Ernie's Approach to Tackling His Student Debt

“Seeing that number change every month kept me motivated and in the game.”

Ernie, a customer support rep here at YNAB, and his wife Christy, a post-adoption coordinator, live in Eau Claire, WI. While they’ve never felt overly burdened by the amount of their debts—two students loans, a car loan, one credit card and, eventually, a home equity line of credit—they’re not thrilled by how long it’s taking to pay it all off. And that’s how they decided to tackle student debt.

Ernie said, “Besides our mortgage, the only debt we have right now is my student loan, and it has taken us probably 10 years or so to get to this point. In the personal finance space, this has felt like an eternity.”

How to Tackle Student Debt

While paying down debt quickly has its perks (it can be extremely motivating for some), it clearly isn’t a winning strategy for Ernie and Christy. He said, “I tried doing the ‘pay it all off in 18 months’ thing, but it never worked. It just wasn’t us.”

So, instead, they’ve chipped away at their balances bit by bit. And, as of last month, Ernie says they’re on track to be student debt-free by the end of 2018! To stay motivated, Ernie suggests the following:

1 – Focus on a Single Debt

If you’ve got multiple debts, pick one to focus on. Just one. Then pay as little attention to your other debts as possible.

Ernie said, “I used to track every debt each month. I’d write down how much principal I paid and the current balance. I’d roll all that up into one big total debt number. This was fun for awhile, but I lost interest. There just wasn’t enough movement on every debt to keep me inspired.”

Now, he only checks his balances on a quarterly basis—out of sight, out of mind—but Ernie still watches the debt that he’s actively paying down. He said, “Seeing that number, and that number alone, change every month keeps me motivated and in the game.”

2 – Earmark All of Your “Extra” Cash for the Debt

Make a commitment to send any and all extra money to the debt that you’ve selected. This includes work bonuses, tax returns, birthday money, side gig income, and any other unexpected funds.

Ernie said, “Once I made this commitment, I was shocked by how much extra money came my way. Bonuses from my other job (at the time), birthday money, cash back from credit card points, landscaping work I did for my father-in-law where he insisted on paying me, class action settlements (seriously, this one was the best!), etc. It was $6 here, $20 there. Not huge amounts, but they all gave me momentum.”

And by deciding to send all of his extra cash to the debt, Ernie was fully committed when the money came his way. He said, “Instead of thinking, ‘Wow, I just got $60 for this class action lawsuit! How can I spend it?’ I was thinking ‘Wow, here’s $60 to put towards my student loan!’ “

3 – Don’t Wait to Deploy Your Dollars

As soon as extra money enters your life, send it to your debt! Don’t let those dollars linger in your bank account. Not only will this prevent you from spending it on an impulse, it’ll keep you motivated.

Ernie said, “Every time I sent another payment, no matter how big or small, it felt like a huge win for me. Most months I sent at least two payments to my student loan, and one month I had as many as six. That was awesome!”

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

So far, his strategy is working. Ernie said, “I have about $1,400 left to pay off, and I’m on track to do it! A singular focus and a commitment on how to spend my extra money made all the difference in the world.”

If, like Ernie, you’re more of the slow and steady type, maybe his strategy will work for you, too. And if you need help, drop into one of our free workshops! Our teachers would be happy to answer your questions.

Learn more about how to make big budgeting wins with our Four Rules for Less Money Stress YouTube playlist