On Thanksgiving Day 2016, Jessica Elberfeld submitted her last student loan payment.
In seven years, she’d paid over $113,000.
Elberfeld originally borrowed $68,000 for two years at Belmont University, a private school, after two tuition-free years at a community college.
With interest — her rates were as high as 10.75% — the total she owed soared into six figures. The 29-year-old was able to have the loans consolidated in April 2015 at a 2.85% interest rate.
In the summer of 2016, nearing the end of her student loan payments, she shared her monthly budget with Business Insider. In June, she had put $2,238 toward her loan payments.
But now that her loans are paid off, where will all that money go?
In short: into savings.
Here’s how she spent her money in January, her second debt-free month:
Note that her cell phone bill is zero for the month because of a credit from switching plans that took effect, her grocery spending is higher than usual because in January she replenished pantry essentials like olive oil, and her giving spending is low after doing most of her annual donations around the holidays in December.
To make her budget, she calculated her average monthly spending from 2016, taking into account that she wants to save 15% of her gross income from her job in corporate sales and her part-time side gig as a restaurant server. She had planned to quit her side gig once her loans were paid off, but has since decided to wait until at least March, when her emergency fund will be fully funded.
Since she doesn’t do zero-based budgeting, where every dollar is accounted for, “the way I hold myself accountable and keep some liveliness in budgeting is to compete with myself,” she said. “If I can come out lower or just about the same in spending than I did the year prior, that is a win to me, and that is how I know I am staying the path.” She keeps a regular excess in her checking account, in case her variable income — thanks to jobs in sales and as a server — means her spending ever exceeds her income.
She puts 6% of her gross income into her 401(k) to get her full employer match. Once her emergency fund has $10,000 — she’s storing it in a Capital One money market account that offers 1% interest, and 1.1% if you store $10,000 or more — she’ll put $400 a month into a Roth IRA, which is limited to $5,500 of contributions per year. She’s also saving for a cash payment on a new ride, since her 13-year-old car is on its last legs.
Elberfeld said the temptation to spend the money that used to go to her loans isn’t overwhelming. “It’s so normal now, because I’ve been doing it for so long,” she said. “The more I read, the more I felt behind on retirement, and knowing my car is about to bite the dust gave me the motivation to not spend and see my net worth actually rise.”
She tracks her net worth through Excel, using the formula assets minus debts. “It was negative last year, but now it’s about $20,000, which is still laughable for my age,” she said. She documents her personal finance journey on her blog, Oh These Student Loans.
Next, she plans to learn more about brokerage accounts. “I might allocate some money once I know more about brokerage accounts, but they’re still kind of foreign,” she said. “Probably low-cost index mutual funds to play it safe and get my feet wet.”
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