15 Lessons From Paying $31,800 of Student Loans (with another $18,200 remaining)


Two years ago, I was horrible with money.

I was a baby-faced lawyer who had only been called to the bar five months prior. I had just accepted a new job which would come with a lower salary than my prior job, but I desperately wanted it because I knew it was a terrific learning opportunity. I had an average salary for someone who lived in an expensive, urban city, but I was spending whatever was coming in. In January 2016, I watched my girlfriend and she made the final payment towards her student loans. Seeing a wave of relief and excitement roll over her face gave me knots in my stomach. I had $50,000 of student loans and no plan on how to tackle them. I knew I needed to change. In the past year and ten months, I have paid off $31,800 as a legal aid lawyer who resides in the second most expensive city in Canada. Here are some lessons I learned so far.

[1] Consistency is key. Your motivation will wax and wane, so try to automate your finances as much as possible. On X day, you will put Y towards your student loans. No excuses.

[2] Frugality is a lifestyle, not just something that you have to suffer through in the short-term. Only buy things that optimize your happiness. Reduce or eliminate spending on whatever else.

[3] Repaying debt is a marathon, not a sprint. Most of the time, the journey will be boring and uneventful. Lots of people start out strong and then gas out after a few miles. Keep a steady pace and remember to take care of yourself.

[4] Salary is not as important as you think. Ten months into my debt repayment journey I took a substantially lower paying job. And you know what? I contributed more towards my debt.

[5] Don’t shortchange your mental health. If you have to spend money on seeing a therapist or a gym membership because it’ll keep you mentally healthy, do it. I fork over a couple of hundred dollars each spring to play softball. Could I have thrown that towards debt? Yes. But it makes me ridiculously happy every week.

[6] You can go on vacation while paying off debt. Since I began my debt repayment journey, I’ve visited San Francisco, Vancouver, Chicago, Ottawa, and Montreal. We didn’t pay for our accommodations for two of our trips, and used an Airbnb credit to cover 95% of the costs of another. If you’re willing to be flexible, you can plan a getaway on a budget.

[7] Gift experiences, not things. For Valentine’s Day this year, my girlfriend and I decided to make homemade sushi. We spent a total of $20. No presents were purchased. It was a relaxing, intimate and entertaining evening.

[8] Avoid the consumption treadmill. Lawyers are notorious for possessing high-incomes but having low net worth. I work at a legal aid clinic and make a fraction of what lawyers in Big Law earn. For the sake of my happiness, I had to stop playing the comparison game. I bring my lunch to work, take public transit, and live in a one bedroom apartment with my girlfriend. The results? I’ve paid off more than some of my peers who earn double what I make.

[9] Talk to someone who has already gone through the process. I decided to get serious about my debt after witnessing my girlfriend make the final payment on her student loans. Seeing a wave of relief roll over her face, I wanted to share that feeling more than anything else in the world. In the beginning, I asked her lots of questions. How do I make a budget? Do you pay your student loans monthly or bi-monthly? Did you have an emergency fund? She patiently answered all my questions and even showed me how she budgeted.

[10] Related to that, focus on your “why.” What are your life goals after you make your final payment? How do you plan to celebrate becoming debt-free? You have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Thinking about this will make you hungrier for the finish line.

[11] Cars are expensive. For the past ten years, I drove a used Mazda 3 hatchback. At the beginning of this year, I started to notice that I was taking the car to the mechanics more often. A couple of months ago, I sold my car. I now have one less reason to use my emergency fund and an extra $300 each month to put towards my student loans.

[12] Go outside. Whenever my girlfriend and I want to spend quality time together, and the weather cooperates, we explore new trails and parks in Toronto. Whether it’s taking a long walk or organizing a picnic, spending time in nature is humbling, relieving and, best of all, free.

[13] If you want a 100% ROI, borrow some personal finance books from your public library. When I first started repaying debt, I stumbled upon The Millionaire Next Door by Dr. Stanley and it blew away all my preconceived notions about who were the wealthy people in society and how they actually lived. Dr. Stanley taught me that “average” earners can still accumulate significant wealth if you have the required discipline, patience and consistency. This became a part of my financial philosophy.

[14] Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. In order to aggressively throw money towards your debt it will most likely involve declining social invitations, forgoing concert tickets to your favourite band, and taking public transit much more than driving your car. This won’t be forever. But who knows -- you might become accustomed, and even enjoy, these lifestyle changes.

[15] Personal finance blogs and websites are your greatest resource. Back in January 2016, I was embarrassed by how little I knew about money management. So, I did what every millennial would do: look online. I found several great blogs written by young women who also once struggled with debt. All of their content was free and easy-to-read. Not only did I learn how build a practical budget but also how to deal with crippling financial anxiety. If you aren’t ready to have these discussions with your friends and family, I suggest following personal finance blogs and websites as a source of motivation and community.

So that’s a year and ten months of learning, give or take. This list isn’t conclusive, but they are things that stand out the most to me. I still have another $18,200 left to go before I say goodbye to my student loans, but it’s not as big of a deal as it once was. I have a solid budget. I save for retirement. I take bi-annual weekend vacations. I still buy coffee and take-out. The trick is to set up a financial system that accounts for your financial habits. Once you have that, there’s rarely a time you will feel deprived. You don’t have to live in a hole in the wall, eat rice & beans every day, or earn six figures to pay off your debt. In some cases, that may not even be feasible for you. Instead, focus on mastering patience, discipline and consistency. In the end, it’s only those three things that matter.