How to Pay Off Your Student Debt in 11 Months - Syeda Mahbub
This week we have Syeda Mahbub sharing her story of funding herself through college and using an aggressive payoff strategy to attack her student loans.
Occupation: Federal Tech Consultant
Salary Range: <$100,000
Location: Washington, D.C.
Student Loans/Debts: ~$30,000 in student loans but paid it off!!
Monthly Expenses: $1,500 - $1,800 Rent, Spotify, Groceries, Donations , Stock Contributions
Tell me a little bit about yourself? Where did you go to college and when did you graduate?
I graduated from UVA in May of 2018, where I studied economics and foreign affairs. I went through the rigorous consulting recruitment cycle during the fall of my senior year. I came across Federal Consulting and it was my way to work for a more mission-driven client in the business world.
After graduation, I joined Accenture and after working there for a year and a half, I joined Deloitte in January of 2020.
I graduated with about $30,000 in student debt, which is low compared to most people but it definitely was something that was on my mind.
What has the transition from college to post-grad life been like for you? Both personally and financially?
I have always had to be very money conscious. My parents weren't helping me through college and I come from a low socioeconomic background so money has always been at the forefront of my mind.
When I was applying to college, I did FAFSA and I also applied to as many grants as I could versus taking out more loans. I had received a good amount of Pell Grants and then I applied to things outside of the FAFSA to any kind of private grants I could find. Even if it was just $500 or $1,000, I thought it was worth my time since it would be mean less debt that I would have to pay off later.
I found a bunch of scholarships and grants through my high school and even my elementary school. There are a lot of grants people don't know about, you just have to dig for them.
So outside of FAFSA and the federal grant programs, I knocked off $7,000. Which is not a lot in the grand scheme of things but still a lot of money that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise.
During college, I was very frugal. I financially planned every semester before I went into it. I had limits for myself for rent, groceries, and social activities. Sometimes, I worked two jobs during the semester and I also worked a lot during the summer to save up as much as possible.
The transition from college to post-college was interesting because while there were different financial worries post-grad, I moved in with my parents and I didn't have to worry about rent and paying for food which I had to do in college.
I lived with them for a year and a half and that helped me focus on how do I save a lot, start investing, and aggressively pay off my student loans.
Taking it back to when you were applying to grants to fund college, how did you navigate that process? How did you know that was what you had to do?
It was definitely something I looked into myself. I wasn't around a lot of people that were doing the same things. My friends who were applying to college didn't have to worry about the same sort of things. Most people applied for FAFSA, but not everyone was aggressively looking for grants and scholarships.
I would search online for "How can someone from a low economic background make college more affordable?" I read a lot about the topic and the differences between the types of loans. I educated myself a lot about it independently.
It seems like you were ahead of the game in terms of thinking about personal finances. When was the first time you seriously thought about money for yourself?
I think it was the same time I started thinking about colleges and where I wanted to go. Around 10th grade, I was looking into different colleges but also their tuition, how much federal aid was given out by the schools, etc. A big thing in my search for a college was whether or not they were in-state/public/private and how many students applied for aid.
Tell me more about your budgeting practice and finances in college. What helped you stay true to your budget?
I had a good amount of savings for myself coming into college because I worked a lot in high school. So I had a savings account, a checking account, and also a credit card. I used my credit card a lot but I made sure I paid it off right away.
In terms of budgeting, I did it on a yearly (college year) basis. I calculated how much I needed for rent, groceries, and social things. By projecting out a year, I could see how much I needed to work in the summer to make the numbers work. I figured out if I needed to also work during the school year and whether or not if I could take a few weeks off.
I always searched for affordable housing. I wanted to live in the cool areas, but I was okay with getting the smallest room and sharing a bathroom. What were the compromises I could make to still fit in and make it financially feasible for myself?
I was strict with my groceries, I only got what I needed and I was also strict about social things. I didn't really eat out much and I cut corners wherever I could.
Anytime I needed more money I would just transfer it over from my savings and I wasn't down on myself about it.
What kind of jobs did you do during the school year to bring in money?
I started working during my first semester of college, which I was pretty hesitant about because there are so many new things to do. I worked a lot in high school, which I sometimes regret because I didn't have a lot of time to do a lot of extracurriculars.
I worked a few days a week in the mailroom for about 5-10 hours a week, but there was a lot of downtime when I could do my school work. Up until senior year, I had a job every semester and I eventually bumped it up to 15 hours a week. I capped it there since any more time than that, I wouldn't have had time for things I enjoyed.
During my senior year, I had a little bit more free time as I was taking fewer classes. I had two jobs since I wanted to do more social things and not worry about going to dinner or buying a class of 2018 t-shirt. I didn't necessarily need to take on 2 jobs but I did so for more flexibility with my spending.
Were you thinking about your budget when you picked up internships and your full-time job? Did your internship/job dictate your budget or was it the other way around?
For my internships, I wasn't really conscious about how much I was making and it was more about the experience I was getting.
For my job, I was definitely thinking about what kind of job is going to enable me to pay off my student loans really quickly. I didn't want to have a lot of financial burden on me after I graduated from school because I had gone through it for such a long time.
Were all of your loans subsidized loans? Did you think of paying off your loans during college?
All of my loans were subsidized loans which meant they didn't start accruing interest during school. I made sure that I only signed up for those kinds of loans.
I never signed up for unsubsidized loans and I never chose them even if it meant having a little margin where I had to pay out of pocket for college by dipping into my savings.
I didn’t have enough to start paying my loans off during college on top of my expenses during school.
What were some of the sacrifices you might have had to make during college? Did you still go on trips, study abroad, or do those big college experiences?
I did study abroad, and that was something I thought I could never do. There was a lot of financial help available to study abroad. There were programs at UVA that helped and through FAFSA you could get a little bit more as well. There were also small things like doing a photography project or blogging that you could get money for that people don't realize. Even though it's not a large sum of money, $1,000 in Europe can go along way.
I also did a lot of research before I went. For the people who worry about money and want to study abroad, know that it's possible and that there are also grants through FAFSA that will help you out as well.
In terms of sacrifices, there were social things I gave up. I couldn't do trips during J-Terms, things during the summer and I also didn’t rush to join a sorority because it wasn’t an expense that I prioritized on top of other things. However, the things I really wanted to do I made sure I wanted to do.
So switching gears to post-grad life, how did your budgeting system and practices with money change since you started your full-time job?
After graduating from college, there were a couple of months before my start date. I stayed in Charlottesville and took on a babysitting job. I started at Accenture in September 2018 and my number one goal again was to pay off my student loans as quickly as possible.
I was really aggressive with my payments. There are all these recommendations on how much you should put towards your loans, into your savings, and investments but I just wanted to get rid of my loans. I don't know if that was the best financial plan but it's what I did. I made very high payments on my student loans, but I still saved about $1,000 from every paycheck to put into savings. The rest I would put towards my student loans and a few hundred bucks into my checking account for social things. I also took advantage of my company's 401K matching program as soon as I started my job. I put in about 6% to max out my company's match.
I started individually investing in March 2019 through my company's stock options. If it wasn't for that I wouldn't have done any individual investing until I paid off my loans.
How far have you come in terms of paying off your loans?
I paid off my student loans by July of 2019 and as aggressive as I was it was worth it! So after that, I thought about investing and wanted to start doing other things to make myself successful in the future financially.
I paid about $2600 a month towards my loans. It was extremely aggressive but I still had enough to save and it was only possible because I lived at home.
Having a spreadsheet definitely helped as I was writing everything down. I also made sure to pay off a lot of my student debt before my interest kicked in. So the $2600 is more of an average.
That's huge! That's less than a year after you started working. So after July 2019, now that your debt has been paid off, what changed for you?
I increased my 401K contributions to 10% and I opened up a Roth IRA. I maxed out the Roth IRA for 2019 and I maxed it out for 2020 at the beginning of this year so I wouldn’t have to think about it for the rest of the year.
I also started looking into investing money into other individual stocks through a Robinhood account. I don't invest a lot and I'm not an active investor, but I do have a significant amount of money in that.
I also opened up a high yield savings account and I got more credit cards. I'm still being very responsible and paying them off each month, but I'm taking advantage of rewards and points.
Overall, I let myself get educated about how I can use the system to become more financially savvy which I didn't think about earlier as paying off my student loans was my sole focus.
Where did you open up these accounts?
I did a lot of research into the highest rates and also where I don't have to be a super active investor. I don't think I'll ever be super active and figure every single thing out.
I opened up my Roth IRA and HYSA through Wealthfront. My 401K was through my employer.
Tell us more about your spreadsheet system and any other systems you have to track all your accounts.
I'm a big spreadsheet person, but I don't check it that often. I probably check it once a month. It's definitely what helped my stay on track in college and while paying off my student loans.
I map out all of my credit cards and savings accounts in my spreadsheet. I'm paying rent now and have a lot more costs since I've moved out into my own place. I'm not super strict about it, but I definitely have an idea about how much I'm spending and how much I'm going to have leftover for investing and saving, etc.
Through my spreadsheet, I also know which credit card to use for what expenses. I don't have a car anymore but I used a certain credit for gas and one for groceries etc, based on the rewards.
How often are you managing your finances?
I get paid 2x a month and the deposit goes into my checking account. I put away X amount into my savings, I leave Y amount in my checking to pay off my credit cards and I think about what I want to do the rest of it. Do I want to donate, invest, or both?
How did paying off your loans fundamentally shift your spending and savings break down?
I didn't necessarily increase my social spending but the money I was putting away towards loans now goes towards savings and investing in stocks.
I'm also less conscious about what I'm spending socially but I didn't necessarily shift more money towards that.
What is once piece of advice that you've received that has helped shape your relationship with money and your mindset around it?
Don't let money keep you from doing things you want to do. Loans are scary but I always knew that I would pay off the debt I had and will have in the future if I go to grad school. Planning ahead whether it's a year or a semester really helps and not just financially but also mentally.
What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding personal finance?
The biggest misconception I had was that it's super technical and you have to know a lot about the stock market. I thought you had to constantly be reading about it and tracking financial news.
I check my Robinhood once a week, but since I'm not going to be taking out that money anytime soon I don't need to track things all the time. I don't constantly monitor the news and it's not something I want to focus my headspace on anyways.
However, it's important to educate yourself to get your foot in the door. I never thought investing in stocks was something I was going to do but I realized that with some basic knowledge and automatic transfers set up, that's all you need.
What financial decisions are you considering for the future?
I do want to go to grad school eventually so I'm trying to figure out the best way to set myself up for that. How can I go to grad school, I know I'll be in debt, but how can I finance it in the best way possible?
If you could give one piece of actionable advice for college students who are starting out on their financial journeys, what would it be?
If you can live at home with your parents or capitalize on any other tangible way to reduce your expenses, do it. A lot of people think as soon as they are making money, they need to level up as soon as possible. But if you are in debt and have other things to worry about, cut as many corners with your expenses as possible.
What credits to you own and why did you pick those ones?
Uber Credit Card - Transportation and Ubers
Capital One Quicksilver Credit Card - Restaurants, Bars, etc.
BB&T Visa Credit Card - First credit I got, I use this for groceries
How much of your income do you save annually? Can you break it down amongst different financial vehicles?
Percentages are based on post-tax income.
While Paying Off Loans*:
Student Loans: 50%
401K: 6% (maxed our employer match)
* saved a lot of money as I wasn’t paying for rent and groceries
After Paying Off Loans**:
Roth IRA: 7.5% (maxed out each year)
Savings (HYSA): 16.67%
Robinhood and Charitable Donations: 2.5% I rotate between each of these for each month.
Remaining goes towards expenses, checking account balance, and individual investing.
** currently pay for rent and all my living expenses as well
What tools/apps/services do you use to manage your money?
Robinhood & Banking Apps
Resources you recommend?
College Board and Federal websites for financial aid information and student loans.
Personal financial workshops hosted by my employer, specifically the difference between 401k and Roth.
Most personal finance blogs only share stories of the people who have it all under control, save 50% of their income, and retire early. While that is impressive, some of us want a career and some of us just need our almond matcha latte every morning. However, we all still face the same woes when it comes to managing our personal finances. MoneyStories is a series of interviews with young professionals and recent graduates sharing their stories on how they have and are navigating their personal finances.
Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the interviewee, not the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee, or any other group or individual.