Here’s how this social worker has paid off $28,000 of student loan debt in 15 months.
Today, I have a great debt payoff progress story to share from Taylor. Taylor is a social worker who is working on paying off $277,000 of debt and retiring early. She shares tips on how she is cutting her expenses, the ways they’ve increased their income through various side hustles, house hacking advice, and how she qualified for an $88,000 student loan award. Enjoy!
Now, don’t let the title deceive you into thinking we are debt free; we most certainly are not.
As of this writing, we still have $251,195.39 of debt (all student loans).
This is our story about the debt payoff strategies we used in paying off $28,026.02 of debt and our goals for the future!
Who are we?
My name is Taylor, and I am a 29-year-old medical social worker who finished grad school in 2018. I am also a part-time social media coordinator and with both jobs combined, I make $96,000 (gross).
I live with my husband, Bret, who I have been with for 11 years and married for 3. He is a full-time student and has been in grad school since September 2020 (he has about 2 more years left). We love to travel, try new restaurants, hang out with our friends and family, and just have a good time.
How did we get here?
First, I need to give you some background before we get into the nitty gritty of our debt numbers and payoff strategies.
2012: We met when both of us were in college. I was 18 and Bret was 22. Soon after we met, Bret took a few years off from school while I finished my bachelor’s. I relied entirely on student loans, and don’t remember applying to any scholarships. When Bret returned to school to finish his bachelor’s, he did receive some scholarships and worked a summer job to pay forhousing but still needed to rely on student loans to pay the bulk of his tuition.
I will speak for myself when I say I didn’t take the time to calculate how much loan money I actually needed and blindly accepted the total amount. Looking back, maybe I would have needed it all or maybe not, but I wish I would have at least done the exercise.
We have always been open with talking about our debt and money in general, but I remember us both expressing the thought that we would probably always have our student loans. We would just live our life, pay our minimum payments, and that would be that. There was never any talk about debt payoff strategies, or any money management strategies, really.
We went through many life transitions. Living apart for two years while I went to grad school, him returning to school to finish his bachelor’s, various jobs, and a post-bach program.
2019: Bret was finishing up his post-bach program and got accepted into grad school. We were newly engaged and began planning and saving for our wedding scheduled for July 11th, 2020. Such exciting stuff!
March 2020: We got the news our wedding venue was closing for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we decide to cancel our wedding. We switched gears and used the money we saved for a down payment on a new home. Then, we had a small intimate wedding featuring a hot-air balloon with 18 of our closest family members! We personally saved a ton and also had tremendous help from our family.
September 2020: I start a new job and Bret starts grad school. We are newlyweds and settling into our new home in a new city.
I wish I could talk more about 2020 because it was a HUGE year for us with buying a home, moving, getting married, Bret starting grad school and me starting a new job, but that’s a conversation for another day!
From frugal to spenders
When we were saving for our wedding, we were very frugal. Any extra money we had, we put toward our wedding savings (which again, ended up being used for the down payment on our house and a smaller wedding ceremony).
We went from frugal to swiping our cards left and right to prepare for our wedding and furnish our house. It was sooo nice to finally be able to spend the money we had been saving for so long! But this continued into 2020… and 2021…
We were mostly spending on eating out and experiences. We do like to buy “things” but we definitely value food and experiences a lot more. We even decided to put a trip to Hawaii on our credit card costing us around $5,000, along with other expenses, because why not? We deserved it!
We didn’t have much of a budget, our bills were getting paid, but the credit card bill kept increasing. Since I was the only one bringing in income, we took out some student loans to help with a portion of our living expenses. And the credit card bill continued to increase.
The “wake-up call”
The “wake-up call” is such a theme throughout many debt payoff stories. So, here’s mine.
I went to breakfast with two friends in December 2021, and one of them brought up high-yield savings accounts (HYSA). I had never heard of this type of account before and was shocked to learn that these savings accounts had a way better interest rate than a regular savings account.
How was I just hearing about this at 28 years old? My mind was blown!
I thought, what else don’t I know? So of course, that led me to deep dive into the world of personal finance. I consumed any book, video, blog, or podcast I could get my hands on. I read stories after stories of people paying off thousands of dollars’ worth of debt, leveraging credit card points for free travel, investing, and so much more!
It was so motivating. I was hooked! (And still am.)
Bret was open and willing for me to share with him what I was learning. We started realizing that for the last year and a half, we hadn’t been telling ourselves “No”. We had just been buying whatever we wanted, and we had the credit card bill and no savings to show for it.
We learned that we could pay off all our debt and it didn’t have to stay with us forever. We learned there was a way to use a credit card responsibly (we thought we were). We learned that we could even retire early. That one sounded real nice! We dreamed of having more time doing our hobbies, traveling and being with our friends and family. And if we ever had kids, we dreamed of being able to work part-time so we could be home more with them and available for school activities.
Knowing this, we started reining in our spending, trying to just be more “mindful”, but no major change was made.
We take on more debt
April 2022: People in our neighborhood were getting new fences. We started thinking, “Hey, we need a new fence, too…” In some areas it was broken, it hadn’t been stained so was rotting, and was 15 years old. We were also going to get an updated appraisal to see if we could get our primary mortgage insurance (PMI) removed after just two years of owning our home and thought a new fence might help.
A coworker told me she was using a home equity loan to buy a fence and to do some other home renovations. We investigated options and ended up opening a $20,000 home equity line of credit (HELOC) instead with about a 4% interest rate. We buy our fence which ends up being about ~10,000 and we were set on it…
The second “wake-up call”
When it was all said and done, we loved our fence. We still love our fence, it’s beautiful! (And it better be at that price!) We stained it and we believe it will last us for many years.
But we start talking again about our debt and how we probably didn’t need this fence right now. We know we didn’t need this fence right now. Our PMI was removed, and it could have maybe happened even without the fence. Who knows.
We began thinking we need to make some serious changes in the way we manage our money. We need to do more than just be “mindful” about our spending. We make a real plan. We plan to make an actual budget, stop taking on unnecessary debt, and take a break from using our credit cards for the foreseeable future.
May 2022: Beginning of our debt payoff journey
Since we were serious about our new money management changes, I documented how much debt we had so we could track our progress.
Here was the breakdown:
- $260,390.25 in student loans, Bret & I’s combined – various interest rates
- $10,676.24 HELOC – 4% interest rate
- $5,430.76 is from credit card spending – 4% interest rate*
- $449 for furniture – 0% interest rate
- $775.16 for Peloton bike – 0% interest rate
*We moved our credit card debt to our HELOC since our credit card was around a 25% interest rate.
July 2023: Current debt numbers
Our current debt balance is $251,195.39, * which are all student loans.
We have paid off a total of $28,026.02 of debt!
*Our current balance will increase to ~$255,000 once Bret gets his final student loan disbursement (more on that later).
I want to also mention that we do have our mortgage, but we aren’t trying to pay that down as quickly as possible for a few reasons: we have a 3% interest rate, we don’t plan on this being our forever home, and one day we might rent it out or sell it.
Actions that helped us pay off $28,026.02 of debt in 15 months
We found a budgeting method that worked for us
We realized we could live off my income alone and not take on anymore debt, but we would have to have a somewhat rigid budget.
Finding a budgeting method that worked for us took some time. I don’t know how many times over the years I have tried to track my expenses in a budget app or an excel sheet, only to find out it was too overwhelming and that I was still overspending!
I am a visual person and learned about the envelope budgeting method, so we decided to give that a try, but use a digital variation.
So, for our entire money management system we have 4 checking accounts and 2 savings accounts (short-term and emergency fund). Our checking accounts include bills, food and miscellaneous, and two personal spending accounts.
This may seem like a lot of accounts to some, but it has worked tremendously for us. I love having a separate account for each major category in our budget so I can easily see how much money we have left in a certain category without having to add every expense into an app or Excel spreadsheet. We are joint owners on all of these accounts.
We then use the zero-based budget method to determine how much goes into each account.
We do have multiple cards to manage, but the pros VERY MUCH outweigh the cons here.
And with our own spending accounts, we have a certain amount of money allotted to us each month, so we individually have some spending freedom. We don’t have to feel guilty and know this money is set aside specifically for our personal spending.
Cut expenses and increased our income
I know some people are tired of hearing about this recommendation, but it’s something that really did help us! We reined in our spending a bit but mostly we had to increase our income. At a certain point, there wasn’t much more to cut.
We didn’t have many streaming services, started to limit our eating out, we didn’t have car payments, and we meal planned and prepped. We did (and still do) aaalll the things. We had to increase our income somehow.
Ways we increased our income
My income increase
I continued with my second job as a social media manager and then started dog sitting.
I have been dog sitting for about 5 years and have primarily used the Rover platform to list myself as a dog sitter. I like this app because it’s easy to use and I can specify various services to offer (e.g., house sitting, boarding, drop in visits, day care, or dog walking).
It also allows me to mark which days I am available and then people reach out to me if I seem like a good fit and my availability matches with their needs! Setting up my profile took some time, but now that it’s done, everything else is fairly low maintenance.
I now just have to respond to inquiries in a timely manner and set up a meet and greet if it seems like a good fit.
I currently only offer house sitting and on Rover and I charge $65/night. Rover takes a cut, so I end up pocketing $52. I also have private clients who pay me directly, and I have gotten those by referrals from past Rover clients. I charge my private clients $40/night.
I recently increased my rates on Rover and have been slow to increase my price with my private clients because they’re loyal.
I don’t make a ton of money dog sitting, but I am able to make a couple hundred dollars a month. My schedule is very limited, but there are people with better availability who make significantly more than I do!
I love animals and we don’t have any due to our sporadic work schedules, so it’s a great way for me to spend time with pets and get paid, too!
Bret’s income increase
Last year, Bret decided to take a break from grad school and soon after, he was offered a summer job in Alaska.
When we first started dating, he used to spend almost every summer there working for a family who owned a set-netting fishery. His uncle had spent many summers in Alaska working for this family and one summer brought Bret to work with him. They would catch salmon and sell it to a buying station in their area.
He went up there for about 6 summers in a row, until he got too busy with school and couldn’t go anymore.
He hadn’t been to Alaska in over 5 years, but someone who worked for the buying station remembered Bret, called him, and asked if he’d be interested in working at the buying station! Since he was already on a break from school, he said yes and worked up there for 8 weeks.
We were able to put every paycheck he earned towards our debt because we could manage all our expenses on my income alone. It was also a great way for Bret to spend part of his summer and I was finally able to visit as I never gotten the chance in previous years.
We also started house hacking! We had a spare bedroom and bathroom I would use for my office and occasionally, for guests. A friend of mine and her husband are really into the real estate space and gave us the idea to rent it out.
We weren’t comfortable with the idea of having a long-term roommate, and with both of us working in healthcare, we knew there was a need for short-term and furnished housing for travelling healthcare professionals.
For us, short-term meant renting for 1-6 months, but we were open to individuals staying longer if it worked well for everyone involved!
Some questions we had to address before renting:
- Did we need a permit?
- How much should we charge for the deposit, rent and pets?
- What furniture and amenities are important for travelers?
- Where should we list the room?
- How to create a lease agreement?
In our county, we did not need a permit to rent out the room if we were renting for at least 30+ days at a time.
After researching rental prices in our area, I found rooms that were of similar caliber listed for $1,100 per month or more. We wanted to be competitive and so we initially settled on $900 per month and have steadily increased it. We have now landed on $995 per month which includes all utilities and internet.
We set the deposit at $995, with an additional $300 for a pet deposit, and no ongoing pet rent.
We wanted to upgrade the furniture in the room and IKEA was a great place for us to find affordable, durable, and aesthetically pleasing furniture. We made sure the room had a bed, large dresser, bedside table, and we kept my desk in there too.
I read it’s important for travelers to have their own TV available so they can unwind in their room. We were able to find a decently priced smart TV off Facebook Marketplace.
Furnished Finder is where we decided to list our room, which started out as a platform for traveling nurses to find furnished housing. It is now used heavily by many healthcare professionals, students, and professionals in other fields.
Travelers reach out to us through the Furnished Finder website and if the dates work out, we move forward with scheduling a video interview. It’s important for us to be able to talk to the person, even if it’s just over video, and we want them to see our faces and home in real time as well.
For the lease agreement, we used ez Landlord Forms, because they have leases for each state with specific information on what’s required to include.
We don’t ask for anything major from tenants. The most important things to us are that they are respectful of our space, don’t smoke in the house, and pay their rent on time. We also added a page at the end for tenants to add two emergency contacts in case we need to call someone on their behalf.
We have had 4 renters so far with the room being occupied for 13 out of the last 14 months. It has really helped us with our debt payoff goals and we have also met some awesome people through the process! We plan to continue renting it out for the foreseeable future.
Applied for in-state student loan help
My state offered a program called the Oregon Behavioral Health Loan Repayment Program where they help minorities in the behavioral health field, or those who serve them, pay back their student loans.
This program is funded by The Behavioral Health Workforce Initiative which has the goal of recruiting and retaining behavioral health providers who, “Are people of color, tribal members, or residents of rural areas of Oregon, and can provide culturally responsive care for diverse communities.”
To apply, I had to show I was employed and actively providing behavioral health services and give them detailed documentation about my student loans. I also had to answer two essay questions related to being a part of and/or working with communities who are underserved and how my training has equipped me with supporting these communities.
I applied last year and was a recipient of an award!
As a recipient, there is a two-year service commitment which means I have to continue providing some sort of behavioral health service during that time frame (which I planned to). Over the next two years, I will be getting ~$88,000 in quarterly disbursements to put towards my student loans. So far this year, I have received ~$11,000, and it’s been life changing to say the least!
Alongside this support, I am also pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) for additional student loan relief.
Managing our mental health while paying off debt
Since I am a social worker, I often think about how money and debt affect individuals’ mental health. It’s one of the reasons why I started my blog in the first place.
I realized managing money is a universal task and many of us don’t know what we are doing because talking about money is taboo. And when you have financial stress, it can really take a toll on your mental health. So, I wanted to share our journey in hopes of helping others.
Bret and I aren’t those individuals who want to avoid eating out and fun experiences until we are debt free. And, we are also privileged to not have to take those extreme measures either. It has been important for us to make this journey sustainable and not deprive ourselves of experiences while we are going through it.
Here’s how we are making our journey sustainable:
- Still going out to eat
- Budgeting for personal spending money, aka fun
- Setting realistic debt payoff goals
- Putting aside money for travel
- Not comparing and thinking other people are better than us because they’re able to pay off their debt quicker
- Tracking our debt payoff progress (we use Excel). With so much debt left to pay off, being able to see our progress is really motivating
- Openly talking about our debt. Avoidance is a coping mechanism for many, for us, acknowledging and addressing it has been so freeing (but it wasn’t always this way).
- Talking about our dreams and reminding ourselves why we want to do this in the first place
We know that if we eliminated going out to eat, budgeting for fun, or both, we could be paying off our debt much quicker. However, that sounds miserable to us. It’s worth it to still go out to dinner, travel, or buy plants (in my case) than to deprive ourselves of the joy these things bring.
We are making great progress and we know in time, we will be debt free.
Our debt payoff journey is not linear
A few months ago, we decided to take out $6,000 of student loans. Bret currently has a full tuition scholarship, so we are tremendously lucky in that regard, but he just learned about some conferences that would be really helpful to his professional growth. We have gotten $1,500 of this loan money already which is included in our current debt balance, but we haven’t received all of it yet.
We could have pinched and saved to avoid taking on any of this debt, but that would have caused me to work more than I currently am. Again, not in line with our current goal of making this journey sustainable!
We were very intentional about how much to take out. We estimated how much he would need for a few conferences and declined the rest. We even opened a separate savings account for the money to make sure it didn’t get accidentally spent on anything.
I’m SO proud of us for that!
The goal here is progress not perfection. So cliche, I know. But we are learning how to think critically about our money, spend thoughtfully, use our money as a tool to reach our goals, and enjoy our life along the way. And right now, that meant taking on a little more debt.
We are moving in the right direction, and we know when he starts working, that will really accelerate our debt payoff journey since we have proven to ourselves we can live on my income alone.
Our plan going forward
Bret is still in school which means his loans are on deferment, so we currently have his on the back burner.
With the loan payment assistance I am receiving, it’s allowing us to put any extra money we have each month towards our savings. Our priority right now is building up a good emergency fund of about $16,000 (~4 months’ worth of expenses).
This has been difficult because of inflation and just little emergencies that keep popping up, but we are slowly making progress.
I am also prioritizing investing in my employer retirement plan, but only up to the amount that gets me my employer match which is 6% of my income.
Bret will be graduating in 2025, so at that time, we will pivot to incorporating his loans into our budget. Our goal is to be debt free by 2028.
It will take a lot of discipline and persistence, but I think we can do it. I am manifesting it!
We want to continue to learn, implement, and grow. We want to keep having transparent discussions about money and building our money foundations. And I personally want to continue sharing our journey with hopes of inspiring, encouraging and educating others. Here’s to sharing the wealth.
Do you have debt? What are you doing to pay it off?
Taylor is a social worker and personal finance blogger at Social Work to Wealth where she shares tips, resources, and lessons learned on her family’s journey to paying off $277,000 of debt and retiring early. She hopes to inspire and empower social workers with financial education so they can have a better relationship with their money. When she’s not working or blogging, you can find her traveling, gardening, trying a new restaurant, or buying too many plants.