This is part of our new series Dealing with Debt, where we present interviews with a diverse set of personal finance bloggers who are tackling student loan debt. Today, we’re featuring our interview with Krystel from All She Saves. She graduated with over $77K in student loans, but about a year and a half ago, she vowed to pay off her outstanding balance (about $50K by then) in just 4 years. Almost halfway through, she shares her story and provides many insights into how you can tackle your student debt.

1. Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a young professional living in Minneapolis–St. Paul. I’ve lived here most of my life. I grew up in St. Paul and went to college here too.

When I first started college, I was like most students–I had no idea what I wanted to do. I actually started off on the pre-dentistry track, mainly because I thought being a dentist would make my parents happy (and make me rich). I soon realized that I was horrible at math and science, so dentistry was probably not going to work out for me. So, during my junior year, I switched majors to Family Social Science.

During this time, I also assessed my skillsets and interests. I was involved in several student groups, and I had organized many events and conferences. I was really good at organizing and putting things together, and I was also passionate about helping others. After graduating, this combination of skills and passion led me to join AmeriCorps, where I worked as an event planner coordinating activities and events to help low-income high school students go to college.

After AmeriCorps, I worked as an event planner at a local non-profit. I then worked for the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities for two years, and I’m currently a corporate event planner.

Beautiful Minneapolis, Minnesota

2. You graduated with $77K+ in student loans. How did you feel about this while in school? After you graduated?

I went to college knowing that my parents had not saved up any money for college. So, I was completely expecting to take out a lot of loans. In college, I didn’t really comprehend the burden of loans. Every semester, I received a check, which I later learned was the extra loans I received after paying tuition and fees. I’d use it for eating out, groceries, going out with friends, and whatever else I needed or wanted to do. I knew I had loans, but I didn’t know how much I’d taken out. I knew one day I would have to pay them off, but I seriously thought paying off student loans over the next 20 years was just a normal thing to do. Everyone had student loans, right?

I was overwhelmed when I received my first bill. However, because I joined AmeriCorps, I could defer payments for a full year. Even after leaving AmeriCorps, I still had a 6 month grace period. And then, the bill was due.

3. How did you first approach student loan repayment? What were your biggest challenges and complications?

When I finally had to pay my student loans, I just paid the minimum. I didn’t have a strategy or plan.

My biggest challenge was that I didn’t have a good understanding of the basics. Talking about finances was a taboo subject in my family. I never knew what my parents earned, but I knew they weren’t big savers. They weren’t big spenders, either, but they certainly wouldn’t be considered frugal. Throughout high school and college, I didn’t get a good personal finance education and even basic concepts like interest were foreign to me.

So, having to deal with all of my student loans without fully understanding how much loans I had, what my interest rates were, or what options I had was really overwhelming and stressful.

I wish I had the Student Loan Repayment Calculator when I graduated. It would have been really helpful for me to understand my options. I particularly like being able to see every plan I could afford and how I could be faster I could pay if my loans if I paid XX amount more each month.

The Student Loan Repayment Calculator helps borrowers understand all of their repayment options in one place.

4. About 1.5 years ago, you decided to pay off your loans in 4 years. That’s a pretty ambitious goal. Why and how did you decide to do this?

Aside from student loan debt, I had also accumulated credit card debt after college. I opened 2 credit cards shortly after graduating. I didn’t know much about personal finance and used my cards for outings. I would go out for drinks multiple times a week, put it all on my credit card, and shortly thereafter, had over $15K in credit card debt.

Around this time, I started dating Tom, who is now my boyfriend. Tom had his own financial goals, and we eventually entered a point in our relationship where he wanted to talk about finances. Remember, finance was a taboo subject in my family, so I didn’t feel comfortable talking to him about finances at all. I would shut down and avoid the situation. One night, he pushed me to talk about my finances. He wanted me to tell him how much debt I had. I did: over $50K in student loan debt and another $15K in credit card debt.

I’ll never forget the look on his face. I thought he was going to break up with me on the spot. I was terrified.

Not getting a proper education in finance, I thought I was doing okay. I thought everyone had student loans and credit card debt. From the news, it seemed many people had far more debt than me. I was doing better than the average. I was good.

However, at that moment, I knew it wasn’t normal to be $65K in debt. He made it clear that I needed to pay it off.

Over the next 11 months, I cut down my expenses and paid off all of my credit card debt. I was energized, and I was ready to tackle the next big challenge: my student loans. I decided that I would pay it off in 4 years, which I felt was reasonable based on my income and fixed expenses.

5. You started a blog, “All She Saves,” to hold you accountable. What inspired you to do this?

I discovered the personal finance community about a year and a half ago. I stumbled upon a few personal finance blogs and thought it was amazing. I didn’t know people were talking about student debt payoff. People were openly talking about their finance and their feelings. I thought, “I could do that, too.”

I started a blog to hold me accountable and share my story. Every month, I write about how much debt I have. This becomes a public record and a personal reference. I can look back at where I was, and appreciate where I am today.

I think everyone has a different story, so having more personal finance blogs is not a bad thing. Everyone is unique as it relates to their upbringing, the important events in their life, and their relationship with their money. I didn’t grow up in a family that was frugal or openly talked about finance, and I think that’s different from most of the personal finance bloggers I’ve seen. Because I think many others can relate to my story, I choose not to post anonymously. However, I still don’t share my blog with my family and friends, although some do discover it accidentally.

Finally, I’m in the early stages of my financial independence journey, and I want to share my experience and insights with others. I share what tools I use, where I’m earning extra income, and how I’m spending my money. Hopefully, this gives a pathway for others to follow.

6. What’s your current repayment approach?

My goal is to pay off my loans within the next year or so. To accomplish that, I know roughly how much I need to contribute towards my loans per month. So every month, I budget money towards my essentials (e.g., rent, groceries, phone bill, IRA) and prioritize the remaining balance towards paying off my student loans. If I have money left over, I use that for everything else, like getting my nails done or eating out. And if I’m not able to contribute towards my full student balance goal, I try to find additional sources of income and spend more time on my side hustles. Overall, I end up paying about 50% of my after-tax income towards my student loans.

Many people are unsure about how much they should contribute towards an emergency fund vs. investments vs. debt. When I first started aggressively paying off my student loans, I also prioritized creating an emergency fund. Once that was funded, I focused primarily on paying off my student loans but made sure to budget enough to contribute towards my retirement account.

7. You had to make certain sacrifices to your lifestyle. What did you have to forgo or change?

I big portion of my budget used to be on eating out. I am an extremely social person, and going out with friends was my love language. I knew this was one of the first things I had to cut. Fortunately, I was generally the person initiating most of the outings, so it was easier to scale back. I went out from going out 3 or 4 nights a week to maybe a few times a month.

To my surprise, it really didn’t affect me much. I am still very proactive in reaching out to friends and seeing how they are doing. But instead of going to a restaurant, they may come over or we may go for a walk. I don’t think anyone realized I was cutting back, or at least no one called me out on it.

Other changes I made was choosing to forgo the luxury apartment for a more reasonably-priced place. And a lot of small changes, like substituting Starbucks for homemade coffee, really added up and helped me hit my financial goals.

dinner at home
Instead of going out, Krystel hits her financial goals and entertains her friends by organizing get-togethers at her home.

8. For many people, student debt freedom is a highly desirable, but abstract and far-away goal. However, living a more frugal lifestyle can have a more real and immediate “pain.” What recommendation would you give to people who want to pursue a similar path to debt freedom but find it too hard to stay disciplined?

Since I had a clear goal–pay off all my student loans in 4 years–I knew what I had to do to meet that goal. This gave me a clear target every month to hit, and I could plan around it.

Something that’s helped me stay on track on a daily basis has been a visual reminder. My friend has a deck chain that is made up of one chain for every $100 of debt she has. So every time she sees it, she’s reminded of her debt and how badly she wants to be debt-free. I use the graphs on my loan service provider’s website to track my progress, and it always gives me a visual reminder of what I’ve accomplished so far.

Another thing that’s been wonderful for me is the financial independence (FI) community. Reading blogs and learning about others in similar positions keeps me stay motivated.

Finally, my boyfriend and friends have been incredibly supportive. While I don’t share my blog with many of my friends, I do have a debt accountability group at work. We text each other in the beginning of the week with our goals (like paying $50 more towards student loans or eating out one less day) and check-in throughout the week.

So, having a clear goal and plan, a visual reminder, and great support both online and offline has really helped me to disciplined on my FI journey.

People supporting each other
The support of friends helped Krystel stay on the path towards debt freedom and financial independence.

9. Your journey to student debt freedom has been more than financial. How has your life and perspective changed over the journey?

That’s a good question. I think life is short, and it could end at any time. If you have a goal and you can’t make it, you shouldn’t beat yourself up for it. You can make it up another time. If I don’t make a full payment, I can start over the next day.

What matters is trying and trying, and that’s something I’ve appreciated very much as I pursue FI.

10. You and “All She Saves” has been featured on many other websites, blogs, and podcasts. Your story clearly resonates. What’s next for you and your blog?

Hopefully, I will continue writing my blog and share within the next year that I’ve paid off all of my student loans. I want to create guides that I wish I had, like one for saving, living life debt free, and earning extra money. I want to be more involved in investing and hopefully invest in real estate in the near future. Really, I want to dabble in everything.

Check out Krystel’s award-winning blog, “All She Saves,” and follow her on social media: