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This Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree paid off $65,000 in debt before she finished grad school—and her husband's loans are next

CNBC Select spoke to Dr. Erika Moore about how she budgeted her way through her Ph.D. program and graduated debt-free.

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Photo courtesy of Erika Moore
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Dr. Erika Moore is a 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree and assistant professor at the University of Florida, where she studies immune cells, specifically how they can be used to repair tissue and treat autoimmune disorders that contribute to health disparities in the U.S.

The 29-year-old biomedical engineer also has a passion for budgeting and personal finance. It began out of necessity, with the same lump-in-the-throat feeling that many undergraduate students are familiar with.

"By the time I ended undergrad, I had $65,000 in student loan debt," Moore says. "I thought, 'I owe someone more money than I've ever seen in my life.'"

At 20 and bogged down with five-figure debt, Moore felt limited in her choices, even with a degree from top research institution Johns Hopkins University: "I felt like I had a shackle on my feet," she says.

Following graduation, and at a mentor's urging, Moore applied for fully-funded Ph.D. programs. She was accepted into one that paid a stipend that was roughly equal to a typical entry-level salary.

But she also knew that the stipend wouldn't be enough to get out of debt, so Moore set an ambitious goal to apply for scholarships and cut her living costs way down so she could pay off all $65,000 in undergrad student loans before she finished her Ph.D.

In just under five years, Moore successfully earned her doctorate in biomedical engineering from Duke University and, along the way, supplemented her income with prestigious scholarships like the Ford Foundation Fellowship and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

"I applied for [scholarships] religiously," Moore recalls.

In addition to awards and fellowships, she also applied to be a graduate resident, which allowed her to live in on-campus housing and serve as an advisor to fellow students. The additional stipend paid for her housing for four out of the five years of her doctorate program. Being a graduate resident was a lot of responsibility and a big time commitment, and Moore worried at first that she wouldn't have enough time to devote to her studies. But now, she credits that gig as the reason she was able to become debt-free so quickly.

"I was able to live rent free, and I got a stipend for my food," Moore tells CNBC Select.

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As a result, Moore was able to make $1,200-per-month payments toward her student loans, even while living on a modest academic stipend of around $32,000 per year.

For Moore, the key to budgeting successfully was identifying the activities that were worth the cost and forgetting about the rest.

"I didn't really care about traveling as much as a graduate student. So I gave more of my money to eating out with friends because I was in the lab all the time, and I didn't really have as much opportunity to travel."

Those years without vacations didn't seem like much of a sacrifice, says Moore, who is not yet 30 but free of her student loans.

Erika Moore and Brandon Taylor during their wedding ceremony in May 2020

Looking to the future, Moore and her husband, Brandon Taylor, plan on applying the same practical approach to paying off his student loans. The couple married in May 2020, and they've since decided to live on one income and use the other income to achieve future dreams. For now, that includes debt pay off, but they plan on working toward early retirement as soon as they take care of Taylor's loans.

"It started as a fun challenge," says Moore. "It was my idea."

Moore, who loves problem-solving (especially when it comes to money), suggested they live on Taylor's salary and devote hers toward aggressive debt payoff and saving.

The couple found early on that this approach was much more fun and motivating for them than splitting their bills 50/50.

They plugged their monthly expenses into a budget to see if it was possible. At first, they took into account all of their expenses, not wanting to deprive themselves right away but simply looking to see if Moore's idea was realistic.

Once again, Moore made sure the budget included money to spend on their priorities. She knew her husband was going to buy things he wants on Amazon, and she likes to get her hair done.

When they added their expenses up, the total was less than Taylor's salary, and they felt confident they could make it work on one salary.

About every six months, the couple sit down for a financial 'state of the union,' or a two-hour planning session about their money. They've come to respect each other's behaviors and habits around money, and they look forward to when they can apply the same teamwork and budgeting skills toward a shared vision of financial freedom.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.