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For the fourth and last installment of Student Loan Stories, we spoke with Erica who is something like a unicorn. Her student loans are paid off!

Erica, 34

Degree: Bachelors in Fine Arts

Graduation Year: 2009

Debt: $40K

CASSIUS: Can you give us a little background on your student loan story?

E: I went to SUNY Albany for the first two years and hated it! I transferred to Brooklyn College, lived at home, and commuted. I got a lot of financial aid, so I really only needed to take out $10K in federal loans. But I got the bright idea that I could take out more money than I needed to and that’s where I messed up. I got two private loans through Chase—who later sold the loans to Navient—for about $15K each. I got the private loans just to live off of. It was nice to have the extra money in case I did need books or something. My boyfriend at the time worked at Chase and co-signed for my loans.

When did you make the decision that you wanted to pay your loans off?

E: In 2017. So to backtrack, in 2016, I had the bright idea to move to Atlanta because that’s what all Black people seem to do when they need to start over! I moved down there with my boyfriend at the time—not the one that cosigned the loans. The whole point of moving to Atlanta was for the cost of living. I wanted to buy a house eventually, but had trouble finding work. I had a few freelance jobs here and there, but nothing lasted really. After a little over a year in Atlanta, I moved back to New York and back home. That’s when I was like, “these loans are killing me and they have to go.” I also acquired a car in Atlanta, so now I have a car note and still no money because I was unemployed majority of my time in Atlanta.

I tried to refinance my loans in Atlanta, but because I was a freelancer, I was denied. I didn’t have a “real job.” A week before moving back to New York, I secured a job and I was able to refinance with Sofi. The federal loans I already paid off rather quickly after college, even with working at Old Navy since it was small and the interest was super low, like 2 percent.

C: How did you hear about Sofi?

E: I just googled companies to refinance with. I looked at credit unions. I looked at whoever had the best interest rates. Sofi was the only one that didn’t reject me. I don’t know why, but I’m thankful regardless. I did my research on them and every review was good.

Thinking back, I never called Navient to ask for lower payments due to just ignorance. I thought this is my payment and that’s it. I didn’t even know they lowered your interest rate when you set up auto pay. I only learned about that with Sofi and all companies do that. A lot of these tips are buried but it’s on me too, I guess I could have read the paperwork. [Laughs] Another thing, I had a variable interest rate, so every so often the interest rate would go up and so little was going towards the principal.

My projected payoff would have been another four or five years and I would have paid more than the $40K. I paid a lot in unnecessary interest. Within a year of refinancing, I was able to pay it off because the interest rate was like 3 percent versus the 7 percent+ from before.

C: When did you pay off your loans?

E: December 2018! I didn’t give myself a payoff date, I just said as soon as possible! The monthly payment was like $380 and whenever I got extra money, I threw it at the loans. The last chunk was about $6K. I thought I could just use my savings and pay for this so that’s what I did! I drained my savings and paid them off. Haven’t had a chance to rebuild my savings yet, though.

C: How does it feel to be student loan-free?

E: It feels really good. I think a lot of my anxiety was coming from having student loans and most of my income was going towards them. It was money I could be doing something else with. Now I’m trying to pay off my car then I’ll be debt free. I’ve taken the payment I was putting on my student loans and putting that on my car. I should have my car paid off in the next few months. Once I’m completely debt-free, I’m most looking forward to moving into my own place.

C: What sacrifices did you have to make?

E: Not traveling was hard. Before 2017, I was still traveling with the loans, but once I got serious I knew I needed to buckle down. I could have used that money, in hindsight, to pay off loans earlier. When I came back from NY, I was spending like crazy. I was depressed; I had to come back home, my relationship ended, and felt like I took a big step backwards. It was just the worst year ever. So I decided to treat myself to a trip to Nigeria. I paid the $1,000 deposit then I was like, ‘Girl, what are you doing?!’ I decided not to go anymore. I lost the $1,000, but if I went I would have been out way more because flights weren’t even included in that. I just had to back away and I needed to focus. I pretty much stayed home all year [laughs]. It was sad.

C: What would you say was the biggest factor in paying off your student loans?

Discipline! Just staying with it. I liked the snowball method because I could see the progress. Once I finished one loan, I went on to the next. I had to pretend that money didn’t exist. It was already spent before I got it!

C: Any words of wisdom you’d like to share with you readers?

Pay as much money as you can when loans are deferred and if you can and save money before college. Also, don’t do credit cards in college! I got caught up in credit card debt. One day Citibank was giving out free sandwiches at Subway if you signed up for a credit card. It didn’t take much, girl! [Laughs] A subway sandwich was $7, and I spent thousands more than that. Looking back, that was so predatory.

Note: I set up autopay on my student loans and my interest rate was reduced .25 percent each loan for all six loans, not a huge amount, but enough to get the ball rolling!