How to pay off six figures in student debt

If you're feeling hopeless and don't know where to start to pay off that mountain of debt, what follows should be all you need to know to understand your debt, get motivated to attack it, and create a plan for totally paying it off in 5 years.

How to pay off six figures in student debt

This is the first post in my "Getting to Zero" series on paying off student loans.

If you're feeling hopeless and crushed by debt, this post is for you.

I've been there. A few years ago, I had $250,000 in student loan debt.

You are not alone. Currently 3.2 million borrowers owe six figures in student loans. AND, nearly 1 million borrowers owe more than $200,000!  (see official US Student Loan Portfolio for latest stats)

Very few occupations pay enough for you to even cover the interest on loans of this size. And thanks to income based repayment plans, it's likely that these loans will keep growing even as borrowers make timely payments.

Take a few minutes and give this a read. I'll help you understand your debt, get motivated to attack it, and create a 5-year pay off plan. Some tips will be focused specifically around paying off student loan debts of $100,000 or more. If your situation is different, don't click away yet! There will still be a lot of value for you too.

Why Am I Writing About Student Loans?

I'd like to start by telling you a story.

I was 25 and just finished law school. I was in survival mode and didn't want to think about my student loans. Gone were my dreams of being a high-powered international lawyer with a six figure income. The double dip legal recession made it impossible to find a decent paying law job, so I was making just over minimum wage driving a shuttle bus.

I was totally stuck, and I had no idea how I'd pay them down. The market for lawyers was horrible. An average first year attorney could make about $50,000 per year in my area, and I knew that wouldn't even be enough to cover the monthly loan interest.

After graduation, I deferred my loans for six months. When the six month deferment period was up, I put them into forbearance. Each time I filed paperwork and viewed the balance, it felt like a punch in the stomach. I couldn't think of any way I'd ever pay the debt off. I was barely making minimum wage and my loans were growing by $1,000 every month. I was desperate and wanted to devise a plan, but I didn't know where to turn for help.

I reached out to a career coach and paid him a few hundred dollars over the course of several sessions. He gave me some solid career advice but had no practical advice for how I'd tackle the loan problem. Within a few years, I'd managed to turn my career around and had a path to a lucrative career in tech, but I'd neglected my student loans. For years I'd been paying the minimum required under income based repayment. After years of intentionally avoiding them, I decided it was time to take action. I had paid $500 per month for a few years and just sort of forgot about them. When I logged in to Navient in early 2015, I was shocked to see they'd ballooned to nearly $220,000.

It was time to hire a pro, so I looked for a reasonably priced financial advisor and set up a meeting. His jaw dropped when he saw my student loan balance. I showed him some spreadsheets, forgiveness options, and payoff strategies. He was speechless. He couldn't offer any practical advice for getting out of my situation. It was at this point that I realized I was totally on my own. There was no tax loophole, hack, or expert who could clean up this mess. I would have to find a way out myself.

Over the next few years, I learned everything I possibly could about student loans, income, interest, and strategies for staying motivated and paying down debt. Today I've wiped out $250,000 in student loan debt and the decision to pay off my debt put me on the path to 10x'ing my income.

Let me be clear, I'm not writing this guide for people that have financial support. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, but there's a big difference in paying off your loans without any family help and no financial support to fallback on. I'm so tired of seeing news articles like couple pays off their $200,000 debt by living with a relative and flipping condos that parents gifted them. It's hard not to be cynical if you're totally on your own and you read stories like this. I want you to know it's possible to pay off six-figure student loans even if you're totally on your own financially. I've done it.

I lived paycheck to paycheck for years. My spouse didn't have a high paying job. There was no family money. I had no lucky financial windfall, lottery winnings, or inheritance. I didn't even have a financially stable parent who could cosign on a refinance to get my federal loans down from 8%. I had literally zero assets to my name after law school and when I couldn't find a job, I drove a shuttle bus for minimum wage to make ends meet. During this time I maxed out my credit cards and entered into an IRS installment plan when I couldn't afford to pay thousands of dollars in taxes. If the bulk of my debt had been a house instead of student loans, I'm sure I could've enjoyed the sweet relief of bankruptcy.

Why should you listen to me?

I hit just about every obstacle along the way, and I still found a way to eliminate my debt. My journey was far from perfect. I made mistakes with my repayment plan, took bad advice on consolidation, and put my head in the sand for years as my loans continued to grow. I'm writing this to help you avoid those mistakes and motivate you to get your head out of the sand if you've been ignoring your loans.

I paid it all off by creating a plan, increasing my income, and setting clear goals about the financial future I wanted.

In the next post (2 of 4), I'll explain some common misconceptions around student loan forgiveness and discuss why it's a better idea to pay them off as soon as possible. I'll also help you get motivated to start if you've had trouble facing your loans in the past.

In blog post 3 of 4,  I'll help you set a goal to pay off your loans in 5 years. We'll help you take an inventory of your debt fighting tools, as well as what adjustments to make to help you pay off your loans as quickly as possible. I also discuss income based repayment options and offer some information around when it might be a good idea to use them and when to steer clear.

The final post (4 of 4) is geared towards helping you to create a student loan attack plan. I'll discuss strategies like refinancing, loan consolidation, and I'll offer other tips and tricks for eliminating your debt. Plus I'll include some debt-fighting spreadsheets that you can use for weighing your options.