Paying Off Student Loans and Traveling the World

Like a lot of students, Niqua had some hefty student loans when she graduated with an MBA. Here’s how she paid them off in just 11 months.

Written by Nasha Smith / February 15, 2022
Niqua photo

Quick Bites

  • Living with any amount of debt can be anxiety-inducing. It’s important to go in with eyes wide open and know exactly what you owe.
  • People with federal student loans receive a six-month grace period after graduation from repayment and accruing interest on their balances.
  • The first step toward a good financial road map is creating a budget, so you know what’s coming in and what’s going out.
  • Picking up a side hustle is one of the easiest ways to earn some extra income.

In 2012, Niqua (who prefers to go by only her first name) was one of many students migrating from the Caribbean to pursue higher education in the United States. As a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, she was in the unique position of possessing dual citizenship that would eliminate the need for a visa and the associated fees. But her classification as an out-of-state student made her ineligible for lower in-state tuition in Florida.

“I did have a lot of scholarships and grants for undergrad for my bachelor’s degree,” she shares. “However, the last year of school is when I kind of picked up some loans to offset my remaining costs.”

Niqua graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and followed that up with a gap year before returning to school for a master’s in business administration. The time off between programs allowed her to establish Florida residency for a more favorable tuition rate. But even with a minority scholarship covering a year of grad school and a job, Niqua found herself $21,000 in debt after completing her MBA.

“I don’t really like any type of consumer debt like auto loans, credit cards, personal loans, student loans and things like that,” she admits. “That’s just my personal financial system.” Her aversion to owing money was the driving force behind her debt-free journey.

Besides being a full-time accounting professional, Niqua is the owner of Financially Winning, a personal finance business dedicated to helping individuals, especially millennials and Gen Z, manage their money. She offers one-on-one coaching and posts educational content across social media platforms on budgeting, saving, debt repayment and building wealth through investing. Much as she would do with her clients, Niqua started creating a blueprint to eliminate her own debt.

Inside this article

  1. Know your debt number
  2. Evaluate your situation
  3. Find your financial road map
  4. Negotiate everything
  5. Increase your income
  6. Pursue passions frugally
  7. Be prepared to pivot
  8. Celebrate yourself

Know your debt number

Living with any amount of debt can be anxiety-inducing. Many borrowers are even intimidated to glance at their loan balances or credit card statements. Niqua went in with her eyes wide open.

“A lot of people don’t even know how much debt they actually have,” she says. “They know they have student loans, credit cards, owe on their car, but they don’t actually know the amounts or when they’re even technically supposed to be done paying it off based on the bank’s schedule.”

After gathering and meticulously reviewing all her bank statements and documents from other lending institutions, Niqua found that her total debt tallied $21,854.

Take some time to evaluate your situation

The United States Department of Education offers people with federal student loan debt a six-month grace period after graduation from repayment and accruing interest on their outstanding balances. During that moratorium, Niqua decided that she wanted to start paying off her loans at the beginning of 2020 with the goal of being debt-free by December 2021.

“My idea was to kind of split it down the middle and try to pay $10,000 each year, give or take.”

Figure out your financial road map

A road map is a strategic plan that outlines your goals and objectives and documents the major steps or milestones needed to reach your desired outcome. The first part of Niqua’s plan was creating a budget. She used the zero-based budgeting method where every cent is accounted for.

“Budgeting and having the correct systems in place helps you more than you know,” says Niqua. “Because if your spending habits continue to rise as you earn more money, you’re going to still be in the same place. I made sure that I knew exactly what I had coming in and what I had going out.”

Her total debt comprised six student loans. She opted for the debt snowball method, which entails paying off the smallest debt first and building momentum to knock out increasingly higher balances.

“My idea was originally to get my tax refund around February and put some of it towards attacking my first loan,” Niqua says.

But the impending pandemic would force her to start payments a bit later.

Negotiate everything

With a plan firmly in place, Niqua started looking for ways to decrease her spending. She looked into cutting down on her utilities but not in the way you might expect. Niqua contacted her phone service provider to inquire about potential loyalty programs or discounts for long-term customers like herself.

“They literally had a program that they could grandfather me into so that my plan is the same—unlimited everything on one line—but now instead of me paying $70, I pay a flat rate of $56,” she says.

Additionally, Niqua encourages reaching out to utility companies for data related to use of their services. It’s a move that helped manage her spending.

“In being able to look at that information, I was able to reduce my usage of water and electricity and then of course reduce my bill.”

Find creative ways to increase your income

Picking up a side hustle is one of the easiest ways to earn some extra cash. Niqua picked up shifts with Amazon Flex, using her vehicle to deliver packages and groceries to Amazon customers. Another gig involved representing brands at events as an ambassador. Both jobs allowed Niqua the flexibility she craved while making money. And every little bit made a dent.

“I was able to bring in an extra $200 or $250 just by working a few hours here and there,” she says. “That helped me to make an additional snowball payment.”

Continue pursuing passions frugally

Niqua is an avid traveler who has visited over 20 countries and 26 states. She wasn’t going to let debt repayment slow her down. Instead she employed multiple travel hacks like using credit card reward programs to book flights and hotel rooms, flying with budget airlines, and another little-known trick:

“Some airlines, like Spirit and Frontier for example, if you purchase airline tickets at their counter you’re able to get certain fees taken off that you would be paying when you book online,” she explains.

While paying off her debts, Niqua enjoyed vacations in Tulum, Mexico; Miami, Florida; and at home in Virgin Gorda, Virgin Islands.

Be prepared to pivot

Pivot became one of the popular COVID-19 pandemic buzzwords as uncertainty loomed in early 2020 and plans were upended. Unsure of how the next few months would unfold, Niqua pressed pause on her original payoff plans and started putting money aside in case of emergency. By June she felt stable enough to proceed with payments and used the money she had stashed away to clear her first two student loans. In October another loan came off the books and by January 2021 she had paid a fourth.

“When I received the confirmation in June from my student loan provider saying, ‘This is paid in full,’ that lit a fire under me to be like, ‘OK, I can do this!’ ” Niqua says.

Her accelerated payment schedule was also aided by a pandemic-driven automatic interest-free forbearance on federal student loans by the government through May 1, 2022. Stimulus checks from the U.S. government were an added bonus. With only two loans left Niqua was now on schedule to be debt-free in 11 months rather than two years.

“I opened a separate bank account to just start saving all of the money that I had remaining for the last two student loans, which were my largest ones.” Niqua explains. “That was a little under $10,000 combined. By May 2021, I literally had all the money that I needed to pay off my debt.”

Celebrate yourself

Now debt-free, Niqua has turned her attention to putting her money to work. She is leveraging tax-advantaged accounts to start saving for retirement and exploring other avenues to build wealth. But not before recognizing her impressive achievement.

“I took a trip to Asheville, North Carolina, that was super fun,” reveals Niqua. “And then a few months later, I was able to celebrate as a group with my friends and just loved ones with a dinner and cake and things like that. So I did celebrate twice.”

About the Author

Nasha Smith

Nasha Smith

Nasha has written about budgeting, being frugal, and saving for publications including Business Insider, Travel Noire, Discover, and Fifth Third Bank. She also loves sharing relatable personal stories that revolve around money.

Full bio

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