20 Things We Did to Pay off $53K of Debt in One Year

Jen SmithDebt, Personal Finance58 Comments

Pay off Student Loans

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In 2016 my husband and I paid off over $53,000 of student loan debt. Our combined income was roughly $88K meaning we lived off $35K and put 60% of our income towards loans. Pinch me.

UPDATE: As of August 31, 2017 Travis and I are STUDENT LOAN FREE! We paid off $77,646.54 in 23 months!

How to Pay off Student Loan Debt


This was clearly not a casual year for us. It was really easy signing for these loans but it was not easy paying them off. Over $12,000 of my personal income alone was from side jobs and I (no lie) contracted shingles early on in the process from how stressed out I was about the task at hand.

What’s also true, aside from the discipline it took to turn down trips to Disney and dinners out, is that I had a great 2016. Yes, the year itself was straight out of a horror film, but I had fun, went out, and we even took a vacation. Even though sometimes I felt deprived in the moment, looking back I wasn’t deprived at all. Every “no” made me a stronger person.

There are countless stories on the Internet about how people paid off massive amounts of debt in short amounts of time and they mostly say the same thing. So I wanted to give you something a little different and tell you what I think are the 20 most important things we did to tackle this big problem as quickly as possible.



1. Determine Your “Why”

This is the first and most important step we took. We decided we want to travel and buy a home big enough to foster children (one of my side jobs is at a foster group home.) Every time it got hard I reminded myself of why we’re doing this and it influenced every financial decision I made. You’re gonna need this one to succeed.

2. Have Clarity

You can’t finish a race if the route’s not laid out. The next thing we did was take inventory of our debt, savings, income, recurring bills, etc. to have a clear picture of our financial situation. Some couples don’t combine their finances, for us it was necessary to be transparent with each other since his earned income would be paying off my loans and vice versa.

3. Make a Budget

You’re gonna need this one too. It’s 100% necessary to have a written budget before every month begins. We do ours in EveryDollar, it’s the easiest user interface I’ve worked with. We’ve never made a perfect budget, we’re always tweaking throughout the month but we always spend less than we bring in. We’re able to meet and exceed our loan payment every month because of the budget.

4. Change How You Shop

I traded Publix for Aldi, Target for Walmart, and the mall for Goodwill. Some changes were better than others (LOVE Aldi, Hate Walmart) but it’s all for the sake of saving money.

While getting out of debt we committed to not paying full price for anything. I sit in my car or stand in line looking for coupons before I make a purchase. Here are some of the ways I save on full-priced items

  • Use Blink to save on prescriptions.
  • EyeBuyDirect to save on prescription eyewear.
  • Energy saving methods like low-flow showerheads to reduce our utility bill.
  • Sites like Restaurant.com for dining deals.
  • Groupon and LivingSocial for deals on activities.
  • ThredUp for nice secondhand clothing at steep discounts from retail.
  • I take advantage of free trials at gyms.
  • Shopping through Ebates when making any purchases online will get you cash-back from virtually any retailer.
  • Apps like ibotta and Checkout51 to save at grocery stores and other big box retailers.
  • Use healthcare sharing to save big time on health insurance.

5. Pick Up Extra Jobs

There are only so many things you can cut out of your life but there’s virtually no limit to the amount of money you can bring in. We started with hourly side jobs and since starting this blog I’ve had opportunities to freelance that have given me much more flexibility with my time.

You have to start somewhere and I am convinced bringing in extra income is the key to paying off large amounts of debt fast. If you can’t work any extra then negotiate a raise or find a higher paying job. This is that vital of a step.

I’ve laid out some 21 ways to make extra money and if you’re interested in blogging you can start here or check out my post about how to start and monetize a blog in any niche. I also made a pdf of 10 jobs I personally did and links to apply for them, you can get it here:

6. Drive Old Cars

We both drive Toyota Corollas and will drive them until we need something bigger. IMO, you don’t deserve a new car if you’re in debt, you don’t even deserve a nice used car. I don’t care how shiny it is.

You need something to get you back and forth from your 2 jobs and when you can pay cash for an upgrade then you deserve whatever you can afford.

7. Buy Used or Find Free

I don’t buy new clothes anymore and half of our furniture we got for free next to dumpsters and repainted. New doesn’t always mean better. We’ve saved a lot of money this year by not falling into that trap.

8. Meal Plan

I never go into the grocery store without a list. I worked in restaurants during college and they did inventory every week and planned specials around it to minimize food waste and save money. So I do the same in my kitchen. I plan meals around what I have and the grocery budget has become the one section I never exceed because of it.

If you’re bad at doing stuff like this or don’t have a lot of time, PlateJoy is the meal planning service I use that does this for you. It’s the best value out there and I always say work smarter, not harder.

Also Read: How to Start Meal Planning

9. Celebrate Milestones!

Every time we pay off a loan or hit a milestone we have a little celebration. It’s usually dinner out (using Groupon or Restaurant.com) or a glass of whiskey and a movie on Netflix. If you have big loans that don’t have little milestones, make your own. $3K and $5K increments are a good start.


10. Sell Stuff

We didn’t have any big things to sell but we got a few nice appliances from our wedding so we sold the old stuff and made enough for gas for the month. We regularly sell clothes at Plato’s Closet and random stuff on OfferUp or Facebook’s new local selling section.

11. Rent Something Cheap

Living in something small and cheap is great while you’re paying off debt, avoid house fever at all costs. You get smaller utility bills and have less room to buy “stuff” for. We live in a growing city in a pretty nice neighborhood and I’ve kept no secret that we paid $800 for a 1/1 in a duplex.

As the housing market rises so do rent prices so you have to get creative while looking. My husband went for runs in different neighborhoods and found it on one of those. It wasn’t listed. We also negotiated adding water & sewage into the rent.

12. Stop Eating Out Alone

We still eat out, even when we don’t have a gift card, but we stopped grabbing food out of laziness. I used to get tacos every Wednesday after work (not on Tuesday? Gasp.) and grits on Saturday before I went in.

For millennials, eating out is part of our culture, it unites us, but these taco and grits trips weren’t bringing me closer to anything but my fork. So now I only eat out if it’s with friends or my husband.

13. Visualize

We have a 4 ft paper thermometer on our wall (next to our thermostat, lol) that we fill in after we’ve made our loan payment for the month. I used to just watch numbers get smaller in all my accounts but with this corny visualization trick, It’s been fun to see that red bar go up and the white space above it get smaller and smaller.

I made a free printable debt thermometer for you here if you want to try it!

14. Give

Seems a little counter-intuitive doesn’t it? We could be making an extra $500 payment on our loan, shave a month or two off our total repayment. Only 67% of households give to charity & religious organizations.

It’s over half but Americans still get a D in social justice. It’s important to me to give what we can now so in the future giving more will be a natural progression.

15. Chill Out

Where all my Type A brothers and sisters at!? Let me hear you say “Ahhh. Omg. This is too much. I’m freaking out…” I used to live somewhere on that level.

It’s gotten a lot better since my Shingles outbreak last year (at the ripe age of 26) but I still have to remind myself to just go with the flow. Whatever happens will happen and it’ll all work out in the end.

16. Unfollow Your Friends on Social Media

Confession: I unfollowed two of my best friends on Instagram and I didn’t tell them. I love them but they’re always traveling to cool places, eating great food, buying new stuff, and I just couldn’t handle it.

In no way has it affected our relationship (it’s probably improved it) and I can scroll a little safer now.

Also Read: Why Unfollowing my Friends Helped my Finances

17. Temporary Shopping Ban

This fall I did a shopping ban for 6 weeks. I still bought groceries and went out to eat but I didn’t buy any personal non-necessities. The beauty of a shopping ban is that it can look different for everyone and you’re guaranteed to save money for as long as you do it.

18. Check Your Bills

Whenever it’s time to renew or we see an ad for a good offer (on something we already pay for) we call to negotiate a better deal. It’s unfortunate that companies take advantage of their customers like they do but that’s how it is and it’s on us to keep our necessities affordable.

You use apps like Clarity Money or Squeeze to help you with this.

19. Ditch Cable

We never signed up so this one is a no-brainer. I don’t care how much you love sports or how many kids you need to keep occupied. There are cheaper, if not free, ways to do it than cable. Try Fire TV Stick or Roku to fill your cable sized void.

Our friend knows our budget is tight while paying off debt so she lets us use her Netflix account for free. You never know, maybe one of your friends will do the same while you’re getting your finances together.  And football isn’t going anywhere.

20. Stop Investing

We never started. I know I’m missing out on so much compound interest and I’m giving up free money, and blah, blah, blah. The market is probably around 8% my loans were at 6.55% and that 1.45 is not worth more to me than the satisfaction of not owing anyone anything.

If you want to pay off your loans fast, then pile on the money you would be investing to your loan. And remember it’s not forever.

You can Pay off Student Loan Debt!

Whew! That’s a lot, right? Don’t expect to start all these at the same time. We worked up to doing all these things. Start with the first four and work your way down, you’ll be surprised at how naturally they all come over time.



Pay off Student Loan Debt

58 Comments on “20 Things We Did to Pay off $53K of Debt in One Year”

  1. This is very helpful! I like the meal plan restaurant reference, I always feel like we have to run to the store to get food for something we want NOW, then stuff goes bad we already had, but planning it out and not wasting would be so much smarter and probably easier…

    1. It is Jennifer! I’ve found so many ways to improve my life by approaching it like a business. Super dorky but hey, it works!

    1. Thanks! I was seriously so overwhelmed until we just started plowing in and not thinking about it!

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    1. Good luck Jacki! Keep chipping away even when it feels too big to make a difference, every little bit counts!

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  8. This is a great article! I love higher education topics and personal finance victories. Good for you guys! It’s so rare to have the self-control for long enough periods of time to make a dent in large debt. Lots of good info in this post, thank you!

  9. I’ve definitely had to let a few people go on social media! It’s hard to keep yourself on track when someone appears to be living the life and you’re driving an old beat up car.

    1. I’m gonna start taking pictures of the crappiest parts of my life and post those! haha. It would definitely be real life!

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  24. This was soooo helpful! I’m definitely going to use OfferUp and EveryDollar. I have about 170k in loans and hope to pay it off in 5 years — it won’t be easy but I daydream about the day where I actually get to keep most of my paycheck!! Thanks for sharing so much.

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  34. I find this really helpful! All your insights actually shed me some light. Thank you so much for sharing this. I would just want to know if you invest while you’re paying off your debt?

    1. I don’t because we’re still in our 20’s, we planned to pay off the debt in under 2 years, and our interest rate was over 6% making any return on investment negligible as long as we had the debt.

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  39. You sound like a Dave Ramsey follower! Me too:) You’re so lucky to be on the right track at your age. We are debt free including our home but we didn’t “discover” these principals until our 40’s. Good job to you and your husband!

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