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Zina Kumok hiking

Today we welcome Zina, a twenty-something writer and speaker, to share her story of paying off $28,000 in debt in just three years.  Enjoy!

Tell us about yourself

I graduated from college in 2011 with a degree in journalism  I’ve worked for various newspapers, covered the Final Four and NBA Draft and worked for the AP.  Now I own a blog, Debt Free After Three, that chronicles how I paid off my student loans and how I continue to live debt free.

How did you acquire $28,000 in debt? What did that debt consist of?

It was all student loan debt.  I went to school out of state and had to take out loans for about 25% of my tuition.

What did it feel like to have that much debt?

It felt like being smothered.  I was making $28,000 when I first graduated so my loan payments were about 20% of my total monthly take-home pay.  That’s s huge amount for someone starting out with no emergency savings fund and living alone in a new city.

How long did it take you to pay it all off?

It took me exactly 3 years to pay it off.

What resources did you use to help you through this process?

I used Mint.com to track my expenses (the app is great as well).  I also used a custom Excel spreadsheet to track my budget.

Did you face any challenges along the way?

I never had a major illness or anything like that, and my parents paid for me to fly home on occasion, so that helped. The biggest challenges were during my first year out of school – I was living 3 hours away from my boyfriend and would drive to see him every weekend.  Being that far away from him was really hard and all the money I spent on gas meant I couldn’t put it toward my student loans.  There were times when I wasn’t sure if I could pay off my loans in three years (a deadline I had set for myself), but I was careful and deliberate about my spending.

How did this affect your relationships?

The main reason I wanted to pay off my loans so quickly is because I knew my then-boyfriend and I would get engaged sometime soon.  I didn’t want my debt to become his debt, especially since he was debt-free.  He never forced me to pay off my loans early, yet was always supportive of my goal.

What were you doing for a living while you were paying off the debt?

The first year I worked as a journalist and the last two years I did media and communications for a nonprofit, which is where I still work today.

How did it feel once you paid it all off?

It felt both incredible and unbelievable.  Debt had been my identity for so long that it was hard to grasp that I didn’t have debt anymore.  I feel like now I can relax and not worry so much about money.  I can still budget and save, but I also have built-in money for going out to the movies or enjoying a Sunday afternoon with my friends.  Now it feels like my life is in balance.

What tips do you have for people looking to pay off their debt?

The truth is, most of us need a lot less than we think we do.  I think a lot of people look at how other people live and think they deserve the same lifestyle.  We don’t know what other people’s financial situations are and we shouldn’t make our decisions based on them.  It’s hard making a drastic change, but if being debt free is what you really want, you can do it.  You can prioritize and budget for things you really want (such as being debt free), but you can’t have everything you want during your debt payoff years.  I let my savings get low when I was paying off debt and I only contributed 6% to my 401k, but I had made my priorities.  You need to figure out what your priorities are and budget accordingly.

What steps are you taking now to stay out of debt or to build wealth?

My fiance’ and I put aside 10% of our paychecks toward saving for retirement, and we’re currently saving up for a 6-month emergency fund.  We also budget for car repairs vet bills, basically anything that we can predict.

To learn more about Zina, about how she achieved debt freedom in just three short years, and about how she continues to budget well and build wealth, you can visit her at her blog, Debt Free After Three.

Note: This is part of a series called “Debt Success Stories” which features people who were able to pay off a significant amount of debt. If you have a Debt Success Story I would love to hear about it. Please visit the contact page to let me know the details.