For an entire generation, student loan debt has become a crippling fact of life. Part of the problem is the sheer size of student loan debt. For the Class of 2016, average student loan debt is approaching $37,000 and about 70% of graduates are carrying them.
The six month grace period before payments are due flashes by in an instant, and new graduates are finding that their new financial situation—whether unemployed, underemployed, or paying dues in a new career—does not quite cover the necessary expenses and the student loan payment, too.
How can you pay off your student loans so you can get on with your life?
Here are some strategies to help you do just that.
How to Pay Off Your Student Loans
There are many ways to pay off your student loan debt. The easiest method is to just dig in and start making payments. We’ll cover some strategies for that in a moment. But first, let’s cover a few programs and some alternative methods for repaying your student loans – just so you know the options available.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program
Under the PSLP Program certain student loans can be forgiven if you work in certain public service jobs for 10 years.
Other provisions of the program include:
- You must make 120 on-time, full, scheduled, monthly payments on your Direct Loans. Only payments made after October 1, 2007 qualify.
- You must make those payments under a qualifying repayment plan.
- When you make each of those payments, you must be working full-time at a qualifying public service organization.
Only loans made under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan) Program qualify, however you can consolidate other student loan types into a Direct Consolidation Loan to take advantage of PSLF. Only loan payments made under the consolidation will count toward the 120 payments for PSLF purposes – and none of the payments made up to that point.
Alternative Ways to Pay Off Your Student Loans
1. Uncle Sam Wants You… to use your newly learned skills to help others! With options as diverse as volunteering (through the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and VISTA), military service (the military forgives student loans under some circumstances, including service with the Army National Guard), teaching in low-income areas, and practicing law or medicine for the public interest or health, the government has a loan forgiveness program for nearly everyone. Each of these options will require some sort of time commitment, but the rewards go far beyond the ability to pay your loan. Many volunteers find that their career path is forever shaped and improved by the time they gave. Check out FinAid.org for more information about these programs.
2. Don’t pay more than you can afford. For those with irregular or low income, the Income Based Repayment plan (IBR) could be a lifesaver. With this program, you are only required to pay a percentage of your total income, based upon your income and family size. Rather than a standard 10-year repayment plan, this will allow you to continue paying down your loan even if your income is quite limited. A further benefit is that you can have the remainder of your loan canceled if you take advantage of IBR for 25 years. Visit Studentaid.ed.gov for all the details on IBR.
3. Get a micro-sponsorship. We have all heard of the incredible power of small amounts of money through micro-lending. Some websites have taken that idea and applied it to education costs. This website will allow current students and graduates to post profiles where they tell potential sponsors why they are worthy of a gift of money. The minimum that a sponsor can donate is as low as $5, and there are no costs for the students, who can use the money for current college costs or to help pay down student loan debt. 100% of the money that sponsors donate goes directly to the students—although the website does take an additional 5% over the sponsored amount for the cost of maintaining the site.
Even in today’s economy, it is possible to ensure that you can choose between saving and paying off student loans and that you are not forced to carry your student loan debt into retirement, as insurmountable as the amount may seem.
Don’t Qualify for the Above Programs? Let’s Tackle Your Loans Anyway!
If you don’t qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, or if working in a public service sector job is not possible or desirable, then you will have to resort to dealing with student loan debts the old-fashioned way.
The rest of this article will focus on that exact strategy. Given the magnitude of student loan debts, it will be probably be worth dedicating a few years out of your life to paying off the debt. This is particularly true if your student loan debts are well above $30,000. It will be difficult to build a meaningful life if you’re saddled with $50,000, $100,000, or more in student loan debt. The monthly payment alone can eat up a disproportionate amount of your income. And the prospect of having to make that payment for a decade or more to be downright demoralizing.
Dealing with it then will necessarily be a multi-step process. Try these…
Cut Your Living Expenses to the Bone
The only realistic way to payoff a very large loan on a limited income will be keep your living expenses to an absolute minimum. It will likely require that you delay your entry into the TV version of the middle-class lifestyle. The best advice is to continue living the college lifestyle while you work toward paying off your student loans.
In order to keep your living expenses low, you may have to do one or more of the following, depending upon what your income situation is:
- Rent. Live home with your family, rent a room, or share a rental arrangement with two or more room mates. Rent is usually the highest expense so it will have to be kept as small as possible. A sharing situation will also keep utility expenses very low.
- Transportation. Buy a “beater” (a car that’s at least 10 years old and can be purchased for cash), develop a ridesharing arrangement, or use public transportation. A late model car is a luxury you can’t afford.
- Food. The great majority of your meals should be prepared at home, and not taken in restaurants.
- Entertainment Expenses. Must be kept to a minimum. Spending too much here will undermine your efforts to pay off your student loan debts. Focus on finding less-expensive ways to spend your time and energies.
Those are the basic expenses. It should go without saying that any major spending plans should be on hold until after your student loan debts been paid in full.
Increase Your Income – And Dedicate it to Your Student Loan Debt
This can involve taking a second job, or starting a side business. Whatever the income source is, it’s absolutely critical that the extra revenue is directed specifically into paying off your student loan debts. Under ideal circumstances, you should be able to live on one income source, while dedicating the other to paying off your student loans.
This will also have the advantage that the more time you spend working, the less time you will be out spending money.
Don’t Take on ANY New Debt
Earlier I mentioned putting major spending plans on hold until after student loans are paid. But this is particularly true in regard to any spending plans that might see you taking on fresh debt.
If you want to get out of debt, the single worst thing to do is take a new debt. Doing so will be a matter of moving debt from one pile to another – even if you are making progress in paying down your student loans.
Ignore Your Other Debts
If you do have other debts in addition to your student loans, you may have to ignore them while you concentrate on achieving the bigger prize of paying off your student loans. There’s only so much that you can take on, so you have to avoid allowing yourself to be distracted by other obligations.
Make the minimum payments on those debts, and concentrate any extra money on paying off the student loans. Once the student loan debts are paid, those other debts should be fairly easy to take out. This assumes your other debts aren’t crippling or larger than your student loans. For example, it makes sense to knock out high interest credit card debt before focusing on low(er)-interest student loans.
Dig In For the Long Haul
You have to accept the fact that paying off a large amount of debt may take several years. Exactly how long it will take will depend upon your income situation, your living expenses, how much money you have to dedicate to paying off the debt, and of course the size of your student loans.
You have to be realistic about how long it will take. That will be important so that you will have the proper expectations. For example, if you owe $50,000 in student loan debt, and you earn $40,000 per year, it will take five years to payoff the loan if you are able to pay $10,000 per year on the debt (and that doesn’t even account for interest, so it may take a few months longer).
It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick – but it will be worth it. Once your student loan debt is gone, you’ll be able to finally move forward with your life plans. But you’ll be stronger for it because you will be armed with a college degree, and the experience of having overcome a massive obstacle in your life.
Have you considered what will be involved in making your student loan debt finally go away forever?