Not going to college was never an option for me. It was always something I wanted to do. But of course, that came with a price. Not only did I get my undergraduate degree but I also went on to get my master’s degree.

The damage? In total, I borrowed $81,000 for two degrees. I paid it all off in nine years but ended up paying $68,000 of it in 4.5 years after getting my M.A. It wasn’t easy, nor was it in overnight success, but I did it. Here are the seven steps I took to pay off debt.

1. Get out of denial

The first thing I had to do was get out of denial. After graduating from New York University, I knew I had a lot of student loans but wasn’t quite sure the exact number.

So I signed up for the budgeting software site Mint.com and synced up all my accounts. It was at that point that I learned that — after five years of consistent payment — I still owed $68,000. I felt a sense of panic wash over me. And do you know what I did? I deleted my account. I pretended I didn’t see it and went on with my life. I claimed blissful ignorance during my grace period.

Only when my grace period was up and I realized I couldn’t afford to pay my student loans and live in New York did I get out of denial. After all, debt was affecting my life choices and in effect, was a big reason I then moved to Portland, Oregon.

Facing the facts and realizing just how much I owed was the first step. Getting out of denial is tough but it’s a necessary first step.

2. Understand my student loans

If you have student loans, it’s likely you have more than just one. I had my undergraduate student loans with a low interest rate of 2.3 percent while my graduate loans were much higher at 6.8 and 7.9 percent interest.

I sat down and took an inventory of exactly what I owed — down to the penny — and wrote down the corresponding interest rate. Seeing how many loans I had, the amount of each loan, and the corresponding interest rate was a huge eye opener.

I did the math and realized I was paying $11 per day in interest. Armed with that knowledge, I committed to paying off my student loans. Understanding my student loans fully and knowing how much it was costing me was not fun by any means. But I got mad and knew that I didn’t want to be stuck in debt forever.

3. Use the avalanche method

There are a number of ways you can pay off debt. Two of the most popular methods are the debt snowball method and the debt avalanche method. The snowball emphasizes paying off the smallest balances first whereas the avalanche method encourages you to pay off debt with the highest interest.

The snowball method helps boost your motivation while the avalanche is more cost-effective. After doing the math and realizing I was paying $11 per day in interest, I knew the avalanche method was for me.

So I paid the minimum on all of my student loans but put any and all extra money toward my loans with 7.9 percent interest. When those were paid off, I put all my extra money toward the 6.8 percent loans. I kept up with this method until the very end and can say it helped me save money on interest.

If you’re paying off debt, the best method to choose is the one you can stay consistent with. Paying off debt is all about consistency and building momentum.

4. Make multiple payments

Instead of waiting until my student loan due date to make a payment, I made multiple payments throughout the month. This helped me pay less in interest and pay more toward the principal balance. Many times I made biweekly payments, but sometimes I would pay weekly.

5. Put all windfalls to debt

There are times in life you may get some extra money you weren’t expecting. In April, you might be pleasantly surprised to get a tax refund or for your birthday you might get a card from your grandma with $100. If I got any money from a tax refund, birthday, holiday, etc. I put it straight to debt. Sure, it was tempting to spend on something fun, but I knew that this would shorten my debt repayment so I could enjoy debt freedom sooner.

6. Save money with coupons, discounts, etc.

While in debt repayment mode, it was my goal to never pay full price for something if I didn’t have to. That meant looking for coupons for groceries, restaurants, or getting cash back if I had to shop online.

A simple search would usually help me find if there were any coupon codes or discounts available. During this time, I also went to beauty schools to get my hair cut and went without items like health insurance and a car. In short, I saved money anywhere I could so that I could put more to debt.

7. Earn more through side hustling

Saving money felt great and helped me build the momentum I needed to put more to debt. Eventually though, I couldn’t cut back any more. I didn’t have cable, a gym membership, a car, health insurance or pets. At this point, I knew I needed to grow my income if I wanted to really pay off my student loans as soon as possible.

I did any side hustle I could. I did a variety of gigs like being a brand ambassador, pet sitter, mother’s helper, event assistant and more. For a few years, I worked seven days a week and hustled hard. Though it wasn’t fun, it helped me pay off debt faster and prepared me for the grind that is running your own business.

Bottom line

Let’s face it, paying off debt is no picnic. It can be overwhelming and exhausting to pay off so much debt. Paying off a total of $81,000 is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but now that I’m on the other side I can enjoy the sweet taste of freedom. My money is mine, and I can invest in my future, instead of being bogged down by payments for the past.

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