I paid off a lot of student loan debt in a short amount of time. Here’s my advice for anyone hoping to do the same.
1. Make more money.
This is number one because nobody is saying it. I don’t know why nobody is saying it. It makes me mad — like, angry-walk-around-my-apartment mad — that nobody will point out how stupidly obvious this is.
You can’t give someone a lot of money unless you have a lot of money.
If I owe you 78,710 tacos and I can only make 10 tacos an hour, it’s going to be a long time until I don’t owe you any more tacos. The only way I can change that is by making more tacos per hour.
You’ve probably heard of people who grew up in objectively better socio-taco-nomic circumstances. Maybe their parents gave them a lot of tacos to pay for college.
My parents didn’t have a lot of tacos. Since you’re reading this, I assume your parents didn’t either.
It’s not your fault.
I know saying that doesn’t change your situation, but I want to acknowledge it.
Let’s have a quick pity party because neither of us were born into families with a lot of tacos.
Now be grateful you were born into a socio-taco-nomic situation that allowed you to go to college at all.
Enough about tacos. Moving on.
You need skills.
Skills are how normal people (i.e. not rich people) make money. Rich people make money doing rich people things, like owning real estate, or companies they don’t do any work in, or any means of production which reinforces the cycle of systematic oppression (you went to college, I don’t need to explain this). These things take money, and you don’t have any. You have negative money, so you need to pimp out your skills.
Here’s the thing about skills though: Not all skills are equal. Some skills are more valuable than others.
Example: I can do a kickflip. Did it take time to learn? Absolutely — most of my middle school years. Can I use it to make money? Not really. I’m not going to be the next Tony Hawk. My only hope would be to somehow run into a situation where I’m near a skateboard and hope that, because I look more like a golfer than a skater these days, someone might bet that I can’t land a kickflip. I’d win that bet.
I can also make businesses money on the internet. How long did that take to learn? Longer than it did to consistently land a kickflip. And how much do people pay me to do it for them? More than they would to watch me do a kickflip.
Valuable skills are difficult. They take time to learn, and the longer they take, the more valuable they are. It’s why heart surgeons earn more than secretaries.
But valuable skills aren’t just difficult, because I know a lot of skilled artists eating ramen — and not because they like it. Valuable skills are in demand. Nobody is emailing me asking if I’ll do a kickflip for them, but they are asking if I’ll run their ads on Amazon.
Now get ready, because I’m about to offend some people.
College degrees vary by difficulty and demand.
Most of my friends were music performance majors — a high difficulty, low demand thing. They practiced and studied twice as hard as I ever did, but there can only be so many Taylor Swifts, so many of them are teaching. Right or wrong, teachers don’t make bank.
My degree is in communication, a (arguably) high demand, low difficulty skill. My starting salary after graduation was $31k — less than half my student loan debt at the time.
Hopefully you went to school for something with better earning potential. Something difficult and in demand, like accounting, or engineering, or biochemistry. It’s ok if you didn’t. It’s just going to be harder for you to pay back your loans.
It hurts to admit this. I can hear the kid in the back of the digital auditorium reading this, cupping his hands around his mouth, yelling, “But what about following your passion?”
You should totally follow your passion, if your passion makes money. Otherwise, if you’re smothered in debt, following your passion is a luxury you can’t afford. Get to a better place, then pursue your passion outside of work hours. If you’re not willing to lose some sleep for it, how passionate about it are you really?
Very few people love their jobs. If you can find work that doesn’t give you the Sunday scaries, I consider that a win. If you hate your job, get a new one. Forget about “employment history” — it doesn’t matter when you’re miserable. I went from stocking shelves overnight at Walmart, to handing out food samples at Sam’s Club, then sold jewelry at Kay Jewelers, before my “cush” $31k salary in marketing. All of that happened within a year.
Yeah, I’m a straight white guy. The world works in my favor. I’m ridiculed for taking advantage of my privilege or disappoint people if I don’t. I choose the former and try my best. My point isn’t, “If I can do it, so can you!” I’m just saying the typical rules don’t apply when you hustle.
And that’s what you need to do: Hustle. Once you find that job that doesn’t give you the Sunday scaries, do it better than everyone else. You want to make exceptional money? Do exceptional work. So show up early and stay late — not to impress your boss, because they ultimately don’t care. Do it to acquire the skills, whatever those skills may be.
Forget everything your parents and grandparents told you about company loyalty. It’s admirable, but you can’t pay back your student loans with admiration.
Your monetary-worth fresh out of college is garbage, which sucks, but makes sense, because your skills — or lack thereof — are garbage.
The upside is that you learn a lot your first year. You acquire valuable skills quickly, and you’re worth significantly more with a year or two of experience than you were when you had none. Employers don’t want to give you an appropriate raise because so far you’ve worked for less, and they’re willing to bet you’ll continue working for less, and they’re usually right. Most people have low self-worth. Money is like love; you get what you think you deserve.
If you know what you’re worth, go and get what you’re worth. That most likely means leaving your job for another, and then another, until you’re content — or if you’re one of those perpetually unhappy people, die.
This alone may be enough to accomplish your student loan goals. It wasn’t for me, and seeing how everything has only gotten worse, I’m skeptical that it will be for you. Welcome to our economy, where the money sucks and it’s your grandma’s fault.
Pick one: side job or side hustle. Be honest with yourself too, because it’s really easy to think you’re side hustling when all you’re really doing is watching Gary Vee videos. Talking about work isn’t work. Work is work. Do work. If you can’t trust yourself to do the work, get a part time job. I would have made a lot more money working at Kay Jewelers on Saturdays than I did trying to make money online my first year.
If you’re more ambitious, start a side hustle. Buy stuff at garage sales and sell it on eBay. Sign up for freeCodeCamp and build an app. Offer freelance writing services on Upwork. Basically, bootstrap a business. In the best-case scenario you quit your job, make a crap ton of tacos, and invest until you join the plutocrats you claim to hate. In the worst-case scenario you waste some time, but if you see it as time wasted rather than time invested, this route isn’t for you.
2. Spend less money.
Most of the financial advice you find online focuses on spending less money. You know, stop eating avocado toast, ordering Starbucks every day, etc. It makes the assumption that you already have Starbucks and avocado toast money.
These articles dominate the internet because they’re written for people with disposable income, which means you can sell them stuff. Nobody wants to write advice for poor people; there’s no money in it. Make more money. It’s tip number one for a reason.
Once you are making more money, spending less as a consumer is how you do real damage to your student loan balance. You achieve this by having a budget.
Let me say it again for the kid in the back who’s still mad because I fractured his dream of being a novelist.
You need a budget.
Finance gurus like to make budgeting complicated. It’s not. Spend less money than you make. That’s it. The details are up to you, and they depend on your beliefs.
I believe debt is bad. Not all of it, and not for everyone, but predominantly for me, and student loan debt is the worst. My budgeting habits are built on this belief. They are equally simple.
The first is to spend as much on debt as possible without going from productive self-hate to destructive self-hate.
When I graduated from college I had two options: opt for a standard repayment plan and move back home with Mom and Dad, or choose an income-based repayment plan and find some roomies. I moved home for two years. It was a $10,000 decision. All of it went to student loans.
I was fortunate to have that option. Some people don’t, and that really sucks, because they’re usually the ones who need it most. Some people could move back home and choose not to, which is fine and nice, unless they complain about their financial situation.
Minimizing expenditures on wants is easy because they’re inexcusable. Vacations, sporting events, music festivals, and alcohol are all things you can live without. Minimizing expenditures on needs is hard because it’s easy to inflate your needs. You need a place to live. You do not need a nice place to live — that’s an inflated need, which is an incognito want.
It’s rarely the obvious wants that keep otherwise responsible people in debt — it’s the inflated needs. It’s buying a house because rent is “throwing money away”, but the house is bigger than they can afford, so they would have been better off renting. It’s buying a new car at the same price as their gross annual income. It’s a new phone every year.
I don’t need to see people’s budgets to know what’s wrong with the majority of them. I’ve helped enough people to guess what’s wrong with yours.
Your living situation is too nice.
Your car is too nice.
Your phone is too nice.
Your clothes are too nice.
And you eat out too often.
Most of the things you own and pay for are better than you deserve right now. If it’s literally worth your time to downgrade or sell non-essential items, do it. I did. Too extreme? Then don’t, and stay in debt longer.
We all have priorities. You don’t have to go full minimalist to stop blowing money on stupid things. Find the capacity of your financial responsibility and push it to the max.
The second habit enforces the first: Use cash for daily expenses. Groceries, gas, entertainment, etc. Why? For the exact reason you hate using cash. It’s inconvenient.
Cards are convenient. Spending money should be inconvenient. When you have to break a twenty to buy a pop, you fill up your water bottle instead, because pocket change is annoying. Save money, live longer. Win-win.
I withdraw cash from the bank every month. From that withdrawal, I pay myself weekly. When my wallet is empty the fun ends, until next week when I pay myself again. Sometimes that means raiding the change jar and paying for gas in quarters.
Cash purchases are intentional purchases, but there’s a secret benefit here too — the more you use cash, the more you think about card-qualifying purchases. Do you really need those headphones on Amazon?
My third and final habit is the most controversial, but it’s also the most important to me.
Maintain a fuck off fund.
You need a fuck off fund. If the concept is new to you, read this. If you’re a woman, read it now. Bookmark it. Print it off and put it on the fridge. Email it to Alyssa who just last week said she wants to move out of Tony’s place but can’t afford to leave.
I expect to lose some readers here for being — from their perspective — unnecessarily vulgar. Why the F-bomb? Why not call it a savings account or emergency fund?
Well, because it’s not.
A fuck off fund can be a savings account, and it is an emergency fund, but one for a specific purpose — to get yourself out of bad situations, and tell those who created the bad situation to fuck off.
Some people don’t believe in big emergency funds. They say debt with interest above 5% is an emergency, and any savings above $500 – $1,000 is a waste that should go to high-interest debt. Those people can fuck off.
The people who say that have never been afraid to go home. They’ve never stuffed everything they own into an SUV at midnight, unsure of where to go. They’ve never had their boss make sexual advances at a job they can’t afford to quit, because $500 won’t cover rent while they find something new.
I spent the full six months of my grace period saving up a fuck off fund. If my parents knew how much I had, they would have kicked me out. Keep it to yourself. How much? I treat it like firewood — save up as much as you think you need. Got it? Now double that.
Many employers count on their employees’ terrible financial position as leverage for motivation. You see it when payroll is late. Everyone panics. Then, when the company does something crappy, like asking white-collar employees to regularly work Saturdays, people complain but show up, because they don’t have a choice.
Good employers don’t operate from a position of tyranny. They understand that employees are assets. They have good ideas, and employers count on them to share those ideas to make the company better. It’s how you make more money beyond a 10% raise. You also need the confidence to share your ideas with the understanding that management may disagree, and to fight for what you’re worth, which will certainly be a disagreement. That confidence comes from a fuck off fund.
After two years at that job where I was making $31k, they weren’t willing to pay me over $37.5k. I left within a month of that conversation.
At another time I had a human resources lady laugh at my requested salary during a job interview. She said, “Why did you put that?” They offered me the job, and with a salary close to what I requested. I turned them down.
Without a fuck off fund, I would have been too afraid to do either of these things. Saving money gave me the confidence to make more money, and to turn down a job I didn’t need.
3. Blame yourself.
Passion is an inconsistent motivator. Self-hate is much more reliable. My lawyer would want me to include a disclaimer here. I’m not a shrink, just a guy who hates himself. This is bad advice for your health, but it’s great for getting stuff done.
The gym is the best proof of this. How many people do you know who go to the gym because they enjoy it? Now how many do you know who go because they hate how they look? Apart from a few narcissists and emotionally healthy people, the rest of us work out because we’re dissatisfied with our appearance, or at least want to keep from getting any uglier. The gym is a temple of self-hate. Isn’t that a happy thought? It’s a church for insecurities.
Self-hate motivates us to the point of obsession. It can be productive or destructive, with a blurry line in-between.
Destructive self-hate is when gym bros don’t stop at whey and end up on steroids. It’s when teenage girls skip lunch and always bring a toothbrush to the bathroom. It’s trophy wives addicted to plastic surgery, dads drinking a beer or a few every night to unwind, and me ghosting everyone while I isolate myself at home.
Productive self-hate is channeling your energy to deal with your problems in a positive way. It’s a balanced diet instead of bingeing and purging, joining a recreational soccer league instead of drinking alone, and choosing to hike out of a financial crater rather than indulge in it.
You can be productive or destructive with your student loan situation.
You can blame your parents. As far as excuses go, that’s probably one of the best. You can blame the government for passing regressive tax policies (also good). You can blame your ex for loading you with credit card debt in addition to student loans. You can blame God or your genetics for giving you depression in college. The options are endless and the results are the same — misplaced responsibility and an unwillingness to face reality. Keep living in debt. Let the interest on your loans outpace your minimum monthly payments. Live on credit cards. Destructive.
I blamed myself for my situation and took responsibility as a consequence. It is true? Was it really my fault? It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares and the answer doesn’t change the outcome.
I recommend doing the same. Blame yourself and take responsibility – not because it’s true, but because it’s the best option you’ve got. But don’t blame yourself and beat yourself up about it. Blame yourself and do something about it. Transform that negative energy into productive power with a positive outcome.
4. Forget everyone else.
Everyone is broke. Your poor friends are just being honest. Your rich friends aren’t, and if they actually are rich, your life is a gated community and the rest of us are outside.
The pressure to project success is incessant — to impress people whose birthdays you only know because Facebook reminds you. When you do move up, it’s the people whose birthdays you don’t need a reminder for that get jealous. You learn to keep success to yourself. Upward mobility is hard and lonely, but necessary to crush debilitating debt. Eat Ben and Jerry’s at your desk and dry your tears with Benjamins.
Forget everyone else. I don’t mean stop caring about them as individuals, but stop caring about their expectations, and their life trajectories or their opinion of yours.
Some of this (especially the last tip) has been a little facetious, but I’m entirely serious about this. If you want to be better with money and pay off some loans, you need to stop caring about what other people think.
I used to work at Walmart and I’m not above doing it again. My car still looks like I sell drugs. My phone is lower-tier Android made by Huawei. All of my furniture still folds up, except for the bed. I’m writing this on a Lenovo Thinkpad 11e, not a Mac. I have been made fun of for all of these things. It hurt when they were necessities. It doesn’t now that they’re choices.
People who make fun of other people’s financial situations represent a sad, tactless minority. Most of the pressure to do, be, and achieve better is insidious. It’s Corey (one of your old high school buddies), posting on Instagram about his new car. It’s your mom bragging at Thanksgiving about how your sister bought a house. Nobody has a knife to your back, pushing you to level up. Ultimately, you put the pressure on yourself.
You can reduce the pressure. Want some ideas?
Uninstall Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat from your phone. It’s hard to envy what you don’t see or know. You’ll relapse. It’s proof that it’s a problem.
Be honest about your financial situation. It’s nobody’s business, but if they ask, it’s okay to say when something stretches your budget. Everyone is getting married. You don’t have to accept every invitation. The same goes for outings and vacations. People will understand. If they don’t, are they the kind you want to spend time with?
Make a gifts truce. My sister and I have a Christmas gifts truce — we don’t get each other gifts. It’s one less thing to worry about, financially and interpersonally. It works for us and might for you.
I could keep going, but tactics to minimize peer pressure are like using Tic Tacs to cover up smoker’s breath. It works, but treats a symptom rather than a cause. Want to stop smoker’s breath for good? Stop smoking.
Want to stop letting other people’s actions and personal choices influence your financial decisions? Stop thinking about yourself and just be happy for them. Cory got a car. Comment congrats and throw in some emojis. Jess and Tyler are getting married in Greece. Send them your best wishes from home. Sarah bought a house. Get it, girl.
This doesn’t have to be a competition. It’s a race you don’t even have to run. You can walk, bike, skate, scooter, or hoverboard. The starting point and finish line are different for each person, so you can’t compare times. You might have more to pay off than I did and still manage to do it sooner. You might have less and it takes you longer. Find a pace that works for you and put on some blinders. I’m pulling for you from my finish line.