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How to Pay Off $52,000 in Student Loans in Just 21 Months

“Even though it’s uncomfortable, you can choose to have joy along the way.”

Jonathan and Miranda were college sweethearts with $52k in student loans. This is the story of how they paid off their student loans in just 21 months … and started their family.

They thought hard about the difference between needs and wants, worked overtime, and found creative ways to make more money. And their sacrifice paid off. Now, they have a brighter future and can give to others the way they always wanted to.

Miranda said, “Being able to contribute to the people that we love and causes that we believe in has been really wonderful because that feels so far away when you have a debt payment.”

Find out more about how they crushed their debt by tuning in to this episode of Debt Stories:


Jesse: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Debt Stories: Real People Beating Debt & Winning Financially.

Today, we meet Jonathan and Miranda of Springfield, Missouri. He works in software development and she stays home with their four kids who are all under the age of five.

Together, they’d racked up nearly $52,000 in debt, and this is the story of how they paid it all off in just 21 months … let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?

Miranda: Well, I didn’t really think about money very much when I was a kid, so that might explain a lot I guess. My sister and I, we were the only two grandchildren. We just coasted from birthday to birthday. So when I really started to learn about money management, that’s actually when we got married.

Jesse: Jonathan and Miranda married at the age of 20, when they were still college students, and he recalls …

Jonathan: We talked about what kind of goals we had and what we wanted to be able to do with our lives pretty early on. Our lifestyles changed dramatically when we moved out of the dorms and had our own house, figuring out what areas of strength and weakness we each had and what we brought to the table.

Jesse: They were off to a great start. Couples who manage money together, well, they can pay off a whole lot of debt! Which is a good thing …

Jonathan: Between the two of us, we had about just under $52,000 in student loan debt.

Jesse: Jonathan had graduated at the end of 2011 and, not long after, Miranda became pregnant with their first. She finished her degree at the end of 2013, and they welcomed their second child into the world.

It was a whirlwind … and they knew that if they wanted to enjoy their new family, it was time to face their student loans. So they did …

Jonathan: The debt has been entirely paid off since June of 2016.

Miranda: We paid it in about 21 months.

Jonathan: Since we started really aggressively paying it.

Jesse: It was a candid look at their own assumptions and the realization that debt isn’t a given that really accelerated Jonathan and Miranda’s focus on debt repayment … ideas that they stumbled across on YNAB’s blog, in a post affectionately titled Don’t Hide Behind My Rules.

Jonathan: It was the motivation that we needed. And really the clarity of when you don’t have debt, you get to choose your priorities, but when you do have debt, you’ve already chosen them. Just be aggressive about it and deal with it.

Miranda: It changed my perspective completely from turning debt as a normal thing that everybody does and everybody has it, to what the possibilities are when you…it’s just not an option.

Jonathan: It was a reminder…I had been really busy, going to school full-time, working full-time, and at this point we had just…either we were wrapping up or had wrapped up college and things had started to get into a little bit more of a normal cadence. We’d gotten our heads back on, if you will, after all of the chaos that was those years, and I think we just got to the point where, as a couple, we had been doing budgeting long enough and she had started to see budgeting as a good thing and not as a real negative emotional thing. That article was a pretty big turning point. I know for me, it reminded and revitalized my passion about not being in debt.

Jesse: By the time they read that blog post, they’d already been using YNAB for three years … and now, inspired, they decided to kick their student loan repayment efforts up a few notches. Of course, life threw them a few curves.

Miranda: Our landlords were selling their house and…

Jonathan: The one we were renting.

Miranda: So we actually also bought a house during that time. To be clear, we have a mortgage still that we’re chipping away at. We also had to pay a down payment during that time. When our second car died, then we bought a new car with cash.

Jonathan: Before this, we’d bought a van but then the car that we were using died.

Miranda: We just drove around with one car.

Jonathan: Just the van. That was a tough season, but she was at home so we didn’t…it was about 6 months or 12 months, something like that.

Miranda: We learned how to plan ahead and communicate so that we wouldn’t have to spend extra money because every penny that we saved was a penny towards debt.

Jesse: One car for six months, that is pretty intense, but they had their eyes on the prize.

Miranda: Another difficult thing that we went through in order to pay off the debt was he was working about 16 hours of overtime every week. So he would come home and he’d be working until late, and we knew it was just for a season so that the sooner we could get out of debt, the sooner we could enjoy not having it.

Jonathan: It was like we hate debt so much that this is not an acceptable option anymore and so we’re going to get out of debt, even if that means doing things that are uncomfortable along the way. We, kind of, saw it almost as a blocker to our future. Once we get out of debt, then this thing can happen. Once we get out of debt, then this next step of our life can take place.

Jesse: Twenty-one months of sacrifice isn’t that long but, if you’re living it, it’s also really long. So they broke it up …

Jonathan: There were some cycles in there.

Miranda: There was a six-month really intense sprint.

Jonathan: The first six months.

Miranda: Not going out to eat. Just staying at home all the time, buying cheap food, but you just celebrate the little things along the way. Celebrating paying off one of the loans, maybe we’d buy some ice cream or something like that or doing the reconciliation dance every single time we budget. Just seeing that number go down and knowing when you’re looking at your kiddos, what that’s going to do for them.

Jonathan: Some of the things we did, like we would talk about what the future could look like. I think somewhere in there we put aside some money for summer fun and said, okay, we are going to do some things during the summer.

Jesse: Never underestimate the power of gratitude for the little things, or how much difference a little wiggle room can make. Of course, there’s the big prize to look forward to as well …

Jonathan: When I take a look at money that I’m setting aside or money that we’re not spending. I would be like, do you realize that with the money that we’ve saved this month toward…put down on our debt this month, we could go out and buy this new appliance, or we could remodel this room, or in a few months we’ll be able to pay for a car.

You know, so, like, talking about the way that if we had all that money back, that it would be impacting our now life, and imagining that as a reality.

Jesse: Bingo! That’s exactly it—debt takes away your freedom to spend your money as you choose. Pay it off, and suddenly you’ve got a lot more choices in life. And, now that they’ve been debt-free for a couple of years, Jonathan and Miranda have shifted their financial priorities …

Jonathan: We have funded our Roth IRAs for 2017, so that’s one thing; planning for the future. Pretty much right away, the first thing we did was we went and got a second car. We saved up one or two months…

Miranda: In cash!

Jonathan: In cash. And uh, yeah, so that was really great. We’ve done a lot of improving of the house. Got some new appliances; some had broken, some we’ve just upgraded.

Miranda: Emergencies don’t feel quite like emergencies anymore. We visit family more often now. Both of our parents live far away, so we get to go visit them.

Jonathan: This year, we got season passes to Silver Dollar City down in Branson, the theme park there. Then we also got season passes to Wonders of Wildlife, which is a new aquarium in Springfield, voted the best aquarium in the US. Yeah, we got some cool stuff around here, and this summer we’re just trying to take advantage of that and enjoy being with the kids and different activities.

Miranda: We’re also saving on the side for the next car that we’ll have to purchase someday.

The best part has been being able to contribute to the people that we love and causes that we believe in has been really wonderful because that feels so far away when you have a debt payment.

Jonathan: That was always at the core of what we wanted to do. Really be able to give, without even having to think about it. Whether it’s of our time or our money, it’s nice to know that we’ve already been intending to do this and planning it. So oftentimes, the money is already there.

Jesse: If paying off $52,000 in 21 months sounds impossible, just remember that they didn’t do it in one, fell swoop. They tackled their student loans bit by bit …

Jonathan: I did work overtime, so there’s about $17,500 during that time that was from extra work that I was doing. I did get a raise during that time as well of $10,000 a year, so that was very helpful. But a lot of it really just came down to … because our expenses were increasing too. We did purchase a house. We had another kid. Our kids were getting older. I think a lot of it just came down to really being careful and saying, do we need this thing.

We did sell some stuff that we had. It wasn’t anything ostentatious but we sold a few items. Really just being of that mindset to leave no stone unturned.

Miranda: It’s amazing when you scrutinize your budget. Do I need this in order to be happy? Most of the time you can say no I don’t need this and I can live without it for a time in order to be able to maybe reprioritize it later.

Jonathan: When we moved, we picked a house that we could rent rooms out in. We did it with that in mind and so we kept our living costs from going up too much when we moved.

Miranda: We had two young men living in our basement, paying us rent. For some people that would be really uncomfortable but we found out we enjoy it.

Another thing I have to mention is my late great grandmother had left me money that was only supposed to be given to me when I graduated college. We used about $6,250 of that money to put toward the loans as well. It wasn’t a huge percentage of it but it was a wonderful blessing.

Jesse: And, of course, they cut their dining out budget!

Miranda: Both our wallets and our waistlines appreciated the change.

Jonathan: The last thing is we really just held off on buying things.

Jesse: If you’re facing a mountain of student loan debt, Jonathan and Miranda offered this advice:

Jonathan: For us, what mattered was we didn’t want student loans; we wanted to have that freedom. So we got really clear and that guided us for those 21 months, even though…and sometimes there were higher priorities but we always came back to that.

Miranda: Even though it’s uncomfortable, you can choose to have joy along the way. You can celebrate cheaply. You can do that reconciliation dance, which we do. And it’s just for a time. It’s a temporary discomfort.

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Do You Have a Debt Story?

Wanna know what’s better than an amazing debt makeover story? Several debt makeover stories! If you’re a YNABer and you’d be willing to let Jesse interview you for a future episode, write to us at debtstories@ynab.com. In your email, include a short paragraph or a few bullets about your financial hurdles and how you overcame them.

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How to Pay Off $52,000 in Student Loans in Just 21 Months