After graduating college in 2015, I had one goal: paying off my student loans.
Even though my student loan debt was much lower than the national average of $37,172, I was incredibly debt-adverse and wanted it gone.
During my year of focused repayment I funneled a lot of money toward my debt in a short amount of time—I rode my bike to work (even in the rain), never ate out, and started working extra hours as a freelance copywriter before and after my full-time job.
My dedication yielded results, and I was able to pay off nearly $14,000 of student loans in less than a year.
But my strict frugality came with unexpected side effects, some of which negatively affected my finances. I couldn’t shake a lingering scarcity mindset—a fear that there isn’t enough money to go around.
Here’s exactly how I paid off my loans and what I wish I had done differently.
I sold my car
One of the first things I did after college graduation was sell my 2000 Volkswagen. Even though I owned the car and didn’t have a monthly payment, I was averaging $500 a month on maintenance costs.
Because the car was nearly fifteen years old, it had a variety of issues that ranged from its inability to pass the smog test (a requirement in the state of California) to its engine randomly shutting off while driving.
Every time something went wrong with the car, I had to pay the bill with money that could have been going toward my student loans.
After graduation, I decided to sell the car to a junkyard for $700. Once I was car-free I had to get creative with transportation since I still needed to get to my full-time job.
I bought a bike for $100 from Craigslist and started riding to and from work.
After getting caught in the rain (twice) I added Uber, Car2Go, and public buses to my transportation arsenal. But even with the cost of purchasing a bike and taking rideshares, my transportation expenses decreased by about $250 per month.
What I wish I had done:
Even though my car-free life worked for a while, I ultimately realized it wasn’t sustainable for me to live without a car in Southern California.
But because I was afraid to spend money (hello, scarcity mindset!) I resisted the process of buying a car even after I paid back my student loans.
Instead, I spent nearly $4,000 on two old cars that didn’t last.
Eventually, I leased a new car (which I plan to buy when the lease ends). With a $3,000 down payment and a monthly payment of $100, the first-year costs of leasing a new car were nearly the same amount I spent on old cars that didn’t last.
With the right mindset, I could have saved nearly $4,000 on wasted car expenses.
I saved every penny
Whether it was my grocery bill, clothes or entertainment, I trimmed or cut every expense from my budget.
While I was repaying my student loans, I set my grocery budget to $200 a month, or $50 a week. In order to make it work, I shopped for the best deal and always packed my lunch, snacks, and coffee.
I was on the lookout for free entertainment like concerts in the park, hiking, or free museum days when I saw my friends. During this time, the library was my best friend, and I only bought clothes or shoes when I needed to replace an item in my closet. In total,
I was able to stick to a monthly budget of $200 for gifts, household supplies, extra activities (like birthday celebrations), clothes, and toiletries.
What I wish I had done:
Once I paid off my loans, I found myself spending a lot more money on clothes, entertainment, and travel because I had felt deprived for so long.
This led to a feast or famine pattern with my spending, and it took me a few years to find the middle ground.
If I had extended my loan repayment by a few months, I could have added a bit more money to my “fun” budget and avoided the spending extremes altogether.
I practice some of the habits I formed during this time period. For example, I still love the library and I usually pack my lunch for work.
However, the rigidity in which I approached spending is something I hope to avoid in the future.
I took on a side-hustle
When I wasn’t working at my 9 to 5 job, I was working at my part-time side hustle (copywriting).
I would wake up around 5 am and work on my side hustle before I went to my full-time job for the day. After work, I would come home and continue to work on copywriting.
On average, I was working an extra two or three hours each day and was earning a few hundred dollars a month, which I immediately put toward my student loans.
What I wish I had done:
Even though my freelance work helped me establish a strong work ethic, it was also time-consuming.
As a result, some of my healthy habits (like working out) ceased to exist. But even beyond that, time was scarce because I was working so much.
I wound up spending more money on convenience.
Instead of walking or biking, I would use a rideshare app and instead of cooking at home, I would buy pre-made meals at the grocery store.
So even though I was earning extra money, I was also spending extra money.
The truth about financial extremes
In the end, the process of paying off my loans in such an extreme way helped me learn that financial extremes aren’t the answer.
Instead, the old adage “slow and steady wins the race” may well have been a wiser approach.
Taylor Milam-Samuel is a San Diego based personal finance writer and educator who recently paid off $14,000 of student loans in less than a year. She’s passionate about helping people take control of their finances and create a life they love. When she’s not researching financial terms and conditions, she can be found reading on the beach or hiking with her dog.