My Secret to Paying Off Student Loans

Slowly but Surely, Through Steady Payments and Infrequent Slices of Spinach Pizza

Twenty years ago, I moved from Redondo Beach, California, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, kicking off a 10-and-a-half year stint at Harvard. I earned two degrees in disparate subjects, ate too many slices of late-night pizza, and grew up in ways I never could have imagined.

A few weeks ago, I finally finished paying off almost $60,000 in student loans.

According to the to a recent analysis of government data by Mark Kantrowitz of the college-planning resource Edvisors, the class of 2015 owes an average of $35,000 in loans per graduate. American students past and present now owe almost $1.2 trillion, which could buy 333 billion slices of my late-night spinach Sicilian pizza from Pinocchio’s. Even after paying off my loans, those numbers are still daunting to me; finances are not my forte.

Fair warning: This isn’t a sob story. I know friends who paid loans off five years early, friends who’ve pulled every trick in the book to defer and extend payments, even friends who have defaulted. In contrast, I was slow and steady. By setting clear expectations of my quality of life, I mastered my debt through a combination of frugality, unwavering progress, and head-in-the-sand ignorance.

I come from a solidly middle-class family: parents still married, two kids, a tract house on a cul-de-sac in a good school district. Mom was raised on a farm in Montana; Dad’s an Air Force brat from Arizona. Both have degrees in the sciences from large public universities, and both have been near-continuously employed from college through retirement. My plans were similar: I thought I would attend UCLA, pay in-state tuition, eat the occasional slice of pizza, and become a pediatrician or veterinarian—for the work, not for the money. Already prudent as a teenager, I’d heard tall tales of inescapable student loan debt, and thought a state school was a good bet.

These neat ambitions soon veered off my intended path. When a set of twins a year older than me got into Harvard and told me about its need-blind admissions program, I decided to apply. Need-blind schools promise to provide as much financial aid as necessary to any admitted student, through a combination of scholarships and loans. When I was accepted, the financial aid package wasn’t as generous as other schools’, but I took a leap of faith and thought I could make it work.

In my first week on campus, I walked into a cramped lecture hall to sign promissory notes I didn’t understand. Since financial aid offers only apply to the current school year, I didn’t know that I would end up borrowing roughly $18,000. Even the first year’s loan (about $5,000) was daunting to someone who’d never handled money in such large sums. My largest purchase to date was my first car, a used Toyota Celica that cost a tenth of that.

These loans and scholarships covered tuition, housing, and a full meal plan. On my own, I was responsible for textbooks, clothes, entertainment, and other incidentals. So I bought used books, shopped for vintage winter coats at the aptly named Dollar a Pound, and rarely went out to eat; those slices of late-night Noch’s pizza were a special treat. I did occasionally splurge on my passion of watching live theatre.

While other students had more expensive clothes and hobbies, I never felt I was missing out. College fit my expectations: still comfortably middle-class, just with warmer clothing. After the first couple of months, neither daily finances nor future promissory notes seemed scary. The loans were easy to ignore; I only saw statements once a year, when signing new promissory notes. I didn’t have a plan for how to pay them off, just confidence that I would, once I got a real job.

After graduation, three former professors asked me to be their teaching assistant, so I delayed applying to medical school. Responsible for my own room and board, I shared one floor of a triple-decker with two roommates and learned how to cook simple meals. I easily handled rent and utilities, so when loan payments kicked in after a six-month grace period, they just seemed like another check to write. I chose the standard plan of equal monthly payments for 10 years rather than the gradated plan where payments increase every month; I didn’t really understand the finances, but thought that identical checks seemed easier to write.

A year after graduation, my former undergrad dorm invited me to become a resident advisor, so I could live and eat for free. This financial freedom helped me rethink my life goals. Instead of medical school, I enrolled in grad school for architecture in 2002. The Graduate School of Design at Harvard offered me loans and summer work-study, but no scholarships. I was able, however, to continue teaching chemistry and serving as an RA. For three and a half years of school, I only took on an additional $40,000 in loans, much better than friends who took out over $150,000 in debt. Again, I set my expectations differently; I thrived with multiple challenges, while other classmates focused solely on school, and were willing to take out more loans to do so.

After I graduated, in 2006, I returned to Los Angeles. Even with about $54,000 in loans, I looked for jobs based on the design experience I would gain, not the paycheck I’d earn. Having paid my loans previously, I was sure I could do it again. I found an amazing firm that specialized in designing theatres. My starting salary, just over $40,000, was much lower than it would have been at a corporate firm, but I was able to turn a passion into a career.

I didn’t stop living frugally. I shared an apartment in a charming fourplex with a college friend, cooked most meals at home (including bringing lunch to work), and limited myself to two drinks on a night out. I swapped out Dollar a Pound for Jet Rag and Target. My infrequent vacations were road trips, staying with friends and family rather than in hotels. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything, because this was how I’d set my expectations: simple, relaxed, middle-class.

My student loan debt taught me that regular, progressive finances work for me. Even in my first job, I made small contributions to a retirement plan. After five years and a few raises, I increased my student loan payments and began to save for a down payment for a house. Steadily paying back tens of thousands of dollars in student loans helped give me a high credit rating, and I easily qualified for a mortgage. In 2013, I bought a duplex with a good friend, and we’ve been slowly renovating.

This September, when I paid off my loans, it was actually underwhelming—no champagne, no nothing. To put my loans in perspective, my half of the mortgage is about $220,000 of debt. But even that doesn’t seem scary when spread out over 30 years. I’ve slowly increased my standard of living within my means. I may still have a roommate, but I do eat out more frequently—and still long for that spinach pizza from Noch’s.

Peter Wilson is an architect who specializes in designing theatres, including the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, Florida, and Two70 on Royal Caribbean’s ship Quantum of the Seas.
Primary editor: Paul Bisceglio. Secondary editor: Jia-Rui Cook.
*Photo courtesy of GotCredit.
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