LB Note: Tired of excuses from readers about how they can't do certain things because of their student loan debt, I'm excited to feature this post from Rebecca at Student Loan Hero. Enjoy!
But even if you're in debt, your student loans don't have to take over your life. You can find a balance between paying them off and achieving other goals, such as finding the right career or saving for retirement.
If you share any of the following goals, here are some tips for staying on track while paying off your student loans.
1.You CAN Build Your Emergency Fund
Although you might be tempted to pay off your student loans as quickly as possible by making extra payments, you probably should hold off on paying anything beyond the minimum until you have an emergency fund in place.
“Saving to build up an emergency fund is crucial,” said Chase Peckham, director of community outreach at the San Diego Financial Literacy Center. “You never know when your car may break down or your pet gets sick.”
Without a rainy day fund, you could be in trouble if you run into an unexpected expense or lose your job. You might even have to use credit cards or a loan to cover your expenses, leaving you with more debt.
To build your emergency fund, set aside money on a regular basis. You could open a savings account and automatically deposit a certain percentage of each paycheck into it.
If you have no extra income to spare, consider taking on a side hustle, such as driving for Lyft or Uber, or doing online transcription in your spare time.
Once you have a cushion of three to six months' worth of income, use that money to add to your student loan payments so you can save on interest and get out of debt ahead of schedule.
2. You CAN Contribute To Your Retirement Account
You probably aren't thinking about retiring when you begin your career, but it's never too early to start preparing.
Setting aside even $20 per week — or per month — in an IRA or employer-sponsored 401(k) is better than nothing, and you can ramp up your retirement savings as your income grows over time.
There are also times when investing in a retirement fund will net you more than paying back your loans ahead of schedule will, as Kelan Kline, a personal finance blogger who runs The Savvy Couple with his wife Brittany, explained.
“Once I left college, I had around $8,000 in student loans,” said Kline. “My interest rates were below 4%, and I decided to pay them in full a month or two after graduating. Looking back, I should have leveraged this money in investments that would have earned 8% to 10% in the market. It was nice being debt-free but was not the best return on my money at the time.”
Then again, even if the math says it makes more sense to pay the minimum on your loans and invest the rest, some people hate being in debt and prefer to focus on their loans first.
3. You CAN Find A Career You Love
If you're underemployed or stuck in a job you hate, don't feel like you have to remain there forever to pay your student loans.
In fact, professionals who switch jobs instead of staying at the same company tend to see greater wage growth. Plus, you might find a job that offers the rare benefit of student loan repayment assistance.
If you get a job at a government or nonprofit organization, you could be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), which cancels your remaining debt after you make 120 qualifying payments. Teachers have access to their own program, which can offer forgiveness even faster.
Several states also offer student loan repayment assistance if you work for a set period in a qualifying career, including as a lawyer, teacher, doctor, nurse, or veterinarian.
4. You CAN Buy A House (Or Travel The World)
As important as building your emergency fund and saving for retirement are, they're not necessarily the most exciting goals.
You might be more intrigued by the idea of buying a house or taking a months-long trip around Southeast Asia.
Although your student loans might get in the way of accomplishing these goals right away, you can achieve them eventually with careful planning. Take the time to create a budget and track your spending and saving so you can see exactly how much you need to set aside each month.
Even if it takes years to meet your savings goal, you'll have the promise of a new home or an amazing trip to keep you motivated.
Alternatively, you might find a remote job or teach English abroad. Not only could you work and travel, but you also might save money by moving to a country with a lower cost of living.
5. You CAN Pay Off Your Student Loans Ahead of Schedule
Let's say you've taken care of your other financial priorities and still have some money left at the end of the month. In this case, it might be a good idea to make extra payments on your student loans. By making extra payments, you could save money on interest and get out of debt faster. Read this woman's story of how she paid off $42,000 of student loans.
You also can choose a longer repayment term, which will lower your monthly payments, or a shorter term, which will raise your payments but allow you to pay off your debt faster.
Note that refinancing turns federal student loans into a private loan, so you'll lose eligibility for federal forgiveness programs and income-driven repayment (IDR) plans. But if you aren't pursuing PSLF, IDR, or another program, refinancing could be a savvy move.
Remember: You Are Bigger Than Your Student Loans
Although it's stressful to have student loans hanging over your head, your debt doesn't have to define you.
You might make some sacrifices to pay it off faster, but you also can continue to work toward other financial, professional, and personal goals.
If you're feeling overwhelmed, reach out to friends and family for support. You might even start a debt payoff challenge with friends to keep one another motivated.
With 44 million Americans dealing with student loans, you're not in this struggle alone.
Rebecca Safier writes for Student Loan Hero about education, careers, and other personal finance topics.