This article is by staff writer Holly Johnson.

In late 2008, Lance Cothern reunited with his high school girlfriend Tori after several years apart. Lance was almost ready to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting, and Tori was a sophomore studying nursing at a four-year public university at the time.

After a few years of dating, the conversations turned serious and they started planning a future together. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to either of them, Tori had a problem that was much bigger than she had ever realized – a lot of student loan debt.

Because of some scholarships and work during school, Lance managed to graduate college debt-free. That freed him up to focus solely on his future wife’s debt, which eased the burden somewhat. However, as she pushed through her final semesters at school, they could only watch in horror as interest piled on top of interest to push her total burden up over $80,000.

The piling on of student loan debt

Yes, you read that right. Tori owed $80,000 for a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Right about now, you’re probably wondering how on Earth that happened.

Unfortunately, it’s a lot more commonplace than you might think. In fact, Tori’s student loan debt story isn’t unlike any of the other tired old clichés relentlessly portrayed by the media: the struggling social worker who ends up 100K deep in student loans, the humanities Ph.D. who is forced to live with her parents well into her 30s, or even Kasey O., the woman I wrote about last year who still owes over $95,000 for a bachelor’s degree in media arts and animation.

And just like many others who find themselves in this precarious situation, Tori didn’t really know how much she had borrowed until it was far too late. Part of the problem, according to the pair, is that she went to college during the credit crunch, which temporarily made it difficult to access the most attractive student loans. So instead she took out loans with high or variable interest rates, with her largest balance teetering around 11 percent.

“To make matters worse, none of her student loans were subsidized,” says Lance. “That means that her loans were charging her interest the entire time she was attending school. The interest would then be added to the principal of the loan and would incur even more interest charges over the course of her four-year college career.”


Looking for a way out

Just like the many thousands of students stuck in this unfortunate situation, Lance and Tori wanted a way out. They wanted to begin a life together, and they didn’t want to spend the best years of their lives struggling under the weight of nearly six figures of debt. After briefly researching income-based repayment and loan forgiveness options, Lance and Tori decided that their best option was to try to get out of debt as quickly as possible so they could move on with their lives. The prospect sounded daunting for sure, but they felt it was the best option they had.

The minimum payments on her student loans were around $700 per month, says Lance. “To pay off our debt, we lived frugally and used a very large percentage of our income to pay off her student loans, sometimes as high as 50 percent or more of our monthly income.”

In an effort to earn more, Tori picked up some extra shifts at work and Lance switched to a less-demanding job with higher pay.

“We had to decide that some of life’s conveniences would be put on hold while we paid the debt off,” says Lance. “We didn’t eat out often, we didn’t have smartphones, we had a very small entertainment budget and we made sure we weren’t wasting money on things that weren’t more important to us than paying off her debt,” he says. “Student loan debt had to be our No. 1 priority.”

And it worked. In a matter of three years, the two focused almost all of their attention on completely annihilating her student loan debt. And now, in their late 20s, they’ve earned the right to start their adult lives with an entirely clean slate.

A generation of debt slaves

There’s no longer a doubt that student loan debt places an enormous burden on today’s young people. With the average student loan debt now over $29,000, it’s no wonder that the average Millennial is struggling, and why USA Today recently referred to student loan debt as an entire generation’s ball and chain.

“For many 20- and 30-somethings, paying off the cost of college takes priority. Marriage, a house and family will have to wait,” wrote Hadley Malcolm in USA Today, after sharing one of the saddest charts I’ve ever seen. A few highlights:

  • The percentage of college students who graduate with student loan debt was 65 percent in 2011, up from 46 percent in 1993
  • 1 in 8 borrowers owes more than $50,000 for their education
  • The unemployment rate for recent college graduates was 13.3 percent in 2012
  • A whopping 16.9 percent of adults ages 25 to 34 reported moving back in with their parents in 2012

Note from editors: The Brookings Institution recently published a report that examined student loan debt between 1992 and 2010, and concluded that typical borrowers were no worse off now than they were 20 years ago. Interesting alternate viewpoint based on looking at the data differently…

Refusing to be a victim

But that’s what makes Lance and Tori’s story so intriguing. Just like so many other student loan debt horror stories, it has all the makings of a segment on the nightly news, but with a twist. Lance and Tori didn’t allow themselves to become a pawn in the growing student loan debt crisis. They took control of their situation instead. Here’s how they did it (and how you can do it too):

  • They used the debt snowball method. Made popular by Dave Ramsey, the debt snowball method for debt repayment requires you to focus your energy on either your loan with the smallest balance until it is paid off. Then you move on to the loan with the next lowest balance, and so on. “We paid off the highest rate first,” says Lance. “Then we went loan by loan and decided which was most risky due to things like private vs. federal and fixed vs. variable rate.”
  • They focused on earning more. One of the most efficient ways to pay off debt is to earn as much as possible. To do this, Tori picked up extra shifts at work and Lance focused on earning extra money on the side through freelance writing and starting a website, Money Manifesto. You can do the same by finding ways to make more money, whether it’s freelancing, dog-walking, or babysitting. The end result is all that matters.
  • They kept their expenses low. Earning more only works if you’re disciplined enough not to spend it elsewhere. To put as much money toward their loans as possible, Lance and Tori quit going out to eat and slashed their entertainment budget in half. They also lived a frugal lifestyle and went without many of the modern conveniences many of their friends had, like smartphones. Want to find a way to cut your expenses? Start by tracking your spending to see where your money is going in the first place.

Even though the journey was sometimes painful, the now debt-free twosome is glad they went through it.

“We learned a lot during the process,” says Lance. “We learned that we could be happy even without a lot of money to buy things that many people consider necessities. We learned you have to take action or things will never get better,” he says.

Lance and Tori’s story proves that paying off a huge loan is possible, even over a short time frame, if you’re willing to make it a priority. And, even though the steps they took might seem simple from a distance, the truth is, they’re the only ones that work. It doesn’t matter whether you’re struggling with a giant mortgage, student loan debt, or credit card debt, the story is the same. Short of winning the lottery, you have to put in the work. You have to go without. You have to be willing to make sacrifices.

One of the basic tenets of GRS (and one of my favorite sayings) is that “no one cares more about your money than you do.” And it’s true.

I’d also add that “no one else can save you.”

The painful truth is, sometimes you have to save yourself.

Are you still paying off student loan debt? What is your plan to pay it off once and for all?

GRS is committed to helping our readers save and achieve their financial goals. Savings interest rates may be low, but that is all the more reason to shop for the best rate. Find the highest savings interest rates and CD rates from Synchrony Bank, Ally Bank, and more.