How One Woman Got Rid of Massive Student Loan Debt in 2 Years: ‘I Just Pretended I Didn’t Have Money’

Sarah McGowan (Credit: NerdWallet via USA Today)
Sarah McGowan (Credit: NerdWallet via USA Today)

When Sarah McGowan was 23, she already had a master’s degree and was working in her first career job as a speech pathologist. She also lived with four roommates, drove an old car, took every babysitting opportunity she could wedge into her schedule, and borrowed dresses if she needed to attend a wedding or other formal event.

She says she didn’t feel deprived. Her secret weapon? Gratitude. She reminded herself that she had everything she needed, including the energy and income to shed college debt right away.

Her goal: Be out of debt by the time she turned 25. She’d earned her undergrad degree in three years to save money, and finished grad school with student debt totaling $36,262. It made her uncomfortable. “I don’t feel like I deserve it until I have paid for it,” she explains.

Sarah knew frugality well. She was raised near Chicago by a millwright father and a mother who stayed home with the children until Sarah was in fifth grade, then became a real estate agent. Sarah was the first in her family to go to college. Student loans were essential, and she was thankful for them, but she didn’t want to keep them around any longer than necessary.

After earning her master’s degree in May 2016, Sarah landed a job in her field and worked 24-hour weeks, earning $28.23 an hour. She picked up extra shifts at a satellite hospital and at a nursing home – those paid close to $40 an hour – and she continued to babysit at $15 an hour. She said she typically tried to work at least 16 hours per week at her side jobs. Her total income was about $65,000, she recalls. The following year, when she finished paying off her loans, she says she made about $72,000.

While her earnings were high, she kept expenses low. She was used to multiple roommates, working almost all the time and driving an old car, so she wasn’t giving something up, just waiting to have it.

She recently connected with NerdWallet to share her story, which may inspire your own journey to paying off debt.

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SOURCE: Bev O’Shea, NerdWallet