By BETHY HARDEMAN
They're everywhere you turn -- student loans -- but do they have to be intimidating or stressful?
Believe it or not, just a little bit of time spent planning and understanding your options may lead to savings of thousands of dollars over the life of your student loans. Interested? We rounded up four ways you can pay off your student debt -- without losing your mind.
1. Start with a plan.
Instead of focusing on one huge total, remember that you're not expected to pay it back all at once. Break it into bite-sized pieces so it's easier to manage. Just like you never forget to pay your electricity bill, make your student loans a part of your monthly routine and budget.
You may want to look into the "avalanche method." To get started, look up the interest rates for each of your student loans. (Interest can be different for each of your loans!) Once you've figured this out, put any extra money toward the loan with the highest interest rate. At the same time, keep making payments on your other loans. By paying down your most expensive loans first, you'll keep your student debt from compounding as much interest, which saves you money.
Alternatively, there's the "snowball method." As you're making your minimum payments on each of your student loans, put any extra money toward the loan with the smallest balance. Over time, you should be paying off more and more loans, getting closer to being debt-free. While you will likely pay more interest over the life of your loans, it can be helpful if you'd like fewer payments to make each month. The progress can also help boost your confidence.
2. Ask for some help!
If you have federal student loans, you may be eligible for different repayment plans, which can make your monthly payments more reasonable.
The Graduated Repayment Plan starts your current payments off low, increasing every two years. This plan may work for you if you expect your income to rise in the future as you become more established in your career.
If you would like more time to repay your student loans, the Extended Repayment Plan can lower your monthly payments. Sound too good to be true? Keep in mind that you will likely pay more over time when you factor in the compounding interest.
And if your student loan payments make up a large part of your current income, an income-driven repayment plan may help. Options include the Income-Based Repayment Plan, Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan and Income-Contingent Repayment Plan. No matter the plan, your monthly payments will change over time as your income changes. To get started, you'll usually need to provide some proof of your income to your federal student loan servicer (they're the ones who send you the bill every month).
Lastly, the company you work for may have a program to help with your student debt. If they don't, ask whether they'd consider adding student debt assistance as an employee benefit.
3. Think about hitting "pause."
If you can't make your payments, contact your loan servicer right away so you can understand your options. If you have federal student loans, you may be able to defer your loans for as long as three years.
When you defer your loans, the provider agrees to stop collecting payments. In some cases, interest may also stop accruing. While you are still responsible for repaying your loan after the deferment period, pausing your payments can help you get back on your feet.
4. Don't juggle everything at once; consider refinancing or consolidating.
Many people find refinancing or consolidating loans cheaper or easier to manage. Tracking one less thing every month can be the difference between manageable and stressful.
If you're able to take out a new loan with a lower interest rate, refinancing can help you save thousands of dollars. It might also mean smaller payments. But remember, when you refinance a loan, you're taking out a new loan, so you'll generally need good or excellent credit for the best interest rates.
If you have multiple federal student loans, The Department of Education allows you to consolidate them for free and without a credit check. Consolidating your federal student debt fixes your interest rate for the rest of your loan, which may make payments easier to budget. Your new interest rate will generally be a weighted average of your previous interest rates.
Before you consolidate, make sure you don't lose any of the benefits associated with your federal loans. For example, your original loans may be eligible for federal repayment plans or even interest rate discounts. Also, keep in mind that you'll likely pay more in interest, as consolidated loans often extend the length of your loan.
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