Graduation is supposed to be a time full of hope and excitement. But, if you have student loans, it can be a time of dread and fear. When I graduated with my M.A. in 2011 from New York University, I still had $68,000 in student loans, despite making payments for years. I was anxious and scared but with hard work, I was able to pay off that amount in less than five years. If you’re a new grad, here’s how you can tackle your student loans.
1. Find out how much you owe
You might feel overwhelmed about tackling your student loans. The first thing you need to do is to break it down in steps. Your first step is to find out how much you owe. You may have a vague idea of the numbers but you want to know precisely what you owe.
For federal student loans, you can check the National Student Loan Data System to get your loan information. If you have private student loans, you can check your credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com to get info on your lender and what you owe.
Write down the exact number you owe and the interest rate. Write down your minimum monthly payment. Knowing these numbers will help you navigate repayment.
2. Get on the right repayment plan
Paying back your student loans can be the stressful part. A big part of that might come down to your repayment plan. Federal loan borrowers are automatically placed on the Standard Repayment Plan, which has a 10-year repayment term. This is the most cost-effective plan as it will limit what you pay in interest. If you can manage the monthly payments on this, stick to it.
On the other hand, if you simply can’t swing those payments you can consider going on an income-driven repayment plan (IDR). Under IDR, you can choose a plan that will limit your monthly payments to 10 to 20 percent of your discretionary income. While this plan will cost you more in interest, it can be a lifesaver and help you avoid delinquency or default if you can’t make payments.
Private student loan borrowers should talk to their lenders about what repayment options are available.
3. Have a strategy
You might have several different types of student loans at different rates. When you’re working to tackle your student loans, you want to have a repayment strategy. There are two common strategies you can use to pay off the debt — the debt avalanche and the debt snowball method.
The debt avalanche method emphasizes paying off high interest debt first, while paying your minimum monthly payment on your loans. The debt snowball strategy focuses on paying off the smallest balances first, while making the minimum payments on the rest of your loans.
The benefit of the avalanche method is that you save money on interest. The benefit of the snowball is motivation, as you pay off the smallest balances faster. There’s no right or wrong strategy.
Other strategies I mention in my book Dear Debt include paying off the debt that makes you angry or the debt that will help you sleep better at night. Debt can be highly emotional. The key is to find a strategy that you can maintain and that keeps you motivated.
4. Supercharge your payments
The part of my story that grabs a lot of attention is that I paid off $68,000 in 4.5 years. But in total I borrowed $81,000 and my overall debt repayment was nine years. I got my B.A. and M.A. at different times, but for the first five years of repayment, I simply paid the minimum on my debt. I acted like my minimum student loan payment was a bill and didn’t even consider paying more.
But if you really want to get out of debt fast, you must supercharge your payments. Can you double your payments? If so, do that. That’s a lot for many people, so even if you can only do $20 more than the minimum, do that.
Another strategy is to make biweekly payments. So cut your payment in half and pay that every two weeks. Student loan interest actually accrues daily, so when you pay every two weeks you can cut down on the interest that accrues. Paying more than the minimum and making biweekly payments can help you pay off debt faster.
5. Know your debt-free date
It can feel like you’re never going to get out of debt. But, to tackle your student loans, you need to reverse engineer the process. Start with coming up with a debt-free date. When do you want to be debt free?
Let’s say you want to be debt-free in three years. If you have $30,000 in student loan debt, you will have to make 36 payments of $833. You might need to play around with the numbers and date to find something that works with your budget.
Having a debt-free date can keep you motivated with an end in sight. Knowing when you’ll be debt free will help you plan your life and know what you need to do to get there.
To stay accountable, you can start a blog or join an online community of people getting out of debt. You can talk to a close friend or family member in a similar situation and keep each other motivated and accountable. Having support is key! When you go it alone, it’s easy to get distracted and discouraged.
Graduating from college is the beginning of a new chapter of your life. You probably want to enjoy that feeling and not be consumed with your student loans. The antidote to anxiety is action. If you can use these steps to create a plan, you’ll pay off debt faster and get to enjoy life without the burden of debt. You can do this!