I paid off $15,000 of student debt in under two years (without feeling poor)

I am a red-blooded, Millennial American. I went to college, learned to use a credit card and found myself $15,000 in debt over the course of three years. I’m not a frivolous spender, and I am not alone — the average credit card debt in America surged over $1,500 last year, while the average net worth for people under age 35 was less than $35,000.

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The millennial generation, for reasons largely out of our control, is financially drowning. I decided to be the exception to the rule and set some very lofty goals to pay off my student loans and credit cards in under two years. I wanted financial independence and to feel like I had control over my life.

Here are the small (and large) changes I made to my lifestyle to reach my goal of being debt-free, fast.

1. I made a detailed budget and stuck to it religiously

By far the most important thing I did to pay off my debt was make a detailed assessment of my monthly spending habits, my current debts and interest rates, and my monthly income. Once I gathered this information, I used a financial planning tool (Mint and Buxfer are my favorites), to help me budget a monthly financial plan. I identified the areas in which I was spending too much money, when payments were due and how much extra I needed to make or save to reach my goals.

2. I started automatic withdrawals

Setting up automatic withdrawals really helped me for two reasons: One, I am forgetful, so they helped me pay my bills on time, and two, they made me less sure of how much money was in my account at any time, so I felt more scared to spend frivolously.

While some of you financially responsible folks may think this is silly, I am not the sort to keep track of every due date and deposit date, nor do I keep as good of an eye on my checking and savings balance as I probably should. I need a healthy dose of fear to prevent me from buying that new purse or choosing to eat out when I know I should save money. If I really wanted something, it was as easy as checking my account balance on my mobile, but it helped me to rationalize that I literally might not have enough money in my account to pay a bill if I splurged without checking first. And the act of checking usually made me reconsider my actions.

3. I went to fancy dinners… at home

The average cost of eating in is half that of eating out. I have always been a foodie, and much of my spending was going toward fine dining and drinks. While I commend those penny pinchers who can eat rice and beans for a year and be happy, I am not one of them. To satiate my desire for delicious food and drink, I simply learned to cook and mix cocktails at home!

This started one of my favorite traditions I have with my friends, where we each take turns hosting fancy dinner parties. The food is usually even better than what we could get at a nice restaurant and at a fraction of the cost.

If you aren’t a talented cook, consider giving yourself one nice dinner a month as a reward for eating in. You’ll save plenty of money and still get to experience the food culture you crave.

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4. I sold my old clothes and books online

I made a surprising amount of money selling old textbooks on Amazon, and reselling gently-used designer clothing through Tradesy. I also bought expensive outdoor gear like snow pants, snowboards and big-label gowns for cheap at thrift stores and then sold them online for a profit.

While I realize this isn’t for everyone, new services make it super easy. To make money using Tradesy, for instance, all you have to do is mail your unwanted clothes and accessories in and wait for a check.

5. I took odd jobs and freelance gigs galore

While many millennials are pros at the side hustle, I took it to a new level. I would do anything, from mowing my elderly neighbors’ lawn, to writing freelance articles, to driving Uber and to selling my plasma. Everyone can find a few odd jobs a week to make money, and even if a job only pays a small amount, it really adds up in the end.

If you’re having trouble figuring out how to get extra work, it never hurts to ask co-workers, neighbors, friends, your parents or family friends for suggestions. Nine times out of 10, someone in your social or business network knows of a reputable side hustle that would be a good fit for you. If not, take to Facebook and LinkedIn for suggestions.

6. I attended free classes and events

Paying off debt actually helped me meet new people and learn new hobbies. Instead of doing expensive activities, I researched free classes and events and started doing more social activities with Meetup.com groups and nonprofit organizations.

I also volunteered for local music and art festivals. This is a great way to give back to the community, and you usually only have to volunteer for a few hours to receive free or discounted admission.

7. I lived with roommates

This was probably the hardest change for me, as I was used to living alone. It was a huge transition going from having my own space to sharing common areas and coordinating shower schedules. Rent was one of my biggest expenses, though, and living with two roommates saved me over $300 a month that I then put toward paying off my student loans. I also saved on things like utilities, internet, groceries and dog care by splitting costs with roommates.

While setting a steep financial goal, like paying off $15,000 in under two years, was scary, it was also, in the end, extremely rewarding. Taking charge of my finances has given me more self-confidence, helped me eliminate negative, wasteful habits, and fundamentally changed the way I view money. After I paid off my debt, I have continued to live a frugal lifestyle, and I now get excited to see how much I have saved for the future. By taking a long, hard look at your financial priorities, you can do the same.

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