In July 2019, Nichol Dulaney made the final payment on her student loans. It took her under six years to eliminate more than $100,000 in debt — a significantly shorter period than the 21-plus years it takes the average American to pay off their bachelor's degree.
Dulaney, 32, is a pharmaceutical research professional and lives in Centerville, Ohio, with her husband, William, 36. Just weeks ago, Dulaney gave birth to the couple's first son, and they recently bought their dream home — an accomplishment Dulaney says they could have done "a lot sooner" if she hadn't felt "paralyzed" by her debilitating debt for so long.
Like a lot of students, when Dulaney graduated from Kettering College of Medical Arts in Ohio in 2010, she didn't have a firm grasp on just how much debt she'd be paying off. Dulaney finished school with about $105,000 in student loans, but with interest she paid back around $120,000 in total. To make the debt somewhat more manageable, she refinanced her loans a number of times, working with different lending companies, including SoFi, she tells CNBC Make It.
And despite graduating in 2010, it wasn't until 2014 that Dulaney got serious about ridding herself of student debt. With the help of her husband, who has a degree in finance, Dulaney finally found the motivation to stop ignoring her situation and face her loans head-on. "I think that having someone there to give another level of accountability was really helpful," she says.
While Dulaney's husband provided her the support she needed, he didn't contribute to her monthly payments, other than a small gift to finish off the last few thousand dollars she owed. "I didn't even want to do a joint checking account together until I paid off my student loans," she says. "He didn't pay my loans for me, but he was really proud of me in the end."
Dulaney's first step toward tackling her debt was calling her student loan providers to confirm how much she owed. Then, she created an Excel spreadsheet so that she could write down everything in one place, including the name of each lender with each respective account number, amount of principle owed, monthly payment cost and interest rate.
It was a wake-up call. "Tracking my debt down and listing it out was really helpful for me," Dulaney says. "Once I found out exactly how much interest I was paying each month, I calculated how much [money] I'd need to cover the higher interest loans and started knocking those out first."
However, taking that first step wasn't easy. "It's hard to do, because when you see the numbers all together, it makes everything more overwhelming," she says. "But the reality is, your debt isn't going anywhere and it's only going to get worse if not handled."
Not only did creating a spreadsheet give Dulaney an aerial view of everything she owed and when, it also helped her to realize that her salary at the time wasn't going to cut it.
"I was working at a call center, and I knew that I owed all these people all of this money. And I thought, 'I don't have enough money. I have to get moving. This is not a drill,'" Dulaney says. "I started looking for job postings every morning before I got of bed and eventually I found my career."
Today, Dulaney makes close to six figures, a major jump from her days working at the Bath & Body Works call center, where she earned $13 an hour. From there, she took a job with a private pharmaceutical research organization, where she made close to $36,000 per year.
"It wasn't a huge leap pay-wise, but it started me on the path toward my next role," which eventually led to the one she's in now, she says.
Dulaney's success in paying off her loans didn't come without sacrifice. In order to conserve her money, she started passing on small expenses she could do without, such as shopping for clothes or coloring her hair.
"At first it was hard, but then I realized that I don't need these things," she says. "I was able to get more enjoyment and fulfillment out of seeing my loans going down."
Dulaney also kept the same car she had from college — a 2005 Toyota Corolla with windows that "won't roll down" — rather than buying a new one.
"I have a really decent salary and I have a great house, but I can't go through the drive-thru," Dulaney jokes. She's finally at the point where she's thinking about getting a new car, but is glad she didn't rush to upgrade.
Aside from buying the house, Dulaney says she hasn't yet rewarded herself for becoming debt-free. She's taking things one step at a time: Although she has her sights set on buying a designer bag to celebrate, right now she's prioritizing taking care of her son.
"I was going to get a really nice handbag, but I think I'd already found out that I was pregnant. So, things have kind of shifted, but I'm not counting it out. I'm hoping to have a splurge at some point for that," she jokes.
Looking back on her debt journey, Dulaney's biggest piece of advice for others struggling to pay down student loans is to "be your own advocate." By that, she means do your homework and make sure you're prepared before talking to debt companies.
That way, you'll already be aware of your options and will be able to speak the lenders' language when choosing a repayment plan that's right for you, Dulaney explains.
No matter how overwhelming the process, paying off student debt can be "manageable" when approached strategically, Dulaney says.
"There were a lot of nights where I would cry talking with different lenders and it was just incredibly frustrating," Dulaney says. "I have a couple of friends currently with similar levels of debt and my advice to them is to be your biggest advocate."
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