7 unconventional ways to pay off student loans

Crushed by unprecedented debt, this generation is getting creative to owe no more.

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Key takeaways

  • Millennials carry more college debt than previous generations at the same age.
  • Having one stream of income isn't always enough to pay off debt quickly.
  • Many in this generation have had to earn and save money in inventive ways to get out of debt. 

On the path to financial comfort, many millennials are up against the same roadblock: student debt. A 2021 Harris Poll for CNBC found that 68% of 33-to-40-year-olds who had taken out student loans were still paying them down.1 It's no wonder: Millennials carry a 50% greater median debt than Gen X did at the same age, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center report.2 According to the Education Data Initiative, borrowers who are now ages 30 to 44 years old owe about half of all US student loan debt.3

"Millennials had pretty high expectations for their earning potential coming out of college," says Melanie Hanson, editor in chief of the Education Data Initiative.4 "Those who became disillusioned generally did so after they graduated and found that they were dealing with a tighter job market and lower wages than expected, as well as a major recession for those who graduated around 2008 to 2010."

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High debts and underwhelming salaries make quick repayment challenging. So what does one do (besides continuing to make the minimum monthly payment)? A California man reportedly bought an annual theme park pass so he could eat all his meals for free at the park. Here are more unconventional tactics that 7 other millennials used to pay off their student loans.

3 in an RV

Saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, Karen Akpan made a drastic life change. "I told my husband, 'Let's sell it all and get on the road,'" the mom of a 9-year-old recalls. The Akpans sold their 5-bedroom California home and moved into a used RV, traveling around the world and documenting it, often for brands and companies that pay them. Nixing their mortgage and adopting a simpler lifestyle allowed the Akpans to pay off more than $100,000 in student loans in 18 months.

Podcast promoter

When Trevor Oldham of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, graduated from college in 2019, he wasn't sure how much debt he'd accumulated across his various loans. "I figured it was $50,000 or $60,000," he says. The actual total: $89,500. After consolidating his debts into 1 loan, Oldham turned a passion for podcasts into a business. He helped real estate investors get booked on real estate investing shows. In September 2020, Oldham made his last loan payment.

Up to the test

Jenna Carson had big entrepreneurial aspirations but felt strapped by student loan payments. So Carson participated in several clinical trials, allowing medical professionals to test medicines and viral responses on her. "As a young, healthy person, I didn't think it was going to have a lasting impact and I made tens of thousands of dollars," Carson reveals, but before you sign up for trials, consult your doctor—this tactic may not be advisable for all. Carson also tapped her enterprising spirit to start a "junk flipping" business. She'd pay a flat rate to collect a box of someone's unwanted items, and then she'd sell the items on multiple platforms for a profit. 

Freebie finder

After finishing her master's degree, Barbara Schreihans of Tucson, Arizona, was faced with 6 figures of student loan debt. Because she was a single mom making $57,000 a year, she "had to get creative with how to make the debt go down instead of just paying the hellacious interest," Schreihans says. She took on a side gig teaching classes at a local gym. It earned her a free gym membership and some extra cash for her loans. Jumping onto a cell phone plan with friends lowered her service cost, and anytime Schreihans saw a bank running a promotion—such as $500 for opening a new account—she took advantage of it and used the money to pay down her loan principal (watching out for catches such as having to change where her direct deposits went). Starting her own tax firm, Your Tax Coach, gave her the last bit needed to pay off her debt in 7 years.

Side hustler

These days, Scott Steward is the CEO of HiCollectors, which connects collectibles buyers and sellers. But when he graduated with over $4,000 in loans, he had only a part-time job at a call center to rely on for funds. While living in a small studio apartment and walking instead of taking the bus helped Steward make loan payments, he needed to hustle to ditch his debt faster. On a whim, he picked up a side job transcribing medical, legal, and business recordings. That asynchronous work helped Steward pay off his debt in 3 years. "Now I'm working full time from Singapore, but I still do transcription," Steward says. "It can be a lot of fun." 

Clean for green

With over $19,000 in student loan debt, James Pollard needed more than his part-time job as a marketing associate at a Delaware casino. So he started a janitorial services business, cleaning offices. "I had no ego whatsoever," Pollard says. "If I had to clean toilets to pay off my debt, I made sure those toilets were sparkling." Money from that gig went directly to his loans, helping Pollard, who founded marketing consultancy TheAdvisorCoach.com, pay down his debt within a few years.

Loyalty points

Millennials are known for job-hopping, especially during the Great Resignation. But Chelsea Henderson, a client service analyst at Fidelity Investments, has stayed for 9 years at the only postcollege job she's had. The job comes with a key perk: paying off up to $15,000 of student debt for each full-time employee. "I was rolling in roughly $40,000 in student loan debt and eager to pay it off as soon as possible," Henderson says. "Because of this benefit, I can now say that I'm officially debt free."

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