Student loan debt is about to clear $35,000 per student for the first time. If you want to go to a private university or graduate school, your debt is going to be even higher. More and more college grads are living at home longer and delaying marriage and family because of their student loans. But much like a mortgage, you can get out of student loan debt faster with smart budgeting and discipline.
Before You Get the Debt, Reduce the Debt
"Do the math," says Brent Lindell is a financial advisor and market manager with Savant Capital. "You want to spend the least amount of time in college as possible." This means that you can reduce your overall education bill by graduating in three years instead of four, or spending two years at a community college, then transferring to a more prestigious school.
Lindell also notes that it's important to factor in your career plans when choosing a school. "You don't want to go to Notre Dame and become a public school teacher," he says. A rule of thumb is that you want to be making more in your first year on the job than the entire student loan bill you're going to get when you graduate. It's not a hard and fast rule, but it's a good way to ballpark if you're making a reasonable investment or not.
Other ways to reduce your debt on the front end are scholarships instead of loans and grants.
Student Loan Forgiveness Programs
Ellie Kay, a family financial expert with seven children, notes that there are programs for federal loan forgiveness but that you have to read the fine print. "Some require a certain number of years on the job and you have to pay during those years," she says. Ten years is a common number for the years required, which means you still have to make 120 payments on your student loans. Kay is also quick to point out that these forgiveness programs won't do anything for private loans.
Budgeting Is King
More than anything else, you want to budget and stick to it. There are two ways you can budget to pay off your student loans early. Lindell says that it's a general rule of thumb that you should be saving 15% of your income at any time. However, what you do with that 15% that you're saving isn't set in stone. "If your 401(k) is matched at 4 or 5% and you're not taking advantage of that, you're missing out on are money," Lindell says. So you set aside enough to take full advantage of matching funds, then using the remaining 10 percent to pay down your student loans.
The good thing about this method is that it means you're making bigger and bigger payments as you age. You'll hopefully be making more as you get older. This means that as you get older, a snowball effect will take place, allowing you to pay off your debts more and more as you age.
Kay notes that you can pay down a student loan faster in the same way that you pay down a mortgage earlier. That means paying an extra payment every year or quarter, breaking it up into each of your payments. Kay notes that even a small extra payment -- say $20 a month -- might save you $1,000 in interest. An extra $50 a month means around $2,000 in interest saved. "Just be aware that if the accumulated extra funds are more than the next payment, you're going to get a statement that says $0 due," Kay says.
Finally, make sure that you're prioritizing your student loans in the proper context. There's no point in throwing tons of money at a student loan every month if you're making monthly minimum payments on a credit card. Always pay down your debts in order of interest rate.
Student loans are probably impacting your way of life, but it doesn't have to stay that way. With just a little bit of discipline, you can get out of student loan debt and start your path to real financial freedom.