PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. — A Kansas City area family is celebrating a big win. They paid off more than $100,000 in student loan debt in a little over six years.
Ashlyn Yarnell accumulated the debt in the process of becoming a family law attorney.
"That was my calling. That's what I knew I wanted to do, and that was the path to get there," Yarnell said.
Because she attended college and law school on the heels of the recession, a lot of scholarship money dried up, leaving student loans as the only option.
"I did everything I could think of. I worked jobs, I lived with friends, lived with family when I could," she said.
By the time Yarnell graduated, her debt total came to $100,500.
Paying it all off seemed daunting at the time, but Yarnell and her husband, Drew, immediately got to work. They shared advice for others starting their debt journeys.
Study your debt
"It's like tackling an opponent. You've got to study that, you've got to learn about all the options you have to get rid of it," Ashlyn Yarnell said.
She created a spreadsheet to track the balances of her loans and the total paid each month.
"We had a plan right out of school, how many years it was going to take, how we were going to handle this," Drew Yarnell added.
Flexibility with that plan is important, as Drew said it took them slightly longer than they anticipated to pay off the debt.
When Ashlyn began paying off her loans, the interest rates were all over the map.
"Some were a low 2 percent interest rate," she said. "Some were as high as 10 percent."
By refinancing, she was able to get the average rate down from 6.8 percent to 4 percent.
Those considering refinancing student loans now should keep in mind payments on federal loans have been suspended interest-free through the end of the year.
"You really need to think twice about refinancing a federal student loan because you lose those benefits," said Brian Walsh, manager of financial planning for SoFi, the personal finance company Ashlyn used for refinancing.
The Yarnells also refinanced their home in the spring to help with final loan payments.
According to Walsh, there are some important factors to consider before taking that step. Look at the closing costs first.
"How many months is it going to take me to recoup those costs, and am I going to live in this house long enough? Otherwise refinancing your home might not be a good idea even if it is a lower interest rate right off the bat," he said.
Celebrate small milestones
At the start of the couple's repayment journey, the daily interest rate was $20.
"Every day I imagined handing my lender a $20 bill in addition to everything I already owed, and that was unacceptable to me," Ashlyn said.
She and Drew celebrated as they were able to knock down that daily interest rate, eventually reducing it to just $3.
"You don't have to wait until the very end to enjoy knocking off a certain number," Drew Yarnell said, "If you get to a milestone, I think it's important to celebrate it on the way."
Be sure to set small goals within the long-term plan.
"You break it up into microgoals, and it helps you stick to it and kind of hit the reset button once you hit that goal a couple months down the road," Walsh said.
The Yarnells reached their finish line in May, when Ashlyn submitted her last student loan payment.
"I was screenshotting everything. My husband was taking pictures," she said, "And there were not even tears, it was sobs of relief."
With interest factored in, the total came to nearly $144,000.
The couple wanted to take a trip to celebrate, but COVID-19 interrupted those plans. Instead, Ashlyn wants Drew to pick out something for himself since he came along on the debt repayment journey with no complaints.
"He is a total team player," she said.
The Yarnells also started education funds for their two sons, Charlie and Jack.
Here are some other tips from SoFi for paying down debt:
- Figure out your monthly spending
- Use a budgeting app to stay on track
- Consult an expert if developing a plan on your own is too difficult
- Don't be afraid to talk about your debt
This story originally reported by Cat Reid on kshb.com.