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I paid off $28,000 in student loans in 3 years and started a business: Here's my best advice

Twenty/20

Today, I run a business called Conscious Coins. I'm a writer and personal finance coach, and I work with people to help them make mindful money decisions and break cycles that prevent them from building wealth. Nine years ago, though, I graduated with $28,000 in debt and a salary that barely covered my monthly payments. At that point, I never would have thought that I would feel a sense of gratitude to my student loans.

I understand how stressful and demoralizing dealing with debt can be. But over the three years it took to pay off my loans, the lessons I learned while I worked to meet my objective allowed me to kick-start my career. A lot of the process began with my blog, which I started to both hold me accountable and build a community with other people who were going through the same thing. 

Though everyone's payoff timeline and experience are different, these are the principles that helped me wipe out my debt and make progress on the goals that really matter to me now.

Build an emergency fund that covers 3 months of expenses 

When I finally got my first postgrad job as a newspaper reporter, thankfully a month before my first payment was due, I wanted to tackle my student loans more aggressively. But I didn't. At the advice of a more seasoned financial expert, I decided to start saving for a three-month emergency fund first, in part by saving any funds I earned from overtime work. 

Many publications in 2011 were in the midst of layoffs, and I didn't want to be stranded if I lost my job. It was tempting to use my emergency fund to pay off my loans, but I held fast.

I'm glad I did: Having an emergency fund has always made me feel better about my financial future. It's also allowed me to take risks with my career, like when I left a traditional office job to become a freelance writer five years ago.

With so many industries currently disrupted due to the pandemic, I'm even more grateful for my emergency fund. And now, when I have financial coaching sessions with a client, I always recommend saving an emergency fund that would cover at least three months of expenses, before prioritizing paying off debt or investing.

Zina Kumok is a money coach at ConsciousCoins.com.
Courtesy Zina Kumok

Give each money goal its own space  

When I finally saved up enough for a solid emergency fund, I was laser-focused on paying off my student loans. It was the only financial goal I had. While that persistence was useful, my other financial goals took a back seat. When I would decide to travel somewhere or when my car needed new brakes, I would have to temporarily pause some of my payments to come up with the money.

Once I became debt-free, I remembered how stressful it was to have to scramble like that, and I wanted to give myself more flexibility. Using dedicated bank accounts for each of my goals has been the best saving strategy I've found. 

Today, I have about 11 separate savings accounts for goals like housing remodels, medical expenses, vet bills, Christmas gifts, and more. Having different buckets makes it easy to know how close I am to certain goals.

When my husband and I decide to travel somewhere, I know how much is in our travel savings account. When we need to fix something with our house, I immediately know how much is in our home repair savings account. Whenever we decide on a new goal, I open a savings account for it.

Using dedicated bank accounts for each of my goals has been the best saving strategy I've found. 
Zina Kumok
Founder of Conscious Coins

Understand how housing costs affect your budget

When I first started paying off my student loans, I was making an entry-level salary of $28,000 a year. My rent at the time was $550, about 30% of my take-home pay. 

I quickly realized that even though that $550 wasn't as exorbitant as it could be, it was still a huge chunk of my income every month. Affording my student loan payments was going to be difficult, and it would be even harder to put anything extra toward my balance.

In order to stay on top of everything, I tried to be much more cognizant of where my money was going. I decreased my discretionary spending and tried to increase my savings and debt payoff rate, but it was a struggle.

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That experience hammered home the importance of housing costs. Rent or mortgage payments make up a huge portion of most borrowers' budgets. While housing costs are often set based on factors outside your immediate control, when making those plans, I tell my clients that spending even 10% less on housing can make a difference, because that is an additional 10% of your income that can go toward other goals. 

The mortgage payment on the house I own with my husband today is about 12% of our take-home pay, which helps us save 15% for retirement and travel every year.

Pick the right side hustle(s) for you

When I first started paying off my loans, I tried to find ways to earn more money and supplement my low salary. I took surveys online and sold things I didn't need on eBay. That helped, but the biggest difference came when I started freelance writing and added that revenue to paying off student loans. Even an extra couple of hundred dollars each month made a big impact.

Making money outside of my 9-5 was a game changer. But I think the key reasons why it was successful was that I chose a side hustle based on my existing skill set. I always tell people that if they want to start a side hustle, in addition to considering side hustles like driving for a ride-share platform or delivering groceries, they should think about how their unique talents can be used to make money. 

As part of my financial coaching business, I took the knowledge I gained from becoming debt-free and created a student loan payoff course that I sell online. My experience developing ways to increase and diversify my income, even ones inspired by difficult financial periods in my life, assures me that I can handle this uncertain moment, and thrive in the future. 

Zina Kumok is a freelance writer and editor. She has written for outlets such as Investopedia, Credit Karma, and LearnVest. Her expertise has been featured in Glamour, BBC, and NerdWallet. She paid off $28,000 in student loans in three years and works as a money coach at ConsciousCoins.com.

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