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6 strategies I used to pay off $81,000 in student loans

When I graduated in May 2011, I was filled with anxiety about my student loans.

I had just graduated with my Master’s in Performance Studies from New York University. For my BA, I had borrowed $23,000 and for my MA I borrowed $58,000. Between graduating with my BA in 2006 and getting my Master’s, I treated my student loan payment like a bill and just paid the minimum.

But after several years of payment and taking on more debt, I graduated and still had $68,000 left. Once I got serious about my debt and faced my debt head-on, I was able to make progress and paid off the $68,000 I had left in less than five years.

Here are the six strategies I used to get out of $81,000 in student loan debt.

1. I used the debt avalanche method

My Grad PLUS loans had interest rates of 6.8% and 7.9%, whereas my undergraduate loans had interest rates at less than 3% (I can no longer remember exactly how much). When I calculated how much money I was spending on interest, it came to $11 per day. After that, I knew I had to ditch my high-interest debt first.

I used the debt avalanche method where I paid the minimum on all my loans, while throwing extra cash at my highest interest debt — the 7.9% loans. I continued to do this, until that was paid off, and then threw extra cash at the 6.8% loans, and so on and so forth. The avalanche method will help you save money on interest over time, which can mean putting more toward your principal balance.

2. I made biweekly payments

One thing I didn’t realize about student loan debt is that the interest accrues daily. In order to combat the interest that was growing each day, I changed up my strategy. Instead of making monthly payments as required, I made biweekly payments. I divided my monthly payment in two and paid that amount every two weeks. This helped me keep the interest more manageable without even having to pay more.

3. I put my energy toward earning more

After graduating and not finding a full-time job, I moved to Portland, Oregon. I cut my expenses in half but still only found temp work making $10 to $12 per hour. I had scaled back as much as I could. That’s when I realized if I wanted to make real progress on my debt, I had to focus on earning more.

I began to side hustle any way I could. I worked as a brand ambassador, working as the public face of a company at public events. I pet sat for coworkers, found gigs on TaskRabbit like helping someone move, and once I found a gig on Craigslist where I ended up selling water bottles overnight at an underground dance party.

The holiday season was especially lucrative. I worked for a wealthy family assisting with their Halloween party. I worked as a coat check for holiday parties. I pet sat during Thanksgiving and passed out appetizers during Christmas parties. Any gig I could find, I’d do. I put all that extra money toward my debt.

4. I took advantage of free items

One way I was able to keep my expenses low was to take advantage of free stuff. I was lucky enough to get some free samples of soap, free coupons for food items, etc. with my brand ambassador side hustle.

I started working as an event assistant for a congregation. From that side hustle, there were many leftover items of food and wine, which helped lower my food budget.

If I had to shop and buy something, I researched free coupon codes by typing “[company] + coupon code”. Taking advantage of free things helped keep my expenses low.

5. I put my cash back toward my loans

If I had to spend money on something, I wanted to make sure I was making some money in return. When I shopped online, I used Ebates, a site where you can get cash back at certain retailers.

I also had the Capital One Quicksilver card, where I got 1.5% cash back on all my purchases.

These are the best cash-back credit cards of 2019 »

I took the cash back that I got from Ebates and my credit card and put it toward my student loans.

6. I adjusted my tax withholding

Like most people, I was excited every year to receive a tax refund. But then I realized I’d be better off adjusting my tax withholding and boosting my paycheck each month. That way, instead of receiving a lump sum once a year, I’d have more money to work with each month. I used that extra buffer of cash to put more toward my student loans.

Becoming debt-free has been one of the great joys of my life. It wasn’t easy or glamorous. It took a lot of dedication and hard work. Using these six strategies, I was able to streamline the debt payoff process and get out of debt faster.

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