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By Alaina Tweddale/Wise Bread
November 6, 2014

The average college senior graduated with $29,400 in student debt last year and the number is projected to rise by a staggering 6% per year. Even worse, a full 44% of borrowers aren’t making their payments for one reason or another. Despite the depressing statistics swirling around what’s now been dubbed the current student loan crisis, there are still plenty of college graduates who manage to buckle down, live cheaply, and pay off their debt burdens. (See also: How One Inspiring Saver Found True Love, Shook Off Debt Denial, and Paid Off $123,000)

Take Zina Kumok, for example, who is just one month shy of making her last payment on what was once a $28,000 student loan balance. Through a combination of tenacity and frugal living, Kumok will pay off her debt in just three years — while bringing home an income that’s just slightly higher than what she once owed.

How did she do it?

The Motivation

Like most students today, Kumok didn’t give her loans much thought while she was in school. “It wasn’t until I graduated and had my first job,” she says. “I was making $28,000 per year. It was depressing to think that for the next 10 years I would have this payment that was a large chunk of my income.” Even more motivating, Kumok and her then-boyfriend and now fiancee had started talking about marriage. “I didn’t want to saddle him with my debt. My monthly payment was $350.” (See also: 10 Dark-Side Motivations to Get You Out of Debt)

The Job Switch

Kumok’s newspaper job required frequent night shifts and she was living a three hour distance from her boyfriend. “I wasn’t happy at the newspaper and I wanted to go back to a normal schedule,” she says. “I knew I wanted to switch jobs.”

Kumok was able to land a marketing and communications position in the city where her boyfriend lived and she even received a slight salary bump. (Her current annual income is slightly more than $30,000.) With a little more money coming in and lower expenses now that she wasn’t traveling to see her boyfriend most weekends, Kumok was able to increase her student loan payment by an additional $300 per month. In short, instead of using her excess cash flow to expand her lifestyle, Kumok funneled the extra cash into her loan so she could chip away at her balance month by month. (See also: 6 Simple Steps to Discovering Your True Salary Potential)

Decreased Living Expenses

After their engagement, Kumok and her fiance moved in together. They also took on a boarder. “My rent went down significantly,” she says. “Now I split utilities and rent with two other people. That really made a huge difference. Now half my take-home pay goes toward my loans.” (See also: 7 Unnecessary Household Expenses You Can Cut Today)

Keeping Track

For Kumok, her fairly low income offered motivation to wipe out her debt. “Every month I would go through my statement and I would see how much was going toward interest. It was so much hard earned money and I didn’t have a lot of it,” she says. “When you’re not making a lot, every little bit counts.”

Kumok was further inspired once she was able to boost her monthly payment. “I was finally paying more in principal than in interest,” she says. “I liked seeing my interest decrease each month. I felt like I was throwing less money away.”

Budgeting for the Fun Stuff

Kumok admits she finds it difficult to spend money unnecessarily when she owes so much. Even so, she was able to put money aside for a couple of overseas vacations, proving that debt repayment doesn’t have to be all work and no play. “It was hard for me to relax and have fun,” says Kumok, who was able to take each trip on the cheap. Even so, she says, “I counted my budget every day on those trips. I’m excited to travel on a budget but not feel guilty about it, once my loans are paid off.”

And… What’s Next?

About a year ago, Kumok started saving for retirement. “Once I became eligible for my company’s 401(k), I paid enough to get the match. Now I’ll be boosting that contribution amount.”

She soon won’t owe any money and yet she doesn’t expect that much to change. “I was careful for so long. I don’t want to get back into the frivolous habits I had in college,” she says. “I’m a child of the recession, the stock market crashed when I was in college, and I’m the child of immigrants. There are plenty of horror stories around about people who didn’t save or make careful choices. Those things make it hard for me to take a backseat when it comes to money.”

Being the careful sort, Kumok looks forward to starting her marriage without any debt. “He helps me relax a bit so I hope we’ll learn how to be responsible while still having a balance,” she says.

You can read more about Kumok’s journey on her blog, Debt Free in Three.

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