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She put every extra penny toward her student loans and carefully tracked her spending.

3 minute read

In 2011, Zina from Debt Free After Three, graduated with $28,000 in student loans. At the time, she worked as a reporter for The Elkhart Truth in Indiana, making roughly $28,000 a year.

During her college years her parents paid for all her living expenses, so she didn’t worry much about money. But after she graduated, Zina realized her past spending habits must change. She also realized, after making her first student loan payment, that a good portion of the money went to interest.

“I couldn’t believe how much money went to interest,” remembers Zina. “I felt so disheartened. But then I learned that paying just $10 extra each month (all I could afford at the time) could help me shave one year off my student loan repayment plan.”

She also learned that if she didn’t carefully budget and track all her money, she wouldn’t have any left over for savings. Once she figured out her expenses, she started making drastic cuts. For example, she cut out most alcohol, cut her cable bill and ate a lot of Chef Boyardee meals.

“I brought cans of Chef Boyardee to work with me,” says Zina. “It wasn’t very good but most of my co-workers also didn’t have much money so I didn’t feel too bad about eating it.”

She watched Netflix movies with friends instead of going out. “I hardly spent any money,” says Zina. “My friend and I shopped at Trader Joes and split the cost of baking ingredients for cookies and stuff. We also split the cost of wine if we wanted to treat ourselves.”

She soon became fanatical about saving money because she didn’t want an emergency situation, such as a car problem or other unexpected expense, to end up on her credit card.

“I used almost every extra dollar from my paycheck, and I saved any birthday or Christmas checks or tax refunds,” says Zina. “If I worked overtime, I stashed the difference in my savings. It took me about six months, I think, to save an initial emergency fund, and it’s been the basis of my savings ever since.”

Once she saved enough for an emergency fund, she focused solely on her student loan debt, putting every extra cent she received toward the balance. Zina did this on her own and learned along the way — but she did have some prior personal finance knowledge. Her parents taught her the basics and she took a personal finance class in college.

She also started her blog. She says: “The blog held me accountable while I paid off my debt. It allowed me to share what I learned, so anyone else paying off their loans wouldn’t have to feel alone.” In November 2014, she made her last payment — and remains debt free today.

Zina now lives in Colorado with her husband and dogs. She works from a home office as a writer, speaker, and financial coach, and offered some valuable free personal finance advice.

“Examine every expense,” says Zina. “And question every expense because you can do without so many things. And if the expense is necessary, find cheaper solutions.”

And she still strongly advocates tracking your expenses. “When I coach people, I ask them how much are you spending, and how much are you earning? And then I say okay, well then that means you have $500 extra a month and they say, no I don’t and then I say okay, well then, you’re not giving me the right numbers.”

“The math is very simple, but only if you’re tracking your expenses and know what you’re spending. People are always surprised when they look at their bank statements and see how much they’re actually spending compared to what they think they’re spending.”

The numbers tell the true story. If you understand them, you can get ahead the same way Zina did.

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About the Author

Brian Bienkowski

Brian Bienkowski

Bienkowski is a contributing writer and is the face of's 'By the Numbers' videos.

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