The Financial Freedom Clock and the Countdown to FI begins once you have paid off your consumer debt. Now for the first time your savings rate is being redirected from debt repayment to buying your “perpetual money making machine” (FI). Sounds so simple, but the sad reality is that paying down that debt has become increasingly difficult.
Digging a Hole
Our culture has accepted that massive student loans are acceptable and the norm. As a society we have been conditioned to believe that the only way to have the American Dream is to get a college degree–and those don’t come cheap. We dutifully enroll in four-year universities, fully believing that the world will provide us with the perfect high paying job after we graduate.
I have so many peers and acquaintances that graduated with some variation of a Liberal Arts Degree with no concept of what they would do with that degree after they graduated. Cold reality starts to sink in towards the end of the four year journey–that degree means little compared to a year of work experience.
This last minute insight is of little value once you are $40,000 in the student loan hole. The degree rarely means large bump in salary and has increasingly become one more box to check on the way to “success”. This position is controversial, and we can debate the merits of college endlessly, but I think we can all agree that students are getting the raw end of the stick on this student loan deal.
My Hamster Wheel
I thought I had figured out the problem and solved it when I chose pharmacy as my profession. All the research indicated Pharmacy to be a highly compensated profession with lots of job prospects. So with these markers as my guiding light, I dedicated the next eight years of my life to obtaining a job in this profession. (four years for bachelors + four years for pharmacy school)
Graduating directly into a job that paid over $100,000 should have felt like success, but I realized the magnitude of debt that faced me. The minimum payment on my loans was over $1,200 per month. Not satisfied to live with this anvil of student loan debt around my neck for the next 25 years, I made the decision to break the cycle by paying off my student loans aggressively within four years.
This cycle which I now refer to as “the hamster wheel” really cemented for me how broken the system is. And the burnout I experienced at the end of this 12 year adventure has convinced me how important it is to pay off your student loans fast.
So, today, I’ll offer tips to help you too get off the hamster wheel and start paying down your student loan debt faster than you ever thought you could.
Opportunity Cost–Analyze your motives
If you haven’t gone to school or are considering going back, you need to seriously consider the opportunity cost. This is an investment, and like most investments it can be good or bad.
I ended up with $168,000 in debt from pharmacy school. I was fortunate that my career track provided me a salary large enough to pay back my loans. But not all degrees are made equal and not every degree provides that opportunity.
Think through the economics of this financial investment. Is it a good investment for you? Don't get a degree just for the letters after your name. Are you going to medical school just because you know doctors make a great income? This is severely short sighted the path to become an MD is a 12-16 year journey that can involve $500,000 of student loan debt. If you don't have a passion for the work, burnout is inevitable. If you only plan on working for 10 years then you will have worked to obtain your job longer than you will perform it.
When you take out the emotion and societal pressure, you can view your job as a vehicle to get you to FI. That changes the dynamic. There are plenty of careers that offer a great income without the extensive–and expensive–degree. Think about the opportunity cost of my personal example–12 years to get back to broke with a six figure salary. This is compounded by the fact that I was burned out during the process.
In contrast, Brad's an accountant and graduated from undergrad with virtually no debt and made $45,000 right out of college–not the highest paying salary, but with room to grow.
Join (or start) a ChooseFI local group
ChooseFI local groups are popping up everywhere. The big benefit is that when you surround yourself with people more frugal than yourself it pulls you in that direction and makes frugality easier.
If you’re friends with people who are frugal than you, it can make you think differently about your own spending habits. Plus, they’ll probably arrange get togethers that are frugal in nature, like game nights, rather than bar hopping or other expensive outings. There is an enormous benefit to being part of a community that is focused on intentional living. A group of like minded individuals willing to substitute creativity for convenience and embrace frugality, even when reluctantly.
I think of myself as reluctant frugalist, and have to give my wife Dani the credit for being the frugal one in our relationship. Frugality to me is a means to an end, not a natural way of life. To hear more about my love hate relationship with frugality check out episode 29 The Aspiring Minimalist vs The Reluctant Frugalist.
Find out what your life costs and minimize expenses
Pay yourself first, and last.
Here's how I paid down my debt so aggressively.
This plan requires that you have a general idea of how much your life costs. If you haven't been tracking your spending you may need to take a month or two to actually see what it's costing you to live. Be super intentional and track every penny. The lower you can get these costs, the faster you can pay off your student loans.
Once you know how much you can send to your loans each month you can begin sending extra payments.
As soon as you get paid, send your payment to the lender. Don't give yourself the chance to spend it. Automate the minimum payment to get the rate reduction that many lenders, offer and then make it your goal to send extra in every paycheck to meet or exceed your goal.
If you come across any extra money, send it to your loans. This could be a raise, a bonus, a tax return, birthday money from your grandma–it all goes to paying off your student loans.
If you are having trouble cutting expenses, here are a few simple steps that everyone looking to cut down their expenses should follow:
Cut the cable
There are a ridiculous amount of streaming services now–all of which cost significantly less than cable. Just make sure you don’t sign-up for all them. We have a Roku, which gives us access to Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Get a cheaper cell phone plan
This isn't about deprivation, the fact is you are paying 2-3 times too much for service. I have incredible service and phone for a fraction of the price.
So, seriously, get a cheaper phone and maybe even ditch your iPhone. Republic Wireless and Google FI are two great options for cheap phone plans. They offer “pay-as-you-use” plans so you only have to pay for the data you actually use.
Cut your food bill
Americans spend way too much on food–either processed food at the grocery store, or nights out. When you look at what you spend on, take the time to figure out how to cut down on your food bill. Here are a few simple ideas:
- Meal Prep and only 1-2 nights per week
- Learn how to incorporated the $2 per person per meal rule of thumb
- Only go out once or twice a month–that makes it special!
- Find farmer’s markets
- Try to have a meatless dinner 1-2 nights per week
- Cut out soda and creamer in your coffee, your wallet and waistline will thank you
Paying down debt quickly takes an incredible amount of focus. Gamification helps, as does staying engaged.
I had a white board with 100 checkboxes. I had to work every other weekend, which I hated. Each checkbox represented a weekend that I had to work and every other Sunday night I would update a box. It was my favorite part of my weekend.
I knew when all those checkboxes were full, my student loans would be gone.
This is a marathon, but you can find wins along the way. Whenever I got three or four extra payments in, I would call the lender and ask them to recast. Recasting is recalculating the minimum payment based on the fact that extra principal has been paid off.
I would celebrate when my minimum payment dropped below certain thresholds, such as when it went below $1,000. I remember when my minimum payment dropped below my car payment. And when my net worth crossed the zero dollar mark.
The beginning is slow, but if you are focused time will fly. Now, as I'm writing this, it's a distant memory.
We talked more about the spreadsheet I used to track my debt payments in episode 4 which you can listen to here
Finally, if you have student loans with high interest rates, consider refinancing. Credible let's you check your rate with up to 10 lenders before pulling the trigger. This allows you to make sure you are getting the best deal.
When you refinance, you combine all your loans into one monthly payment that almost always has a substantially lower interest rate than you were paying. This means you pay much less in interest over the life of the loan–which means you pay it off faster.
Credible's access to the best refinance rates and competitive lenders in the country makes it the perfect place to start as you look to optimize your debt repayment. The interface makes it as easy as possible–and the application takes just a few minutes. You can choose between a fixed or variable rate and a range of payment options. Check out our review of Credible.
Take action! Life is better without the crushing burden of student loan debt. Your financial freedom clock is waiting.
Let's Crush Debt pay down your student loans fast and start working for freedom.
This article is part of the Student Loan Debt Movement. which is encouraging and inspiring people to take action on their student loans. Go here to read the other articles, and join the movement.