This School Counselor Paid Off $42K of Debt on a $36K Salary. Here’s How

Val and Nathan Breit pose with their daughter Josie Breit, 3, and Wesley Breit, 1.
Val and Nathan Breit pose with their daughter Josie Breit, 3, and Wesley Breit, 1. Photo by Jessica Michael

When Val Breit graduated from college in January 2012, she picked up her diploma and a bill for $42,000 in student loans.

Val had been saving for her wedding, but now out of school, she felt the weight of her student loans more heavily than before.

As she looked at her repayment options, she saw that if she stuck to the plan she was automatically assigned to, she’d pay an extra $32,000 in interest for her master’s degree in school counseling.

“I started bawling,” she remembered. “How am I ever going to repay that?”

It was the moment she decided to stop ignoring her debt and prioritize paying it off.

How to Pay Off Debt Without a Second Job

Val and her now husband, Nathan, had been engaged for over a year when she graduated. They were planning a small wedding that would cost $10,000. After help from family and her fiance, Val was left with $2,500 to fund on her own.

So she started living frugally while in school to be able to save for the wedding. She would eventually cover most of her portion with those savings.

Nathan, who had about $9,000 in student loans himself, admired what his bride was doing but didn’t feel the same urgency about paying off his own debt. He’d maybe put an extra $20 per month toward paying it off, but he was always supportive of Val’s mission.

Even in marriage, Val and Nathan didn’t combine their incomes. So instead of working extra or starting a side hustle, Val decided that to pay off her student loans, she’d just continue the frugal lifestyle she’d adopted to save for her wedding.

Val had just started a job as a school counselor making $36,000 per year. Even though her student loans were more than her salary, she was determined.

“We really looked at things through the lens of, ‘Do I want this thing now — like a new couch set, for example — or do I want to get rid of this debt?’” Val said. It was this perspective that influenced all her day-to-day decisions.

Here are some of the things she did to cut expenses.

She carpooled to work. “I had a 35-minute commute each way to work, and I carpooled with co-workers almost every day for two years to save on gas and car maintenance,” Val said. “My husband also carpooled on his one-hour-each-way commute for two years.”

She used a flip phone. Val tried to get a smartphone with a data plan, but it never fit in their budget. “My friends had smartphones in college. My co-workers had smartphones at work. My mom even had a smartphone before I did,” she said.

They got hand-me-down furniture. “We had a kitchen table with ugly plastic paisley that was probably from the ‘80s,” Val remembered. Their bed, barstools, recliner, end tables, coffee tables — almost everything was stuff their family members wanted to get rid of.

They drove old cars they could pay cash for. Val’s was used with 100,000 miles, and Nathan’s was an old beater they bought from an elderly woman who could no longer drive. “He was still driving it when it was a ‘collector’ at 20 years old!” Val joked.

She made manual loan payments. “Since my lender could never get my autopayments right, I ended autopayments, sacrificed the whatever-percent reduction and made every single payment manually.” Val usually made two per month: the first for what was due, and the second for whatever was left in her checking account that would allow her to keep a $1,000 balance.

“The manual payments made me a little more angry at my loan and motivated me to just pay it off faster,” she said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but by being active with my payments instead of passive, I always knew exactly how much I still owed and how much was still going toward interest. Both made me sick and fueled my debt-payoff fire.”

The Finish Line

In May 2013, after almost a year of being married, Val and Nathan bought a house in a small town outside of Madison, Wisconsin, and finally combined their finances — and their efforts to become debt-free.

They continued to live frugally, budget and live without smartphones. In the fall of 2014, they were down to the last $9,000. They found out they were pregnant, and Val knew she didn’t want to still be paying off debt when they brought home their baby.

After taking a look at their sinking funds for things like cars and traveling, they realized they had enough to pay it all off. Then they could rebuild those funds as if they were paying off the debt. So in November 2014, she made her final student loan payment.

Val had her baby in May 2015. And without debt payments, she was able to afford to quit her job — the job that provided 60% of the household income and the family’s health insurance — and now gets to stay home with her.

“I fully believe paying off my student loans and getting us together living this lifestyle of living below our means, budgeting and knowing how to tighten things up is the reason I can be a stay-at-home mom.”

Val has since written a book to help others pay off their student loans quickly, even without a six-figure income or the time to start 100 side hustles.

“It all started with paying off debt,” Val said. “That really changed our lives and our family’s life.”

Jen Smith is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She and her husband paid off $78,000 of debt in less than two years on two less-than-average salaries. She gives money saving and debt payoff tips on Instagram at @modernfrugality.