Moving abroad was the only way I paid off $60,000 in student loans

  • Like many Americans, I graduated from college with tens of thousands of student loan debt.
  • My $600 monthly payment was drowning me, even as I cut back on expenses and got a lower interest rate.
  • Moving to Korea to teach English finally made a difference because my cost of living went down.

When I graduated from a small college in 2009, I was immediately saddled with $60,000 in student loans and working a job that paid me just $25,000 a year.

I was paying three separate loan servicers a total of $600 a month, much more than I was paying for rent and my car combined. I constantly felt like I was drowning financially. I had no real disposable income and I hated money because I felt like I never had any.

Eventually, I was putting charges on my credit cards just to keep up with my loan payments and make ends meet. It seemed like my 20 year pay date was never going to come.

But by making some drastic changes in the way I approached my life and my money, I was able to pay off all of my student loans nine years ahead of schedule. This is how I did it.

I put my loans on autopilot and lowered my interest rates

After my six-month grace period, all three of my lenders offered a 0.25% discount on my interest rates just for setting up automatic payments. I was able to work with each company and chose pay dates that worked with my paycheck direct deposits so I wouldn’t accidentally overdraw my checking account.

This turned out to be a big help: some of my federal loan interest rates were only 0.25% while I was paying them off. By setting up automatic debit, getting that 0.25% interest rate discount meant you paid no interest on some loans. This allowed me to save a bit of money in the long run and pay them off quicker.

I drastically reduced my expenses

When your student loan payments are $600 a month and you only make $25,000-30,000 a year, there isn’t much left for rent, insurance, and other everyday expenses.

So, I was frugal. With the exception of one year when I lived in Colorado, I lived with roommates. I cooked meals at home. I brought my lunch to work, even when I was doing door-to-door sales for a telecommunications company and my car was my office.

Moving to Portland, Oregon in 2011 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Cutting back on expenses, living with roommates, and being very careful about how much gas I put in my car each week wasn’t enough. I could barely afford the basics and had to suspend some of my loans for a year.

To get back on my payment schedule, I made a radical change in my life.

I moved abroad to live more cheaply.

This was the single most decisive decision that allowed me to pay off my loans almost a decade ahead of schedule.

In 2013, I moved to South Korea to teach English. After eight years of teaching, I paid off my last loan.

Living in Korea has helped me reduce my cost of living exponentially: my Korean employer pays my rent and I can walk to work every day. I take public transportation, and as a foreigner in Korea, I benefit from a much lower tax rate than I paid in the US.

I rushed in my off hours

To earn more money, I took additional jobs working nights and weekends in retail stores.

When my teaching job needed someone to cover extra classes, I offered to help and got paid for a few extra hours.

In 2015, I did a paid internship with a college acquaintance who ran her own content marketing business. After she finished the internship, I kept working part time. When my boss decided to go back into the workforce and quit entrepreneurship, I ventured out on my own and now have my own freelance writing business.

I still made a point to have fun

In the early years of my loan repayment plan, I learned to be very restrictive. I made mistakes early on and racked up a lot of credit card debt, which made my situation feel even more dire. Eventually, I cut back on a lot of “fun” expenses. It was depressing and made me feel even more trapped by my financial circumstances.

But after moving to Korea, I had a little more disposable income and made it a point to enjoy life. I was never so restrictive that I didn’t spend time hanging out with friends for dinner, drinks, or coffee. Moving to Asia has opened up a whole new side of the world to me, and I’ve traveled a lot.

I learned early in adulthood that I don’t need much to be happy. Those first few years after college were tough and I cried a lot of stress-induced tears, but the lessons I’ve learned about managing my finances have been invaluable.

I am proud and honored to finally live debt free. It has given me immeasurable peace of mind and the freedom to live comfortably.

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