Once you find yourself in debt, be it through student loans or otherwise, it can be a big challenge to pay it all off, and it often takes years. There are, however, some people who have managed to get out of debt in impressively short periods of time—and you can learn a lot from them.
It's important to recognize that paying off your debt or saving up money this fast is absolutely not always possible—in many cases, their strategies aren't doable or can't be applied to your situation. A lot of bloggers who write about paying off their loans had six-figure salaries, lived with their parents, or went to other extremes in their day-to-day lives (some of which aren't healthy) in order to become debt free. And, some debt, sometimes, is "good debt."
Rather than go to extremes or try to pursue a strategy that's not applicable to you, these lessons are some of the more doable things you can actually incorporate into your life, from now debt-free people who shared their saving secrets.
Lesson 1: Actually Have a Budget (Even If It's Half-Assed)
You can't really pay off debt or know how much you can save until you know what money you're actually working with. The Stephanie Halligan, the blogger behind The Empowered Dollar (who paid off $34,579 dollars in student loans in under 4 years) explained that simply looking at her checking account balance day-to-day wasn't enough. When she did finally make a budget, it wasn't anything complicated—just a "back-of-the-envelope budget" as she described it, to map out bills and expenses and see what was left over. From there, she was able to see just how much she could allocate to her student loans, then set up automatic transfers and came up with a plan for how to allocate any extra money she made. This is a great strategy because, first, it makes it so you don't have to think about your regular payments all the time, and second, it means you won't just spend whatever you get when you get it.
Lesson 2: Cook Your Meals at Home and Pack Your Lunch
One key tip for saving as much money as possible? Skip going out to eat and ordering takeout as much as possible. It may not seem like it can make much of an impact, but cooking meals at home—and packing lunch every day for work—was one of the strategies Maggie Germano used to pay off her $25,000 in loans in 4 years (6 years ahead of schedule). Germano said that she'd normally spend $10 on a salad or $15 on Thai food from restaurants near her office in Washington, D.C., but packing leftovers or sandwiches from home saved her about $50-$60 per week, which added up fast—$12,480 in 4 years (and nearly half of what she owed), to be exact. You don't have to deny yourself a night out or grabbing food from your favorite lunch spot all the time, but limiting your spending that way can definitely help.
Lesson 3: Be Thrifty About Purchases
When you're trying to save money or pay off debt, you have to be smart about everything you buy—being as thrifty as possible can really help. Tracy Bindel told CNN Money how she paid off her $13,000 debt, and part of her strategy involved a really smart attitude about spending. She explained that she only spent money wherever she could walk—meaning that if she wanted something but it was far away, she would be less likely to actually spend that money. While that may not always be doable, it's an interesting way to frame your thinking and whether or not you actually need something or if there's a less expensive alternative you can try instead. For example, Bindel furnished her home using only second-hand goods, bought her clothes from thrift stores, used public transit as much as possible, and like Germano, cooked all her meals at home.
Lesson 4: Start Some Sort of Side Gig
Just about every blog and article about people paying off their student loans early has the same important tidbit of information: they all had side jobs, and put the money they earned at them right to their loans. Some drove Ubers, some worked nights at a bar, and some babysat, for example. Another example: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner of Making Sense of Cents (who paid off $40,000 in just 7 months!) started blogging and wound up turning that into a successful career. So, if you feel like you aren't making a dent in your debt (or you're trying to save, but not really getting anywhere with it) on your current salary, try finding ways to make a little extra money on the side without spreading yourself too thin. You may not have a schedule that allows you to take on another official job, in which case you can always try things like selling clothes and other items you never wear or use. Schroeder-Gardner also has some great tips for other ways to make money on the side.
Read more: 5 Signs You're Not Cut Out for a Side Hustle