How I Paid off Debt and Reached My Goals in Just 6 Years

Tawnya here.

You read that right. I was able to pay off all my student loans, pay my way through graduate school, AND buy a home, all in a 6-year span.

How did I do it?

Glad you asked.

Before I get into the nitty gritty, I want to make a few things very clear.

First, I had a lot of help. I was very fortunate to have support from my family in reaching my goals, and I understand not everyone has the same level of support available to them. However, the takeaway from my story is not the level of support I had, but the way I took advantage of that support. There are so many people I know that have support available to them, but either don’t know how or don’t want to take advantage of it.

Second, I listened to people who’d been there before. Young people are always accused of having to learn the hard way because they won’t listen. I am not one of those people. While I don’t always agree with my elders, if I have a dilemma you can bet I’m going to seek out those who have been in my shoes for advice. Most are more than willing to help you out, all you have to do is ask. Although times have changed, most sound financial advice has not. Looking back, one of the top things people wished they had done was listening to those older than themselves. Why bang your head against the wall when someone can show you the door?

Third, these goals weren’t reached in a few days. They weren’t even reached in a few months. As the title suggests, it took 6 years to get all of these things accomplished. Success and real progress take time, and anyone who tells you otherwise is full of it. Most of the tips we present on Money Saved is Money Earned took us years to learn, but even though you have a head start on these concepts it will still take time for them to come to fruition. Your advantage by reading this blog is that you won’t have to learn them by trial and error like we did!

Finally, reaching these goals took a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Really, seriously. This seems like a no-brainer concept, but most don’t truly understand the work and sacrifice it takes to reach big goals, especially in a shorter amount of time. Part of sacrifice is making smart choices and prioritizing based on your goals. There is no easy fix. Ever.

With those things in mind let’s get into the Tale of Tawnya, beginning with some key college choices that put me on the path to reaching larger goals.

The College Years (And Choices)

I won’t spend too much time on my undergraduate years. After all, this is not part of the 6-year period mentioned in the title. However, there were many important choices I made in college that set me up to be able to reach my goals faster in the 6 years that followed. Here they are:

  1. I only stayed in the dorm my first year. Dorm life was a great introduction to college life. It’s a nice step from living at home to on your own, making friends, and getting to know the landscape of the school. In short, it’s a great transition step. However, dorms are not a good idea long-term because they are FAAAAAAR more expensive than living off campus. I didn’t know it at the time, but my choice to move off campus for my remaining 3 years would save me at least $10,000 in housing costs, which could be put to use elsewhere.
  2. I worked. I know, this isn’t glamorous, and it’s darn difficult to do when taking a full load of coursework AND doing extracurricular things to set you up for grad school and the workforce, but it’s not impossible. In fact, holding a part-time job kills two birds with one stone: you have money coming in (so you can minimize your debt and pay what debt you do have faster) and you gain valuable experience for whatever comes after school (be in graduate school or a “real” job). Luckily, most schools offer many programs for students to work in, so you will often be able to get a job pretty easily right on campus.
  3. I put extra loan money back on the loan. I did not spend it on other things (like trips to Cancun or a car). Once I moved out of the dorms, I began having extra money from my student loans every term after tuition was paid. In fact, it was A LOT extra. This was in part because I was no longer living in the dorms, and in part because my parents had also taken out loans to help me pay for necessities (thanks mom and dad!). Whatever the reason, I had several thousand left over every term, and I put that money right back on the loan. This choice significantly minimized my student loan debt, between $10,000 and $15,000 that wasn’t spent on things other than school.

The choices above meant I was ahead of the financial game before I even graduated, which set me up for being able to accomplish far more in the 6 years following school.

6 Years of Money Earned Through Money Saved

While I didn’t know it at the time, the 6 years between undergraduate school and buying my house was a journey in Money Earned through Money Saved, and it was during this time that I learned many of the things shared in this blog.

Like most people, my journey evolved as I went along. At first, I was just looking to pay off my student loans and gain experience so I could get into graduate school to become a psychologist. The psychology plan didn’t work out, but luckily I had stumbled onto something else I was really good at: working with kids in treatment. This realization led me to change course and enroll in a graduate program to become a special education teacher, which I completed just in time to transition into a teaching role at the treatment center I had worked at since finishing my undergraduate. Somewhere along the way, I decided I wanted to buy a house, and that pushed me in another direction.

It’s really funny where life takes you, and to look back and reflect on what you USED to want. However, the constant in my journey has been my ability to make financially sound choices to have Money Earned through Money Saved, and how these choices helped me to reach my goals.

It’s All in the Fam

Part of success is giving credit where credit is due, so I want to start with one of the biggest factors in my success: my family support.

  1. Before I even graduated, my parents took out a significant chunk of student loans so I wouldn’t be completed overloaded. This support lessened my burden greatly, and having less in loans to begin with allowed me to pay them down faster.
  2. I moved back home after graduation, and stayed home until I bought my house. Living with family may not be possible for everyone, and it takes a lot of sacrifice for all party’s involved (believe me!), but if you want to reach your goals faster it is worth it. Now don’t think this was a free ride, because it wasn’t. I immediately found a full-time job and paid a reduced rent, and I helped out around the property. My parents had also given me a car, but I paid for all my gas and maintenance (and I’m still driving it to this day). Long story short, I got a job, was responsible, paid some bills, and helped around the property.
  3. Aside from the financial support and flexibility, being around family allowed me to take full advantage of the second point I made before getting into my story: the advice and coaching of those who have been there before. My parents have had struggles in their life, and they tried hard to steer me away from the mistakes they made. I have also had amazing support from my grandparents, who grew up just after the Depression in poverty and made themselves a great life. They are the definition of Money Earned through Money Saved, and I wouldn’t be where I am without their guidance and encouragement.

I Paid off My Debt, and Didn’t Accrue More

This was a huge key to my success and ability to reach my goals. Remember my Depression Era grandparents? One of their lessons is to pay off existing debt before accruing more debt. This is a concept that I have always taken to heart, beginning with my loans.

  1. I graduated with $13,500 in student loan debt, and paid it off in 2 ½ years. This may seem like a small amount, but remember I would have had $10,000-$15,000 more in loans if I had spent the extra I had every term. Aside from saving money through staying at home and having reduced expenses, the key to paying off my loans so quickly (with a $10 an hour job) was to pay significantly more than the minimum payment almost every month. This concept is explained in detail in our Taking an Interest in Interest series, but the basic idea is that everything you pay above and beyond the minimum payment goes directly to the principal balance and not to interest. My minimum monthly payment was $125, but I regularly made $300 to $400 payments, which significantly reduced the amount of interest I paid, as well as the length of the loan.
  2. During and after my student loans were paid off, I did not accrue additional debt. This means I only spent money I had, and did not make any major purchases. I drove the car my parents gave me, didn’t take any outrageously expensive trips, and tried to save as much as I could. I didn’t even have a credit card of my own until a few years before I bought the house, and that was only to build credit!

I Paid My Way Through Graduate School

This was a major boost for my goals, and something that is very difficult to do in most cases. I was very lucky because I had a job that allowed me to flex some time to make class. I was also in a flexible program built for working people. Suffice it to say, it still wasn’t easy.

  1. My first term I spent almost my entire savings on tuition. This killed me. I still remember the day I went to my grandparents to grab the savings I had built up and been storing there since I was a little kid. It was almost physically painful for me to spend that money, but my grandparents (remember, advice) told me it was worth it, and I listened. The first term was the most expensive (it was full-time in the summer), but paying it out of pocket allowed me to remain debt free.
  2. I continued to pay my tuition out of pocket throughout the entire program. Again, this wasn’t easy, but I had little other expenses (family support), worked full-time, and had no other debt. Having so little expenses allowed me to keep up with the cost of graduate school and the fees associated with getting my license.
  3. Aside from having no debt from graduate school, paying out of pocket allowed me to get huge tax refunds. You can include your education expenses on your tax returns if you pay out of pocket, which turns into a big refund. I didn’t make a ton of money at my job, but my tuition expenses meant I paid very little in taxes, and I could usually count on a refund of several thousand dollars. I then used that money to pay for addition tuition and other necessary expenses, which helped me remain debt-free.

I Worked Multiple Jobs To Pay My Bills and Save for a Down Payment

While we tend to focus on ways to save money here at Money Saved is Money Earned, we also know that the biggest bang for your buck is to have a combination of Money Saved through saving and Money Earned through additional income.

I took full advantage of earning additional income both during graduate school and when saving for a down payment for my house by working multiple jobs. In fact, at one point I worked full-time as a teacher and held part-time jobs at the Moda Center, 24 Hour Fitness, and as a tutor, all while finishing my Master’s!

I am a person who likes to be working, and I like to fill the down-time of my teaching job with other pursuits that will allow me to reach my financial goals as quickly as possible. I knew I would never be able to afford a house in this crazy market on one teaching salary without a significant down payment, so it become my mission to save as much as possible as fast as possible. I also knew that my dream of buying a house would never have been possible if I had debt. The combination of working multiple jobs to build up a 20% down payment, along with having no debt, is what made my dream of homeownership possible.

But just because I reached one goal doesn’t mean I’ve stopped bringing in extra income. I still work multiple jobs, not even including this blog!

I Built Connections With Wonderful People Who Changed My Life

Finally, I want to share something that is not intuitively financially related, but is still key nonetheless.

Building connections.

I know for a fact that I would not be where I am if it wasn’t for a few wonderful people who changed my life. One of those people is Mike, the teacher I worked with while still learning the ropes of working with kids in treatment. He not only modeled what it meant to be a great teacher, he was willing to provide the time and guidance I needed to shift my focus down a different path. He’s the reason I became a teacher, plain and simple.

The other person I want to acknowledge is my good friend and co-blogger, Sebastian. I actually met Sebastian through Mike, but I would have never guessed at how that meeting would change the course of my life. While he probably doesn’t know it, the financial advice and coaching Sebastian has given me over the years have helped to shape me into the money guru I am today. He taught me a lot of tricks to the trade, and put names to the things I’d been doing intuitively all along. He helped me make my first budget, and helped me comb through the copious amounts of paperwork I signed when I bought my house. Sebastian is the most selfless person I know, and is someone who truly gives without expecting anything in return.

Moral of the Story

The story of our lives offer twists and turns, and like a road, the turns you make at one juncture affect those that follow. This is true of our financial lives, which is why it’s so important to begin on the right path. Smart financial choices lead to financial success, and the ability to reach ever loftier goals much more quickly.

The same was true for me, as I was able to pay off all my student loans, pay my way through graduate school, and buy a house all within a 6-year span.

I built a foundation through smart financial choices in college, then finished the project off by utilizing family support to reduce expenses and working multiple jobs to pay off debt, emerge from graduate school debt-free, and build up enough savings to put 20% down on my first home. Along the way, I met some wonderful people who changed my life for the better because they were willing to invest their time in me, and I was willing to listen.

Talk about Money Saved.


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