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.
Shannon 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.