Hello! Here’s how Sarah DeShaw and her husband paid off $189,000 in student loans in 4.5 years. Please enjoy this debt payoff story.
Learning how much student debt my husband had was one of those moments in life that is absolutely seared into my memory.
We were on the beach. I was 20, he was 26. We were in love. We were both born and raised in the Midwest, but he moved to the coast of southern Georgia while we were dating and I had traveled to visit him.
Although we hadn’t been dating for too long at the time, we both knew this was a special connection – marriage material if we wanted.
My strategy while dating my husband was to ask as many hard-hitting questions I could – each a test of sorts to make sure I liked his character and instinctual responses.
I was trying to protect myself by asking what I felt was all the “hard stuff” up front.
He always passed with flying colors.
We’d never really talked about our financial situations and I knew we needed to start the conversation if we were thinking about joining our lives together one day.
I was nervous. I thought he might be disappointed in how much money I didn’t have. I didn’t have any debt, but I didn’t come from money either. I had maybe $7,000 to my name from working summers and around my school schedule.
I was sitting on a blanket on sand that was damp and dense from when the tide had been high. My then boyfriend was standing, admiring the skyline. He towered over me as I sat to enjoy the same view with him, his lanky 6’6 frame exaggerated by the extra long shadow from the setting sun.
I remember the warmness between us, and also the slight tension of nerves hanging in the air; him squinting from the sun falling low in the sky. He was so beautiful and angelic looking, as always. And he was a bit nervous.
Hands in pockets, he drew in the wet sand with his toes as I grilled him with all my tough questions.
Finances were up next.
“What’s your financial situation? Like, how much debt do you have from school?” I had to basically force this question out of my mouth. He had been through chiropractic college and I knew it was probably expensive, but I wasn’t sure what his situation was.
“Around $180-190 thousand.”
In that moment, time stopped.
Emotionally, it felt like that split second that plays out in so many dramatic action movies: Someone gets shot, touches the wound and looks at the person who shot them, but has little reaction because it all happened so quickly. My mind was totally blank. I felt off balance from the imagined scale tipping so fast – all of a sudden my $7,000 I was bringing to the table seemed like a lot.
It took me a few moments to compose myself internally and say “okay” in a positive, but slightly strained manner.
It was a lot, but I loved this man deeply. I knew we could figure it out. We were married within a year of the conversation on the beach that day.
Growing up, I learned most of what I knew about how to handle money through observation.
I watched family members make choices that caused them to lose their house, car, or sense of peace. I watched relatives who never visited my sick grandmother, flock to go through her belongings once she passed.
Things often felt chaotic and I wanted to create something that felt so different from what I knew before. My rudimentary conclusion was to not spend money I didn’t have. For me, this looked like not taking out loans even when my friends and family were – not for school or anything else. I also worked a lot.
I paid for most of my own things from a young age – clothes, insurance, gas, phone, school lunches – which, including my background and my aspiration for a more peaceful future, made me keenly aware of my financial choices.
How We Paid Off The Loan
As far as paying off the student loan, the process was as simple as this: evaluate and minimize costs, keep our spending in check, pay extra on the student loan, repeat.
It’s super simple if you take emotions out of the equation, (and even easier if you can figure out a way to earn more money along the way!) but fortunately/unfortunately I am a person with a lot of feelings! I took the lead on this endeavor, and while it was a very empowering experience to do (and have done!), it also required a lot of grit, frequent processing of emotions and continual commitment to making it happen.
Money is a bit of a loaded topic for most couples and we were no exception.
We truly got married on love and a prayer. We couldn’t afford to pay on the loan at all when we first got married, so we deferred payments as long as we could – I think this was for about three years. During that time we had $800 in our joint account (and then soon after our car broke down and it was going to cost $800 to fix it, but that’s a story for another day!). But, as we established our new careers, we were able to begin paying off the loan bit by bit.
As I mentioned, although the process isn’t easy, it really is quite simple.
Here are the steps we took to pay off my husband’s $189,000 student loan debt in 4.5 years:
1) Estimated Our Average Monthly Spending
I made a very un-fancy spreadsheet in a numbers-friendly software that came with my computer.
I listed out all of our categories of spending and the cost, real or estimated. I combed through our bank and credit card statements to find all the numbers, since we rarely used cash.
2) Deleted, Questioned, and Lowered Spending
After I listed out all our areas of spending, and figured a real or estimated cost for each area, I asked myself if I really needed to spend on the things I listed.
Everything was suspect.
Here are 3 helpful questions I asked myself in order to evaluate each category of spending, as well as some notes to help you implement them:
Can this expense be deleted?
Deleting expenses is one of the most clean cut ways we reduced our spending, so we could re-route more money toward our goal of paying off my husband’s student loan debt.
One of the first things we cut out was shopping for clothes multiple times per month. We’d still shop for clothes when we needed to, but we realized we were spending without much intention and using it as our entertainment.
We realized, for our family, our time and resources could be better spent elsewhere.
If you’d like to explore deleting some of your own expenses, here are some helpful questions you can ask yourself, to get clarity on if an expense can be deleted:
- Is this expense necessary or important to my personal life or future anymore?
- Does this expense bring me peace or stress me out? (I’ve never really found stressful expenses to be worth it, if they are expenses that are optional.) Example: Going out and spending what you would on a week’s worth of groceries when you prefer a quiet night in.
Is this a good investment?
For the purposes of this article, think of an Investment as: Spending money in a way that results in future profit, peace, or growth.
A good investment often means there’s a direct return on your money – but it’s not always quite so black and white. Expenses may not directly add financial return, but may add to your joy or relief, or fulfill some necessary life requirements (like food and rent).
I am a firm believer that if you don’t personally stay vibrant and afloat, it’s not worth the financial savings. Plus, sometimes an expense that doesn’t seem like a good investment at first glance actually is, like when it frees up your schedule or your mind and energy so you can focus on other professional or personal tasks you value.
For example, although it may not directly add to my take home pay each month, I currently spend around $65/month on a family gym membership that includes daycare, so I can have some time to myself to workout and stay healthy. (Also, the gym I go to doesn’t mind if I’m on my laptop in their lounge while my son is in daycare, so I am actually adding the finishing touches on this article at the gym!😊)
To decide whether or not your expense is a good investment, here are some helpful questions you can ask yourself:
- Does this expense align with my goals and vision for my life?
- Has this expense proven to be worth the benefit I receive financially or personally?
Can the cost be lowered?
Sometimes we simply can’t delete expenses entirely, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept them as they are. There are plenty of ways to reduce your expenses, without losing out on whatever benefit that service or product provides you.
In my personal and professional life I aim to check around to see if an expense can be lowered once a year, as you never know when a sale or deal will become available. It’s all too easy to accept an expense as it is (especially if it’s one you’ve been spending on for a long time), meaning you may miss out on monthly savings over time.
Some helpful questions you can ask yourself to get clarity on if an expense can be lowered are:
- Have rates dropped on this or is there a promotion I can snag somewhere?
- Is there a creative solution to lower this expense?
- Can I get the same benefit of this expense for a lower cost or for free?
Interested in how to get a few quick wins when it comes to lowering expenses? Check out my blog post on easy ideas to cut expenses.
3) Decided What We Would Spend (Before Spending It!)
This was an extremely important part of the process. Setting up our “allowances” in all areas of spending and nearly always sticking to it.
This definitely wasn’t a perfectly implemented process for us. We had to tweak our choices along the way, if for example, a big expense popped up. The key here was to have a clear goal, but some flexibility – whether that means paying less or more toward the student loan debt each month.
Note: If you have a partner you’re working on this with, know that open communication is key. The last thing anyone wants to feel like is that their progress is being undermined.
Here are two tips I found helpful when managing a budget with a partner:
- If you can, set up an emergency fund and contribute to it monthly, then use that money first if a surprise expense pops up.
- If you’re starting to sense an upcoming expense, such as your friend got engaged and wants you in the wedding, have an open conversation about what that future spending might look like with your partner. Having a heads up and setting expectations in advance is sometimes the best way to curb tension in this arena!
4) Put Extra Money Toward Paying Off the Student Loan
We kept our spending low, then any extra money leftover was routed directly to making payments on the student loan.
The amount we would pay each month was different since I was self-employed, starting my business in a new location. During that time, I focused a lot of my time and energy toward growing my business. Every extra dollar we made meant we could pay off the loan that much more quickly.
Tip: Be sure to leave yourself some extra spending money!
We were pretty aggressive with the payoff; sometimes I’d even use money I got as a gift from a grandparent at Christmas towards the payoff.
It brought me joy to see the number go down! However, I do recommend also budgeting in some “fun money” every month so you can splurge on dinner, a new outfit, or whatever will help you better enjoy the process along the way.
We were able to make our student loan payments on a credit card (that we would then pay off immediately), so we were able to accumulate thousands of dollars in points along the way to help have some splurge money while we kept things so limited. It made it a lot more enjoyable to feel like we still got to enjoy new purchases while working towards our goal!
The longer I have worked towards seeing my various goals come to fruition, the more I see that it’s been the small, diligent choices and commitment that adds up to BIG results over time.
If paying off a large debt is something you’re interested in, know that you’re not alone in your desire, and that you CAN do it!
What I would’ve done the same:
- I pushed for early student loan payoff. My husband was a tough sell on this. We saved money on the interest as well as put ourselves in a better position for when “life” happens – and it did a couple times with unexpected income loss. We were so glad we didn’t have that extra payment to make when it did!
- Read other people’s debt payoff stories for inspiration and motivation along the way! This helped me SO much!
- I used credit cards (that I paid off immediately) to make the student loan payments and we got rewarded with credit card points – $3,780 of them!! It felt abundant to get gift cards I could spend on whatever I wanted during a time we were very pared down in our spending. It helped to know every time we paid a big chunk of the loan we’d get rewarded with gift cards in the mail a couple weeks later.
- We paired down on a lot, but we spent a lot on groceries and made delicious, healthy meals. I don’t believe health and food is an area to skimp! You want to have your health for when you get that loan paid off!
- Tune out other people’s opinions and choices. Everyone has different approaches to their personal finances. If you want to be debt free, brush off the judgments of others.
What I would’ve done differently:
- Celebrated more. Paying off debt can feel so exhilarating and exciting! However, at the time I found it difficult to spend money on celebrating our accomplishment when I felt like we were essentially just getting to “zero”. If I could do it again I would set aside a small fund and take a celebration trip, or throw a party!
- Put money aside for retirement. Time is on your side with a Roth and I didn’t really know anything about investing back then. I was 20 when we got married and didn’t have financial knowledge or guidance. If I knew then what I know now I would’ve made sure to max out our Roths while we were paying off the student loan debt. It would’ve taken us a bit longer, but knowing we were investing in our futures in this way would’ve been beneficial both emotionally and financially.
Ready to do this yourself?
If you’re ready to do this yourself, check out the guided process I created to help you re-route your spending towards your current goals and vision for your life!
It’s called the “Budget Detox Workbook”! It’s the very process I walked you through in this article, broken up into a 7 day process, in an aesthetically pleasing workbook, with even more tips and scripts for your success!
Doing this process as a yearly ritual has helped our family do things like:
- Pay off my husband’s 189,000 student loan
- Buy our cars in cash
- Start two businesses without debt
- Safeguarded us financially when I lost my primary source of income
- Visit Paris for a month
- Take an extended maternity leave
I created a “home” version to help you reach your personal goals faster. And, I created a “business” version for entrepreneurs who want to run a lean business and accelerate their goals.
You can find both at this link.
From the deepest part in my heart, I want to say best of luck on your financial goals! Securing your future and reaching for your goals really is something worth pursuing!
Author bio: Sarah DeShaw is a systems & style-obsessed online educator, and author of the “Budget Detox” workbook. Armed with years of experience running her own businesses and curating her life, Sarah is passionate about leading others down the path of peace and personal fulfillment through applying minimalist principles both personally and professionally.
Do you have debt? Are you trying to pay it off quickly?