After graduation, Joanna and Johnny of Our Freaking Budget had $20,000 in student loan debt. Here’s how this couple paid it off—even after moving to super-expensive Manhattan and Boston.

Johnny and I met and fell in love while we were still in college, and we made plans for our future together with stars in our eyes and butterflies in our stomachs. Just one tiny problem threatened to put a damper on our dreams of wedded bliss. Actually, it was 13,000 tiny problems—our student loan debt.

Although I’d been working part-time and had some financial help with scholarships, I still needed to take out student loans to help cover my college tuition and living expenses. Johnny, on the other hand, entered our marriage without any school debt. So we continued our college experience after getting married, knowing we’d figure out what to do with that $13,000 of student loans after graduation. In the meantime, our debt sat patiently, waiting in the corner like that annoying in-law who eats all your leftovers and just won’t leave after the holidays are over.

Opportunity Knocks, Empty-Handed

Just before we graduated, we found ourselves accepting internships in two of the most expensive cities in the country: L.A. and New York. And these internships paid in the lovely currency known as “experience.” (They won’t accept experience at Panda Express, by the way—we tried.) We had to take out $7,000 more in loans to cover the cost of living while completing our internships—this brought the grand total of our debt to $20,000.

Our final semester of school approached, and we knew in just a few short months, that $20,000 in debt would come a’ knockin’. So as we trudged through the last few classes required to get our degrees, we also started taking a long, hard look at our budget. Some friends lent us The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey, and it was the first-ever budgeting book we’d set our hands on. It was just the jumpstart we needed to begin making a plan for our financial future.

We started learning the ropes of budgeting, and by our first month as bona-fide adults with salaries in January 2010, we made our budget payoff plan. Our ultimate goal was to pay everything off in 18 months. Over the next few months, we were able to knock out $5,000 in debt—then life threw us a wild curveball.

Paying Off Big Debt in the Big Apple

Johnny received an amazing job opportunity in New York City, the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come around very often. After two seconds of hesitation, we decided to pack up a U-Haul and drive across the country to a 450-square-foot apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Everything we’d heard about NYC being one of the most expensive places on the planet? Yeah, that sort of slipped our minds in all of the excitement.

Moving from our comparatively palatial townhouse in Utah to a little shoebox on the Upper East Side required some getting used to. We didn’t want our dreams of financial freedom to slip by the wayside, even though our typical groceries and daily necessities were oftentimes double the price in NYC. We put our debt snowball on pause for a few months while we settled into life in the concrete jungle, and then we redoubled our efforts to attack the beast.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Putting all our extra money toward our debt repayment required quite a bit of sacrifice. We eliminated most of our entertainment and clothing spending. (Hey, if Yeezy can get away with hole-y sweaters, so can we, OK?) We brought duffel bags when we schlepped to and from Costco via city transit, and we passed on expensive restaurants with friends and met up with them afterward instead. We elbowed our way through crowds on free days at the museum and every other free activity NYC had to offer—which ended up being a surprisingly long list. The hard work paid off when we chipped another $6,000 off our debt in just nine months.

Budgeting in Beantown

Another job opportunity popped up for Johnny in October of 2011, an exciting new avenue we couldn’t pass up. So once again, we packed up a small moving truck and headed to Boston. While expenses were still way higher than the rest of the country, Boston afforded us a little bit more financial breathing room to roll more money into our debt snowball. Once we could finally see the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, we took some extra money from our savings account and paid every last cent just before Dick Clark could ring in the New Year.

Was getting out of debt all sunshine and lollipops? No way! There were times I thought I couldn’t look one more Taco Tuesday in the face. But now that we’re on the other side, we can definitely say it’s well worth any sacrifices we made at the time—even hauling frozen chimichangas in a backpack from Costco to our apartment across Manhattan.


Joanna and Johnny are the writing duo behind Our Freaking Budgeta personal finance blog documenting the joys, pains, and realities of living on a budget.

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