When Matthew Burr finished his master's degree in 2011, he figured he owed about $50,000.
But he was in for a surprise. "The number was almost $15,000 more than I'd previously estimated," he remembers.
Between the $65,000 from 18 months working on a master's degree in Human Resources and Industrial Relations from the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations, and about $9,000 remaining from his undergraduate debt, he was nearly $74,000 in the red.
"I wasn't going to be one of those statistics where the loan balloons to $150,000 with interest," Burr recalls. "Right out of grad school, I got a job as a human resources manager at a paper mill with a starting salary of about $80,000, plus a sign on bonus and relocation. I didn't even wait the six-month grace period to start paying off my loans."
In 2012, he managed to repay more than $42,000. The next year he paid off nearly $27,000, and finally, this year, he paid back the remaining $5,000.
In two years, 31-year-old Burr was completely free of student loan debt. "I paid a grand total of $4,913.69 in interest in 23 months, saving thousands of dollars over the next 25 years," he says.
How did he do it? Below, Burr shares 17 tips that helped him pay off his student loans.
1. Don't ignore the debt. "Just because you don't see it doesn't mean it will magically be repaid for you," cautions Burr.
2. Read the fine print and know the repayment guidelines. "I read through my grad school loans after the fact and owed nearly $15,000 more than I expected," he recalls. "You need to know when your payments are due, how much the minimum payment is, and how much you plan to pay each month before you sign."
3. Be prepared to sacrifice in order to meet your goals. Burr recommends setting a timeline of how much you'll pay, and then doing whatever you must to stick to it. "I own a TV that's 15 years old," he says. "I don't have an XBox or Playstation, BluRay DVDs, or VIP cable. I don't have the $200 a month cell phone plan. I didn't go without by any means, but I set my goal and knew I needed to make the sacrifice for a few years."
4. Keep your contact information current. "The first thing I did when I graduated was go online and change my address from student housing to my new home on my credit cards, banking, and student loans," he says. "Most things will probably be emailed to you, but you don't want to miss something in the mail when your college email is turned off."
5. Make more than minimum payments every chance you get. "I was paying almost four times the minimum payment because it was important to me to achieve the goal that I set," remembers Burr. "I looked at the student loan site every day and watched the interest accrue, and the more I knocked the base down, the less I would pay in interest."
6. Start paying immediately. If you can, don't wait for the six-month grace period to end to make payments, advises Burr. "As soon as I got my first check, I made a payment. You'll pay less interest if you start making payments in a hurry, and it gets you into a routine. If you're disciplined up front, you'll be far ahead of everybody else."
7. Pay more than once per month if possible. "The more often you pay, the more you'll be able to knock your interest down," Burr explains. "I tried to keep it at zero as much as I could." And while it's advisable to check with your lender to make sure you aren't tripped up by any limits on payment frequency, Burr says that even though he sometimes paid six or seven times a month, he never ran into any limits.
8. Live well below your means. "When I got out of grad school, I basically doubled my salary. I'd never had that kind of income before, but I put the extra towards my loans," he says. "Debt is stress, and when you don't have it, it's one less thing you have to worry about."
9. Set a strict cash budget. "Know where you're spending all of your money," advises Burr. "I limited myself to $40 a week cash, which was a pretty strict budget." And for that matter, he says, ask for help setting up your budget if you've never done it before. "I came out of school with a business degree so I was familiar with budgets, but I know many people aren't," says Burr. He points out that there are templates on Excel and Quickbooks, not to mention apps like LearnVest, Mint, or Toshl.
10. Don't carry balances on credit cards. "The interest on credit cards will get you, too," says Burr. "You need all your money to spend on student loans, so you shouldn't be spending on credit card interest."
11. Don't buy a new car if you don't need one. "Waiting two or three years to purchase a new car will allow you to make additional payments on student loans," Burr says. "I bought my car in late 2007 and paid it off before I even went to grad school."
12. Look for cheaper places to live while you are paying down debt. "Cost of living is an expense to consider," says Burr, who lives outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "I didn't take a job in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Should you?"
13. Learn to negotiate. "This could mean salaries, sign on bonuses, relocation, or lower interest rates," Burr says. "I negotiated my salary and sign on bonus and bumped them up a couple thousand dollars, then was able to put my bonus and relocation straight to my loans."
14. Track your payments closely. Burr, who found that watching his declining balance was enough motivation to keep up his payments, recommends using a third-party site to manage payments (like Tuition.io), or getting familiar with your lender's website.
15. Take advantage of discounts. There are potential discounts for repayment, automatic monthly deductions, and loan consolidation. "Simply signing up for automatic deductions — saying they could take the money straight from my bank account once a month — got me a discount of 0.25%," Burr remembers.
16. Pay off the highest-interest-rate loans first. "You're paying the most on those loans, so you'll want to get those paid off," he says. "That goes for anything, like credit cards or car loans."
17. Set achievable milestones, and reward yourself as you reach them. "I had six loans, so I would focus on paying the one with the highest interest down first and know it was finished," Burr says. While he admits that he didn't really reward himself — "seeing the balance at zero was enough reward for me" — it's a good idea to celebrate the milestone to keep your motivation high.
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