I Paid Off $50K in Student Loans On A $62,000 Salary And Set My Personal Finances Up To Retire At 45. Here’s How I Did It

A photo of Chris Chung Getty Images; Chris Chung
At 26, Chris Chung had college debt and no investments. Now 33, he’s debt-free and on track to achieve FIRE for himself and his family at age 45.
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Chris Chung’s Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) journey started with an ultimatum.

“My dad was like, ‘Hey, so, you know… we took out some loans for you for college’,” says Chung, who now runs the account @the.everyday.millennial on Instagram. “‘Now that you’re back on your feet … we need to have you start paying some of that that money back.’”

The ultimatum completely caught the then-26-year-old off guard, who had been planning to propose to his girlfriend and start a family. He pledged to find a way to pay off all his debt as quickly as possible.

“I focused. I paid off all of my student debt within two years – the full $50,000,” he says. “The reason I mention that so often is because I wasn’t making $200,000 when I was paying this off. I was making no more than $62,000, while living in a high cost of living area: Washington, D.C.”

Here’s how he paid down his college debt quickly – and what he’s been doing since then to put himself on track to achieve FIRE and retire at the age of 45.

How He Paid Off $50,000 of Debt in 24 Months

Chung was fortunate in that his parents took out loans to help him pay for college. Upon graduating into a recession, however, he had trouble finding lucrative work, which meant he couldn’t get back on his feet right away. The timeline to pay his parents back was never fully established or discussed.

Chris Chung and Emelia
Chris Chung and his daughter, Emelia

“It was going to be some sort of determined amount that, after I graduated, and I had a job, I was going to have to pay back,” he says. “But naturally, as a kid who wasn’t making any money, I was like, ‘Well, it’s been five years since I graduated… maybe like they’re not going to ask me [to pay it back] at all.’ I wasn’t living a lavish lifestyle at all; I was just trying to make ends meet. But I think for them, they were like, ‘Alright, we’ve given you enough years, it’s time to have this conversation.’” 

Chung says he had about $10,000 saved up at the time, which made the sudden $50,000 bomb drop from his parents overwhelming. He’s not alone; one in four Americans report never talking about money with their parents, according to a survey conducted by GoBankingRates.

Despite recently relocating to Washington, D.C. on a salary of $62,000/year, Chung was determined to pay down the debt to his parents as quickly as possible. He slept on a friend’s couch for his first three months in the city, and when he and his then-girlfriend Eileen moved in together, they shared a 2-bedroom apartment with a roommate, which saved the couple $750/month.

Some of Chung’s other winning strategies were to

  • Learn how to cook well so that the food you make actually tastes good.
  • Actually use your groceries – food waste is a hidden cost.
  • Utilize amenities that you already have, such as the gym in your apartment complex.

“A lot of people with similar [salary and living cost] circumstances as mine, they think it isn’t possible,” he notes. “I can definitely tell you that it’s possible, but a lot of it comes down to this: How much do you want it? And how much are you willing to work for it? Once I paid off my student loans, it gave me so much confidence. I know that I can do something if I put my mind and my effort into it.”

Pro Tip

The discipline it takes to pay down debt now will serve you well later in future personal finance aspirations.

After Your Debt Gets Under Control, Prioritize Investing Basics

Once he was debt free – and with baby Emelia on the way – Chung became curious about FIRE, the financial movement in which people aspire to accelerate their retirement timeline by making and saving more money each month. He first redirected his personal finance literacy efforts toward learning about investing and compound interest strategies. 

Chung started by focusing on maxing out his employer-sponsored 401k, which allows you to contribute up to $20,500 to each year. He then opened a Roth IRA and began contributing $6,000, the maximum annual limit, each year. Since your Roth IRA contributions are made after paying taxes, gains made from investments within a Roth IRA are tax free. You can fund and invest in both a 401k and a Roth IRA at the same time.

Once both of those compound interest drivers were maxed out, Chung opened a separate brokerage account and began using it to invest in additional low-cost index funds. Eventually, he calculated his FIRE number, and determined that he could retire both himself and his family by the age of 45.

Top FIRE Tips for Retiring Early

When it comes to pursuing FIRE while also raising children, here are some of Chung’s recommendations.

Maximize Your Health Savings Account (HSA)

“One of the biggest questions I get about FIRE is ‘What am I going to do for medical insurance?’” he says. If your budget still has a monthly surplus, Chung recommends maximizing your Health Savings Account (HSA) every year to safeguard against unexpected medical expenses in case you encounter a lapse in coverage. Americans can invest up to $3,650 each year ($7,300/year for families) into a health savings account, and this money can be invested tax-free.

“Anything can happen,” says Chung. “I plan to max it out every year and invest it for the next 12 years. With the compounding interest, I’m hoping to have between $120,000 and $150,000 in that account by the time we retire.”

Understand Your Options When It Comes to Saving for Your Children

529 plans are popular for college savings, but they aren’t for everyone. Chung has one for his family, but says this decision is personal.

“We’re supporting Amelia with a 529, but there are other options such as a brokerage account or a custodial Roth IRA,” he notes. “Our strategy is we want to help her on her financial journey.”

But Remember to Put Your Oxygen Mask On First

Chung often reminds his followers that one of the best ways to support our children financially is to get our own personal finances in order first.

“I see it all the time where parents aren’t even investing for themselves,” he says. “And they’re like, ‘Well, how do I help out my kids?’ You have to focus on yourself and your own oxygen mask first. If we’re in a really good spot, [your kids are] going to automatically get generational wealth.”

Focus on Mastering One Strategy at a Time

Chung notes that FIRE enthusiasts have many options for both making more money and building wealth through active investments. He says zeroing in on one strategy first – such as real estate investing, layering in a side hustle, or budgeting more carefully – will yield more stability and momentum in the long run, rather than trying to become a jack of all trades and master of none.

“Focus on one thing that you can do well, then really implement that strategy,” he says. “People try to do a little bit of everything, and I think you’re only able to see these types of [financial] results when you start with implementing one [FIRE] strategy really, really well.”

Until then, the Chung family is building wealth that will someday all belong to baby Emelia.

“Everything that we own is going to be hers one day.”