How These “Student Loan Savants” Paid Off a Ton of Debt

Sophia Khawly paid off $52,000 in 3 years.

The student loan crisis has produced a new breed of folk hero — the college graduate who pays off an eye-popping amount of loan debt in what seems like no time. We found six of these student loan savants and learned their secrets — some of which you may be able to put to use in your own repayment process.

The Preparer: Cody Clegg, 24

Degree: BS in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology

Occupation: Manufacturing engineer

Paid off: $16,000 in a year (done by June/July)

For too many graduates, the reality of their student loans hits when they receive the first bill after graduation — that comes when the grace period ends six months after graduation. Most grads don’t send in the first payment until then. 

But Cody Clegg jumped the gun. When he graduated last year with $16,000 worth of student debt, he already had a budget in place that accounted for it. “I want to get in the green, and get to the growth period of my financial life,” he explains. He knew what his income would be after graduation, and — using his estimated total tax percentage — crafted a monthly budget: approximately 25 percent would go toward rent, 8 percent to utilities and transportation, 6 percent to groceries and a whopping 26 percent to student loans. (The remaining 35 percent of his budget is for eating out, entertainment, savings and unexpected expenses, like car maintenance.)  

Paying off his loans on the scheduled 10-year timetable would have cost him $116 a month. His detailed budget allowed him to pay 8.6 times that — $1,000 a month, and sometimes more. And, like his rent, he viewed it as a fixed expense. He also allocated $2,000 of his year-end bonus toward the balance and plans to use his tax refund, as well.

“I felt pretty happy and confident about jumping on the loans right away,” says Clegg, who attributes his success to self-discipline and financial wisdom from his granddad. “My granddad was a very good businessman. Even though he was well off, he was always great at saving money and letting his money grow.”

The Values-Based Budgeter: Chonce Maddox, 25

Degree: BA in Journalism from Northern Illinois University

Occupation: Freelance writer

Paid off: $20,000 in 3 years

Three years ago, Chonce Maddox graduated with $20,000 in student loans, a $10,000 car note, and no job. By the time she actually landed a job, her student loan balance had grown (with interest) to $21,113.  Her $28,000-a-year writing gig wasn’t going to make much of a dent in that — plus, she wanted to focus on the car loan since its interest rate (15.5%) was significantly higher than her student loans. So unlike many student loan savants, Maddox actually lowered her monthly payments — by signing up for the Graduated Repayment Plan, lowering her monthly minimum payments to $150 for the first year.

But in 2016 — after the car was paid off — she bumped up her payments by $1,000. How? By (severely) cutting her expenses, adopting value-based spending and seeking extra work on the side.

Maddox and her then-boyfriend (now husband) relocated to lower their rent to $440 a month. She also eliminated unnecessary expenses and ones she didn’t value. For instance, she switched to a prepaid phone company and opted for a streaming service to save an additional $1,020 the first year. And she keeps a low grocery budget of $300 a month, and any money coming in from side gigs — as well as raises — goes to her debt. By the end of the year, she projects to have finished paying off her debt.

The Numbers Runner: Eric Rosenberg, 32

Degree: MBA, University of Denver

Occupation: Freelance finance writer and entrepreneur

Paid off: $40,000 in “two years and six days”

“I knew getting an MBA would pay for itself,” says Eric Rosenberg of his decision to pursue the advanced degree would cost him nearly $92,000.

He ended up paying for everything out of pocket except for roughly $40,000 in student loans (and the $3,000 his employer kicked in). And he minimized the debt by repaying his loans as soon as took them. “I started making interest-only payments on the unsubsidized portions as soon as I got the loans,” he says. “[Paying off the interest] also helped me build the habit of using autopay and made it [the payments] second nature and habitual.”

His salary when he graduated was $49,000. When Rosenberg started making payments on the principal, he used his own version of the snowball method, making the minimum payment on each of his four loans (a subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loan for each year of school) and putting the extra money he budgeted for his debt toward the one with the lowest balance. For extra motivation, he tracked his progress using the goals feature on Mint.com. 

The Squatter: Sophia Khawly, 28

Degree: BS in Nursing, Florida State; MS in Nursing, University of Miami

Occupation: Travel nurse practitioner

Paid off: $52,000 in 3 years

After Sophia Khawly graduated, she kept her fixed expenses low — really low. She lived with her grandparents rent-free for almost three years, while working as a full-time nurse practitioner at a geriatric clinic in Miami. Her monthly budget for groceries was $65, and $100 for eating out. Keeping her fixed costs so low enabled her to start out paying $1,200 for her loans — double the monthly minimum payment of $600. She refinanced with SoFi in June of 2014, which lowered her interest rate to 5.5 percent (saving her $7,300 in lifetime interest), and increased her monthly minimums to $800 (which she continued to pay $1,200 for). Both changes put her on track to be debt-free five years ahead of schedule.

By the time she left Miami a little over a year later to start her current job as a traveling nurse practitioner (where her employer continues to foot the housing bill), she got her debt down to $20,000. It was taking this job that really juiced her payoff. “Once I started working as a traveling nurse practitioner, I started putting any extra money into my loans. This ended up being $7,000/month, which allowed me to pay off the remainder of my loans within 3 months.” 

The Buddy System: Autumn L, 31

Degree: Masters in Physician Assistant Studies, Carroll University

Occupation: Physician assistant specializing in cardiac surgery

Paid off: $85,000 in student loans, and $15,000 borrowed from family, in 21 months

Autumn (who asked us to withhold her last name) had been working as a web designer for a few years when she realized she wanted to go back to school to become a physician assistant — a decision that would cost her over $100,000. She graduated, moved to New York City, started her new job, and met her boyfriend, Joe, who ended up playing a major role in her debt repayment. First, he encouraged her to refinance the remaining $66,000 she had in federal loans; she did so with CommonBond, reducing her interest rate to 3.4 percent which resulted in a $15,000 savings in interest over the next nine months. And in those the nine months, she took her balance from $66,000 to $10,000 by picking up overtime shifts at work (she earned an extra $35,000), picking up freelance logo projects, and finding things to sell.

Joe then lent her the remaining $10,000 interest-free. “Joe was great about checking to see how I was doing financially, mentally, and emotionally, and reminding me of the big picture whenever I started getting tunnel vision,” she says. Whether it be a significant other, a parent or a friend, she encourages people to have an accountability buddy to help keep you on track — and, if possible, help you out with an interest-free loan!

The Realist: Kevin, 30

Degree: Law, University of Minnesota  

Occupation: Attorney

Paid off: $87,000 in 2.5 years

Going from broke student to six-figure professional overnight is not only a shock to the system, but a shock to the wallet. “Any professional that starts with a good salary can fall victim to lifestyle inflation,” says Kevin (who asked us to withhold his last name). “They get the nicer apartment, the nicer clothes. I kept living like I was a student.”

In addition to saving a bundle on interest by refinancing his loans twice (down to 4.3 percent, and then to a variable rate starting at 1.93 percent), Kevin stayed in a starter apartment rather than moving into a luxury building, limited the meals he ate out, and continued to shop — and dress — on a budget. “When you upgrade your life, it gets hard to downgrade. If you’re used to a certain style, it doesn’t feel any different,” he says.

With Kelly Hultgren