How I did it: Paid off student loans

With financial planning and discipline, Melissa Nodurft was debt-free five years after graduating from a private university.

Tags: Loans, Goals, Planning, Student
Published: January 22, 2020

“How I did it” features real consumer stories about achieving goals through financial planning and preparedness.

Melissa Nodurft clearly remembers the day she paid off her student loans. Since her loan repayment was on autopay every month, she logged in to her account to check the remaining balance. There was only 58 cents left.

“I made that payment and then I called my mom,” Nodurft recalls. “I paid an extra 58 cents that month, but I was done.” She crushed her aggressive 10-year repayment plan by paying off all her student loan debt in five years. 


Preparing for student loan debt: Researching financial assistance

Achieving that goal didn’t happen overnight, however. It took a lot of planning and preparation in the years leading up to graduation, starting with choosing her university.

“I knew from researching schools that I was going to have to take out some loans. While my parents were very supportive and wanted me to go to school, it just wasn’t in the cards for them to be able to finance it,” Nodurft says. As a result, she set her sights on a school that would provide financial aid.

Millikin University in her home state of Illinois fit her needs. It had the smaller class sizes she desired, plus a communications and public relations program. It also had a history of providing 99 percent of students with grants and scholarships.

While not all of her tuition was covered, Nodurft worked hard to ensure she didn’t borrow more than needed. Thanks to her role as a resident assistant, room and board was free, knocking off about $14,000 per year. Additionally, she held an on-campus job all four years of school and participated in paid internships. She also picked up side jobs, including checking coats and running event raffles to make extra cash.

In all, Nodurft had five loans when she graduated in 2012 – one private and four federal. “Graduating [after] the Recession, I think everyone had anxiety for one reason or another,” Nodurft says. “I was nervous knowing that I would have to pay these loans, and I didn’t have a job on graduation day. I did, however, have many interviews lined up. And, I was hopeful that, in the six months following graduation before those loan payments kicked in, I would be able to get a job.”  


Paying off student loans

While many of her classmates moved to Chicago, Nodurft secured a job in Milwaukee, which boasts a more affordable cost-of-living. She intentionally kept her bills as cheap as possible, though she paid rent, internet and phone services, utilities and a car loan. That way, when her monthly student loan payment rolled around, she could pay double – or even triple – the amount due.   

“I wanted to be able to save money, but to me it felt counterproductive to have a significant amount of savings when I had [student loans] looming. So while I was putting money away for retirement, any extra money I had, I was throwing at those loans to get the payments down,” Nodurft says. She even used her work bonuses and tax return money to supplement her standard payment. “[I knew] once I was done with the loans, I would be cash positive, and everything I was making would truly add value as opposed to just paying off past debt.”


What to do after paying off student loans: A continued focus on finance

Nodurft now works at U.S. Bank as a marketing generalist – which further inspires her to stay on track. But even so, being dedicated and disciplined with her money wasn’t always easy. She had to make sacrifices. “I remember specifically there was a girls’ trip to Nashville that a bunch of my friends wanted to go on,” she recalls. “I drew the line and told them I had other stuff I had to spend my money on. There were other things I missed out on, but I have no regrets. I’ve gone on trips since then, so I feel like I’ve still been fulfilled in my life. I was able to get out of debt much faster by saying no.”

Nodurft says she would do it all again – choosing a private university, taking out loans, aggressively paying them off. Being debt-free has allowed her to shore up an account for emergency funds. And she’s even increased her retirement savings contribution from 8 to 10 percent. She’s also hoping to purchase her first home in the next year.

“Look toward the light at the end of the tunnel,” she advises others who are in the thick of paying off their student loans. “Once you are debt-free, it feels really good to know that everything you make is going to be for savings or something that you really want to buy.”


Need to take out student loans? Follow these four guidelines to set an upper loan limit that’s manageable for you.