For Karen Akpan, 2020 ended on a high note. She and her husband, Sylvester, finally paid off $118,000 of student debt. And they did it all, amid a historic year of pandemic and uncertainty.
The 32-year-old Akpan went to college when she was just 16 to study child and adolescent development, and went on to obtain a master’s degree in family and consumer sciences. The degrees left her with a collective $69,510 of debt, including what she estimates to be $10,000 in interest. She told Insider she regretted getting her master’s, because she was unable to find the kind of good-paying job she thought it would guarantee. She currently runs a lifestyle and parenting blog, The Mom Trotter, full-time.
Her husband, who attended vocational school, owed $40,420 in student debt himself.
She said they both kept deferring their income-based repayment plans, and eventually stopped loan payments altogether because they couldn’t afford them. “At some point, I thought we’d just die with them,” she said.
She said all they knew in terms of a strategy was to “take loans” and “wait for it to be either forgiven one day or pay the bare minimum till death.” But as she began reading and listening to a lot of personal finance books, she realized that was a “crippling” mindset.
“I borrowed the money and it isn’t mine to keep,” she said. “I always wanted to be 100% debt-free and paying it was part of the process.”
She was particularly inspired by Dave Ramsey’s “gazelle intensity,” a term the personal finance expert coined to describe paying off debt with speed and intensity — running away from it like a gazelle.
And that’s exactly what Akpan and her husband did in 2020.
RV living, budgets, and making money
The couple’s debt-free journey began in February 2020, when they sold most of their belongings and their house, freeing them of their $4,200 mortgage plus utilities, Akpan said.
They purchased an RV to live in with their son a week later, which she said made their expenses almost nonexistent and enabled them to save aggressively. Depending on what state they’re in, she said, their RV expenses ran as low as just $500 a month.
As they traveled around the US, they focused on putting more work and time into The Mom Trotter to increase their income stream. Akpan said she started writing more blog posts, took on more freelance writing, and began shooting more content for TikTok and YouTube. She also expanded her content beyond solely travel to include more lifestyle coverage.
“I perfected my skill and got better at what I was already doing,” she said.
Every single dime they made that year went straight toward savings or paying bills, Akpan said, explaining that they only spent a tiny amount on everyday expenses. They created a strict budget in which they cut out all unnecessary spending.
“We only buy what we need at that specific time, including groceries, which reduces waste,” she said, adding that it also helped that they were living in an RV. As she put it, there was no room for any new purchases.
Snowballing into an avalanche
Throughout the year, Akpan and her husband mixed two popular pay-off methods to tackle their debt.
They first began with the Ramsey-approved debt snowball method, in which one makes minimum monthly payments on all non-mortgage debt, paying extra on the smallest debt first before working up to larger debts.
Once they realized they had a large sum of money saved, they decided to use the debt avalanche method to erase their student loans completely. This strategy involves first paying off the debt with the highest interest rate before moving onto the debt with the lowest interest rate.
They paid off Sylvester’s private and federal loans in November in a few big installments, Akpan said. They followed that up by paying her federal loan off in December.
Now, they’re no longer two of the 45 million Americans shouldering the country’s national student debt burden of nearly $1.7 trillion.
It’s helped them enter 2021 feeling free, Akpan said: “We were able to breathe.”