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Tips for plowing more of your paycheck into your student loans

I have managed to reduce my spending pretty drastically and I thought I would share some of the frugality strategies that work for me.

Keep a personal spending ledger

Keep a personal spending journal. I write down every expense in a notebook that I carry around with me. I don’t use an app or punch it into a Google Sheet on my phone. I believe the act of physically taking out a pen and recording the expense on actual paper embeds the reality of expenses in my mind. Every time I’m thinking about spending money, an image flashes in my head of writing the expense down in my notebook. It creates personal accountability.

With personal finance, things have become so abstracted with credit cards, Paypal and Stripe, online bills, etc. that it’s easy to conceive of money as nothing more than data. If you’re spending money by swiping a piece of plastic or clicking a few buttons, it almost doesn’t seem real. This is the same psychological phenomenon that casinos take advantage of when you use chips rather than currency to gamble. Losing $100 in chips doesn’t seem real, but if you had 100 one-dollar bills stacked on the blackjack table, you’d be furious about losing it.

Keeping a personal spending ledger reconnects me with my spending. If I know I have to write down the expenditure, it makes me think longer about a purchase (“Do I really need to pay the inflated price for a pack of gum at the gas station when I can wait and get it for 30% of the price at Walmart?”). It’s these little things that have an enormous cumulative effect on your life.

I keep a reporter’s notebook Moleskin (which, by the way, I would never buy now due to being overpriced. Moleskins are not worth the price, but I happened to have one laying around from my earlier, more profligate days) in my bag and I record my commuting expenses, food costs, and any other daily outflows.

Keeping a personal spending journal has made me want to learn more about accounting. The exercise of keeping a spending journal made me understand the challenge of categorizing costs (e.g., how to record a car insurance payment when you know you’re getting a refund, how to record tax-deductible commuting expenses). One of my personal projects over the next several months is getting a handle on accounting and bookkeeping methods. This seems like an essential life skill that everyone should know and one that will serve me well for the rest of my life.

Don’t go out to restaurants or bars

I have a friend who always wants to meet at a restaurant or bars – usually overpriced, hipster places full of unfriendly people. I don’t want to spend $9 on an unsatisfying beer. I told him that I’m trying to save money and if he wants to hang out somewhere else, that’s fine but I’m not going out to a restaurant or bar. He didn’t text back and if that’s the end of the friendship, so be it. If a friendship depends on spending money, then there’s not much of a foundation for an association and frankly, I’ve had quite enough of people who don’t bring value to my life.

This is all to say that I’ve pretty much stopped going to restaurants and bars. This small (some might not call it small) behavior change has lead to a pretty dramatic decrease in spending habits. You really have to be utterly ruthless about spending. I’ve got into the habit of reviewing my checking account daily and making sure nothing is falling through cracks.

Don’t buy snacks and drinks at Walgreens/CVS/Rite Aid

I had a bad habit of buying gum, nuts, energy drinks, and other various items at these chain pharmacy stores. But they’re all really a rip-off at these places. The pharmacy stores have better prices than 7-Eleven, but they’re still very overpriced. You’re better off getting these items at Walmart, Costco, Target, or another discount big box store. The chain pharmacy stores – CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens, etc. – usually have higher prices than the big box stores. Avoid.

Get a weekend job

In my case, I’ve signed up for two weekend jobs. I’m going to deliver vegetables for a local startup for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The pay isn’t great, but it will force me to get up early on the weekend and also every little bit helps in the battle against law school loans.

On Saturday and Sunday evenings, I have signed up to man the front desk for a condo building. The time commitment is significant (16 hours per weekend) and the pay is less than $14 an hour. You might think it’s crazy, but here’s the thing: I can study programming while I do this job. If all goes according to plan, I can get paid while learning skills that will improve my earnings. Yes, I won’t have a social life, but I didn’t have much of one in any case, so I’m not concerned about that. I’m 31 and my bar and party days are behind me. I’d rather build a foundation for a prosperous future than waste time in a bar or restaurant.

Even though these jobs don’t pay much, I think they’ll help me in more ways than merely generating income. It gets me in the “hustle” mindset to work like this on the weekends. Also, the front desk job will force me to stay in one place and study for hours every single weekend. It also gives me a good excuse for why I can’t “hang out” with people. For some reason, people have a hard time accepting that you’re studying and can’t hang out if you’re not in school, but won’t protest if you have a job to go to.

I’ve also generated a couple one-off technology gigs that will put a few hundred more toward the loans. These are things like making alterations to a WordPress site and providing some search optimization services for a local business. Unlike legal services, I’ve found that it’s pretty easy to get clients for technology services because there’s a real market demand. People don’t need lawyers very often, but plenty of people have technology challenges.

I’m in the earning mindset. If my job won’t pay me enough to make an impact on my loans, I have to take matters into my own hands. Since my law degree has had an awful return on investment (negative amortization!), I need to get creative and work my butt off. I’ve seen too many people who’re broke and desperate in their 40s (and, sadly, beyond) and I will do anything in my power to prevent that from happening.

Use the library and free learning resources

The government wastes vast sums of money and overpays its employees, but it does one thing right: libraries! Libraries don’t cost any more than the taxes you’re already forced to pay, so you might as well make use of this awesome resource.

I used to think libraries only had outdated books and other materials. Wrong. Most libraries have digital lending programs where you can find new releases in ebook and audiobook formats. You download the library app on your phone and you can instantly borrow books. It’s great. The app for my library is really easy to use and it’s not a hassle. I was using Audible and Downpour for audiobooks (I like to listen to audiobooks when running or working out), but the library has more than enough for me to listen to and it’s free. Needless to say, I canceled my Audible and Downpour subscriptions.

For free learning resources, I’ve found the Internet Archive and the Gutenberg Project to be full of fantastic books and educational materials. Want to learn about accounting, business, history, or pretty much anything else short of a new technology subject (there are PLENTY of free resources for those as well)? Definitely check out those websites. You could literally spend the rest of your life digesting the valuable information on those sites and it wouldn’t cost you a penny.

I was extremely despondent after finishing law school with huge debt and no job. For a while, I neglected the development of my intellect, which only worsened the decreased sense of agency that I had about my life. But I’ve begun using the Internet Archive and the Gutenberg Project and I’ve begun to enjoy learning once more. It’s satisfying, rewarding, engenders a sense of self-respect and self-reliance, and costs nothing. I can’t recommend self-education enough.

Loan status

I made a $1,500 payment toward my loans in the last couple weeks and hope to make a few more large payments in September. I’ll post numbers soon, but I wanted to check in and share some strategies and approaches that are working for me.

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4 responses »

  1. Just reading this makes me feel that you are much more encouraged. I think it’s great that you are doing the side hustle thing. Throwing anything extra at your loans will really have an impact. Don’t discount anything! Also, you are one terrific writer. It would sure be great if you could channel that into some kind of gig too.

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    • PS Have you read the blog “Debt Free Tejana?” She’s a high school teacher/waitress who has knocked off a lot of school loan debt pretty fast on a modest budget. She is not blogging much lately, but the archives are still up.

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      • No I haven’t, but I appreciate the tip. Tejana sounds awesome and I’ll have to dig through her blog archives. I meet so many people that hop on the IBR/PAYE plans and just pretend the tax bomb isn’t an issue. This is not a mindset I can subscribe to. If the debt forgiveness is taxable, it’s not forgiveness in my opinion. And beyond that, I just want to be free. I don’t want to wait 25 years only to be shackled with a huge tax bill.

        Thank you for your comments! Have you tackled significant debt yourself?

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  2. No, not school loans, but our business took a big hit in 2008. We had to work ourselves back from that scenario!

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