Blogger Melanie Lockert of Dear Debt paid off more than $80,000 in student loan debt. Here’s how she did it.
For the past few years, my student loans constantly weighed on my mind. Like a heavy burden on my chest, they were something that I had to live with, but never quite felt comfortable with.
To fulfill my dream of going to my preferred school for my master’s degree, student loans were a necessary burden.
In total, I borrowed $81,000 to get two degrees—not exactly a small amount of money. During my nine years of repayment, I experienced a multitude of emotions ranging from exceptionally motivated to paying off my debt to being completely over it. (Hello, debt fatigue.)
Most of the time, it felt like I was on a never-ending road trip and my destination barely perceivable from my standing point. But in 2015, things became clear and I could see the finish line.
In December of that year, I made the very last payment on my student loans and became debt-free. It was something I had fantasized about for so long, and it finally became a reality.
I remember staring at the computer and seeing the balance at zero. I took a deep breath and exhaled in disbelief. I felt anxious and disoriented. For the first time in my adult life, I was without debt. My reaction was a far cry from the screaming and jumping up and down that I had imagined would happen when I met this goal (but that did come about 20 minutes after I soaked it in).
Now that I’m debt-free, many people ask me how I did it. Sure, I could give the token answers of cutting back my expenses and earning more. I did those things, without a doubt. But over the years, I learned that paying off debt is about so much more than money.
Lessons from Paying Off Debt
On the surface, debt feels like a purely financial issue. You owe someone money and you need to make money to pay it back. But if getting out of debt was just about cutting back and earning more, I don’t think debt would be so commonplace.
I learned that debt is a lot more about discipline and commitment than it is about money. In order to actually commit to paying off debt and do whatever it takes, you have to make a complete lifestyle and mindset shift, which can be a difficult feat.
Getting out of debt means questioning every expense, every assumption on how you think you should live your life, and even questioning some deep-seated financial beliefs you may be holding on to (like student loan debt being good debt).
Not only does getting out of debt require a ton of discipline and commitment, it oftentimes requires going against the status quo and making tough decisions.
For me, that meant letting go of old ideas about what I thought my life should look like at my age. I thought that by my late twenties I’d have everything figured out and that I’d have a nice place to live, a successful career, and manageable debt. It didn’t really work out that way and I had to adjust.
Why I’m Grateful for My Debt
At times my student loans definitely took an emotional toll on me. Feeling this large balance looming over my head—that was much bigger than my annual salary—was stressful. But there are two things that my student loans taught me that I’m forever grateful for.
I learned to enjoy the things that money can’t buy and I learned the value of hard work. For five years leading up to paying off my debt, I worked tirelessly on nights, weekends, and holidays—all in an effort to become debt-free as soon as possible. Over the years, I’ve done everything I could to pay off debt including cleaning houses, pet sitting, working events, and more. Side hustling wasn’t something I simply did; it was a lifestyle.
At one point, I realized that (in my case) earning more money was a better strategy for getting out of debt than cutting back my expenses. I was living on a bare-bones budget, paying only for the things I needed to get by. Even when you cut back, life still costs money, so after I hit a plateau with my debt, I knew I had to focus my energy on earning more—and it worked.
When I paid off all my student loans, I realized that—for the first time in my adult life—I was debt-free. My new reality hadn’t fully settled in at first. The temptations to spend money and enhance my lifestyle were definitely still there, and I set to work creating a financial plan to achieve my other financial goals.
For better or worse, I had put all my energy and resources toward my student loans, so I decided to play catch up with other important financial goals like retirement. It would have been easy to sit back, relax, and enjoy life after I stopped making four-figure payments toward debt each month—but I also knew that could be dangerous.
Then and now, it’s crucial to reallocate funds that would have gone to debt toward other financial goals, or you could risk major lifestyle inflation. Now that I’m debt-free, I’ve been rebuilding my savings and starting to invest—all while sleeping better at night, knowing my money is finally mine.