5 inspiring stories of people paying off thousands in student loans and still winning at life

Shannon McNay
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More often than not, a debt pay-off success story involves someone devoting all of their time and resources to becoming debt-free. That usually means putting their entire life on hold until they've accomplished this goal.

However, for many of us, that's simply not an option.

If you're looking to balance your money goals with your life goals, then check out these five people who've bought homes, had children, traveled the world, started businesses and even wrote a book — all while paying down their student loans.

5 people who are tackling student debt and other goals:

1. A recent graduate and now first-time homeowner

Student loans might prevent you from ever owning a home, but it doesn't have to be that way. Consider the story of Brianna Sullivan.

Sullivan is a design manager living in Ohio who graduated only three years ago with more than $16,000 in student debt. She closed on her first home just recently. Here's how she did it.

One year after graduating, Sullivan stumbled upon the biweekly payments strategy for paying off her student loans during some online research. By splitting her monthly payment in half and paying that every other week, she got an entire year ahead on her loans.

So when the time came for Sullivan to save for a down payment on a home, she was able to make interest-only student loan payments without losing too much ground on paying off her overall debt.

Sullivan also took advantage of a homeowner's grant that covered four percent of her down payment. That meant she was able to pay her own upfront costs of $7,000, including one percent of the down payment, closing costs, insurance, and inspections, while still paying down her student loans. To date, she's already paid off $2,500.

Sullivan also utilized smart categorized budgeting, automatic payments, and her skills as a designer to earn money on the side so she could close on her home, all while still paying down her student loans.

So what's her advice to anyone in a similar situation? "Let your budget be your guide."

The Saint Bonaventure University basketball team
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2. A marketer, father and world-traveler

What about those who dream of traveling the world, paying off loans, and starting a family?

Accomplishing even one of those goals can be difficult, but marketing and communications director Charlie Riley did all three.

Riley earned a half scholarship by acting as manager of his school's basketball team. Then, when he wanted to continue his education, he was able to do so at no cost thanks to his full-time job with the university.

What's more, he graduated with $25,000 in debt — all of which is now paid off.

So how did he do it? There were two tools Riley used to become debt-free: automating student loan payments and budgeting apps like Mint and You Need a Budget (YNAB).

These tools enabled him to save for multiple goals simultaneously. That included things such as paying for a wedding, buying a home, and even traveling from Buffalo, NY, to far-off destinations like Greece and Jamaica.

Now Riley and his wife are raising their first child. And his wife is using the side business she started to earn extra money before they were parents to supplement their income while she stays at home.

For Riley, it all came down to choices made each step of the way, from balancing priorities to paying extra whenever possible.

"A lot of it came down to making choices: If we want to take really nice trips or have specific things as part of our wedding, we need to make concessions in other areas," Riley explained. "We would incrementally increase payments to recurring debt like student loans when we received raises, bonuses, etc., to reduce those principals and interest faster."

The notion that all start-up founders are in their 20s is a myth
The notion that all start-up founders are in their 20s is a myth

3. A start-up founder

There are times when the student loan debt payoff journey includes road bumps, like a default. But co-founder and CEO of Roadmap, Brittany Fuller, didn't let that bump stop her.

Before Fuller founded her latest start-up, her loans fell into default and were sold to a new servicer. She decided to contact them to see what options were available to get her loans back into good standing.

Fuller was put on a student loan rehabilitation program that required nine consecutive on-time payments. They started high at $800 per month, but she was able to negotiate them down to $400 per month four months into the process.

Unfortunately, she hit another roadblock when her servicer took longer than usual to process her paperwork, leaving her in the program for twelve months instead of nine.

Nonetheless, Fuller's loans are out of default, and her payments are now more manageable at $250 per month. In fact, she's paid off $15,000 to date, all while launching a start-up.

Taking control empowered Fuller to pay her loans down and freed her up to invest in her self-funded business.

"While having student loans isn't anything to be excited about or even proud of, I am proud to say that student loan debt is no longer the dark shadow looming over every financial decision I make," Fuller said.

Drakes Bay, Costa Rica
Matteo Colombo | Getty Images

4. A travel-and-wellness expert who kissed corporate life goodbye

Entrepreneurialism can be hard to balance with student loans. But, just like Fuller, travel and wellness expert Olivia Christine Perez didn't let student loans stand in her way.

Perez was working a high-stress corporate job until an autoimmune disease flare up landed her in the hospital. She realized the toll her work was taking on her health; that's when she founded OChristine.

Ultimately, in order to quit her job and go out on her own, Perez minimized her living expenses, sold many of her things and utilized repayment flexibility on her federal loans.

Since going out on her own, she's paid off $8,000 and began working on her next goal: publishing a book. The key to her success? Perez said it was her mindset.

"A Nor'easter hit while I was vacationing in Costa Rica, left me stranded, and forced me to travel as a solo woman," Perez recalled. "The trip gave me a glimpse of my power and abilities. My biggest fear was to fail. But I was out there alone, with very little money, and suddenly my idea of 'success' and 'failure' shifted. What was I so afraid of?"

Perez urged others to consider their options, even if they seem hidden at first.

"The solutions are often right in front of you," Perez said. "And when it's not obvious, the pieces are there for you to put together — a little creativity goes a long way."

Here's how this college grad saved $47,000
Here's how this college grad saved $47,000

5. A Broadway costume designer turned founder who moved home to take flight

Most adults don't look forward to moving back in with their parents. But when the economy crashed and left Yuri Cataldo with few options, that's exactly what he did.

However, he didn't sit still. Cataldo's parents let him live rent-free, so he used his time to work three jobs and pay down his bills while starting a new company.

Eventually, he was able to move out of his parents' home in Indiana and buy a home in Salem, Mass. In the process, he also paid down $45,000 of student loans — with $35,000 still to go.

In the end, having the option to go home after his career as a Broadway costume designer ended helped Cataldo not just get back on his feet, but also create new opportunities for himself.

However, Cataldo also attributes a great deal of his success to setting priorities and refusing to compare his situation to that of others.

"When I was building my company I had to make a lot of sacrifices that my friends didn't need to make, like taking vacations or buying things," Cataldo explained. "It was my long-term goal and the knowledge that my situation was only temporary that helped me push through."

Don't let your student loans hold you back

No matter what your goals are, your student loans don't have to stand in your way.

By taking small steps like automating your debt payoff and using budgeting tools, you can make tremendous progress paying down your student loans. Plus, setting priorities and not comparing your situation to others' can also keep you on track.

At the end of the day, staying the course even when it feels like there's still a long road ahead is the key to achieving the goals that drive you.

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