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debt diaries

Picture of Jordann Brown, blogger behind My Alternate Life. of Jordann Brown

In the fall of 2011, shortly after finishing university, Jordann Brown realized she owed $53,349.

"My story isn't one about spending with abandon or being irresponsible," says the 23-year-old, who works in marketing and provides content for a mortgage rate comparison website. "I did what every millennial is told to do after high school, and that put me up to my eyeballs in debt."

Ms. Brown's university experience is likely similar to that of many other students. She studied commerce at Dalhousie Unversity in Halifax. Because her family lives in a small New Brunswick town, she was forced to pay for an apartment. And although her parents did help her a little, she had to pay for the bulk of her own schooling.

She always had summer jobs, but income from that was limited. Instead, she relied on student loans to cover her university and living costs.

"I did all the normal student stuff: I went out, ate out, and yes, I borrowed to the max," she says. "It never occurred to me to try to not borrow as much as I could, it never occurred to me not to spend it all. I thought that going into debt was normal, that this is what everyone did."

By the time she graduated, Ms. Brown's student loans had soared to $42,082. Around that time, her fiancé's car was totalled and they had to buy another one. Adding in the $11,267 car loan, she was now on the hook for more than $53,000.

"When I got the bill with the final amount I owed for my student loans... and what my monthly payment would be. It was shocking. I was totally unprepared. I was still living in Halifax and I was working full time. But when I started doing the math – when I put together a budget – it did not add up. I could not afford rent, the car, groceries and student loan payments on my entry-level salary and have enough to live off of."

Instead, Ms. Brown decided to make debt reduction her number one goal. She moved into a small cottage in her home town of Petitcodiac , slashing her monthly rent from $1,100 a month to $350. She researched and applied for as many grants and benefit programs as she could find, and stumbled on a government program that forgives New Brunswick residents all of their student loans down to $26,000 – provided they graduate on time.

"That was amazing, it knocked my monthly payments down from over $500 a month to around $300," she says.

But there was no easy out for the remaining $37,987.65 in debt. To repay that, Ms. Brown buckled down and did without: no haircuts, no buying clothes, no lunches or coffees out. She exercised – yoga and running – at home, stuck to a strict grocery budget with little meat, and picked up side jobs to accelerate her debt repayment. A few large tax rebates, including this one, helped lower the balance.

"The results are worth it," Ms. Brown says. She paid off her student loans in June 2013, one week before she got married, and plans to eliminate her car loan in November, exactly two years after her debt repayment journey began.

Oh, and her wedding? It cost $4,500 and the frugal newlyweds paid for it – in cash.

Pat White, executive director of Credit Counselling Canada, says many people they see who have large amounts of student debt struggle to repay it because they can't get a good-paying job in their chosen profession. The financial repercussions can linger for years and years, she says, hampering their ability to meet major life milestones like buying a home or starting a family.

"This girl was very determined and she did extremely well," Ms. White says of Ms. Brown's extreme focus on shedding her debt.

But the path towards debt freedom is by no means easy, Ms. Brown says. "The biggest struggle is getting tired of always paying off debt. A lot of people think that having debt is the norm, so it can get frustrating to hold myself back from spending when I don't see anyone else doing it."

Her blog, My Alternate Life , has been a huge source of support and motivation. "It keeps me on track and helps me from feeling like a frugal weirdo."

Surprisingly, there are things that Ms. Brown does not miss – like the big city with all of its expensive temptations, the luxury of a second car, or a living space that is more than 400 square feet. "I am still very happy," she says. "I am comfortable and I have great friends. Once I pay off my debt, and I don't foresee us changing our life too much."

Once all of her debt is gone, she'd like to build an emergency fund. She might beef up her entertainment budget a touch, or buy some clothes. And travel is certainly a priority. Long-term, she wants to save money for a down-payment on a house.

Her advice for other debt-laden grads?

"Even if you think that life is supposed to start now, you don't need to succumb to lifestyle inflation and you can get by on a lot less than you think. Knowing that will help free off so much cash and let you pay off your debt."

To share your own debt-reduction story, click here.