Blogger Kara Perez shares her story of paying off her student loans and becoming debt free.

My college graduation day was one of mixed emotions: excitement over my degree, anxiety over my debt. I knew I was graduating with $25,302 in student loans and no job. It was a bleak picture, smack in the middle of the recession. No one was hiring, and I had no savings. My loans were a burden from that day on—I wasn’t sure I would ever pay them off.

English majors with no real work experience weren’t a hot commodity in 2011. I secured a job waiting tables in my hometown and moved back in with my mother to save money. I started paying back my loans when my grace period was up in January 2012.

I knew I was never going to be a high earner; I’ve always wanted a creative career, which could mean a low-paying job. I knew if I didn’t take my loans seriously, they would hang over my head. They’d be there as I pursued marriage, homebuying, and my writing career.

While I lived at home, I was good about my loans. I paid extra every month. I had five loans total: four federal, one private. I would pay an extra $60 to $120 a month on all of them, depending on how well I was doing at the restaurant.

Unfortunately, I had no real system for that extra cash. I would send an extra $25 to one loan, $25 to another. I had almost no personal finance education growing up, and it showed. I had no idea there are debt pay off tactics, like the Snowball or Avalanche methods. I had no idea my interest compounded daily. I just knew that being debt-free as soon as possible was my goal. The extra payments were a good idea, but I didn’t see much in the way of results.

After a year at home, I moved halfway across the country to Austin, Texas. My extra loan payments evaporated in the face of rent and grocery expenses. I continued to wait tables and got an unpaid internship. I made the minimum payments for the next two years.

By the beginning of 2014, I was sick of being a waitress, and sick of being broke. I had worked my booty off in high school to get into my first-choice college. I graduated from a prestigious school and saw nothing on the back end.

I quit waiting tables, and my income took a huge hit. I found myself working three part-time jobs as a lacrosse coach, gym receptionist, and at a catering company. I was unable to make even the minimum payments and had to take a six-month deferral on all my federal loans. I kept making payments on my private loan, and sometimes managed to send over a few extra dollars.

Those were some dark days—I struggled to find a full-time job and battled feelings of worthlessness. My loans were hanging over my head, exactly as I feared they would. I felt trapped by my low income and high debt.

In January 2015, I still owed $20,000 in student loans. It had been almost four years since graduation, and I was terrified I was screwing up my life. It felt like I was dooming myself to poverty forever.

My deferment ended in August that year, so throughout the spring and early summer I aggressively looked for a job. I’d had enough—my life was controlled by anxiety and fear around my student loan debt. I had to take serious action to pay down my debt and reclaim control.

Between October 2015 and June 2016, I paid off my final $18,000 in student loan debt. My income in 2015? $15,000. In 2016? $32,000. Before taxes.

When I say I got serious, I mean it. I was 100 percent committed to debt pay off. A friend put me in touch with a nonprofit looking for a part-time development person and I landed the job. I continued to work as a coach, caterer, and receptionist—with the nonprofit work thrown in, my income grew. I stopped going out with friends, opting for nights at home instead.

I slashed my budget to within an inch of its life. I spent only on necessities, and even then there was some wiggle room. That catering gig? You better believe I brought home leftovers after every event I worked. Eating leftover food helped shrink my grocery budget to tiny numbers, like $30 and $40 a month. In February 2015, I even managed to spend $0 on food, living solely off catering leftovers.

If you’re struggling with your own debt, here are my top two tactics to shrink the balance in record time.

  1. Make multiple payments a month. Student loan interest accrues daily, so making multiple payments in one month means more money will go to making a dent in the balance. I often made five to seven payments in one month.
  2. Pick a pay off method. I personally used the debt avalanche method, where you focus all extra payments on your highest-interest loan and meet the minimums on the rest. Once you’ve paid off the highest-interest loan, transfer your focus to the next highest-interest loan.

Being debt-free has changed my life and has shown me how capable I really am.

Kara Perez is a freelance personal finance writer living in Austin, Texas. She is passionate about helping people become financially literate and telling people’s money stories.

Any third-party resources or websites referenced above are not under Society of Grownups control. Society of Grownups cannot guarantee and are not responsible for the accuracy of the resources, websites, or any products or services available through such resources or websites.

While Society of Grownups hopes the information is useful, it’s only intended to provide general education. It’s not legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation. If you need recommendations geared to your personal financial situation, schedule time with a financial planner.

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