During my final weeks of business school, every single person in my graduating class had to meet in our auditorium. Sadly, this wasn’t a fun talk by Coach K, Duke’s famous basketball coach who often gave talks and always packed the house. It was a seminar on our student loans.

As we filed in we were handed a personalized folder with a printout of how much we owed. And we were gently reminded that not even bankruptcy would relieve us of our loan payment obligation. The cost of attending Duke was—and still is—astronomical. Most people sitting in that room had six figures of debt waiting for them on the other side of graduation.

This is where things got real.

When I opened up my folder to see $120,000 staring back at me and the date I needed to start repayment, I didn’t panic. I had a good job that was going to pay a healthy salary. I could do this! Live my life with a $1,500/mo loan payment…for the next 10  years.

A few months into the real world with my new job, my healthy salary (that was less than the total amount I owed on the loan, btw) wasn’t going as far as I needed. I was living in LA—a pretty expensive city—feeling a little panicked by my loans. I didn’t know what my options were but decided I could not spend the next decade making that $1,500 payment every month. It was time to figure out Plan B for loan repayment.

Before we get into the details, a note: I know numbers like these are unrelatable for many people. For context, my payment was more than 25% of my monthly income and more than my rent. Yes, I was paid a lot, but I was also living with a heavy debt load in an expensive city.

That said, I was privileged to be able to make my payments, period. As funding for higher education decreases and the cost of tuition rises, more graduates face daunting debt, regardless of their degree or job prospects. My hope is that, whatever your situation, sharing my approach will give you a few ideas for creating a strategy that works for you.

 

Why did I prioritize my debt?


I have a lot of friends from business school who didn’t prioritize their debt. Their decision wasn’t wrong and my decision to pay it off wasn’t right. When deciding whether to pay off debt, invest, or save, there are two components: mathematical and psychological.

The mathematical component is data-based. Where can you earn more—paying off debt or investing? Can you afford to make higher payments? Do you have at least a small emergency fund set aside? Are there opportunities to start a side hustle or ask for a raise? Or could you negotiate in other areas to free up cash for higher payments?

The psychological component is based on the individual. How much risk can you handle? How does this affect your life decisions and future spending? Does having high debt weigh heavily on you?

For me, the psychological toll was too high. Even though the math said it would likely be better to live with the debt and throw as much as possible into investments, there were three reasons that didn’t work for me:

 

Career choices

While I was making enough to afford the debt payments and still squeak by (though it was by no means a glamorous lifestyle), I didn’t want to feel chained to a certain paycheck amount. I really wanted the freedom to pursue other career avenues, some of which might pay less. Jordan and I ended up moving to London two years after graduation and salaries are lower there, so having my loan under control made taking a pay cut easier to manage.


Pride (or guilt?)

Jordan and I got married soon after I graduated. He was still in his MBA program at Duke. His employer covered most of the cost and he used his savings to pay the rest. He didn’t have loans and I didn’t want to be the only one with a loan burden in our relationship. I just couldn’t handle knowing that my loans were going to keep him from the things he wanted to do.


The best of both.

Finally, I realized that paying off my debt quickly wasn’t an either/or approach. It was a balancing act, but I could do both. Sure, if I had skipped saving for retirement for four years, my debt would have been paid off a year earlier. But I also wouldn’t have that nest egg sitting there waiting for me.



What I decided to do:


Once I got serious about my loan payments, I decided to sketch out a plan. I didn’t have the suggested six months of expenses in an emergency fund and hadn’t started saving for retirement. Where to start?

Here’s exactly what I did. This isn’t meant as a step-by-step plan for every situation, but a framework to help you think about where to focus your energy.  



Step 1: Stabilize 


I knew that I didn’t want credit card debt on top of my student loan debt. No, thanks. So I decided to keep an “emergency pillow” savings account. I didn’t have enough for six months of a cushion, but I was able to put away $3,000 for dire emergencies. I used it a few times over the years—most memorably when my tire was slashed by a lunatic in my LOCKED apartment building parking garage. Ugh.



Step 2: Foundation


My employer didn’t offer retirement accounts or matching contributions, so I was tempted to forgo retirement savings entirely to focus on extra loan payments. Instead, I decided I wanted to take advantage of the great tax benefits of contributing to an IRA. You can contribute a maximum of $5,500 per year ($6,000 in 2019!), so I only saved that amount for retirement each year and focused the rest of my cash—every last spare dollar—on my loan payment.

I tracked all of my money—my student loan debt, savings, and investments—with Personal Capital. Their free tool made it easy to login to one place and see everything: my remaining loan balance, how much I had in my savings account, and how my retirement balances were growing.

 

Three tactics that helped me the most:


I’ve previously shared how I paid off my loans so quickly, but I wanted to get more specific with my numbers and tactics because it’s a question I get often.




Negotiate


The single best thing I did was negotiate—twice. While I had arranged my lifestyle choices around paying off loans, you can only cut back so much. Sometimes you need to make more.

So that’s what I did. I didn’t negotiate because I had loans, though. I negotiated because I truly deserved to be paid more. Having the loans was an extra push that I needed in order to get me to speak up and ask for more. But I didn’t use that as a reason why I deserved more money.

I negotiated two signing bonuses and one raise, which cumulatively knocked out 20% of my debt. Let me say it again for the people in the back: twenty percent of my debt was knocked out in two 10-minute conversations. My original loan term was 10 years and by putting this money toward it, I shaved off more than two years of payments.

The first negotiation was for a cost of living adjustment as I was moving across the country to a city with a high cost of living. It was a one-time bonus. Rather than use this money to rent a nicer apartment, I found cheap digs and put this entire bonus toward my loan.

The second negotiation was as I was accepting a new position in London. We had just moved and the salary they were offering was okay, but not great. I tried to get them to budge on base salary, but they’d only go up $2k. Frustrated, I moved on to my backup ask: a signing bonus. They had a lot more flexibility with the signing bonus and were able to offer $10,000. As soon as that bonus check hit my bank account, it went straight to my loan.



Refinanced


The second most important thing I did was refinancing my loans. While there are pros and cons to refinancing, to me, the lower rate was worth it.

When I graduated and had federal graduate student loans, my rate was horrible. I was paying a blended rate of more than 7.5%. I had a 10-year term on a loan of $120k, which meant that over the life of the loan, I was going to pay $51,000 in interest. My monthly payment was roughly $1,500.

When I began looking at refinancing, I discovered there were benefits I would be foregoing, but what I’d get in return made up for them. (Wondering if refinancing is right for you? I break it all down here.)

I refinanced my loan with SoFi to get my interest rate below 5%. While the difference between 7.5% to 5% doesn’t sound that big, it ended up making a significant difference.

Had I stuck with a 10-year payoff, my monthly payment would have decreased to $1,272 and the total interest paid would have decreased to $33k. That would have saved me $228 a month and $18k over 10 years.

Not bad.

Had I refinanced but kept making the larger monthly loan payment of $1,500 a month (rather than the decreased amount of $1,272) I would have paid off my loan 22 months faster. Nearly 2 years sooner! And I would have only paid $26k in interest.

At the same time that I refinanced my loan down to 5%, I also received a raise at work that boosted my income by around $500 a month. So while my monthly payment was lowered, I ended up increasing what I paid each month to $2,000 ($1,500 that I was previously paying + $500 raise).

After refinancing and getting a raise, I was making serious progress on the loan. At this pace, I would have had it paid off in 6 years.

 

Create small goals 


The third and final thing that I did was to create small goals for myself and spend on only the things that made me the absolute happiest. I did this in the last year or so of my loan. At this point, I decided that while I was on a good track with my loan, I was completely miserable having it hang over my head. A switch flipped in my head and I wanted it gone, quickly.

I started playing a mental game. Rather than think about how I could pay off the enormous balance, which was still overwhelming, I started to think about how I could double my payment. Still overwhelming? Yes, but somehow not quite as bad.

After I had that goal of paying $4,000 each month, I started looking at every dollar I spent as a tradeoff. Did spending that money make me happier than paying off the loan? Honestly, sometimes yes. Taking a trip or going to a museum was still really important to me (though I looked for deals). But the box of freshly baked cookies from the bakery down the street? The spin class? I stopped spending on the things like that which made me less happy than paying off my loan.

To see immediate results from not buying that thing (whatever it was I decided to skip), I would log into my loan account immediately from my phone and make a payment. So if I decided to not go to a spin class, I’d transfer $25 immediately. If I skipped the bagel and coffee, I’d transfer another $5.

To be honest, I rarely made that double loan payment. But seeing all of those small little tradeoffs add up over the month gave me a huge sense of accomplishment.

With all of these tradeoffs and strategies, I ended up paying off my loan in 3.5 years. While not having the debt is amazing, the best part is that I gained some amazing skills (hi, negotiating) and adopted a really healthy money system that has helped both Jordan and I use our money to live to the fullest.

 

Paying off student loans is a journey, but it can be smoother—and faster!—if you make smart decisions along the way. Make your first smart decision by signing up for the weekly newsletter. Everything you need to know about money delivered straight to your inbox.

 

Oh hey there. One quick note. I used and love both SoFi and Personal Capital. The links I included in here are both affiliate links, which means if you decide to use them I may receive a small commission for recommending them. You can read more about my policy with affiliate links here.

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In Part One of Not a Holiday Gift Guide, I shared that though gift-giving isn’t really my love language, I’ve learned to lean in hard into the festivities. I’m definitely not anti-gift, but Jordan and I are really fortunate to have enough things. What we really want is to create memories and share experiences during the final month of the year.

For all of our planned holiday activities, check out Part One. Hopefully, there will be things in there to inspire your own holiday plans this year.

In this post, I’m sharing what else we’re doing to make this next month as happy as it can be with the experiential gifts we’re giving and some of the meals we have planned.

But first, here’s a rundown of the ground rules we’ve given ourselves this year:

  1. It’s not about spending less, it’s about enjoying more of what’s good. This has kind of become our life money mantra. Yes, we will spend less, but we don’t focus on that. We fill up our calendar and our lives will all the good things and there’s no room to feel like we’re missing out.
  2. Schedule it in. Life gets busy, right? I’m setting calendar invites for the festivities that are a must do.

  3. Set expectations. Because how awkward would it be to show up empty-handed when someone gives you a gift? Our guidelines with family this year are no presents for us, but one present for Henry is a really nice gesture.

Experiential gifts

I hate having a lot of stuff. I’m constantly cleaning out our flat and getting rid of everything that I can. So, when gifts do come into the holiday equation for us, we usually rely on experiential gifts. Here are some things I have gifted or plan to gift:

  • Unwind with Christmas tea. My mom, sister, and I have done this a few times and it’s so sweet and special.
  • Take in the Nutcracker or another show. the perfect gift for any theater fan.
  • Take a class to learn something — cooking, photography, pottery, etc. I gifted Jordan and cooking class one year. We went together and though neither of our skills really improved, we had the best time.
  • Plan a special night out. every year I used to take my sister out on the town for her gift each year. A fancy, fun dinner, ice skating, and walking the streets of San Francisco created some of our favorite memories.
  • Relax with a spa day. this is a gift Jordan and I usually give to our amazing mom’s.
  • Give the gift of specialty meats. Okay, this one isn’t an experience per se, but we’ve gifted our favorite steak fans some specialty choice cuts of meat. And a couple of times we’ve been lucky enough to be invited over when they prepare them.
  • Break a sweat with some sort of physical activity. Rock climbing, anyone? I haven’t gifted this yet, but Jordan has been hinting about ski lessons, so…

Meals

As busy as you are, you have to eat over the holidays. Might as well make it good, right? I break meals down into two categories: festive holiday meals and the survival meals that you have on a busy holiday weeknight.

Festive Holiday Meals

Jordan and I aren’t phenomenal cooks and we don’t love hosting elaborate meals, so when we entertain the focus is on ease. Because if I want to have the most time to spend celebrating, the meals need to be easy.

  • Tea and cake: I’ve finally met a nice group of British women out here and they get together weekly for tea and cake — yes, really. I’m planning to have them over for tea and holiday cookies one afternoon. Easy.
  • Holiday cheese board and Kir Royal: We probably won’t host a full meal at home other than Thanksgiving this year. I’m not a great cook and while I love having people over, sometimes a full meal is just too much for either Jordan or me to pull together. But an easy afternoon or evening with friends and a holiday cheese board and a Kir Royal is going to happen.
  • Spaghetti bolognese: Ina Garten calls this a weeknight meal. I think it’s the perfect meal when you have houseguests and you want a nice winter meal at home. We’ll be making her recipe when we have guests in town next month (with a sub of turkey for beef).

Survival Meals

And I have to include our fast weeknight meals. These aren’t holiday meals, but they’re how Jordan and I survive during busy weeks (so pretty much every week). These meals have helped us ditch our takeout habit, which has been great for our health and our bank account. With the activities I’ve planned, our goal is to spend as little time in the kitchen on busy nights, so we can spend more time celebrating.

  • In less than 10 minutes we can have this lentil soup on the stove simmering and everything used to prep cleaned up. It simmers for another 20 minutes while we occasionally run back in the kitchen to stir it. It’s so easy we have it weekly.
  • Another soup for the win. Spicy black bean vegan goodness. Ten minutes of prep and 30 minutes of simmering. It’s just easy.
  • I’m a big fan of the one-pan or one-sheet meal. This miso salmon and veggie pan goes in the oven after 10 minutes of prep and pops out 30 minutes later. Dinner, sorted.
  • This cod dish is the same idea but cooks on the stovetop. Prep and cleanup take less than 10 minutes and then it simmers unattended for another 10-15.
  • These harvest bowls. I’ll eat anything Minimalist Baker puts up on her blog. Ten minutes and I can have the veggies in the oven and the quinoa simmering.
  • If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I spent 20 minutes shredding kale and brussels sprouts at 6 a.m. one morning. I was annoyed at myself then, but I had a salad that lasted for my lunches all week (and didn’t wilt!). This recipe was the best.

Whether you’re all about the gifts or you’re looking for something a little different this month, I hope this list will inspire you to make the most of your celebrations.

In Part One of Not a Holiday Gift Guide, I shared that though gift-giving isn’t really my love language, I’ve learned to lean in hard into the festivities. I’m definitely not anti-gift, but Jordan and I are really fortunate to have enough things. What we really want is to create memories and share experiences during the final month of the year.

For all of our planned holiday activities, check out Part One. Hopefully, there will be things in there to inspire your own holiday plans this year.

In this post, I’m sharing what else we’re doing to make this next month as happy as it can be with the experiential gifts we’re giving and some of the meals we have planned.

But first, here’s a rundown of the ground rules we’ve given ourselves this year:

  1. It’s not about spending less, it’s about enjoying more of what’s good. This has kind of become our life money mantra. Yes, we will spend less, but we don’t focus on that. We fill up our calendar and our lives will all the good things and there’s no room to feel like we’re missing out.
  2. Schedule it in. Life gets busy, right? I’m setting calendar invites for the festivities that are a must do.

  3. Set expectations. Because how awkward would it be to show up empty-handed when someone gives you a gift? Our guidelines with family this year are no presents for us, but one present for Henry is a really nice gesture.

Experiential gifts

I hate having a lot of stuff. I’m constantly cleaning out our flat and getting rid of everything that I can. So, when gifts do come into the holiday equation for us, we usually rely on experiential gifts. Here are some things I have gifted or plan to gift:

  • Unwind with Christmas tea. My mom, sister, and I have done this a few times and it’s so sweet and special.
  • Take in the Nutcracker or another show. the perfect gift for any theater fan.
  • Take a class to learn something — cooking, photography, pottery, etc. I gifted Jordan and cooking class one year. We went together and though neither of our skills really improved, we had the best time.
  • Plan a special night out. every year I used to take my sister out on the town for her gift each year. A fancy, fun dinner, ice skating, and walking the streets of San Francisco created some of our favorite memories.
  • Relax with a spa day. this is a gift Jordan and I usually give to our amazing mom’s.
  • Give the gift of specialty meats. Okay, this one isn’t an experience per se, but we’ve gifted our favorite steak fans some specialty choice cuts of meat. And a couple of times we’ve been lucky enough to be invited over when they prepare them.
  • Break a sweat with some sort of physical activity. Rock climbing, anyone? I haven’t gifted this yet, but Jordan has been hinting about ski lessons, so…

Meals

As busy as you are, you have to eat over the holidays. Might as well make it good, right? I break meals down into two categories: festive holiday meals and the survival meals that you have on a busy holiday weeknight.

Festive Holiday Meals

Jordan and I aren’t phenomenal cooks and we don’t love hosting elaborate meals, so when we entertain the focus is on ease. Because if I want to have the most time to spend celebrating, the meals need to be easy.

  • Tea and cake: I’ve finally met a nice group of British women out here and they get together weekly for tea and cake — yes, really. I’m planning to have them over for tea and holiday cookies one afternoon. Easy.
  • Holiday cheese board and Kir Royal: We probably won’t host a full meal at home other than Thanksgiving this year. I’m not a great cook and while I love having people over, sometimes a full meal is just too much for either Jordan or me to pull together. But an easy afternoon or evening with friends and a holiday cheese board and a Kir Royal is going to happen.
  • Spaghetti bolognese: Ina Garten calls this a weeknight meal. I think it’s the perfect meal when you have houseguests and you want a nice winter meal at home. We’ll be making her recipe when we have guests in town next month (with a sub of turkey for beef).

Survival Meals

And I have to include our fast weeknight meals. These aren’t holiday meals, but they’re how Jordan and I survive during busy weeks (so pretty much every week). These meals have helped us ditch our takeout habit, which has been great for our health and our bank account. With the activities I’ve planned, our goal is to spend as little time in the kitchen on busy nights, so we can spend more time celebrating.

  • In less than 10 minutes we can have this lentil soup on the stove simmering and everything used to prep cleaned up. It simmers for another 20 minutes while we occasionally run back in the kitchen to stir it. It’s so easy we have it weekly.
  • Another soup for the win. Spicy black bean vegan goodness. Ten minutes of prep and 30 minutes of simmering. It’s just easy.
  • I’m a big fan of the one-pan or one-sheet meal. This miso salmon and veggie pan goes in the oven after 10 minutes of prep and pops out 30 minutes later. Dinner, sorted.
  • This cod dish is the same idea but cooks on the stovetop. Prep and cleanup take less than 10 minutes and then it simmers unattended for another 10-15.
  • These harvest bowls. I’ll eat anything Minimalist Baker puts up on her blog. Ten minutes and I can have the veggies in the oven and the quinoa simmering.
  • If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I spent 20 minutes shredding kale and brussels sprouts at 6 a.m. one morning. I was annoyed at myself then, but I had a salad that lasted for my lunches all week (and didn’t wilt!). This recipe was the best.

Whether you’re all about the gifts or you’re looking for something a little different this month, I hope this list will inspire you to make the most of your celebrations.

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