In April 2015, after years of challenges and mishaps, Tina Lensing sent off her final payment on her student loan and car loan debt totaling $38,000. Although Tina was able to pay off the last $28,000 of her debt in 10 months, she lacked a repayment strategy for the first six years.
"It felt like freedom," Tina remembers. "Like I was on top of a mountain, breathing fresh air."
And then the feeling was gone. Still fearing debt, Tina was immediately preoccupied with repaying her boyfriend's student loans, too.
Find out how Tina conquered her aversion to debt and kicked her repayment strategy into overdrive.
Tina recalls the panic she felt when the six-month grace period on her student debt ended. "I remember a brief conversation with my parents … where I was like, 'Oh man, now it's a reality, now I have to actually pay this back,'" she says.
Tina earned her undergraduate degree in social work in 2008 before returning for a master's degree in 2011. With a $15-per-hour job out of college, Tina moved her federal Direct Loans to an income-driven repayment plan. She made minimum automatic payments without giving much thought to her debt.
Later, when her salary crept up into the $50,000-plus range, her minimum payments increased from $200 to $300. It wasn't until 2014 when she got serious about zeroing her balance.
"I had felt trapped [because] I wanted to start my own business," says Tina, a social worker-turned-business and life coach. "I felt like I couldn't have that [opportunity] when I had student loans."
Tina dipped into her savings and started her 10-month payoff journey in June 2014 with a payment of $5,400 to her servicers. Check out the roadmap she made herself below.
By April 15, 2015, Tina realized she was $1,000 short of reaching her goal. In order to get to the finish line, she made small sacrifices every day, including:
- Taking road trips instead of vacations
- Making and bringing lunch to work instead of buying it
- Learning how to politely say no to friends to avoid overspending on nights out
All of Tina's sacrifices paid off when she got her final student loan payment notice from Great Lakes.
Soon after submitting her final loan payment, Tina and her boyfriend, Justin, splurged by going out for dinner.
"And then immediately, I was like, 'Now I need to pay off all [your] student loans,'" Tina recalls. She says she had gotten into the mentality that she and her boyfriend wouldn't have true freedom until their debt was repaid.
Additionally, Tina explains, "I was in this really frugal mindset where I wasn't letting myself have any luxury or joy in my life."
Even though Tina was making good money, she says she was, "Pouring it all into student loans. It didn't feel joyful because of my obsessive mentality."
That's when Tina's relationship with money began affecting her relationship at home.
Justin was less afraid of his student loan debt than Tina. He was aware of it, but he wasn't ready to make the kind of sacrifices Tina had made to clear her balance.
Nevertheless, Tina kept her momentum going and put about $10,000 toward her boyfriend's loans. This isn't that uncommon; about 55 percent of borrowers say their significant other helped them make payments, according to our survey on couples and student loans.
"I would get judgmental when he would want to eat out during the week," Tina recalls. "I was almost a little controlling, like, 'I'm contributing money to you now, so you have to abide by my rules.' It was silly."
Tina says she would also feel guilty for wanting to use her income to start her coaching business. Her mindset about debt made her want to prioritize paying off Justin's loans first.
A revelation made Tina reverse course. She saw her struggle as a teaching point for her future coaching clients.
"It was the perfect segue for me to begin to 'walk my talk' … rather than be judgmental or be harsh or not be collaborative," Tina says. "I started learning about my connection to money and debt."
Justin, who's still in repayment, also learned from their struggles as a couple.
"He became more independent and accountable," Tina says. "And I became less fearful of debt. We were able to really learn from one another and [found] a happy medium.
Ultimately, Tina says, "We could still enjoy some luxuries, vacations, and time together while still being responsible with money."
Tina went from passively making minimum loan payments to attacking her debt with all her might. Although she's happy with the results, she learned not to let a fear of debt take over her life.
If you're whittling down your student loan debt, Tina recommends organizing your payoff strategy and figuring out how much you can put toward student loan payments ASAP.
But she also says to make some space for a healthy life balance. If going on a vacation or spending more time with friends lengthens your debt payoff plan by a couple of months, you might decide that's worth it.
Your relationship with money is perhaps even more important if you have a personal relationship to maintain too. Tina's advice for you includes:
- Team up on your debt and find common ground, such as a long-term financial goal.
- Keep the process fun and light to avoid money-related fights.
- Set time for open dialogue where you plan but also celebrate milestones.
Keep these tips in mind as you work toward your last student loan payment. By going about repayment in the right way, hopefully, your moment will bring nothing but relief.
Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook!