That Time I Paid Off $28,000 in Student Loans (And Nobody Believed Me)

Zina Kumok of Debt Free After Three

By Zina Kumok of Debt Free After Three

I attended an out-of-state school and racked up $28,000 worth of student loans. When I graduated and started making payments, I hated that so much of my money was going to interest. I didn’t want to be in debt for another 10 years. I set a goal to pay my loans off in three.

I was working at a newspaper and only making about $28,000 at the time so to accomplish my goal, I learned to budget and cut expenses; I found ways to earn more money. Every extra dollar went toward my student loans. I learned to shop at thrift stores; I discovered the couponing site, Aldi. I even put my birthday money toward my debt.

To keep myself accountable, I started Debt Free After Three, a blog chronicling my journey. I paid off my loans three years to the day that I made my first payment.

There was only one problem: Many people didn’t believe I did it.

The Downside of Going Viral

Last year, an article about my experience paying off my debt went viral. It was published on WiseBread.com, a personal finance site, and was quickly picked up by Money and Time magazine.

At first, I was excited that my story could reach thousands of people. I hoped that my accomplishment would inspire others.

While some people left comments about the story giving them hope, many others replied with disbelief. They said that what I had done wasn’t possible. The Internet creates a feeling of anonymity—who was to say that my story was real?

I was discouraged. I’ve written my blog for two years now, partly in hopes that it would keep me accountable to my goal (it did) and partly to show other people that paying off loans quickly is possible, even if you’re not making $60,000 a year.

But how am I supposed to inspire people if they don’t believe I really did it?

My Taylor Swift Response to All the Haters

Watching my story go viral was amazing, but also humbling.

Many commenters said I must have gotten help from my parents or my fiancé. Some said I probably lived with my parents, only ate ramen and didn’t own a car. One person suggested that only a drug dealer could pay off loans so quickly; I countered by saying that the closest I’ve come to selling drugs is watching “The Wire.”

At first I was enraged. Every time a new comment popped up, I’d run to tell my nearest coworker. Then I realized that if I was going to let every person on the Internet upset me, I should quit writing about my personal life online.

I wrote a blog post in response, clarifying and expanding on things mentioned in the Time article. I wanted everyone to know that if any information was missing, it wasn’t because I was hiding it.

Read a selection of the comments and my “Taylor Swift Response to All the Haters” here.

Don’t believe it’s possible? Here’s my budget.

The Real Payoff

My story isn’t that unique. If you Google “pay off debt quickly,” you’ll find people who paid off more than I did and, in some cases, much faster. I was honestly shocked that my story became such a big deal. I didn’t adjust my lifestyle and prioritize my student loan payments for notoriety or Internet exposure. I didn’t start my blog to grow a huge audience. I just wanted to keep myself on track—I knew that stating my goal and sharing my progress in a very public way would help.

The negative feedback paled in comparison to the support and congratulations I received, but most of all, it paled to the feeling of making my last loan payment. None of it compares to how I feel now that I’m debt free.

It’s hard to tell the whole story of paying off my debt in one article. I can’t share my bank account information or student loan statements. All I can do is continue to be honest and open. I can continue to write articles and blog posts about how to budget, save and pay off debt. I can continue to write and share my message with anyone who’s ready to listen.

So, take it from me (or not): You don’t have to eat ramen to pay off your student loans in three years. Unless you want to. I hear ramen is trendy now.

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]