Finance: The Third Year of Paying Down $575,000 in Student Loans, An Update

Every May, I post an update on how we are doing with our path to financial independence, which largely depends on our student loan repayment plan. If you haven’t already heard the story,  I graduated at the age of 26 years old (turned 27 a few weeks after graduation) with more than half a million dollars in debt. A weight that was too heavy to bear, I decided to shun the common notion of waiting 25-30 years for loan forgiveness and instead to get rid of the debt as fast as I can.

Three years of aggressively tackling my loans is coming to an end, and what a journey it has been! You can read about my first two years here and here. As every year before, I will summarize what we have accomplished financially since last May, and how we plan to move forward and snowball our way down to being $0 in debt.

A Summary of Accomplishments for Year 3

This past year, there have been numerous accomplishments that I am very proud to share. It has been a year of experimentation and discovery for us both. But also, a year of triumphs over a few financial hurdles. Here is what we’ve done.

  • I opened a bakery and managed my own small business with one employee for an entire year. One of my life goals was to pursue my hobbies and possibly make them into mini-side-hustles. Other jobs that I had last year on top of dentistry was this blog space and dog-sitting via ROVER. After a year of baking for local restaurants, coffee shops, and markets, I closed my bakery two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic took place.
  • My husband wanted to switch careers. He has been interested in coding for some time and he decided to take a coding boot camp in order to be able to do systems analytics for large data sets. We enrolled him in a program which started January 2020 and paid for the schooling in FULL (it cost $8k) without reducing the amount we put towards student loans. We took the money from our “emergency fund” and built it back up over the course of 3 months. In February of 2020, when the company he was working at was doing lay offs, he requested to be considered for it due to a nice severance package for two months which ended on April 7, 2020.
  • COVID-19 epidemic happened which ended up helping us financially. My husband, whose severance ended in April, then applied for EDD and instead of getting very little money during this period of professional transition, he gets paid $4200 a month from the government.
  • As a dentist during COVID-19, I was in a precarious position. I split my time between two dental offices and was working 6 days a week prior to March 15. However, the government decided that dental treatment should be limited strictly to emergencies, thus causing one of my offices to shut down for the time-being. Luckily, the other office located 3 blocks from my house stayed open and I was able to work 3-4 days a week due to a particular patient pool. A 3-mile radius around our office houses over 330,000 residents who are mostly within a lower social-economic status. They usually do not have time to worry about preventative dental care and go to the dental office only when something hurts. Thus, emergencies ran amok. Additionally, 80% of the patients I see have Medical. Therefore, Medical covered all root canals and extractions at 100%, and everyone who came in with a medical emergency pretty much had a free pass at getting the treatment started on that day. Since most other dental offices were closed, patients from 30 miles away were driving to see us, too. If it were any other dental office, I would have been sitting at home like all my other colleagues but due to sheer luck, this actually kept us afloat.
  • COVID-19 helped us even further by reducing the interest rate on student loans to 0% until the end of September. This is a dream for all graduates paying off student debt, especially if they are paying it off aggressively. With the uncertainty that came in March, we paused student loan repayment and kept all our incomes liquid. However, now that we realize that the stipend from EDD for Mike and my work situation puts us at a stable financial position, we have enough set aside for student loans to bring us in the $300,000s ($375k to be exact)! Which is CRAZY! That means that in three years, we were able to go from $575k to $375k at a 6.8% interest rate. So now, we are tossing and turning the option of partially withholding some of that loan repayment money and putting it into buying a second property that we can use as a rental unit – thus increasing passive income. We are still up in the air about whether to experiment with real estate or focus on paying down loans. Perhaps we get both?
  • This past weekend, we finished off my husband’s car payment, a loan that lasted five years. My husband has owned three cars and three motorcycles. Five years ago, he was convinced by the dealer that he should take out a car loan to improve his credit. His other motor vehicles were always bought in full and in cash. The dealer recommended a car loan to improve his chances of being able to get a house mortgage in the future. Since Mike has no history of accruing debt, opening his first credit card AFTER graduating from college, he technically had “bad credit”. Mike signed up for a car loan and while I agree it improved his credit tremendously, I also get weak in the knees thinking about all the money we lost on interest. It’s a screwy system. But now it’s all over, which adds that monthly $585 car payment towards liquid assets which we can put into our loans or a rental unit.
  • Speaking of mortgages, we are finishing up our home refinance, which if successful would reduce our monthly payments by $500 a month. Add this to the savings from the finished car payments, and that’s an extra $1k to put towards snowballing our path to FI.
  • Lastly, we made a few adjustments including switching our car insurance and our homeowner’s insurance to a different company so that we can shave off an extra $100 per month. Now that Mike is at home working on his course, we have saved money on dining out since someone is always home making meals. Also, without the bakery, I have less stress and can focus on improving our finances and other aspects of our personal life.

How to Continue Snowballing

There are many ways in which we are snowballing the loan repayment so that we gain momentum and speed as time progresses. An example of this is the car being fully paid off, which then adds an additional monthly $585 towards our repayment plan. We had created many ideas along the way on how to make our repayment system better. Here are a few ways.

  • The Repaye program pays 50% of interest for the first three years of the program. By switching to REPAYE within the first year of repayment, we have saved thousands of dollars on interest. The final year of REPAYE is this coming year. We hope to reach mid to low $300k by the time it ends.
  • After the 50% perk of REPAYE ends, we hope to be at a low enough dollar amount to refinance the entire student debt. If we can refinance at 3% instead of the 6.8%, that would speed up our progress tremendously. Also, as the principal amount decreases, more of our repayments go towards the principal itself.
  • We are debating about purchasing a second property as a rental unit. If we do, we are searching for one that would at least cover the mortgage and it would be swell if we could find one that can actually rake in a bit more than the mortgage per month. This builds equity under our name and sets us up for passive income in the future in case we pursue early retirement. As we get closer to the end of the student loans, we always have the option of selling it (assuming it accrues value) towards the end of repayment to get a chunk of liquid assets and put it into the loans. Of course, the latter option is less financially savvy.
  • Currently, with me working and Mike unemployed, we can still afford our monthly $6.5k student loan payment and our living expenses. My hope is that Mike will get a job after the coding program that he enjoys and we can funnel 100% of the additional income into loans.
  • Currently, we are renting the bottom floor of our loft to my brother’s girlfriend for a very cheap rate to help her out. My brother is currently in Arizona starting his second year of dental school in the Fall. There has been discussion about them moving in together in a year or so. Of course, we would love for her to stay with us forever and ever but if she does choose to move to Arizona, we can definitely rent the bottom space closer to market value. Since our live-work-loft is commercially zoned and faces a downtown area, we can rent the bottom space to either a business or a resident. Our options are widened by the fact that it can act as an office space or a storefront.

When we first started our student loan repayment journey, we thought it’d be great to pay it back in less than 10 years. The first plan we made put us at 9.8 years. We made such good headway the first year but it wasn’t until Travis Hornsby from Student Loan Planner tipped us off on switching our repayment plans in order to save more money that our trajectory put as at paying back the debt in 7 years. With COVID-19’s help, I did the calculations at the current rate, I can repay it in 3.5 more years. But assuming Mike gets a job soon after his coding camp ends in June, I think we can actually finish this in only 2.5 more years.

And to think that people almost convinced us not to do it. They said life would be very difficult for us personally and financially. Yet we are the only couple we know who are calling the shots at work, creating our own schedules, switching professions if we wanted to, pursuing hobbies as options to replace work, traveling the world freely, and living a relatively stress-free life. Choosing the harder path, the road less traveled, really set us up for a different life.

Which is to say that sometimes, it pays off to follow your gut. Reach for your dreams. Look at more than just numbers. Surround yourself with like-minded people, cut out societal expectations, go rogue and run like vagabonds toward the nearest exit signs. Be afraid and do it anyway. Live life to the fullest, you’ll have no regrets.

Here’s to Year #4! Cheers!

Tips for New Grads with Large Student Debt

  • Get a consultation with Travis Hornsby of Student Loan Planner. I know it costs money and it feels difficult to pay more money when your goals are to save and pay back debt. But you don’t know what you don’t know and Travis is well-versed in student loan repayment options. Even when we were already aggressively tackling our student debt and working with an amazing financial planner whose wife was a dentist herself, Travis still taught us a few things we didn’t know. He saved us about $10,000 by simply placing us in a different repayment plan!
  • Run the numbers. This may be hard without someone’s help, but you’ve really got to run every possible repayment scenario to see which one saves you the most money. Of course, in the end, you may choose the one that affords you the lifestyle you want. In our case, we chose the one that does both. By choosing to aggressively pay back debt, we are saving more than $100,000 than if we just waited for forgiveness 25-30 years later. We also are freeing ourselves us 15-25 years sooner than our peers, which is a huge psychological benefit. Notice that I said we chose the one that saves us the most money. Travis will argue that we didn’t choose the one that would make us the most money. Which is true considering you can invest over 25 years of working. But I guarantee you we chose what was right for us.
  • Figure out your priorities in life. The best thing our financial planner did when we started talking about our finances was to spend a few sessions in the beginning asking us the hard questions to try to figure out what exactly we wanted. It was like marriage counseling for money. The top few items we had were to spend time with family, travel the world, and have the freedom to pursue our interests and hobbies. Freedom and independence dominated the conversation, and it was because of this that we decided aggressive repayment was the way to go.
  • Master a budget. You have to start somewhere. Mastering the budget is where you have to start. You can always increase your income, but if you never learn to curb your spending then there is no point. I made this course FREE on my blog to help as many people out. We use YNAB to manage our budget.
  • Surround yourself with a community of like-minded people. There is that saying that you are as good as the 5 people you surround yourself with. I choose to surround myself with finance resources. My favorite finance podcast is ChooseFI, but there is also Afford Anything and FIRE drill. My favorite book is Your Money or Your Life  by Vicki Robinson but other goodies are The Simple Path to Wealth and Goodbye Things. And then, of course, there are blogs, including Mr. Money Mustache, Mad Fientist, JL Collins, and The Frugalwoods.

Frugality: Travel Hacking, An Introduction

From the get-go, when Mike and I were asked to lay down our priorities in terms of lifestyle and life goals, traveling was near the top of our list. It goes without saying that traveling comes with a price that can interfere with our equally important goal of gaining financial independence. It’s hard to commit to a trip across the world when I know I will come back to an ever-growing student loan. So I am so excited to share with you guys a way that allows us to travel the world, without breaking the bank.

We do something called travel hacking.

I first discovered Travel Hacking on Choose FI’s Podcast, Episode 9: Travel Rewards; How to Travel the World for Free (here). In less than an hour, they had me hooked! I remember coming home and re-listening to the entire episode with Mike. We forwarded the podcast episode to our core group of ten friends, in the hopes that they also would like to join us in this adventure, so that we may travel the world together. We continued to study Travel Hacking by taking the free Travel Miles 101 course. We reached out to our financial adviser to ask if it was too good to be true, and were happy to learn that he, too, dabbles in this life hack, and that it would be a very beneficial thing for us to do. I highly recommend anyone interested in traveling the world for (nearly) free to first listen to the podcast episode (in order to get a taste of what this entails), and then to take the free Travel Miles 101 course. I think it would be best to leave all the nuances to the pros and to simply refer you to these two sources, giving all credit where credit is due.

What is travel hacking?

Travel Hacking entails using the benefits of Credit Card Reward Programs in order to gain points that can be used to buy flights, hotel stays, and even car rentals. The idea is to open credit cards and hit the minimum spend criteria in order to attain the massive 40k, 50k, 80k points. These points are incentives for the new cardholder to hit a certain spending within a certain amount of time (usually 3 months) since opening the card. So that is exactly what we do. There are multiple strategies in order to do this, which the sources detail really well, and which I won’t touch on in this post. If you’d like to learn some of these strategies, I refer you to the Travel Miles 101 course.

Keep in mind that while this is extremely useful and beneficial for traveling, it can be destructive if attempted by people who have not achieved disciplined, financial responsibility. The credit card companies win if you open credit cards, purchase products with them, and do not pay off the total amount in full. This leads to high interest rate charges that will lead to more financial harm than good. It also isn’t good if it results in you spending more than you would normally. The card holder needs to be well-restrained. Mike and I treat the credit cards as if they were debit cards. We don’t increase our spending for the sake of gaining more points. In due time, the points will come.

Alternatively, the credit card companies will also win if you fail to hit the minimum spending. You would have opened a credit card for no reason! This requires a very organized person who will keep track of minimum spends, and dates the credit cards were opened, and dates when minimum spending should be reached. So how do you responsibly meet minimum spend when your day-to-day activities do not meet it? There are many ways to ensure you hit your target spending before the time is up. You can use the remaining amount needed to buy grocery or gas gift cards, which could be used in the future. This is a way to guarantee getting the massive point-payout without reckless spending. Another way to meet minimum spend is to prepay bills, such as electrical bills for upcoming months. Having the bills off your mind is a big plus.

Why is this so great?

Imagine this scenario. You open a credit card that requires a $3000 minimum spend in three months. When you spend $3000, you will get a points equivalent to $1000 in flights, which is a 33% rate of return. You can’t get that anywhere! If you were to get that in a taxable investment account, you’d have to pay taxes on your gains. This is 100% tax-free. And may I say that 33% rate of return is not the best rate out there. This should be even more appealing for people who are in higher tax brackets. For people who make six figures, you are sitting in a 25% tax bracket, and if you add to that health insurance, FICA, etc., you may even be approaching closer to 40% marginal tax. For you to take a $5k vacation in a year, you will need to earn $7, 8, 9k to pay for that vacation. With travel hacking, you can do that for free. You can then keep that $7k available to other aspects of your life (aka student loans).

What’s the catch?

Our biggest concern, obviously, was credit rating. Even though we have absolutely no interest in signing up for even more loans right now, mortgages and car loans included, we still don’t want to completely obliterate our really good credit scores. Turns out, there is a very minimal impact on your credit score. Credit scores will go up and down, naturally, within 10 to 30 points within a normal month anyway. That’s just how credit scores work, and it is not a precisely fixed number. Now, if the people attempting travel hacking are financially responsible people, so their credit score would likely be around the 800 range. The maximum that it has dropped for some travel hackers is 25 points, which is irrelevant, because a score of 750 is sufficient to guarantee you most loans. And the funny thing is, these scores jump right back up, because you are constantly paying (in full) multiple credit cards. By spending responsibly, travel hackers can increase their credit score to more than what they started with in the course of a few years. Yes, initially, the hard pull when you apply for the credit card leads to a 2-5 point drop, but it is temporary and it is completely gone within 18 months. Now if you are, for some reason, extremely worried about your credit score or you have a low credit score, or you have plans to take out a mortgage or a loan in the next year, then this strategy is not for you. Do not do travel hacking if for any reason, whether psychologically or financially, you need your credit score to be a certain number.

For Mike and I, we started this journey with decently high credit scores. We decided that, even if our scores dropped as much as 30-50 points, would we be okay. The answer to travel hacking for us was a whole-hearted yes. If the trade-off is $6-7k worth of travel (for free), that would save us $10k (pre-tax) a year, which we can then attribute to other assets or to paying down debt. Since we have no plans to buy a house in the next year, we are not very worried with the short term negative effect it could have on our scores. And our credit scores would still be considered good, if not great! We are more excited about the long-term benefits.

So where has that led us?

We discovered Travel Hacking in October 2017, which is very, very late compared to a whole community of travel hackers who have been doing this for multiple years! It has been almost 5 months.

For 2018, we are able to book the following flights, for free.

Mexico City, Mexico

San Francisco, CA

Portland, Oregon

Calgary, Canada

Sydney, Australia

Melbourne, Australia (from Sydney)

Christchurch, New Zealand (from Melbourne)

Christchurch, to LAX

Pending trips: Costa Rica

The best part?

Slowly, our friends opened up to the idea of travel hacking too! Our trip to SF reunites our group of ten college friends, and the pending Costa Rica trip is being planned among a group of us, as well. It has increased our ability to grow with people we care about, and to spend time with them, and to just see the world.

Travel Hacking is fantastic, but not for everyone. So learn about it, to see if it’s right for you!

Thoughts on: The word negligible.

Mike and I see eye to eye on the big things, such as our familial ties, the values we hold, our personal goals and overall lifestyle. But we usually approach life in polar opposite ways, which is wonderful in a sense, because we bring the best of both worlds to our extremely balanced relationship. One view in particular separates us into distinct methods of going through our day to day lives, while trying to achieve the exact same goal. It’s a difference that shapes our individual worlds into completely different entities, and our personalities into two people who you’d assume would not see eye to eye at all.

I consider myself an optimist, which is an understatement. Mike would call himself a realist, but in my reality, anything short of an optimist is considered a pessimist. So I would consider Mike a pessimist, which I suppose, then, also makes me an extremist. On the opposite end of the spectrum, or rather, always in the middle of the spectrum, sits Mike, who is never extreme about anything. If you ask him how he enjoyed his disliked event of social gathering, his response would be the same as when you ask him how he enjoyed his best life experiences, which is, “It’s cool.” Said placidly, with hardly any inflection or as much as an eye twitch, nor a hint of a smile. Then you’ve got me. Bubbly as champagne, shrill as a train whistle, energetic as a playful puppy. Confused for extroversion, my high propensity for empathy and my animation, as well as my optimism, is a trait much valued in our culture, and it is partly with this that I attribute a lot of my life successes and relationships. Unfortunately, Mike’s humble practicality and stoicism is extremely undervalued in typical work culture, but much valued by me. It is this balancing personality that attracted me to him. He has consistency and a very factual approach to his life. Every decision is extensively researched, and every reaction is balanced. He will hardly stray from the middle of the spectrum, in terms of expression, and it makes him a very reliable measure on just about every aspect of life.

While this balancing characteristic is necessary for my life, and likely one of the many reasons I ended up falling in love with him, it just won’t do for me. Which brings us to the main topic of this post, and that is, my thoughts on the word Negligible. Negligible is a word that Mike uses frequently to describe the consequences of our day to day actions. As a person enthralled by the smallest of details, my focus on life is to tackle the details that lead up to the big picture. A result of my optimism, I look at the smallest things and obsess continually about resolving them before moving on to the bigger subject at hand. Tackling my student loans, I address the minutest ways to save, by turning off the lights to lower the electricity bill, avoiding driving as much as possible to lower gas and car maintenance costs, skipping on buying lunch or coffee (most of the time) in order to save a few dollars, and asking to borrow stuff from friends and family to avoid buying more stuff. I even avoiding the use of plastic to try to combat plastic’s impact on the environment. I come up with all sorts of minor life hacks to try to increase mindfulness and limit human impact on our environment, while decreasing personal spending. And which each new idea, he laughs and says the same thing. “It’s negligible.” The few pennies you save collecting bottles to recycle, or the few minutes you decide to switch off the lights make no difference in the grand scheme of things, the way adding a drop of warm water to the ocean does not change its temperature. But I’m not convinced. I mean, think global warming. The temperature will change, eventually.

I strongly believe in something referred to in the bloggosphere community as the “aggregation of marginal gains”, a term introduced by James Clear. I did not know this is what I believed in until I came across this blog post via Choose FI’s podcast. Calling it whatever you’d like, it’s the idea that making a minute change in your day to day habits leads to an aggregation of changes, which over time delivers results. The more minute changes you make, the faster you will see results, and the larger those results will be.

Success is usually measured by results, but people value only the most immediate of results. A minor change will not show an impact today, and because of that, minor changes are under-estimated and under-valued, and thus considered “negligible”. I do not believe in the word negligible, and that’s the honest truth. I also don’t believe in its synonyms: trivial, insignificant, trifling, unimportant, and inconsequential. Many people believe that the only meaningful changes are those associated with visible outcomes. Losing fifty pounds, paying off your student loans, working as an environmentalist, or writing to your senator about public policy changes are all considered meaningful actions. But viewing change as these outright visible entities puts a lot of pressure on people to only take actions that will lead to these changes in a short amount of time. Mike will argue that turning off the lights when you leave the room will not reduce electricity usage in California. But I like to argue that it does, in fact, quite literally, reduces the electricity usage in California, even for a few minutes. I like to argue that scrounging up those few dollars will get me to paying my student debt faster. That refusing to buy plastic will reduce the overall plastic consumption, maybe not by the decrease in plastic I consume, but possibly by the inspiration it brings to others to do the same. An impact which I’ve witnessed, firsthand.

James Clear wrote about David Brailsford’s focus on improving everything by “1%” to reach his goal of winning the Tour de France with his team of British cyclists. They went so far as to find the pillow that optimizes a night’s rest, and carrying said pillow to hotels when they travel. Or finding the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection or sickness. His goal was to win the Tour de France in five years. But he won it in three.

There is an exponential difference over time between someone who practices habitual changes that lead to marginal gains and someone who doesn’t. There IS such a thing as marginal losses as well, for people who continually make bad decisions on a day to day basis. If you found yourself stuck with poor results, it usually is not due to a mistake you made overnight, but a string of bad choices you’ve made that accumulated and led you to that moment. And likewise with success. I am not as smart or quick to pick up on things as Mike is. Because of his ability to learn quickly, he coasted through his elementary school years and can see results and cause change at a quicker rate than I can. Growing up, my siblings called me the “dumb one in the family”. Which is true, I AM daft, at times. But I was also the work horse, the optimist, and perseverer in the family. I know my weakness, but I also know my strength, which is to apply every ounce of my day to day actions, consistently, winning small battles, and accruing a series of accomplishments that, over time, resulted in achieving more than my peers. And it’s a habit I continue to practice today. I’ve achieved my dreams of becoming a doctor by 26, volunteering to make a difference in third world countries, starting my own corporation, finding someone to love, but I don’t stop there. That’s the good thing about habits. Once you get started, it’s hard to stop them from continuing on. When we were in college, my habits were strong enough to allow me to coast through it, while Mike struggled. It isn’t because Mike wasn’t smart. It’s already established that he is smarter than me. But because it took a lot of work, which he wasn’t used to. Mike is great with short cuts and common sense, while I toil away in the corner via the path of step–by-step procedures to deliver consistent results, at the expense of pace. Slow and steady wins the race. Even today, after seven years of being together, Mike views my methodical way of approaching life via minimal changes as negligible. I don’t blame him. He creates similar levels of change with less work. Honestly, I’m just not that good. Arguably, I’m a little bit better at maximizing my ability to change the world. Luckily, he’ll call it negligible, making me angry, frustrated and exasperated, but hop on board anyway. He’s joined me in refusing plastic at grocery stores, saving money by packing lunch, turning off lights when he leaves the room, and walking to the grocery market. So let him say negligible. It’s the little compromises that make marriage work. An aggregation of marginal gains, you could say.