Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Think you’ll be carrying the student loan monkey on your back forever? Maybe—but it’s not inevitable. Here are stories of five people who went to extreme measures to pay off huge student loan debt in lightning-fast time.
The high-powered attorney who lived with her parents
Amount of debt: $180,000
How long it took to pay back: Eight years
Nicole Medham graduated law school in 2010 with a staggering $180,000 in student debt. At first, she landed a public interest job with a low salary—and lived with her parents out of necessity. But when she switched to a higher-paying job with a law firm a few years later, she kept on living with her parents.
“I always tell my friends, if you can live at home, if you don’ have a bad family situation, do that,” Medham said in a recent Time article. She saved a bundle on rent while living with her parents, and put most of her savings toward her loans.
She also allocated a considerable amount toward savings. Enough so that, when she went through a period of unemployment a few years later, she had enough to keep making minimum payments on her loans. That kept her out of a costly forbearance.
She used the Avalanche Method, targeting her highest-interest loan most aggressively. One of her loans had an 8.5% interest rate, and she paid that one off first—then targeted the next-most expensive.
The takeaway: “Even if it’s $50 or $100 extra you’re putting toward your debt each month, it makes a huge difference.”
The recruiter who hustled and saved
Amount of debt: $22,000
How long it took to pay back: Six months
In 2013, Elysse Curry graduated with a business degree and $70,000 in debt. Her father paid off $40,000, leaving her with $30,000. She landed a job with a recruiting company, where she cold-called candidates all day on a $40,000 salary, plus commissions. The baseline salary was enough to keep her afloat—so it was easy to coast.
But three years into that job, Curry had only paid back $8,000 in debt—and she knew something had to change. She felt trapped by her debt and low salary, and far from her dream of traveling the world. She decided the debt had to go—and she’d do whatever she had to in order to make that happen.
Her plan was threefold:
- Get serious about earning commissions.
- Find a side hustle.
- Change her life to free up as much income as possible.
She immediately cut her extraneous expenses: dinners out, weekend trips, and manicures. She also threw herself into her work—and started seeing results. But it wasn’t enough, so she moonlighted as a liquor promoter.
To cut costs, Curry took on several roommates, imposed a stringent budget, and reduced her 401(k) contribution. Between this, the side-hustle, and her success at work, she was saving and earning enough to put a whopping $3,666 per month toward her student loans.
The takeaway: “Discipline is much more valuable than motivation. I was motivated to pay off my debt, but disciplined behavior was the driver that enabled me to do so in a six-month period.”
The grad student who lived in his van
Amount of debt: $32,000
How long it took to pay back: Approx. 3 years
Ken Ilgunas graduated in 2006 with degrees in history and English, and $32,000 in debt. The plan was to find work as a journalist, but he applied to 25 newspapers—and didn’t get a single interview. Eventually he decided to go back to school for a graduate degree—but this time, he refused to go into debt.
Ilgunas bought an Econoline van from Craigslist, and moved to North Carolina to attend Duke University. For two and a half years, he lived and cooked in his van while attending graduate school, paying off his existing debt and staying debt-free.
The takeaway: “It was a practical measure, for sure, but it was also an adventure.”
The graduate who worked full-time while in school
Amount of debt: $60,000
Time it took to pay back: Two years
Eric Rosenberg graduated Colorado University with a finance degree and very little in debt, thanks to a Boy Scout scholarship. He applied to grad school soon after—and this time he didn’t have a scholarship.
Rosenberg’s tuition cost about $90,000 in total. He worked full-time while attending school full-time, working himself to exhaustion to pay as much as possible while he was in school. He kept his costs low, spending as little as possible. Even so, he graduated with four student loans totaling $60,000 in debt.
Once he graduated, he tackled the rest of his student loans using the Snowball Method. This involves aggressively paying off the smallest loan first—and then targeting your next-biggest loan.
While he was doing that, he kept living like a college student. No eating out, relying on public transport, and relying on a Netflix subscription for most of his entertainment.
The takeaway: “I am not special, I just [kept] focused, saved where I could, worked really hard, and made paying off my debt a priority. You can do it too.”
The guy who refinanced his loans—three times
Amount of Debt: $87,000
Time it took to pay back: 2.5 years
Kevin, the finance blogger behind FinancialPanther.com, graduated from law school in 2013. He had eight different loans, with interest rates ranging from 6.8% to 7.9%.
When his six-month grace period expired, he made two $750 payments toward his loans. One didn’t even touch the principal—it went entirely toward interest. The other, to a different loan, paid off only $41.35 in principal—the rest of the $750 went to interest.
Not to mention, when his student loan interest capitalized after the grace period, it tacked thousands more onto his debt. Clearly Kevin had an interest problem.
He refinanced his loans with SoFi, reducing his rates from 6.8-7.9% to 4.3%. This was a vast improvement, but he didn’t stop there. Just two months later, he refinanced again—this time with CommonBond. The rate he scored this time around was 1.93%. He also refinanced $5,000 in student loans with a third company.
Kevin was fortunate enough to land a law firm position with a good salary, and that helped him make a serious dent in his loans fairly quickly. But the refinancing saved him tens of thousands over the life of his loans—and helped him pay them back even quicker.
The takeaway: “There’s no secret to paying off student loans beyond spend less than you earn, and use the rest to pay off your loans.”