How this woman paid off $200k in student loans in less than 2 years


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In the interest of full transparency, please note that Erika Kullberg is a paid spokesperson for SoFi as well as a SoFi member. Also, her experience is atypical. So while her story may be extraordinary and inspirational, not all members should expect the same results.

Erika Kullberg graduated from Georgetown Law with a prestigious degree, a bright future, and six figures’ worth of debt.

“I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into,” Kullberg said during a SoFi Instagram Live event.

Like when you didn’t know the guac was extra, but way worse, Kullberg was shocked when her bill came due. When she started to receive information about repayment plans at the end of her grace period, she didn’t even know who she owed the money to.

Related: The in direct vs. indirect student loans

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Getting Out of Debt

But fast-forward two years, and Kullberg had paid off her over $200,000 in student loan debt. Now as a paid spokesperson for SoFi, she seeks to help others figure out their debt repayment journey.

Along the way, she created a personal finance YouTube channel.

“I wanted to challenge myself and help other people with their finances,” Kullberg said, and the plan worked. In the first year, she had over 70,000 subscribers and was well on her way to repaying her debt.

Read on to learn how she did it, and how you might be able to pay off your loans just as quickly.

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1. Panic, Research, Then a Plan

Before her debt payoff journey, Kullberg didn’t know much about student loans or financing.

After graduation, “I ignored my loans for many months,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on with them.” But when she started receiving letters about her grace period ending, she decided to face those intimidating federal loans head-on.

Kullberg started down a rabbit hole of research, which actually made the whole process less intimidating for her. She started looking into budgeting, student loan refinancing, and ways to pay her debt down faster.

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2. Know What You Owe

With a better baseline understanding of student loans in general, Kullberg dove into her own loans, perhaps the scariest part for many. To get started conquering personal student loan debt, Kullberg grabbed a pen and paper and wrote down:

  • The number of loans
  • Which company serviced the loan
  • The amount owed per loan
  • Interest rate per loan
  • Where and how each loan could be paid off (websites, log-ins, etc.)

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3. Know Who You Owe

Part of the angst caused by student loans is figuring out who you owe and how much.

“If I didn’t have that moment of panic, I never would have created the plan,” Kullberg said.

Kullberg realized that she had nine federal student loans, with various interest rates. She was paying as much as 6.8% on some loans, which amounted to hundreds of dollars in accruing interest each month.

For Kullberg, refinancing felt like the right move. “It was a no-brainer for me.”

Given her fast-paced timeline, a secure job, and a higher risk tolerance, she decided to refinance them all into one private student loan.

Refinancing helped her save money over the life of her loans with a lower interest rate and much shorter term, and made repayment simpler, because she now had a single monthly payment.

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4. Focus on Frugality

Once Kullberg had her heap of student loans straightened out, she set an ambitious goal: She would pay off her refinanced loan within two years.

Instead of paying the minimum owed each month, she divided the outstanding balance into monthly payments, accounting for interest. Breaking that single amount into smaller payments helped the goal feel more attainable and actionable.

Kullberg admitted that getting a job at a large law firm with a high starting salary helped make those monthly goals easier, but budgeting was still essential.

Image Credit: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/shutterstock.

5. Adjust Your Budget

Surrounded by co-workers in designer suits with carryout lunches, “I never allowed myself to think I wasn’t anything but a broke student. I was still looking for 2-for-1 deals at Chipotle,” she said. Maintaining a frugal mindset was essential for her.

Kullberg was determined to keep making her ambitious monthly payments, but as she learned, even the best budgeters have unexpected expenses month to month.

“You have to adjust as budgets change,” she said.

One month of some overspending meant the next month she’d have to focus on being more frugal. Kullberg recommended reviewing the last 30 days of spending and looking for “easy cuts” that can save even a few bucks. It might not add up to much initially, but those little savings can lead to big payoffs in the long run.

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6. A Way of Living That Pays Off

For those making debt-free living a priority, Kullberg shared a few lessons she learned along the way.

Celebrate frugally. Kullberg tried to celebrate debt payoff along the way, but she never let it eat into her budget. In fact, when she paid off all $200,000-plus, her “big celebration” was a trip to a fancy grocery store for some cheese and ingredients for dinner.

“Don’t celebrate financial milestones by buying yourself something nice,” she suggested. Instead, opt for a simple home-cooked dinner or a special hike.

Find ways to make more money. Not everyone graduates with a high-paying job offer, and that makes repaying large student loans quickly even harder. With less income and an already lean budget, it can be hard to find more money to throw toward student loan payments.

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7. Access Your Options

In those cases, Kullberg suggested rethinking income in a few ways:

  • Change your employer or field to get a higher salary. Do a deep dive into jobs with your qualifications and see if there are opportunities for you to make more money in a similar role at a different company or in a different field entirely.
  • Negotiate a raise. With the right research and tools under your belt, you might be able to argue for a raise in your current role.
  • Pick up a side hustle, increasing the amount you can put toward student loans. Anything from a part-time job to a YouTube channel could put some extra dollars in your pocket each month to put toward student loans.

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8. Don’t Forget Other Financial Goals

While Kullberg doesn’t regret her two-year sprint to pay off her loans, she acknowledged that it kept her from investing in retirement in the short term: “I was so hyper-focused that I really put all other goals on the back burner.”

Looking back on it, Kullberg noted with some regret that she didn’t put anything into retirement savings. “You can never get that time of compounding interest back.” But the emotional weight of the student loans was so heavy that the relief of having them off her back was worth it for her.

It goes to show how personal financial goals can be. Missing out on retirement contributions for two years was worth it for Kullberg, for the freedom she felt when her student debt was paid off.

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The Takeaway

Student loan debt can feel overwhelming, but in Erika Kullberg’s experience, facing it head-on, learning about options to manage it, and buckling down to a plan made all the difference.

The keys to her ambitious strategy were refinancing and lots of willpower.

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