It was nearly 10 years ago that I sat down and started crunching some numbers. I had just finished up my third and final college degree and it was time to pay the piper. I had to actually sit down and figure out how much I owed in student loan debt.
It turns out that I had borrowed nearly six figures in student loan debt. In addition to that my husband and I had a brand new townhouse that we had just purchased as first-time homebuyers, with very little money down. I had a $500 car payment on my Lexus ES 330.
And we had a two and a half-year-old and I was also pregnant with our second child. So basically I had a lot going on at that time and I needed to really figure out my financial situation. This was really the genesis of my financial freedom journey. It was that moment when I said I really need to get it together because I cannot maintain this lifestyle that I’ve created for myself AND begin to make the large monthly student loan payments. I quickly realized that my debt would hold me back and the only way to really move ahead and really accomplish the other things that I wanted in life (i.e. travel, work less, spend more time with family) then I would have to get rid of the debt fast.
Fast forward to today (2019)
My husband and I are debt-free, other than the mortgage. We don’t have any car loans. And in October of 2018, I was able to scale back my hours at work, and now I only work outside of the house 3 days a week. These kinds of changes don’t happen overnight. It was a LOT of hard work and dedication. If you’re interested in learning more about the steps I took to accomplish this lifestyle, then keep reading!
1. Get a Budget NOW
I know, I know…it sounds cliche and too simple. But it’s true nonetheless. Budget is truly the cornerstone of your journey to financial freedom so that you really know how much money you have coming in, how much your spending, and how much money you have leftover at the end of the month to pay down debt. Through budgeting, you might even discover that you’re running a deficit every month, because you’re spending more than you earn.
Back in 2010, I was making ‘good money’, around $75,000 to $80,000, but I really had no idea where my money was going. Of course, I knew about the mortgage payment, the car payment, food and things like that… but there was so much other money that was coming in, that just seemed to disappear into thin air. I would get my w-2 at the end of the year and wonder, “where did all this money go”? The budget really helped me to regain control over my money and that was the first step that really laid the foundation for financial success.
2. Strategically pay down debt.
Once I sat down and calculated all the numbers, I knew that I had to make it a priority to get the debt paid off as soon as possible. There are two different strategies that are very commonly used to strategically pay off debt.
The Debt Snowball
The debt snowball approach is where you make the minimum payment on all debt, except for the smallest debt. Then you throw every additional dollar towards the smallest debt to get it paid off fast. So with the debt snowball approach, we pay no attention to the interest rate. The major benefit of the debt snowball is that you get a quick win and gives you the motivation to keep going, and pay off the next debt.
The Debt Avalanche
The debt avalanche approach is where you pay down the debt with the largest interest rate, so you’re really getting the best bang for your buck when it comes to saving money on interest. The downside to the debt avalanche is that you might not see results as quickly as you would with the debt snowball method. For beginners, the best approach is the debt snowball approach because it helps you gain momentum.
As I paid off my student loans I choose to adopt the debt avalanche approach because my graduate school loans had a significantly higher interest rate when compared to my undergraduate loans. The graduate debt also happened to have the highest principle balance as well. There is a lot of debate about which debt payoff strategy is the best. But I recommend choosing whichever method you think you will be most consistent with. My strategic debt payoff strategy eventually paid off, and in the summer of 2016, I made the final payment towards my student loan debt! Also a couple of years before that I paid off my car loan my husband’s car loan was also paid off so at that point in August of 2016 my husband and I became debt-free other than the mortgage now.
3. Invest early and often.
The 3rd step that I took that made a significant impact on my ability to go from six figures in debt to multiple six figures and net worth was to invest early and often. I know that investing can be confusing and overwhelming. And you might say to yourself, “I’m not in a position to invest” or “I’m not ready yet”.
But in the world of investing, time is your best friend. In 2010 before I started my financial journey, I was doing a horrible job with my discretionary money, the money that I had leftover after paying all of the bills. But one thing that I was actually doing right? I started socking money away into my workplace accounts 401k(s) pretty early on. Because I started contributing early I grew accustomed to living off a smaller amount of money, the money that remained after my 401(k) contributions were taken off the top. The money that I contributed in my early working years has continued to grow and accrue compound interest, year after year.
Even while I was in the midst of paying off debts, making extra student loan and car payments, I continued to put enough in my workplace accounts to take advantage of my employer match. At the time I believe my employer matched the first 3% that I contributed. And then gradually as I paid off debt and freed up more money, I could contribute a little bit more each year. I increased by an additional 1% to 2% until I was maxing out my workplace accounts every single year. In addition, I opened up a Roth IRA, and eventually a taxable brokerage account where I began to invest post-tax dollars.
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4. Leverage multiple streams of income
When I initially sat down to calculate all of my numbers back in 2010 I quickly realized that there was no way I would get this student loan debt paid off quickly if I continued to rely upon one single source of income. At the time I worked the night shift at a local hospital as a certified physician assistant. Equipped with my new shiny (and expensive) doctorate degree I began to search for adjunct teaching positions, both online and locally at community colleges in my area. Securing the first teaching position was the hardest because I had very little teaching experience. But after a few months, I got a callback!
From there I added more side work and used nearly every new dollar earned to make extra debt payments. It was a hard few years. I was chronically tired and stressed, but the hustle helped me achieve debt freedom faster than I thought possible. Today, I still teach online college and university courses as a side hustle. But my passion project these days is Frugal Chic Life, LLC. I started with creating a Youtube channel on a whim, to document my financial journey. From there, the blog was started at the end of 2016 and I eventually begin offering products and services related to financial coaching. My little hobby has now evolved into a small, but profitable business that allows me to earn some additional income by doing what I love to do…help others reclaim control of their money.
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5. Pay yourself like you pay a bill
As I earned more money I continued to develop the habit of saving. Saving does not come naturally to everyone so it’s important to practice! Even if it was only twenty dollars to start I was always trying to put something away so that I could save for my future. When I get a bill in the mail from my mortgage company, a bill from gas and electric, or from my cell phone company, there is a sense of urgency there to get it paid. I want to hurry up and get it paid because I don’t like owing people money.
So I decided that I should have that same sense of urgency when it comes to paying myself. So now I pay myself like I pay a bill, meaning I specifically have a line item in my budget to pay myself every single month. I don’t ascribe to the concept of paying myself first, because I always return a minimum of 10% of my pre-tax income to my church in the form of tithe. God gets His first!
But after that, I pay myself along with the monthly bills. As I’ve practiced this in real life, I found that when I combined tip number four (leverage multiple streams of income) along with tip number five (pay myself like a pay a bill) I was able to take my savings goals to the next level. My husband and I have learned to live off of our primary incomes, as much as possible, and then the additional money that comes in in the form of side hustles goes towards accelerating our other goals like saving for retirement, saving up for large cash purchases (I recently purchased my ‘new used’ car in cash!), and debt-free travel.
6. Keep my eye on the why
On this journey to financial freedom my sense of motivation waxes and wanes. Sometimes I’m more excited and motivated, other times I’m frustrated and feel that I’m not making enough progress. In those frustrated ‘wanting to give up’ moments, I refocus on my why. I have a strong desire to leave lasting wealth to my 3 children and to retire early and travel the world while I’m still young enough (and healthy enough) to do so. I’ve also found that keeping an ‘eye on the why’ is really helpful for my husband. Eric is not naturally a numbers person, he doesn’t get excited like I do about the budget. So he’s more motivated by the why behind the budgeting and lifestyle changes needed to accomplish a totally debt-free life.
7. Work on my wealth mindset
I didn’t grow up wealthy. I didn’t grow up seeing people that had money so I had to really work on my mindset if I want to be the first millionaire in my family. I grew up in a lower-income family and as I grew up, pursued my education and made a good salary, one of my main motivations to achieve success was so that I could get ‘more stuff’. So I could get a nice house, a nice car, so that I could travel. But under the surface, I really felt that I had something to prove. I wanted to prove some people wrong in my life. The family members really didn’t think I was going to amount to much. The people who thought that I would become a teen mother with no future prospects. These thoughts drove me and motivated me early on.
But I came to the realization that I was creating a trap for myself by elevating my life in an effort to look successful. I had to challenge myself to redefine wealth for myself. I had to read about financially successful people and research the habits of self-made millionaires. I had to do the work to shift my mindset from a paycheck to paycheck mindset, to one of wealth accumulation and financial freedom.
So those are the steps that helped me go from six figures of debt to now having a multiple six-figure net worth. If you’re are on a journey to financial freedom and you find that you get frustrated you get overwhelmed and you just want to give up sometimes just know that that is natural, it happens to everybody. Keep going, even when you get frustrated, and continue to surround yourself with like-minded people who are on a similar path. It can be tempting to think that you could just do it overnight but there is a lot of work that goes into build lasting wealth. Financial freedom is NOT a sprint, it’s a marathon. If you have questions drop them in the comment section below. I would also love for you to share which of these tips or strategies has resonated with you the most.
Which one of these tips will you focus on over the next 30, 60, or 90 days?