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How to Start Paying Down Your Student Loans


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Being saddled with student loan debt can feel like an enormous burden. Many millennials are holding themselves back in life because they’re struggling to afford their minimum payments along with trying to save for everything else in life.

If you’re in this situation, there’s a way out. While plenty of young adults are dealing with student loan debt, many more are successfully paying them off. Not sure how to create a plan to pay down your student loans? Start here.

Saving vs Paying Off Debt

Chances are you know saving your money is just as important as paying off your debt. But how do you know how much to save? Or what you should be saving for? Or how to save and pay off your debt? It can be difficult to prioritize.

You should put creating a cash cushion of about $1000 at the top of your financial to-do list. A small emergency fund can help you get through unexpected situations without pushing you further into debt.

What if you have bigger goals? Look at the big picture. The standard repayment period on student loans is 10 years — you probably don’t want to wait that long to save for a house or for a wedding.

You need to find a way to balance paying off your student loans with saving, if that’s the case. You can re-evaluate your budget to see if you can cut any costs or lessen some expenses. Be critical about what’s truly a need, and what falls under the “wants” category.

If you have multiple goals along with paying down student debt, you can also  start earning extra money to fund savings with a separate income stream. This allows you to make progress in a number of areas, instead of being limited to just one financial priority.

(And yes, you can earn more money! You can start by negotiating for what you’re worth at your current job — or even consider looking for new positions that pay better. You can also take the initiative to start a side gig in your free time to earn a little extra.)

What Are Your Interest Rates?

Your interest rate is a percentage charged when you borrow money. The higher your interest rate, the more money you’re paying to borrow money. Additionally, the longer your repayment term (again, the standard is 10 years for student loans), the more you’ll end up paying over the life of the loan.

It’s worth noting some people believe in paying the minimum if your interest rates are around 2.2% or lower. This is because saving and investing your money will get you a better return on your money. (That’s assuming you actually save it, though!)

If your interest rates are on the higher end — around 5% or more — you might want to prioritize paying them off. You don’t want to pay more money toward interest if you don’t have to.

Making Extra Payments

That’s where making extra payments comes into play. The more you can pay toward your student loans, the less you’ll be paying toward interest. This allows you to chip away at the principal balance of your loan.

You don’t necessarily have to pay extra all the time, or only during your regular payment, either. Pay more when you can, even if it’s just once or twice a year.

Options Available If You Can’t Afford Payments

There are several thousand graduates out there with six-figures in student loan debt with no way to repay it. If you’re stressing about affording your student loan payments, there  are a few options to consider.

If you have federal loans, there are many flexible income-based repayment options available to you. Call up your loan servicer and explain the situation you’re in. They might be able to recommend a specific repayment plan to look into.

Federal Student Aid has a guide on what repayment plans are available, and what it takes to qualify for them. Additionally, you may qualify for deferment or forbearance if you’re experiencing financial hardship.

If you’re struggling to make payments on your loans, you may be eligible for deferment, which is a temporary period where you don’t have to make payments, and interest doesn’t accrue on subsidized loans. Interest does accrue on unsubsidized loans. Forbearance is similar to deferment, except interest continues accruing on all of your loans during the time you don’t have to make payments.

Not having to make payments gives you a chance to get back on your feet and to begin managing your cashflow better.

Getting your loans forgiven, discharged, or canceled is possible, but only in select circumstances. (Again, see Federal Student Aid for an overview of those circumstances.) These options mean you no longer owe anything on your student loans.

What if you have private loans? They don’t come with the variety of repayment plans federal loans do, but many lenders are willing to work with borrowers by granting them forbearance periods. If you need help, pick up the phone and call your loan servicer and see what they can do for you.

Refinancing or consolidating are two options to look into as well. The purpose of refinancing your student loans is to improve your terms (to lower your interest rate, for example). The purpose of consolidating your loans is to make it easier to pay them. If you owe money to 7 different lenders, consolidating them rolls them all into one easy payment. You can do both with federal loans, too.

Steps to Paying Down Student Loans

Now that you’re armed with some essential knowledge on student loans, it’s time to talk about how to get rid of them.

Look at Your Entire Financial Situation: Do you have any other debt? What’s your salary? How much can you afford to pay toward your student loans? These are all things you need to get clear on to formulate a plan of attack on your loans.

Start Budgeting and Tracking Your Expenses: That’s where budgeting and tracking your expenses comes in. You need to know where your money is going, and how you’re using it. This is especially true if you’re finding you don’t have enough money to last you a month.

Evaluate Your Expenses: After you’ve established your budget and have an idea of how much you’ve been spending and where, go back and evaluate your expenses. Question how much value you’re getting out of things. If paying down your student loans is your top priority, you need to make room for extra payments in your budget.

Focus on Earning More Money: If you’ve cut back on all your expenses, and are still struggling to make payments or find room in your budget for basic needs, try earning more money. You can work overtime at your job, take on additional shifts, or get a second job.

Having trouble finding employment? Many individuals are making their own jobs based off of hobbies or skills they have. Do you enjoy pet-sitting, babysitting, crafting, consulting, freelancing, or organizing? Advertise your services and get the word out.

Have a Plan and Follow It: Paying your student loans off is going to be a long journey. It’s important to have a plan to refer back to when times get tough. Choose exactly how you’re going to pay off your debt. Pick one loan out from the rest and singularly focus on paying it down, while paying the minimum on the rest. This one loan might be the loan with the highest interest rate, the lowest balance, or one you just want to see gone.

Stay Hopeful: Remember, paying off debt can be a difficult journey filled with ups and downs. It’s important to build a support system and stay hopeful when you hit a roadblock. Surround yourself with friends who can relate to what you’re going through, and stick with people who help you achieve your goals.

By following these six steps, you’ll be on a clearer path to paying down your student loans. Don’t get discouraged; there are plenty of options available to you if you’re experiencing difficulty paying your loans back. The worst thing you can do is not make any payments. Always reach out to your loan servicer to see if they can help you out.

Stay focused, determined, and hold yourself accountable. Don’t let your student loans own you — own them instead.

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