Goodbye Sallie Mae — Round 4, with Zina Kumok

This is the fourth post in the new series called “Goodbye Sallie Mae” where I interview real people who have paid off real debt and been through some real struggles. All of this to show you that it is possible to pay off your debts sooner than 25 years after you graduate. You can find the other interviews here.

Name: Zina Kumok

Age: Indianapolis, IN

City: 26 years old

Debt Paid Off: $28,000

Time it Took: 3 years

Zina began blogging at DebtFreeAfterThree.com to hold herself accountable for paying off her student loan debt. She graduated with a degree in Journalism, and has been featured on many major news publications, including Time magazine and Lifehacker.

Tell us about the moment when you realized you needed to pay off your debt.

When I graduated from college and started my first job, I realized how much I hated paying my loans and that I wanted to pay them off as quickly as possible. When I got my first paycheck, I realized that my loans made up 20% of my take-home pay.
Between paying my $550 rent and traveling six hours to see my boyfriend every weekend, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on myself. It was so frustrating to think about the hours I had spent working and interning just so I could shop at Aldi. I realized that if I didn’t want to continue living like that, I had to start paying off my loans seriously. That’s when I decided to see how quickly I could pay them off so I could really start to enjoy my life. I wanted to live frugally and save as much as I could.

How much debt did you pay off? Was it all student loans?

I paid off $28,000 in student loans in three years. I’ve only ever had student loans as far as debt goes.

Did you have a specific plan?

I used any extra money I had — tax refunds, checks from grandma, freelance income — and put it toward my loans. I kept to a strict budget and always focused on cutting my expenses as much as I could. Even though I was only making $30,000 or less, I made sure that I made paying off my loans a priority.

Did you stumble along the way? i.e. make any mistakes, relapse into your old ways? If so, what happened?

Sometimes I’d go back to eating out or shopping unnecessarily. Thankfully for most things I could bounce back quickly. I learned that the $25 mistakes I made weren’t going to kill my budget.

Did you know what you were getting yourself into when you originally took out the loans?

I thought since I wasn’t taking out more than I hoped to earn my first year of work, I shouldn’t worry about it. I definitely didn’t realize how my lifestyle would be different once I’d be out on my own.

While you were getting your loans paid off, what was the craziest thing you did to save money?

I once considered canceling my internet for two weeks while I was out on vacation. But the reinstatement fee would have been more than I would have saved.

Were you saving while you were paying off debt? (retirement, regular savings, etc.)

I saved for retirement once I became eligible at my job and put in enough to get the match. I saved an emergency fund of three month’s worth of expenses.

Looking back, what was the easiest thing to get rid of/stop spending money on that made you upset you hadn’t done it sooner?

Anything like clothes, makeup, books, etc. I discovered how little I actually needed. I started shopping at thrift stores and finding cheaper ways to do things. I used to waste so much money eating out. It was frustrating to think about how much I could have saved in college.

What do you think was the key to succeeding at paying it all off?

I was so determined to meet my goal and I was relentless about putting any extra income toward my debt. Even when I got discouraged that I wouldn’t make my goal, I still kept at it. I never stopped trying to pay it off.

How does it feel to no longer owe money on student loans?

I realize how much freedom I now have. I don’t have to feel bad about spending money on things that are important to me. I can take more chances with my life since my expenses are so much smaller.

What did you start spending money on again once you paid off your student loans?

I bought some things I’d really been wanting, like some new clothes and DVDs. I tried to be really deliberate about what I was buying because I didn’t want to get back into my old habits.

Will you ever put yourself into debt again?

I’ll probably buy a house at some point, but I can’t imagine going into debt for anything.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to those who are still feeling like they are stuck in debt with no way out?

Start with a little bit at a time. When I first started paying off my loans, I only paid $10 extra a month. But that $10 meant I’d pay off my loans one year early. Even a little bit can make a difference.

Thanks to Zina for sharing her story and advice with us! Congrats on the wedding!

For more information about Zina, visit her blog, Debt Free After Three, or you find her on Twitter @zinakumok

If you would like to share your story about paying off your student loans, please contact me and we can get your story out there to help others!

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Originally published at www.brightcents.com on May 13, 2015.