When Ray Laureano and his wife graduated from college, they left school with a staggering amount of student loans. Between the two of them, they were over $200,000 in debt.
"We had a huge amount of student loans," says Ray. "I started researching how to pay them off quicker so we could get out from this debt."
After doing his homework, Ray came up with an unconventional approach to debt repayment. Although it goes against what most financial experts preach, it worked for him; Ray and his wife paid off over $70,000 in just one year.
Here's how they did it and what you need to know before copying Ray's strategy.
Ray works as a business analyst and helps companies improve their performance — a field that requires advanced degrees. Both he and his wife went to private colleges rather than public universities, which significantly added to their college costs. However, they saved money where they could.
"I enrolled in an accelerated program [at Robert Morris University-Illinois]," he says. "I did a dual degree, earning a bachelor's and two master's degrees in four years."
Although his unique program was cheaper than it would have been to earn each degree individually, his education costs still added up quickly.
But Ray took on the debt with his eyes wide open. "I knew a ballpark estimate of what to expect for my starting salary in the technology field," he says. "I knew what I was getting into."
The parents of both Ray and his wife had also taken out Parent PLUS Loans to help them pay for school, but the couple felt responsible for that debt.
"To me, I felt we morally needed to get them out of debt," Ray says. "It's our responsibility, in my mind. We didn't want to hold our younger siblings back [from going to college] because our parents had to worry about those loans."
By the time Ray and his wife graduated, their loan balance was more than $200,000. Thankfully, they both relied on federal loans to pay for school, so they had lower interest rates than they would have had if they used private student loans. "Our interest rates ranged from 3.00 percent to 8.00 percent on our loans," he says.
Ray started researching his repayment options and looked for a tool he could use to see all of his family's loans at once. His search led him to Student Loan Hero's app, which helped him get started.
The tool let him see all of the couple's loan balances, interest rates, and monthly payments in one place. With a loan dashboard in place, the couple became focused on paying off their debt as soon as possible. They used the debt avalanche repayment method, where you target the highest-interest debt first.
Ray and his wife have a combined income of $110,000. Although that sounds high, payments on $200,000 in student loans eats up a significant portion of their pay.
To help free up extra money to put toward their loans, the couple lives on a strict budget. That approach allows them to put more than $4,500 per month toward their debt on top of their regular payments.
"We're being very intentional with our money," Ray says. "We do a lot of preplanning. If it's not in the budget, we just don't spend the money."
Besides cutting their expenses and sticking to a budget, Ray and his wife decided on a nontraditional plan for debt repayment.
Conventional financial advice says that if you follow the debt avalanche repayment strategy, you make the minimum payments on all of your debt and put any extra money toward the debt with the highest interest rate.
For Ray, that approach didn't seem effective enough. Instead, he talked to each loan servicer and entered the lower-interest loans into forbearance; in other words, he paused payments on those loans.
With his other debt payments on hold, he put all of his extra money toward just one loan with the highest interest rate. When that loan was fully paid off, he tackled the next highest-interest debt, and so on.
It's a radical approach that's not for everyone. When you enter your loans into forbearance or deferment, interest continues to accrue on those loans, so you can end up paying more in interest fees over the length of your loan. But for Ray, seeing the progress they made on each loan was highly motivating.
"Having a high intensity focus on one loan at a time — the highest-interest one — kept us moving forward," he says.
With this strategy in place, Ray and his wife managed to pay off $70,000 in student loans in just one year. If they maintain this pace, Ray estimates that they will be debt-free by March 2020.
For others who find themselves overwhelmed with debt, Ray advises borrowers to start tracking your expenses and income.
"Many times, people let the huge amount of debt blind them and they get paralyzed by their student loan balance," he says. "Really, just get on a budget — that's what is going to get you through."
As Ray's experience shows, there's no one way to pay off your debt. You need to pick a debt repayment strategy that works for you in the long term. Even if your approach is unconventional, if it keeps you motivated and on track to pay off your debt, it might be the perfect plan for you.
If you want to pay off your loans ahead of schedule, check out our ultimate guide to paying off your loans faster.
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