How One Grad Paid Off $113,000 in Student Loans Before 30

Pay off college debt

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Just about everyone in their 20s and 30s knows someone with overwhelming student loan debt. It’s gotten to the point where being debt-free with a college degree seems uncommon for anyone younger than 30—and plenty of people carry that burden into middle age.     

But for all the sad tales of millennials struggling with student-loan debt, there are some success stories of graduates managing to overcome their debt. One such story comes from Jessica Elberfeld, a Belmont University grad who managed to finish paying off $113,019 in debt just seven years after graduating. Here’s how she did it.

How She Did It

Elberfeld shared a modest home in Nashville with two roommates after college and kept driving the same car she had from the time she was 16. By saving on the two biggest line items in her budget—rent, and transportation—she was able to pay $2,230 total every month toward her loans.

Even though her peers lived in downtown lofts and bought new cars, Elberfeld focused on her loans.

“The reality of what I gave up is more along the lines of the monetary things a typical woman in her 20s thinks she needs: an impressive place to live, new furniture, new car, new purses, new shoes, new clothes, expensive drinks and dinners, [and] manicures/pedicures,” among other expenses.

Elberfeld also refinanced and consolidated her loans, which had interest rates ranging from 6 percent to 10.75 percent. She refinanced them at 2.85 percent and continued to make the same payments as before. But now more of her money was going toward the principal.

She also worked a second job as a server at a restaurant and music venue. For Elberfeld, the gig allowed her the chance to work with some of her closest friends and listen to live music at work. She threw most of the extra income toward her loans. Now that she’s debt free, she uses money from her second job to save for an emergency fund and new car.

Her Advice for Others

Though she was able to pay off six figures worth of debt in seven years, Elberfeld said she still found room in her budget to have fun. She splurged on trips with her friends, picking a spot within driving distance and splitting a house or cabin.

“These trips were fun and guilt-free for me since I saved up the money beforehand and never spent more than I saved,” she says. “Don’t burn yourself out; if you feel you need a little break, don’t be afraid to take one.”

Whether your priority is having a dog or having a Crossfit membership, go ahead and splurge. Paying back debt is like exercising: It’s important to work hard, but too much effort with too little rest is counterproductive. You’ll just end up tired, injured and burnt out. Think of your financial goals in the same way.

You can likely only afford to have one or two priorities on top of paying off your loans, so choose carefully. There will always be time to explore new hobbies and indulge in new vices, but during your debt journey, it’s important to remember what truly matters to you.

Her Advice for High School Students

To save money, Elberfeld spent two years at a community college before transferring to Belmont. Most students who attend community college save between $5,000 and $20,000 a year. Plus, students can live at home while going to community college, saving even more on room and board.

“I wanted to be at Belmont… But I went to community college kicking and screaming,” she says. “I am over-the-moon glad I did.”

If you’re really yearning for the true college experience, fear not — many major universities are happy to transfer credits from a community college. “The first two years are prerequisites anyway, and if the credits transfer, you might as well take advantage of a cheaper community college closer to home,” she says.

Before you sign up, do research and figure out which community colleges have the best transfer rates. Apply for scholarships, loans and financial assistance to pay your way through.

One of the biggest lessons Elberfeld shares with high school students is to prepare for the worst when it comes to financial aid. When she was in high school, loan advisors told her she could consolidate or refinance her loans after graduation. Payment plans would be flexible based on her income, they said.

“That was obviously not the case for my private loans after the economy took a nosedive,” she says. “I knew it was a huge amount, but I never thought the interest rates I received at 19-20-years-old would be locked in years after I graduated.”

She recommends high school students and their parents look at their aid packages carefully before taking on loans. Use a loan calculator to figure out what your monthly payment will be and research what the average starting salary is for someone in your desired field. Avoid taking out more in loans than you’ll earn in your first year out of school. 

Does She Regret the Debt?

While she was mired in student loans, Elberfeld regretted getting herself into debt. Now that she’s done, she has a different perspective. 

For all the debt she incurred, her college experience was a valuable one. Belmont is famed for its music business program—graduates regularly join the industry, and the school helps students find internships at record studios and connects them with leaders deeply involved in the Nashville music scene. As an aspiring country singer, Elberfeld said she couldn’t imagine not going there, despite the six-figure price tag.

“That school, and the people I met there are very much a part of my present-day life,” she says. “And I like my life.”