Two weeks before my senior year of college, I realized that my student debt was out of control.
As I packed my bags in preparation for another semester, I overturned a thick stack of paper statements from Sallie Mae, and they spilled across my bedroom floor. Until that point, I had taken out student loans with all the forethought of Scarlett O'Hara — I'll think about that tomorrow. Now, thumbing through the stack, my curiosity got the better of me and I grabbed my calculator. I added up the statements, and my stomach sank.
I owed a cool $50,000, with two semesters to go.
When all was said and done, I graduated with a degree in English and a tab for $62,000 — and that was after some substantial financial help from my parents.
The next three years were an exercise in persistence, sacrifice, and hard work, but my husband and I paid off the entire sum on a single salary. Here's how we did it.
1. We moved in with my parents.
After a year of marriage, my husband and I were invited by my parents to move in with them and live rent free in order to pay down our debt. Not wanting to look like a leech, I hesitated. I didn't want to play into the millennial stereotype of "boomeranging" back into my parents' nest. But the ugly truth was that my debt load was several times larger than our annual salary — and with a 9 percent interest rate, it was growing quickly. If we ever wanted to stem the rising tide of our loan payments, we needed to get ahead of it. We moved in with my parents when I was seven months’ pregnant with our first child.
It was a tough decision, but it brought our expenses down to nearly zero. While we bought our own groceries and paid our own expenses (insurance, gas, whatever), the money that would have normally gone toward rent and utilities was sent straight to the loan company, allowing us to hack away at a big chunk of the principal. After a year of living with my parents, we had around $40,000 left in debt — a feat we never would have been able to accomplish that quickly without their help.
2. We threw everything at my debt.
We didn’t touch our small emergency fund, but everything else was fair game. The entirety of our tax refunds went to my loans. Any overtime my husband worked, any bonuses I got from my student job on campus, any freelance earnings I made during my pregnancy — we gave it all to Sallie Mae. We had a modest Toyota Matrix that ferried my husband to and from the office, and an $8-a-month Netflix expenditure. That was pretty much it.
3. We had a mutual goal to get out of debt.
In our drive to get out of debt, we had one goal with two different jobs. I thought of it as an input/output system: My husband was the "input," responsible for bringing home the paycheck. I was the "output" — I managed the money once it was in our checking account and tried to spend as little of it as possible on variable expenses. That meant I clipped coupons, made our own laundry detergent, cooked from scratch, and cloth-diapered our baby. The more money we made, and the less we spent on other things, the more we could put toward our debt.
Had one or both of us been a spendthrift, had we ignored the debt altogether, or had we simply had different goals — saving for a house, for instance — we would still be paying off student loans. Nothing was more important than having both of us committed, together, to getting out of debt as quickly as possible.
On December 19, 2014, we sent in our very last payment. The feeling was almost indescribable: a heady mixture of elation and relief. My husband and I went out for dinner and gorged ourselves on hibachi. It was an enormous indulgence, but one we felt was well-deserved. We got the check for our meal and silently marveled. For the first time, the money in our joint account was something we could rightfully spend on opulent meals or snowshoes or whatever else we wanted.
After three long years, our money was ours.
Sarah Watts is a freelance writer and mom based in the Chicago suburbs. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Huffington Post, xoJane, Chicago Parent, and others. You can find more of her work at her personal blog, wifeytini.com.