This guest post from Andrea is part of the new “reader stories” feature here at Get Rich Slowly. Some reader stories contain general “how I did X” advice, and others will be examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure.

I am a graduate student, working towards a PhD, and I hope to graduate in 2012. Prior to starting my PhD program I acquired a significant amount of student loan debt while working on a Master’s degree. I also had a small amount of debt left over from my undergraduate degree. In total I had accumulated around $70,000 in student loans.

Some people might say that isn’t too bad considering that I already had completed my Master’s degree, and would not be acquiring any new loans while pursuing my PhD. But I had lived paycheck to paycheck for the two years I worked between college and graduate school, and I didn’t want to live that way anymore. I didn’t want that much debt hanging over me, potentially impacting my future career decisions, so I decided to start paying back the loans while still in school.

A rude awakening
While I wouldn’t say that I regret taking out so much in loans for a Master’s degree, and I’m not sure that I would do anything differently if I had the chance, it is different looking at that dollar amount from the other side. I think this is a potential trap that all students can fall into, both undergraduate and graduate, when deciding where to go to school: The financial implications of having to pay back those loans are so far outside your perspective when you sign a promissory note; it’s not until you graduate and have to figure out how you’re going to pay hundreds of dollars every month for the next decade or two that the weight of your decision finally hits you!

It was with the realization that I’d be paying $800 a month for 20 years according to the “standard repayment plan,” and would end up paying as much in interest as the original loan amount, that I decided to embark on a much more aggressive repayment plan. I am very lucky because I have a husband who works full time and is able to help support me while I am in school. I also was lucky to obtain a training grant that is paying both my tuition and a stipend for my PhD program. Not all graduate students are so lucky.

However, I also work very hard to find other sources of income, and for the past year or so I have budgeted my income very carefully to start paying back some of my debt. While my stipend is enough to live on, it would not provide much extra for paying off loans. So to earn extra money I work part time doing research for a professor in my department.

At times it has been difficult balancing work and school, but in addition to providing extra money it also teaches me time management, and gives me extra experience to put on my resume, which will hopefully help me get a better job when I graduate.

I also take advantage of opportunities to be a Teaching Assistant, which pays $1500 (pre-tax) for each 8-week course. Through the combination of my stipend, working part time, and being a teaching assistant, I was able to take home around $36,000 in 2009.

While this isn’t a huge amount of money, it is a pretty decent income for a graduate student. However, what was more important for me wasn’t how much I was making each month, but how I was budgeting that money. I used an Excel spreadsheet to carefully budget my money each month, allocating money for utilities, groceries, car insurance, my Roth IRA (which I max out each year, since it is the only retirement account I can have as a graduate student), and discretionary spending.

Destroying debt
I set a goal of allotting at least $1000 every month to go towards student loans. My budget was not super strict — my husband and I are careful with our spending, but we do go out to eat and to the movies, and we buy things when we really want them. We pay off our credit cards in full each
month, own just one car, and pack lunches.

By following this reasonable budget I was able to pay off $18,246.45 between May 2008 and September 2009. Here’s the break down of how I did it:

Payment Date Payment Amount Loan type
5/27/08 $2,500.00 Grad, private
12/10/08 $1,078.77 Undergrad, subsidized
2/9/09 $3,000.00 Grad, private
4/1/09 $1,500.00 Grad, private
4/17/09 $2,253.85 Grad, private
6/2/09 $2,000.00 Undergrad, subsidized
7/3/09 $2,000.00 Undergrad, subsidized
8/18/09 $3,000.00 Undergrad, subsidized
9/30/09 $913.83 Undergrad, subsidized
  $18,246.45  

I used a combination of the debt snowball approach and paying off the highest interest loan first. I also chose to make payments in large chunks rather than a set amount on the same day each month. I knew I wanted to pay off the private loan early because it was accruing interest, but I also tackled one of my undergrad loans early on, because I could pay it off in one payment (the December 2008 payment). My final payment in September 2009 paid off the last of my undergraduate loans, just in time for my five-year reunion.

Back on track
For the last few months, I’ve taken a break from this aggressive loan paying, in part because the point I’m at in my degree program didn’t allow me to work as much recently. But I’m ready to tighten my budget again, and plan to devote at least $500 a month to my graduate student loans, comprised mostly of a Federal Direct loan now totaling just over $50,000 because about half of the amount is not subsidized and is accruing interest at 6.8% (a fixed rate — thanks a lot Uncle Sam!). In addition to putting money towards this loan I plan to save money in different “buckets” in my ING account for things like future travels and home improvements.

I wanted to share my story because I am an avid reader of Get Rich Slowly, and I hope I can inspire other young people out there struggling with student loan debt. You don’t have to stick to the “standard repayment plan” — most student loans have no prepayment penalties. Even if you don’t make a lot of money, it is possible to find extra money in your budget to pay down student loans early.

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. After nearly a decade of blogging, I have a thick skin, but it can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author isn’t a professional writer, and is just learning about money like you are.

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