I, like millions of other Americans, graduated college with a heavy load of student loans.

In 2011, I graduated with $25,302 in debt, no savings, and no job. It was just me and my English degree out there in the middle of the recession.

My post-college professional life has been bumpy. I’ve never held a full-time job, and I’ve worked in the foodservice industry in some way ever since graduation. My grandma definitely thinks that I’m wasting my education. One year, I made $15,000 total.

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Last year was the first time my income level broke into the $30,000 range. I brought home $32,000 before taxes, and felt like a baller for it. Today, I’m debt free, with $12,000 in my retirement accounts. I’m a full-time freelance writer now, and I’ll probably make around $30,000 again this year.

But I paid off all my debt and started socking away money into my retirement funds in the last three years. I pulled that off while being pretty damn broke, and I’m here to tell you how.

How to Pay Off Student Loans

Paying down student loan debt and saving money are two sides of the same coin. They both require one thing: focus. Three years ago, I was 25 and feeling terrible about myself. I was underemployed, working as a part-time caterer and a part-time gym receptionist. Plus, I was buried under a pile of student loans. I felt lost, and it freaked me out.

As difficult as that time was, it gave me the focus I needed. I realized my low income and high debt was the root of my stress. I was financially insecure, and it sucked. So I lasered in on paying off my student loans as the way I was going to become happier, and it worked!

I cut out absolutely everything that wasn’t a basic need. Literally, everything except rent, insurance, and gas was cut from my spending. The obvious ones: eating out, drinking, clothes shopping, and vacations. The not so obvious ones: grocery shopping (I lived off catering leftovers), buying Christmas gifts, make-up, and gas (I walked more). I took on more part-time work and doubled my income.

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As a result, I paid off my final $20,000 in student loans in 14 months. I then transitioned the money that was for my debt payment to my retirement accounts.

As my student loan debt disappeared, so too did my stress. I felt less anxious, and much happier than when I was drowning in loan payments.

If you've cut every expense that you can and still struggle with paying off student loans, you may want to refinance them in order to make your payments more manageable.

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Staying Frugal and Saving for Retirement

In the last two years, I’ve maxed out my IRA and started a solo 401(k). I simply shifted my focus and kept all my debt payoff tactics in place. I still don’t eat out often, and I still bike instead of driving whenever possible.

Building my savings, including my retirement accounts, is my top priority right now. Compound interest benefits you more the earlier you start saving! In the next five years, I plan to put an additional $45,000 into my retirement accounts. By the time I’m 45, I’d love to be financially independent. It’s worth it to me to right now to make those trade-offs.

Why does retirement matter so much to me? I’m 28 years old. It’s literally decades before I retire. But that’s exactly why it matters.

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Sixty-eight-year-old Kara is still Kara. What I do today affects me in 40 years. I want to be comfortable in my golden years, and saving today helps to ensure that.

I also come from a place of financial insecurity. That’s a scary, stressful place. I don’t want to have to worry about how I’ll pay rent in the future. Building up my personal and retirement savings right now puts more distance between me and financial insecurity.

Feeling ready to jump-start your retirement savings? Each year, single people making under $131,000 can save $5,500 into their IRAs, according to the IRS. Married couples filing together have an income limit of $193,000. Other retirement options are 401(k) accounts, in which the maximum contribution amount (for those under 50) is $18,000. If you’re over 50, the limit is $24,000.

Focus is all that it takes to see amazing changes in your life. There may be bumps, and your road may not look exactly like mine. But stay focused, and you will move mountains in the form of student loan debt.