I paid off my student loans in just six years in part due to an aggressive payment strategy. Here, I’ll talk about how.
Spoilers - a lot of it had nothing to do with how hard I worked or how smart I was.
Unfortunately sometimes, you can’t bottle success or sell a formula for it.
This year, I finished paying off my student loans. This year also marked my sixth anniversary of graduating from college, my 28th birthday, my second fully year of running my business full time, my marriage, and a few other major milestones, but for obvious reasons, paying off my student loans was a big goal that I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while. It’s something that I’ve been actively working on since about 2015.
If I was trying to sell you something, I’d give you some bullshit story about how I paid off my loans using some kind of complicated system. I’d tell you I’d be willing to help you solve your own student loan problem for the low, low price of $200/month for 12 months. I’d give you a feel-good story about how you, too, can overcome absurd financial difficulty and pay off your loans, and any other debts, quite quickly. I’m not going to do that, but you’re free to pay me for financial advice, if you’d like - it’s a free country, and I can’t stop you.
Recently, I received an email from the company that handles my student loans, and I logged back into my account. There it told me that yes, my student loans were fully paid. I promptly laughed and made a dumb social media status about it.
A friend asked me - how in the world had I paid off my student loans? Only half-sarcastically, I replied “privilege”.
And that’s the truth. I could tell you that it’s about working hard, or about building your own business, or about being tight with your finances. And that story would be true but it would only be a very small part of a larger story.
So here’s the short version of that story: the rosy picture of how I paid off my student loans.
I worked a variety of part-time jobs in high school and college to make money, and managed to save up about $5000 in the process. This taught me the value of money from an early age. When I was 10, I mowed lawns in the neighborhood and saved up for months to buy a Nintendo 64. When I was 12, I started working as a caddy at the local golf course, and would do so every summer for 10 years. I spent my first summer’s money on an old iPod (back when they were incredibly new) and then in future summers that money would go towards gas money, movie tickets, fast food, video games, and other stuff that a teen kid spends their money on.
Most of my savings got spent during college, when I didn’t have time to work due to focusing on my studies. Then, graduating with no clear path in mind and an impractical degree, I spent about $500 of my last $1000 on a personal trainer certification course. Getting my certification over the summer, I lived out the remainder of my year’s contract on my university apartment. Then, I moved back in with my parents while looking for a job.
Finding my first job was hard. I spent a lot of my remaining money on gas, getting to interviews and visiting my ex. At one point, on the recommendation of another personal trainer I knew, I dropped my last $50 on a copy of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, because he felt that I needed to know more exercise variations and because it includes plenty of helpful diagrams. I had no experience training other people, so it was hard to find a job at a good gym, and I needed any help I could get.
I got a job. I worked at my first gym as a personal trainer, and then also as a manager. For quite a while, I made more money as a manager (10$/hour) than as a trainer, since it takes a while to build a proper client base. For a while I was making enough money to move out on my own. Then, a series of career missteps led to me quitting my job, getting an internship, finding myself a few grand in credit card debt, breaking up with my girlfriend, moving to the middle east, and moving back. At my worst point, I was living (almost) rent-free on a friend’s couch while I tried to find housing in Chicago (which never worked out). Throughout all that, I blogged out of desperation, picking up a few online clients here and there - income which served me well as I endured many major moves and bounced through a few bad jobs on the way to find something sustainable.
Eventually I made the jump to focusing on my business full time. I was able to grow the business significantly after that, turning it into a primary source of income. It was tough, but I kept at it, and it was worth it in the end. Being my own boss allowed me to work from wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and it allowed me the freedom to work only with the kinds of client that I wanted to. I moved to Europe. I setup a retirement account and paid off my student loans.
I could tell you about all hard work and the absurd hours. Some weeks, I used to work 12+ hour days for 4-5 days straight. Working online meant dealing with client emails at all hours of the day. Since my business doesn’t stop when I’m on vacation, neither do I - and every trip to the airport has also meant scrambling to connect to airport wifi to get done whatever amount of work I can do before hopping on a long flight. Working long days just to have to hop onto social media to knock out some post about “killing it” when I could barely think straight. I spent thousands on advertising, business coaching, continuing education, and more. Some weeks I wasn’t able to take a day off.
Often I felt like a failure when I wasn’t able to help a client achieve results, or when a few clients would cancel in a short span of time and I’d worry if my business was really going to work out, long-term. When I saw all those Facebook ads for “entrepreneurs” talking about how you can easily make so much money, I would wonder if I was doing it wrong. Every time I saw another coach with more followers, or talking about having more clients, I would feel like an idiot.
But all the same, my business grew. I made new friends, and new clients. I built a business, and soon I found that I could spend less time to focus on it. Existing clients brought in friends, partners, family members, and good word-of-mouth. I could afford to take Fridays off, and then Thursdays too. One week, I felt like my head was in a fog, so I took off to rest and play video games, doing the bare minimum of client work. I could afford to focus on other things in my life. I learned a new language.
I was frugal with money. If you know me, you’ll know that I’m not big on spending money. I buy my toothbrushes from the dollar store, and I wear my clothes long past the point that they get patchy. I don’t have a sweet tooth, and I actively prefer cheap, bland food. My only weakness is for video games, and even then I very rarely spend more than $20 at a time, only purchasing games that are on sale.
For a long time, I wasn’t really very money-savvy - which is to say that I was good at earning it and not spending it, but I didn’t really ever think about the fact that I had debt that I should have been paying off. When I setup my student loan payments, I rounded up my monthly payment to the nearest hundred, to pay it off a little bit faster, but that was about all I thought about it for the first few years. In a few cases, I had to pause payments because I was a bit tight on money, but luckily, the extra from having paid ahead was generally enough to temporarily cover it.
At some point, I starting reading about personal finance. I got smarter about my money, and realized that I needed to care about my debts. I started paying them off as fast as I could - putting in double the minimum payment each month, even when that meant cutting it tight on everything else. The rest of my money went into savings in case I should need it in an emergency, and once I had saved up enough - I paid off the remainder all at once. It took about 2 years from the time that I started focusing on paying off my loans, to finish it.
That’s a great story, isn’t it? It hits all the right notes. It makes me feel good. It has a happy ending.
But here are the parts I didn’t tell you.
I was lucky to have the support of my parents the entire way. My parents paid for a lot of my education, so my loans covered ultimately only about ¼ of the total expenses. They were glad to support me after college while I was finding my feet, which saved me on rent. In general, if I was ever really in trouble, they would always be willing to spot me a bit of money, no matter how much I tried not to rely on them - which completely saved me on two separate occasions. I also had a car which I had inherited from them.
When that car fell apart and I had to get a new one, I rented from a friend who had a car he didn’t need - a 2010 Mazda 3, which he rented me at $200 a month, far better than anything else I could get at that price. Since he was a friend, he didn’t mind me skipping payments from time to time when my situation got rough. When I repeatedly blew tires and rims on shitty Detroit streets early on and I couldn’t afford new ones, my parents helped out.
When I moved out of my parents’ house, I moved in with a friend. His mom had remarried and moved out, leaving him his childhood house - and he rented me a room in it for $100/month, an absurdly low price. Living there for a couple years meant that I could save up a lot more money than I would have been able to, otherwise.
When I was first starting out as a personal trainer, before I’d had a single client or any job experience, my boss at my first job took a chance on hiring me, and picked me to move into management when he moved to a new job. Without his help and mentorship, I’d never have gotten started. When I first started online coaching and my motivation was at a low point, and I was convinced I should quit the industry, a friend got me a job working for his successful blog, doing some work behind the scenes for a few hundred a month. That job didn’t pay much, but it singlehandedly convinced that I wasn’t a complete idiot, and that I should stay in the industry.
When I moved to Seattle to be closer to my long-distance girlfriend (now, my wife!), she helped me find a good, relatively cheap room to rent. When we moved in together, we agreed that I could pay slightly less on my share of rent so that I could put more of that money towards paying off my student loans. She also has experience with editing, photography, and graphic design - making my books possible. She was my first and greatest advocate, and my business wouldn’t have gone nearly as far without her constant support and help. I’m lucky that my wife, whose career was more established than my own, was willing and able to support me in so many ways.
And what was the secret to paying off my student loans?
Well, in part it was that I was frugal, that I saved money, that I was aggressive about paying it off. But another (major) part of it is that I was lucky to be able to be in the right position to make a good amount of money doing what I do. When I look at the activity on my account, I was paying it off pretty slowly for the first four years - it’s only in the past couple of years, with stable income and a successful business that I was able to accelerate things. Most of the serious bulk of the debt has been paid off pretty recently.
I was only able to pay off my debts because I got lucky to make a good living.
And I’m not stupid enough to think that I’ve made a lot of money with my business purely based on skill alone. Sure, I worked hard, but I also know that work is only a small part of the equation. Along the way, I’ve been blessed to be supported by family and friends, plus lucky breaks here and there that saved me where I could have easily lost my way. I know full well that I can’t tell people to copy my success without admitting the parts that I had no control over. Sure, things turned out all right in the end, but there are plenty of ways that it could have gone wrong - very easily, in fact.
And I can’t bottle that. I can’t sell that. I can’t write a book that says, “how to pay off your student loans, step 1: have rich family, stupid, step 2: make more money, idiot”. That’s just ignorant.
I was blessed with ability and found myself in the right position to take advantage of it, not necessarily because of anything that I did right or any intentional choice that I made. For every success, I also have to give credit to all those silent people who worked behind the scenes - gave me cheap rent, a cheap car, or a place to crash while I was getting on my feet.
Again, this isn’t to deny that I put a lot of hard work into paying off my student loans faster than normal. I pinched pennies for years to save up - and now, those habits are so ingrained that I doubt I’ll ever lose them. But no, that’s not all I did.
I also had plenty of help.
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
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