How It Feels to Pay Off $70,000 in Debt

Annaleigh

We take out student loans casually, and then rail against having them for years.

I knew grad school would be expensive, but I don’t think anyone is able to comprehend what $70,000 of debt truly means, without personal experience. My $16,000 loan from college had been a non-issue in my life—mostly because I was on a low, interest-only repayment plan—and I wasn’t worried. I was going to increase my earning potential! I got into a great school! This was going to be worth it.

By the time I finished my master’s degree in 2011, that “nonissue” undergrad loan had grown to $20,000, and I had $50,000 of brand-new debt to pile on top of it. This felt like a real, burdensome amount of money that I owed now. My first bill informed me that I was saddled with minimum monthly payments of roughly $700 for the next 10 years, with an astoundingly high portion going to interest.

So I took the high-achieving drive that had gotten me into that expensive school, and devoted it to paying off my loans as soon as possible. I created spreadsheets evaluating various snowball approaches and projecting my anticipated date of freedom. I took subsidized public transit to work. I brown-bagged. I said no to trips and dinners out. I looked forward to applying my tax refund to loans. I saved very little. When bored or impatient, I mentally pulled up my credit card bill and bank account balance, and calculated how much I could put toward the loans that month. I was spending a lot of my life bored or impatient.

Now I’m only weeks away from paying off my loans, after just three and a half years—wildly exceeding all of my projections. When focused, you find a way. By the end I was putting more than $2,000 to the loans (enough money to buy a pretty fancy vacation) every single month. I always figured when the loans were gone we’d splurge for a month and would celebrate with a trip, or a week of fancy dinners, or skydiving because the loans were GONE.

This is the biggest goal I have ever set, requiring dedication over several years. I am grateful that I brought home enough money to make so much progress so quickly. Statisticians are paid well, even in the public sector. I sacrificed, but I’m also lucky. I thought the day I made my final payment would be one of the best days of my life.

However, it turns out that what they say about change being scary is true, even when it is an undeniably good change! I’m only weeks away from making my final payment, but I’m not dancing under the stars. There’s no wild trip planned. I’m actually starting to have some completely unanticipated worries.

I’m married, and my husband has always been on the same page as me in prioritizing our loan payoff. But what if our values start to diverge now that we are out of debt? I want to save boatloads of money, so I’m free to walk away from a job if it becomes terrible. My husband, in theory, is on board with this, but I do worry that it’ll be harder to convince him to keep living a frugal life when the loans are gone. Retirement and savings are less of a motivator than hair-on-fire debt, and over the years we’ve delayed a lot of our wants to some undefined date in the future. He’s a public school teacher in an underappreciated field, so he understands the appeal of an emergency fund, but he also really wants a fancy mountain bike. It was easy to delay our wants when we knew it was short-term sacrifice, but what will happen now that we are gearing up for the rest of our financial lives? Money represents both freedom and fun for us, but in differing proportions.

Relatedly, I don’t want to fall prey to the hulking monster of lifestyle inflation. I keep a running list on my phone, of things I’ll buy some day when money is better. Some have been deleted, but some I want more than ever: leather boots, a new bike (yeah, my husband is not alone in this), prescription sunglasses. Money is better now, but I worry that if I start buying things I want, I’ll keep wanting more.

I’m also a little worried about putting all of our money in the stock market via our company-sponsored retirement accounts. We have watched our net worth steadily creep up past $0, thanks to the guaranteed return of paying off moderately-high interest debt (6-8% is a bummer, my friends). Investing introduces an element of risk that isn’t there when paying off debt. Of course, with risk comes reward, and being able to invest at a young age is a good thing, but I’ll have to learn to stomach sudden swings in our financial health that have nothing to do with our own actions or decisions. We can sacrifice and scrimp and save and then lose everything, in the short-term at least.

I’m also feeling weird about sharing such a major victory with friends. I don’t want this to be a time when money starts being an issue in my relationships. I am still totally down for $2 beers and will probably always be frugal (cheap), but what if friends start feeling weird about the money discrepancy now that I’m out of debt? Money between friends was simpler when everyone was poor.

I don’t know where my mind will wander in quiet moments of doing the dishes or biking to work. I have spent years focused on this, staring at my payoff projection spreadsheet, figuring out how to find another $100 in the monthly budget. I’m relieved to be free of that mental anchor, but I don’t know what will take its place. I feel a little like an Olympic athlete who just won a gold medal and now doesn’t know what to do with herself.

Of course, no one feels sorry for the gold medal winner, and no one should feel sorry for me. I am so grateful that I’ve been able to do this. I know many of my friends are still faced with substantial loans. I was able to live on my salary and put all of my husband’s salary towards the loans, which would not have been possible if I weren’t married, and to someone who shares my values and long-term goals. I am grateful to be in a position where we can give more to charity and mooch less off family. I’m lucky, I’m happy, I’m proud—but this still doesn’t feel like the greatest day of my life.

 

Jessie is an aspiring minimalist, frugal feminist, writer and statistician. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and dog and writes at MindfulRiot.com

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25 Comments / Post A Comment

rhinoceranita (#5,858)

I am always amazed by these student loan payoff stories since I have a huge amount of debt. I am curious, does your husband have any loans?

What is your combined salaries?

I guess since I am only three years out of college and paying my loans steadily for two years but have not come close to throwing that much money at my loans each month, I am curious as to what factors helped?

I get that you were frugal and lived like a monk for three years but are there things that weren’t mentioned?

I hope I didn’t come off as accusatory. I’m just trying to do the same.

Mindful Riot (#7,611)

@rhinoceranita Not at all accusatory! My husband was lucky enough to graduate loan-free with the generous help of his parents, so all loans were mine.

The biggest factor was definitely having the power of combined incomes. We are also further along in our careers than it sounds like you are. Grad school didn’t actually boost my earning potential much (whoops), but having some experience did – we are both just short of 30.

Besides that, it was mostly just about staying focused on what our ultimate goal was, every single day. I may write a blog post detailing this more so stay tuned :)

spex (#1,159)

@Mindful Riot If I may ask–what kind of work were you doing before? You said statisticians get paid well but also that you didn’t see much change in your earning potential post-degree. I’m in the early stages of an education/career shift towards statistics & this article hit pretty close to home.

Also, congrats on paying off the debt! Even though it introduces a whole new set of anxieties.

rhinoceranita (#5,858)

@Mindful Riot I have about $90k in debt and I make somewhat less than that per year so I feel like I should somehow be doing what you are doing but continue being unable to do so!

Mindful Riot (#7,611)

@spex I was in a very similar field before grad school and remained at the same employer, so while I find the work I do now more interesting, it didn’t really pay off financially in the short term – mostly because I had already gotten raises through the benefit of my years of experience.

Mindful Riot (#7,611)

@rhinoceranita If you want to talk specifics don’t hesitate to contact me through my website! I’m hesitant to put EVEN MORE specifics about my finances on the internet without discussing with my husband first but I’d be glad to email you more info.

potatopotato (#5,255)

@Mindful Riot: What do statisticians do? What’s your day-to-day like?

andnowlights (#2,902)

Oh this was so, so, so good to read. THANK YOU! We’re set to pay off what amounts to $37,000 worth of debt (car, medical, and student loan) by the end of the year, at which point we’ll be completely debt free. We’re working on the last of the student loan debt ($27,000, which is admittedly not $70,000) total and it’s kind of freaking me out a little bit because I don’t know what to do with that money once we don’t owe anything to anyone. What an amazing thing you’ve accomplished! So proud of you and great work!

erinep (#4,236)

@andnowlights That is really impressive! Especially while one of you is in school!

andnowlights (#2,902)

@erinep It’s kind of been a stop/start kind of thing. The student loans, the $27,000, will have taken 1 year and 4 months to pay off (in 2 separate bursts, one in 4 months last year for $10k and $17000 in 2014). Everything else just kind of happened as we went along making normal payments or whatever.

mbl (#5,203)

Well done.
I’m going to jump right in on this one.
I would suggest that you funnel most of what you were using to service debt to your retirement accounts if they aren’t maxed out already. $17500/year is the max for 401(k) contributions(not sure what the max is on your public sector retirement options), $5500/yr max for a Roth if you qualify.
Continue to live the frugal lifestyle. I can read that you are familiar with MMM already. Don’t be a candidate for face punching….repatriate those monies toward investment in you and your DH and the freedom of choice that will bring in future.
Decide if you want to FIRE early.
You have a golden opportunity here to weigh the extra stuff/drinks/trips/esoterics that you could purchase or your freedom.

Of course it all has to be balanced with the here and now and enjoying life. But, I suspect that you’ve learned that the lack of purchase of stuff didn’t necessarily equate to a life of deprivation. Give it some thought.

Again, congratulations on beating the SL debt monster!

Mindful Riot (#7,611)

@mbl Was it the phrase “hair-on-fire debt” that gave me away? :)
Yes, we plan to save, and save a lot. There’s very little that we gave up that we miss, beyond a new bike or two!

mbl (#5,203)

Just took at look at MindfulRiot….love it.
I’ve been doing most of the stuff that MMM talks about for the past 35 years…..but my friends didn’t think it was cool ….just me being El Cheapo.
P.S. I’m a 56 former NY kid(born and raised in Queens) and love, love theBillFold. My Brooklynite DD tells me I’m a hipster wannabe…..

lemonhead3159 (#6,051)

This was great.

Also, I have a GoogleDoc of “things I will buy” when my student loan is no more and Frye boots and a KitchenAid mixer have stood the test of time (and like you said, I want them MORE now than I did when I first took on my debt!).

Mindful Riot (#7,611)

@lemonhead3159 LOL yes the leather boots I want specifically are Frye boots. They are really just shockingly expensive, but, buy it for life?

theotherginger (#1,304)

@Mindful Riot I totally recommend them! I bought some in January, the stitching starting coming apart. I sent them in for repairs (they come with a warranty) AND THEY GAVE ME NEW ONES.

gridmonte (#5,744)

@Mindful Riot and you might be able to find the boots (like I did) at Nordstrom Rack and the like! Or on sale at the regular Nordstrom. And congratulations!

AlexB (#7,621)

@lemonhead3159 Thankfully, I never had to deal with SL, but I do have some CC debt that I’m working through. I think, in general, having a “wants” list is good for everyone! I add to mine, and check it at the end of the month. I see how much personal shopping money I have left in my budget, revise the list (removing anything I realize I don’t actually want that much), and then buy whatever is needed sooner. For example, I have some personal money left over for this month, and I really need a new swimsuit for doing laps at the pool. I’ll get that over, say, a new sweater.

Also, I’ve had my Frye’s for 5 years, and they’re still one of the most comfortable, yet sturdy, shoes I own. I justify the price when I think of how many pairs of cheaper boots I could have gone through in the time I’ve had these. I paid $20 to have them re-soled, but that’s it. Highly recommend!

Penelope Pine (#2,808)

As a person with interest in statistics/predictive modeling but not a ton of math education I’m curious about what grad program you completed.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Penelope Pine I’m curious about this too! Master of what?

Mindful Riot (#7,611)

@aetataureate @penelopepine Specifically epidemiology :)

AlexB (#7,621)

@Mindful Riot Well done on your dedication to getting out of debt! That’s so exciting!

I’m actually a little sad to hear your Epi Masters (MPH, or MS?) hasn’t benefited you much – I’m almost finished with mine. I don’t currently work in public sector, though, but interested in it. If you’re willing, I would like to reach out to you about your experience in public sector epi.

And again, congrats and well done!

beastlyburden (#6,122)

Jessie, from one Internet stranger to another: I am terribly proud of you and the choices you made in order to conquer your debt. Well done, A+, excellent work all around.

I think it’s totally normal to feel a bit apprehensive about your life post-debt (I went through some very similar feelings), but you’ll find the right balance between boredom/impatience and needless lifestyle inflation. It’s fine if you stumble a few times, too; I certainly did. But you’ll be okay! You’ll be more than okay. Girl, you saved SEVENTY THOUSAND DOLLARS IN THREE AND A HALF YEARS. You know what you’re capable of.

Buy yourself a pair of boots. And buy yourself both those bikes.

And start investing.

(Again, well done! Brava!)

Get the prescription sunglasses! That’s not even a frivolous expense: it’s a legit medical need. And you might be able to use FSA money for it, too, if that’s available to you.

And, again, congratulations!

Myrax (#6,662)

Congratulations!!! And how are you living my life story? My husband and I are also nearing the last 4 months of paying off about $65,000 in debt, and you have captured all of the fears and uncertainties that it brings up.

Good luck in the future, and come back soon and tell us what you are doing with your awesome saving power.

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