SuperMoney Interview Series: Zina Kumok of Debt Free After Three About Paying Off Student Loans and Erasing Debt Quickly

Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance and writes a blog about how she paid off her student loans at debtfreeafterthree.com. We recently sat down with Zina to hear her secrets about paying off debt, budgeting wisely, and saving money for the future.

Tell us a little bit about your financial journey. Were you really able to pay off your student loans in three years?

I was! I made my first payment in November 2011 and my last in November 2014.

I’m not a financial wizard. Everything I learned about paying off debt came from tried-and-true experiments. I’d read about money from blogs and books, but I also went through this process by myself. Everything I write about is something I experienced. Through this journey, I learned that I tend to be a spender and I have to work hard to rein in that tendency.

What types of sacrifices did you have to make in order to accomplish your “debt free in three” goal?

I gave up a lot. I stopped eating lunch out, going to the bars, and buying new clothes. It’s not that I never did these things; I just stopped doing them as often. I made them more once-in-a-while activities instead of regular habits.

How much personal finance instruction or knowledge does a typical teenager have under his/her belt by the time he/she is a high school senior?

I think most high school seniors have little to no understanding of personal finance. Most schools don’t teach it, and I think parents hesitate to do so as well.

Regarding your 20-day “Student Loan Knockout” course, what skills or knowledge do the participants come away with once they complete the course?

They’ll know what they need to do to pay off their loans. They’ll know how to cut expenses, earn more money, and develop a realistic plan to pay off their student loans early. They’ll know the basics of personal finance, including saving, budgeting, and investing, while also realizing how their behaviors impact their spending habits.

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What’s the biggest financial mistake that young adults tend to make once they are living on their own for the first time?

I think one of the biggest mistakes is prioritizing living expenses over saving and paying off debt. It’s so exciting to start earning your own money that it’s easy to forget about creating an emergency fund, saving for retirement, and more.

Before you move into a swanky apartment or buy a new car, take a step to write down what you owe and how much you’re saving. Time is the biggest advantage that young adults have over anyone else; the sooner you start saving, the more prepared you’ll be for the future.

Name one step to take or habit to begin today that will help young adults start tackling their student loan debt.

I’d recommend starting to track your expenses and seeing how much money you’re actually spending. Most of us don’t know where our dollars go and are set in our ways. It was only by tracking my expenses that I was able to change my habits, start saving more, and begin putting more money toward my loans.

You can track your spending by using apps like Mint or by simply using an app from your bank. Create calendar reminders so you can remember to check your budget on a regular basis.

Is there a specific budgeting method that is a favorite of yours?

I really like the 50/30/20 method. Half of your take-home pay goes toward your needs, 30% toward your wants, and 20% toward savings and debt. I like this method because it’s simple to maintain and easy to understand. Anyone can apply this system to their own finances without spending a lot of time on it.

How can parents help prepare their teens to wisely and effectively handle money once they become adults?

My parents were always very open and honest about their own financial mistakes. They shared what they learned and that helped me learn from their own examples. Seeing how much debt affected their lives made me more resolved to pay my own debt off quickly.

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I think parents should make talking about money a daily occurrence. It has to be an open conversation; don’t be afraid to tell your kids what your bills are, how much you earn, and how much you owe. You’re the primary source of what they’ll learn about money, and it’s one of the most important life skills they’ll ever learn.