David and Alana Almonte say an $18 dry-erase board helped them erase their last $18,000 in student loan debt between 2016 and 2018.
The Exeter, Rhode Island, couple, who have two small children, started off their debt repayment journey in 2010. At the time, David, now 32 and a certified public accountant as well as a member of the AICPA Financial Literacy Commission, was a new graduate of Bryant University with a bachelor's degree in accounting. Alana, a dental hygienist, was working toward a certification at Guilford Technical Community College.
Their combined student loan balance was $65,000.
"Being a finance guy, debt of any kind sort of freaks me out, " David tells Grow. "I remember graduating with over $50,000 in student loans and thinking, 'I am never going to pay this off.'"
In the short term, owing money did influence the couple's choices, such as how much they spent on budget items like housing and food. But they created a financial plan to make sure that, in the long term, debt wouldn't keep them from achieving their goals.
How does an office staple become a debt-payoff tool? David says the idea popped out of a web article on visualizing goals. "I repurposed the advice to apply more to our personal financial situation, " he says. "I'm a very visual person, and my wife is very visual" too—so he thought seeing their debt might motivate them to wipe it out.
David chose the board, which measured 18 " by 24", so that he could make the numbers large enough to stand out. "You know, $18,000 is a big number in a size 50 font," he says.
They propped up the board on a hutch in the kitchen, where they would have to see it every time they walked in—although David admits to sometimes hiding it when people came over. He would update the chart regularly, tracking their progress by both the dollars and percentages. It became "us versus the debt," he says. "And every week the numbers would get smaller."
Alana, 31, says having a plan of action helped her feel more organized. "I benefited from using the board not only financially, but mentally," she says. "Motivation in paying down debt is important, so the monthly check-ins were definitely necessary and paid off in the end."
A happy side effect of the board's placement in the kitchen was that it keep their dining bills low. "We'd say, 'Hey, do you want to get sushi?'" David recalls. Then "we'd look at the board, give each other that look, and say, 'Let's skip it.'"
When they made their last student loan payment in 2018, David and Alana went out for a steak dinner at Fleming's, one of their favorite restaurants.
"Most people go there because they're celebrating something, and they asked if we were celebrating when we made the reservation," he says. "We said we paid off our student loans, and they laughed."
The Almontes were able to free up some cash as they paid off their debt by restructuring their student loans. As their required payments dropped, they used the extra cash in their budget to increase their 401(k) contributions and start 529 college savings plans for their kids.
And finally eliminating their student loan debt also put them on the path to buying their dream home, David says, as they "started saving for a down payment on the house that we moved into last summer."
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