In the Spring of 2011, Mitchel Burton was a pretty typical college senior. He was living in downtown Chicago, finishing a degree in computer science, and spent a lot of time on YouTube. (OK, maybe the amount of time he spent on YouTube was not at all typical, but you get the idea.)
One of his favorite YouTubers, Shay Carl, mentioned being on Dave Ramsey’s program—a passing comment—that one could argue, changed Mitchel’s life.
That day he looked up Dave Ramsey, and for the first time thought he should probably find out the total of his student loan debt.
One Hundred, Four Thousand, Seven Hundred Sixty-Six.
Mitchel was stunned. “I actually couldn’t even believe it. I felt sick to my stomach. I called my parents, ‘Do you realize we just signed up for more than $100k in loans?’”
Not one to mess around (except, apparently on YouTube), Mitchel didn’t waste a second. He leveraged his “overwhelming student loan burden” in a conversation with his intern advisor and got a $47k/year job offer.
Because Mitchel had been living off his loans, his post-college life with a real-job was a distinct downgrade: “I took my college lifestyle and dropped it quite a bit lower.” He moved into the least expensive studio he could find and he set about learning everything there was to learn about loans.
“I realized that I had a six-month grace period before I would be paying interest upon interest. So, for those first six months—there is really no other way to say it—I was frugal to the extreme. I slept on a futon, ate noodles and peanut butter and jelly for days and piled up as much money as humanly possible before end of the deferment period.”
Mitchel continued paying off debt, attacking the smallest loans first. Even if the progress was slow, it was progress, and that kept him motivated. But it wasn’t all small progress. There were a couple big milestones that helped him push through to the finish line:
- Hard Work—Mitchel took a new job, and this time, a $20k raise. But he didn’t change his quality of life in the slightest.
- Dumb Luck—About a year into his epic journey of paying off debt, he got a random email about a small inheritance. A distant family friend had left him $10k. Mitchel didn’t even go out to dinner or have a beer—every single penny went toward his debt. It was a small fraction of what he owed but it was a huge mental boost.
- More Hard Work—During this time, Mitchel also started picking up some side work, especially in the last year of his journey. By pursuing freelance work he was able to accelerate his payments in a huge way.
In October 2015, Mitchel made his final payment—$104,766 in less than five years.
“It actually feels kind of weird,” Mitchel laughs. “I almost feel like I don’t give myself enough credit. Maybe I will go out to dinner one of these nights…”
But he quickly shifts gears to his next goal, “Now on to 3-6 months of living expenses, and a full emergency fund. Then I will feel more comfortable easing up a little bit.”
And what does Mitchel have to say to folks that are overwhelmed and staring down massive amounts of debt? Turns out—a lot—of both wisdom and encouragement:
- Things Change—“It is so important to remember that your life and your finances aren’t a snap shot. Things change. You get raises. When I first started I built a spreadsheet and forecasted that I would be debt-free by 35 (I was 23 then). I was already so frugal that I knew I had to get my income up to move faster. I switched jobs, got a raise, and started doing freelance work. As these happened I would keep updating my forecasts, which motivated me even more. This changed everything and made me challenge myself. What about being debt free by 30? This will happen even faster. And I did it at 27.”
- Lifestyle Deflation—“Even in my highest income months, I maintained the same $47k/year lifestyle. You have to say no to purchasing things WAY more than you say yes. Before I ever bought anything I would ask if I want it more than I want to be debt free, and nearly every time I would rather be debt free. It made the steps go so much more quickly, and now I can say yes to way more things without any guilt.”
- Debt Doesn’t Have to be an Option—“For me, with what I know now, going into debt again is not an option. I won’t even consider it. I will own a home eventually, but there is zero chance I will take out a mortgage. When I have these conversations with people they scoff at me and I’m like, ‘I just paid off $100k in less than five years. You do your thing and I’ll do mine.”
- Dave Ramsey & YNAB—“Dave Ramsey was my North Star. I was so overwhelmed and his plan made it so simple. And YNAB was the lynchpin, when it was time for the rubber to meet the road. I tried to make Mint work for a long time, but Mint just assumes you make X amount every month, and you have X expenses and go! I was always juggling due dates and sweating how much was in my account. YNAB felt completely different. YNAB’s concept of getting a month ahead is a game changer.”
As Mitchel looks ahead, his life is full of options and free of debt. He’s changed not only the trajectory of his entire life, but his family tree: “Now all these other options are opening up and I’m even more motivated than ever to see what I can do.”
Although he makes a lot more money than he used to, he continues to budget faithfully, every month. “I almost need it more now because it would be so easy to waste money and lose track of my real goals.” He leaves us with his favorite quote that inspired him to start freelancing heavily to boost his income in the final year of his debt free journey: “People that win happen to things, they don’t just let things happen to them.”
And that, folks, is how you get ahead.