Paying off student loans can be one of the biggest financial hurdles college students face. There are 44 million Americans paying off student loans that add up to a whopping $1.4 trillion of debt. And with college tuition soaring, the average student will leave school with over $37,000 in debt after graduation.
To get on top of your debt and begin paying off your loans, it’s important to have a plan, according to Joanne Bradford, chief marketing officer of financial services company SoFi.com . Bradford laid out her five must-haves for building a student loan strategy.
#1: Know what you owe
Bradford says that most people have no idea how much they need to pay, and that can hurt them down the line.
“Most people don’t really ever think about it; they don’t want to look at it,” Bradford said. “You need to tackle your student loan debt. It can’t stifle you or make you feel overwhelmed—it’s easy to get it under control.”
Bradford recommends using a student loan calculator , which can help you determine your student loan balance and how much you should be paying each month.
#2: Understand your loan terms
You may have taken out multiple loans to pay for tuition, and they may have different terms, payment schedules or interest rates.
For example, Federal loans have fixed interest rates, which means the interest rate will stay the same for the entirety of your loan. The Federal Reserve raised the interest rate in 2017 to 4.45% for undergraduate student loans and 6-7% for graduate student loans. You have ten to 25 years to pay off your federal loans in full.
Private loans have fixed or variable rates. Variable rates mean the interest may fluctuate throughout the course of your repayment, and the length of repayment can vary depending on your lender.
“You should start with how much you owe, what the interest rates are, and how long it’s going to take you to pay off,” Bradford said. “I think you really have to have a budget, a plan and then really know what you’re willing to sacrifice.”
#3: Know your earning potential
Bradford says you should consider your future career when you think about how you want to tackle your student loan debt.
“You should really understand your worth in the marketplace by knowing what your first job is and how much you’re going to make. What will your career choice pay for?” Bradford said.
Bradford says not understanding the connection between what you will make in your career and what you owe will affect you for the rest of your life.
“Think about what job you’re in: what kind of company you work for, what you’re going to be paid, what the future success of the company is,” Bradford said. “I don’t think that people really do enough homework on those kind of things because it then has a ripple effect into everything else you do.”
Considering your career as part of your repayment strategy can help you avoid financial difficulties down the line.
“I’ve seen people put themselves in very tough financial situations by not really understanding how much they’re going to make and how much they owe and aligning those two things,” Bradford says.
#4: Consider refinancing
Refinancing your student loans means getting a new loan at a new interest rate. You can refinance your federal and private loans into one loan with a new lender, ideally with a better interest rate and different loan terms.
Bradford’s company, SoFi.com , offers student loan refinancing, and people who refinance typically save $280 a month, she said.
While refinancing can make your monthly payments more manageable, keep in mind that you would lose benefits like loan forgiveness and other loan assistance programs offered through the Federal loan program. And not everyone is eligible for refinancing. Bradford says you need to show a history of paying your current loans on time and have good credit.
#5: Save for other financial goals
Student loans may seem overwhelming, but paying them off shouldn’t be your only financial goal, says Bradford.
“You should have other goals—you should want to go on vacation, buy a home, travel the world or move to a different neighborhood,” Bradford says.
You should also begin saving for retirement; participate in a employee-sponsored retirement account like a 401(k), or start an IRA.
“People feel that they can’t make the moves they need to in their personal lives because of debt,” Bradford said. “But I think anybody that I know that has sat down and made a budget and done everything they can to get [their debt] under control can usually reach their goals.”