“How I Paid Off $16,000 in Student Loans”

Gina Nykerk

When Gina Nykerk paid off her student loans, credit card, and car, it was a major Financial Turning Point for her—and and an inspiration for several friends.

When I was 23 years old, I paid off all $16,000 of my student loan debt.

I can’t tell you how empowering it is not to owe anything, financially.

After I graduated from college a few years before, I did what most college students do. I started spending all the money I was barely making. After all, $32,000 a year straight out of college feels like a lot of money after working part-time for $12 an hour.

I got an apartment of my own, a gym membership, and a weekly date at the nail salon. I hadn’t even started to pay my parents back for the used-car they had given me. But life felt fun and carefree—as life after college was supposed to.

Then I met a man, my now-husband, who continually asked me why I wasn’t doing more to pay down my debt. “It’s only $16,000,” I’d respond. I knew that it would take me years to pay it off. Most people had much more debt than I did, walking away from a private university. Shouldn’t he have been impressed that I wasn’t in more debt?

After months of prodding from him— followed by a night with my calculator and my bills laid out in front of me—I had an epiphany. I realized that by the time I paid off my debt using only the minimum payment the government required of me, I’d pay nearly as much in interest as the principal of the loan. 

That $16,000 would nearly double by the time it was all said and done. I was furious.

I decided then and there to take action. I was on a month-to-month lease at the time, so I called my landlord and told him I’d be out by the end of the month. I searched on Craigslist and found a roommate, and for the next eight months we shared a small house in a fun part of town. 

Within a week, I’d arranged to cut my monthly expenses by more than half.

Having a roommate wasn’t my favorite prospect, but I knew it was required to seriously, diligently tackle my money goals. So with the money I was saving monthly, I first paid my parents back for the car. Within four months, I owned it outright. That felt incredible.

I then took the money I had been paying my parents and paid off about $3,000 in credit card debt

After that, I tackled my student loan. I wrote the amount I owed on a piece of paper, and stuck it next to my bedroom door. That way, every single day, I was reminded what I was working for. 

That helped me to make better choices: Every day I decided not to buy that coffee, or not to have that extra glass of wine. Every day, I worked to save my money to make a larger payment than the payment before. 

Thankfully, I also got a raise during that time—one that came with the occasional bonus. Every extra dime from my growing paycheck went toward my loan repayment.

I gave myself a year to get out of my $16,000 debt—an aggressive plan—and I managed to do it in eight months.

While I’m proud of my story and what I was able to accomplish, I’m much more proud of how my story has affected those around me.

Now 28, I’ve been watching some of my friends start to climb the financial ladder—and do nothing to pay off their debt with their newfound stash of cash. But for each person I’ve told my story to, each one has made a change to their own finances. Two of my friends even gave themselves a challenge similar to mine—and are now living debt-free as well.

I believe that the norm in the U.S.—particularly among the millennial generation—is that debt is expected, and therefore acceptable. Our debt numbers are often so big, so daunting—so humbling—that we feel powerless to do anything about it.

My challenge to my peers is to do more: to challenge the norm of having debt, and to take back your finances. Give yourself financial freedom, and take back your life. 

It is such a lovelier life, after all, when you aren’t worried about the payments you’ll be making for the next 30 years.

Inspired by this story? Read more Financial Turning Point stories about what happens when you give too much—and when you decide to get your life together.