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How I conquered $107,000 in student-loan debt

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Biletskiy Evgeniy | Getty Images

Of course, my journey into debt was far easier than my journey out would be.

I started my college career at an expensive private school because I was told I would make anywhere from $60,000 - $80,000 per year once I left. With that kind of income, my student loans should be easy to pay off, right?

Unfortunately, the return-on-investment I was promised never materialized. And those loans I took out? Well, they weren't going anywhere.

After struggling to keep up with payments for three years (even pausing my loan payments for a while), I watched as my initial loan balance ballooned to $107,000 within three years. Ouch.

"One of the biggest changes I implemented right away was demolishing my student loans through extra monthly payments. Over the years, I consistently overpaid my loans in order to reduce the principal, pay down debt faster, and save money on interest."

As painful as the experience was, my foray into huge debt was chock full of lessons.

Not only did I learn how much I would loathe all types of debt as an adult, I also learned the value of taking back control over your financial situation. Rather than give into helplessness, I learned to accept my student loan situation and fight tooth and nail to improve it.

And that's exactly what I did.

One of the biggest changes I implemented right away was demolishing my student loans through extra monthly payments. Over the years, I consistently overpaid my loans in order to reduce the principal, pay down debt faster, and save money on interest.

I also worked diligently to keep lifestyle inflation in check. I don't own a car (I bike instead), I moved from New York City to Austin to lower my living expenses, and I live frugally whenever I can.

On top of these moves, I took another step to improve my situation: I started a business aimed at helping other people recover from their student loan debt woes.

Building Student Loan Hero from scratch helped me check off several important boxes in my personal journey with debt. First, starting a student loan-themed business allowed me to help people who struggled in the same way I did. And second, starting a business helped me grow my income and throw even more money towards my loans.

Since I first faced $107,000 in student loans, I have gone through all sorts of life changes that have led me to where I am today: free from student-loan debt.

Just last month, I made the final payment on my student loans — a payment I waited to make for seven years. After enduring six figures of debt, I am finally enjoying the fruits of all my labor.

Now that my debt is gone, I can focus on building the kind of life I actually want.

5 student-loan lessons everyone should learn

Since starting Student Loan Hero, I have learned a lifetime of lessons about personal finance, risk and opportunity, and decisions and consequences. If I had to sum these lessons up, they would look like this:

Lesson #1: Debt is a burden we shouldn't take on willingly. Colleges are more than willing to loan you money for a degree. But that doesn't mean they have your best interests in mind.

Before you sign on the dotted line, ask yourself what kind of return you might expect. Also, consider alternative options like choosing a more affordable school or attending part-time so you can work.

Lesson #2: Parents and guidance counselors don't always know better. We envision our parents and counselors as leaders in our communities – and they are. However, that doesn't mean they understand the implications of student loan debt.

Your parents and role models may tell you to follow your dreams, but they won't bear the costs of borrowing like you will. Take advice from people you trust, but follow your gut. If you feel you're on the cusp of borrowing too much, you probably are.

Lesson #3: Expensive schools aren't always better. When I chose an expensive college for my degree program, I thought the higher price would mean better quality and job prospects. Unfortunately, I learned this lesson the hard way.

Even with a fancy degree, I wasn't any better off when it came to my job search. Remember, most employers don't care where you earned your degree or how much you spent to earn it, only that you have one.

Lesson #4: Small changes can help you dig your way out of debt. I didn't earn a lot right out of college, even after I found a full-time job. Yet I still managed to make huge strides when it came to repayment. That's mainly because I maintained a frugal lifestyle and threw all my expendable income towards my loans.

If you're struggling with a mountain of debt, you may feel like these small changes don't matter. That couldn't be further from the truth. Small changes do add up in the long-run.

Lesson #5: Never give up power over your finances. When I realized my total student debt was well over $107,000, I felt helpless, destitute, and overwhelmed.

But over time, I learned that my situation wouldn't change unless I did. And with that realization, I learned to take back power over my finances. While it's true I was deep in debt, not giving up power over my financial situation allowed me to make the changes that led me to where I am today.

If you find yourself overwhelmed and helpless, you have to flip the script and take back what's yours. Remember, no one can help you out of this situation … except for you.

I share this story as a cautionary tale, a tale of triumph, and hopefully, a source of inspiration.

No matter where you are on your journey, you should know that all is not hopeless. With the right strategy, you too can get on a path towards slaying your student loan debt once and for all.

As for me, my real journey has just begun. Now that I've made the final payment on my loans, I get to help other people figure out how to do the same.

Commentary by Andrew Josuweit, CEO of Student Loan Hero, a company that combines easy-to-use tools with financial education to help millions of Americans living with student loan debt. Follow him on Twitter @josablack.

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