Welcome to the first episode of our #TorchStudentDebt blog series! At ELFI, our goal is to empower a brighter future for those with student loan debt. We do this by offering competitive rates and flexible terms for student loan refinancing* as well as sharing helpful tips for helping you achieve financial freedom. In this exclusive blog series, we’re sharing the stories of individuals who have torched their student loan debt, covering everything from the challenges they faced to the tactics they used to eliminate their debt. Hopefully these experiences can provide you with some insight on how you can eliminate yours.
To kick this series off, we’re sharing the story of Josh Phillips, SouthEast Bank’s Chief Marketing Officer. Note: SouthEast Bank is the parent holding company of Education Loan Finance.
Josh is a Brimley, Michigan native that decided to go to college for the same reason that many of us do – to learn and make more money. His first job was picking up shingles around construction sites for his father, who was a licensed builder. He worked at McDonald’s through high school, handing out food in the drive-thru and eventually moving up into the role of “maintenance man,” being in charge of facilities around the building.
“The variety of jobs I had growing up taught me a lot… although I did enjoy some parts of them, I also knew that they weren’t what I wanted to do for the entire adult experience.”
Like a good portion of millennials, Josh was a first-generation college student. This left him in somewhat of uncharted territory when it came to choosing a college and acquiring financial aid.
“Being the first person in my family to go to college, I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing in terms of the best way to approach it. This was in the early 2000s, so there were some resources online to help guide you through the process, but not nearly the amount of resources as there are now on the internet.”
Josh used the U.S. News and World Report college tool to do his research, made a shortlist of schools, and began applying and going on college visits. He ultimately decided to attend Maryville College (TN), a private liberal arts college in East Tennessee.
Taking Out Loans
Going into college, Josh took the same view of his loans that many of us do – putting off the worry until after school.
“I definitely didn’t actively think about the amount of debt I was accruing throughout my college education. Four years seemed like a ways away, so I kind of took the approach of, ‘do what you have to do to get the education and experience you want,’ and worry about those minor details afterward.”
Josh graduated with a double major in International Business and Political Science, but he also graduated with around $55,000 in student loan debt that consisted of both federal and private student loans.
“At that point in time, I had loans in a variety of places – so it was kind of like this slow, painful trickle of letters coming in telling me how much I owed different lenders. I wouldn’t say it was completely demoralizing, but it definitely made me understand that this was going to be one of the major payments that I’d be making on a monthly basis for a good length of time.”
This was in 2008, right before the bottom fell out of the market. Josh was lucky to find a job with a small startup prior to graduating and transitioned into that after school. He believed that working for a startup would give him the opportunity to potentially grow with the company and accelerate his career faster, but it was definitely a roll of the dice.
“I heard the rule that you shouldn’t go into more student debt than what your first year’s salary will be upon graduation… well, I broke that rule.”
The startup Josh worked for was a marketing and advertising agency that was going through a transition from traditional marketing to digital marketing. Josh was an Account Manager and had the opportunity to work with a number of their larger, newer customers and also assist with general business operations.
Strategy for Paying Down Debt
When Josh transitioned into his new role, he didn’t have much of a strategy for paying down his debt. He simply wanted a job that allowed him to meet the minimum monthly payments and afford his living expenses. As his role within the company grew, he began focusing more heavily on ways to eliminate debt.
- Josh didn’t use an Income-Based Repayment plan because he didn’t want to accrue more interest than what he was already paying down. He always tried to make sure the number was “going in the right direction,” i.e., downward.
- He applied any quarterly or annual bonuses as lump-sum payments toward his higher-interest student loans. This tactic is known as the debt snowball strategy.
- He didn’t change his lifestyle as his career developed. He didn’t buy a new car. He did buy a house on a short sale, but he had roommates to help cover the cost of the mortgage. He didn’t go on any expensive vacations, but would instead stay with family and friends in other states.
- He avoided credit card debt. He did use a credit card, but more for the points and rewards than out of necessity.
Using these strategies, Josh was able to pay down his $55,000 in student loan debt in just seven years.
Regrets Along the Way
Despite the impressive timeframe in which Josh paid off his student loans, he did mention that he had some regrets about how he went about it.
“Looking back, I took out extra money to cover living expenses while I was in college… If I had to do it again, I would have probably tightened those purse strings more when I was in school, because living on borrowed money just costs you more and more over time.”
He also mentioned that he wished he would have known about his ability to refinance student loans and lock in a better interest rate. He said that doing so would have allowed him to save on interest and possibly even extend his repayment period so that he could prioritize other financial goals, like saving for retirement.
In hindsight, he also wished he would have looked into scholarships and financial aid earlier in the process, as many others with student loan debt do.
As one would assume, Josh is happy to now be free from his student debt.
“I mean, it’s great – I think any time you can eliminate debt, it just opens up new options. Whether you want to go into more debt for a new car or a bigger house, or maybe you just want to get to the point where you don’t owe anyone anything, paying down debt almost gives you a bit of a high. It’s great to see the number going down, and once it’s gone, you kind of want to turn around and figure out what you want to pay down next. Currently, my last debt is my mortgage.”
Advice for Others with Student Loan Debt
When asked what advice he would give others with student loan debt, Josh emphasized the trade-off of having great experiences vs. being debt-free.
“Everyone loves doing new things and getting new experiences, but I would always counter that with the freedom you can feel from getting out of debt. There are plenty of things you can experience for free if you’re creative or thoughtful about how you do it… If you’ve got debt that keeps you worried or at a job you don’t like, it’s a good trade-off to delay your experiences and instead put that money toward your own financial freedom.”
That wraps up our first #TorchStudentDebt blog! Stay tuned for more stories of how others put strategies in place to torch their student loan debt, challenges they faced along the way, and advice they have for others still on their student loan repayment journey. Thanks for reading!
About Education Loan Finance
Education Loan Finance, a division of SouthEast Bank, is a leading online lender designed to assist borrowers by consolidating and refinancing private and federal student loans into one simple, low-cost loan. Education Loan Finance believes that providing consumers comprehensive refinancing and consolidation options empowers the consumers on their financial journey.
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