In this series, NerdWallet interviews people who have triumphed over debt using a combination of commitment, budgeting and smart financial choices. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Despite receiving more than $80,000 in merit-based scholarships, Brianna Harrington still graduated from college in 2014 with $40,000 in student loan debt.
Determined to eliminate her debt, the 27-year-old quality engineer from Atlanta created a strict budget, lived below her means, and paid it off in 26 months. She used the debt avalanche method, repaying balances with the highest interest rates first to save the most on interest.
Today, Harrington says she and her husband have enough money each month to invest in their new real estate investment firm, Young Harrington Holdings, LLC, as well as fund a dream of visiting 30 countries before they turn 30.
Harrington recently connected with NerdWallet to share her story and keys to success. Her story may inspire your own debt-free journey.
What was your total debt when you started your repayment journey, and what is your debt today?
It was $40,000 in total debt from student loans, and today it is $0, aside from a primary home mortgage.
How did you end up in debt?
I ended up in debt paying for my undergraduate education. I was in the difficult position of not qualifying for need-based loans, but my family also could not afford the expected contribution for financial aid.
I applied for a lot of scholarships during my senior year of high school, and it paid off. I received more than $80,000 in scholarships. I received a grant as an ExxonMobil WISE scholar, which saved me over $45,000 during my time at Spelman College and Georgia Tech.
Still, I needed an additional $40,000 to get through school.
What triggered your decision to get out of debt?
I thought about my goals, both long-term and short-term.
I figured that paying off my debt under the income-based repayment plan that I’d signed up for would cost a lot more interest in the long run: about $20,000. So saving that $20,000 gave me an extra $2,000 per year to invest in my company.
What did your student loan payments and rates look like?
My minimum payment was around $250 per month, but I paid between $1,300 and $1,400, some months even more. I had eight loans, and when I got down to the last two I consolidated them into one loan payment to knock it out.
The highest interest rate on the loans was about 6.5%, and the lowest was around 3% to 4%.
What steps did you take to reduce your debt?
I’m old-school. I tried creating a budget using an elaborate Excel sheet, but there’s nothing more liberating than picking up a pen and paper and going to work.
I focused on what I earned each month after taxes and what my “hardline” expenses were — what I needed to survive, like rent or mortgage, minimum debt payments, electricity and water. For my budget, I fixed these payments on the high end so they wouldn’t vary month to month.
I then looked at my soft expenses or wants — things like cable, internet, shopping and eating out. I eliminated cable and limited discretionary shopping.
Once I had a budget, I knew exactly how much money I had left over each month, and that went toward the loan with the highest interest rate. I checked my budget at least monthly, but often weekly because I enjoyed seeing my progress over time.
How did you stay motivated throughout your journey?
It was about keeping my eyes on the prize. I knew that people had paid off a ton of debt before me, and I know people will do it after me. So if they can do it, I can do it, too. I’m disciplined enough to do it.
I also think long-term, how much I can save for our business and for traveling as well.
How has your life changed for the better since you got out of debt?
My husband and I live below our means, but comfortably. I am also more financially literate than I was three years ago.
Getting out of debt allowed us to have the wedding of our dreams and form our own business. And it means we have more money for trips to reach our 30 by 30 goal.
How do you remain debt-free today?
We live by a rule of thumb: If we cannot afford to buy two, then we cannot afford to buy one. We prioritize what is most important for us as individuals and together as a couple.
We also always pay off credit card balances in full, unless the card has a 0% APR. And we avoid dipping into our emergency fund.
What advice would you give someone who’s just starting their debt-free journey?
Truly understand why you are paying off debt. If you don’t have that why figured out — that motivation to give you energy and focus — then you can lose sight of completing your goal.
Once you know exactly why you’re doing it, don’t let anything get in your way. Stay focused and positive throughout the entire journey. Think about the end goal and how much happier you’ll be at the end of the day.
How to tackle your own debt
Figure out where you stand with your debt. List each debt owed and the interest rates to determine the highest-priority debts to tackle first.
Create a realistic monthly budget that you can stick to. Start with necessities, then cut unnecessary expenses.
Learn which debt payoff strategy works best for you. The debt avalanche method worked for Harrington, but if you need short-term victories for inspiration, the debt snowball method might work better for you. Debt consolidation may also be an option if you have multiple debts that can’t be repaid in a short timeframe.
Photo of Brianna Harrington and husband Jourdan Harrington courtesy of Brianna Harrington.