Or, a different article than the author wrote that might have been more appealing or useful to some readers.)

But, ultimately, the whole “make more money” is the only thing that would pay off $80,000 in five years. You can’t cut out that many lattes or only eat lentils and make that kind of debt go away. (I’ve had five year stretches in which my entire income didn’t add up to $80,000.) And I think that’s important to remember: if you don’t make enough money, there’s no way you can pay stuff off, because there’s not enough fat you can cut away to make a dent in the debt. And then there’s the craziness of letting 17-year-olds take on that kind of debt, which is going to limit future career options (no non-profit work or fields requiring lots of unpaid internships for you!) before they’ve even had the chance to figure out what the hell they want to do.

@ECW I mean, I don’t know what other kind of advice is out there, but that’s why I’m not writing articles (ETA: or an e-book) providing negligibly useful advice about paying off student loans.

ShannonYoung (#6,818)

Thank you for the thoughtful comments, everyone. Like @angry little raincloud mentioned, moving to where there are better paying jobs (especially for an English major!) was the only way I could manage this particular debt. It certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. That’s one of the great things about The Billfold – they’ll post stories about how different people handle money and debt, recognizing that everyone’s circumstances are different. I agree with @polka dots vs stripes that not every college graduate can (or should) move abroad. The real problem is stagnating income levels. We should be able to simply take better paying jobs in line with our degrees, specialized or otherwise, without having to leave the country in which our educations took place!

@ShannonYoung Thanks for replying, Shannon! I always appreciate Billfold authors who wade into the comments, especially the negative ones.

rhinoceranita (#5,858)


Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

Not to keep piling on, but… I feel like this is just the cool and worldly version of “I had to live with my parents for 5 years to pay off my student loans quickly”. Who wants to write that Kindle book?

(ALSO, moving abroad to teach English may work if you never intend to work in your chosen field, but… if there was a 5-year out-of-field gap in my resume, I wouldn’t get to work in my field again.)

Samantha (#6,738)

How do people find these kinds of jobs teaching English abroad? I’d love to do that when I’m done with school, but I have no idea how people make this happen.

ShannonYoung (#6,818)

@Samantha I used to find my job. They recruit for reputable programs in dozens of countries and do not charge applicants. Some programs require in-person interviews, so they also arrange those in major US and Canadian cities.

themegnapkin (#444)

@Samantha I taught English for a year through a program run by the French government. When I did it (2001-2002), the stipend was 600 Euros/month for about 16 hours/week of work, and they provided decent housing. 600 Euros/month was enough for me to live on and travel as a dirtbag (my preferred mode of travel), but it wasn’t enough to pay back my student loans.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@themegnapkin I did the same program that same year! Where were you assigned? I taught in Salon-de-Provence.

Samantha (#6,738)

@ShannonYoung Thanks for replying to me! I’ll check that out.

halloliebchen (#5,373)

I have a similar story, but I have to say it’s definitely YMMV here. I moved to Germany to teach English, not because I thought it would help me pay off my loans any faster, but because I couldn’t find any work in the US besides call center jobs and waitressing. I also had an expensive East Coast liberal arts degree, and it cost me 45,000.

Throughout Europe, however, teaching English barely pays enough for you to make ends meet, and right after the recession, I was earning less than my colleagues who had started 2 years before me, and I also had a different contract with a slower raise schedule.

I still live in Germany and I’m finally able to pay off my debt because I’m earning enough, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend teaching English as the best way to earn that kind of money.

jquick (#3,730)

Good for you! Nice to read about someone who moved to where the jobs are, rather than complain. Oh wait, that’s for people commenting.

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