10 Things I Gave Up to Get Out of Debt

For the past year and a half, my husband and I have been on a mission to get out of debt. I took on a huge loan for graduate school, my husband had a small loan from his undergraduate and, in our first year of marriage, we took on some consumer debt (two credit cards) because we were living above our means.

If you would have asked me about it while we were accumulating the debt, I wouldn’t have worded it that way. I would have said: “We both have degrees, and we don’t even make enough money to pay our bills!” But ever since we’ve been on this get-out-of-debt journey, I’ve realized: There are so many things I can live without.

Most of the following things I used to think were necessities. Since then, I’ve changed my mind.

Gym Memberships

I have learned the art of yoga in my living room — using YouTube videos. There is nothing wrong with a gym membership, and I may get one again someday when we’re out of debt, but it is not a basic life necessity, and for now we’re saving $100 per month.

Cable TV

I’d much rather read a book than watch a TV show, but this has been a sacrifice and adjustment for my husband, who likes to watch sports. Thanks to friends with cable, we catch the most important games, and we spend a lot more time doing other fun, productive things than we would otherwise.

Internet

I thought I would die before I could live without the Internet at my house (spoken like a true millennial) but it turns out I’m still living, and having no Internet at home actually taught me leave work at work. It can also save (with cable and Internet combined) up to $100 per month.

Luxury Food Items

Before we started this whole process, I didn’t realize the difference between a luxury food item and a necessary food item. Things like coffee, chocolate, potato chips, soda, lemonade and junk food don’t make it into my cart every week. We eat a lot of rice, oatmeal, beans, some lean protein and vegetables. We’re actually eating healthier and saving money.

Eating Out

We used to spend more money on this than almost anything else, and we honestly didn’t feel like we had a choice in the matter. We were busy all the time, and when we were out, we had to eat — right? Since then I’ve learned how, with a little preparation, we could save hundreds of dollars each month, by simply taking lunches to work and/or carrying snacks in our car or my purse.

Coffee

Grabbing a coffee on my way to work wasn’t a daily ritual, but something I would do once or twice a week. Meeting friends for coffee was basically a given part of my weekly schedule. $3.50 never seems like much when you’re purchasing that latte, but it adds up really fast over time.

New Stuff

We did an experiment this year where we didn’t buy anything new — only used — for a certain period of time. We moved during that time, and bought only used furniture, used electronics and used clothing (for the new climate). It was such an incredible lesson in how, with a little extra effort, it’s almost always possible to save money and reduce your footprint by buying used.

Clothes

Our clothes are getting a little outdated and threadbare, but for now, we aren’t making room in our budget to buy new ones. We can live without them until the debt is payed off.

Gifts

We try not to make a big deal out of this. If we’re invited to a wedding or party, we bring a gift. But for now, we aren’t buying gifts for each other when holidays or birthdays come around, and we haven’t done gifts for our friends’ birthdays either. Someday, when we’re out of debt, we plan to be generous with the excess we have.

Driving

My husband and I share a car, which means only one tank to fill, one oil-change every three months and one set of filters and tires (and other moving parts) to maintain. It has been a huge adjustment for us, and it won’t work for everyone, but for now we feel really blessed that we’re able to make it work.

We haven’t gone without all of these things for the entire 18 months we’ve been paying off our debt — and I know there are people who have even less than we do and are still struggling to make ends meet. The point I hope to make here is not that it is easy to get out of debt, but that there is often more leeway in our budgets than we think.

If we’re really interested in paying off debt, growing a savings account, purchasing a house, or going to college without loans, we have to be willing to put our money where our mouth is.

Allison Vesterfelt

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Student Loan Servicers Under Scrutiny

A rule released by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on December 3 will allow the CFPB to examine the top student loan servicers on March 1. This comes on the heels of an announcement made two days earlier that the CFPB was asking student loan servicers provide to the options they’d have for borrowers who want to accelerate the payoff of their student loans. Although providing this information would be voluntary, the CFPB wants it by December 17.

 Federal officials and servicer critics have said that servicers do not properly credit payments made above the minimum due.

“We have heard from borrowers that many of them want to pay off their high interest loans, but they also told us they had to run an obstacle course to get their payments processed properly,” said Rohit Chopra, the CFPB’s student loan ombudsman in American Banker on December 2. “We hope that by asking student loan servicers to voluntarily tell us about their payment processing policies, we can work together to ensure that borrowers understand their options in repaying their loans.”

Loan servicers essentially act as custodians for the loan originators—they collect payments and perform administrative tasks in maintaining a loan portfolio, including the processing of deferments and forbearances. Private lenders use loan servicers—so does the federal government. The Department of Education, which makes about 90% of all student loans, outsources the collection of payments to loan servicers. As the CFPB steps up its scrutiny of servicers, the two federal agencies could be on a collision course.

In a November 26 letter, Chopra’s request that servicers show the options available to borrowers who want to make extra payments on their loans follows an October study that said servicers were not applying extra payments to higher-value loans, even after a borrower’s specific request.

Chopra referred to a “sample text” it developed for borrowers who submit payments over the amount due that would reduce the amount of interest owed. The letter said “an industry trade association”—possibly the Student Loan Servicing Association—told them the sample text was “unhelpful.” Instead, the trade association suggested borrowers that make a specific request for every extra payment allocation—a demand that is likely to thwart a quicker payoff.

 But this may be a first shot across the bow, with the big bang arriving in March when the top seven student-loan servicers are subject to examinations. They include Sallie Mae (SLM Corp.), PHEAA—the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority—NelNet, the National Educational Loan Network and Great Lakes Educational Loan Services. They are among the payment processors for about 70% of the market.

Chopra seems to hope that servicers will want to get with the program. “We understand that many servicers welcome the opportunity to electronically respond to borrowers acknowledging the borrower’s request – even when a servicer will not honor standing instructions – and responding with the various ways that borrowers can direct a prepayment to a specific loan,” he said in his letter. “This not only helps servicers reduce operating costs by reducing call center volume and costly processing of paperwork, but it also supports their efforts to ensure compliance with the Truth-in-Lending Act’s ban on prepayment penalties for private student loans.”

Keith New, a spokesperson for PHEAA said on Monday he was not aware of Chopra’s letter and would have to consult with PHEAA’s policy personnel before commenting on it. He stated that since they are a servicer and not a lender, the amount of relief they can provide is limited to the terms of the contract the borrower signed with the lender. Once the borrower has exhausted all contractually available options, he said, PHEAA’s hands are tied.

Ben Kiser, spokesperson for Lincoln, Nebraska-based NelNet—the National Educational Loan Network—did not return a phone call seeking comment. Nikki Lavoie, spokesperson for Newark, Delaware-based Sallie Mae did not respond to an email. A spokesperson for Great Lakes Loan Services could not be reached.

 John Sandman

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