Pop quiz: Would you rather spend money on a) a new car, b) your first house, or c) your student loans? Yeah, it’s a trick question. After all, who wouldn’t rather choose A or B? But the reality is most recent grads are stuck with C.
The average 2018 college graduate owed $29,200 in student loans upon graduation, according to the Institute of College Access and Success. And that debt can affect your finances for decades to come: While the federal government’s standard student loan term is 10 years, the average college grad with a bachelor’s degree takes nearly 20 years to pay off their loans in full, according to one study.
But it doesn’t have to take that long—or derail your life in the meantime. Start with these strategies to tackle your debt smartly and systematically.
Profit From Your Promotions
“If you recently received a raise at work, allocating those additional funds to your student loans is a great long-term investment,” says Alyssa Schaefer, chief marketing officer of Laurel Road, a digital lending platform and brand of KeyBank that offers student loan refinancing. Doing so can help reduce your principal and lower the total interest you pay over the life of the loan. Use this calculator to figure out what you’d save by paying an extra $100 a month (or more) toward your loans.
Take Advantage of “Found Money”
This could be a work bonus, tax refund, or (if you’re very lucky!) an inheritance. You can even search for unclaimed funds in your name at Unclaimed.org, if you’re feeling adventurous.) While you don’t have to put the entire thing toward debt (you do have a life, after all), make a rule that you’ll put, say, 50% of every windfall toward debt payments.
Make One Extra Payment Per Year
If you can make 13 payments a year instead of 12, you’ll save significant money over time. For example, if you make an extra payment of $345 a year on a $30,000 loan at 6.8%, you’ll save more than $1,500 over 10 years. “An extra payment a year will cut almost a year off of a 10-year repayment term,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and VP of research of Savingforcollege.com. Not sure you can swing it? It’s the equivalent of adding $29 to each monthly payment, or you could set aside $29 a month in a savings account and make the payment in December.
Sign Up for Autopay
Many student loan servicers offer an interest rate discount for signing up for auto payments, and even for making a year of payments on time. “You’re going to get that quarter of a percent and in some cases, half a percent interest rate deduction,” Kantrowitz says. “It’s going to save you money.”
Refinance Your Loans
“Actively searching for lenders that can provide a lower interest rate with a shorter term could save you a significant amount in the long-term,” Schaefer says. Even if you don’t accelerate your payments, refinancing a $30,000 10-year loan at 6.8% to a 10-year loan at 5% will save you $3,245 over time.
A digital-first platform like Laurel Road can help you get a personalized rate quote in minutes. Just make sure that any lender you look at generates your preliminary rate through a “soft” credit pull as opposed to a “hard” pull, since the latter will negatively affect your credit score. “At Laurel Road we built in soft pulls at the initial phase, so there’s no impact until you decide to move forward with your application,” says Schaefer, adding that all lenders will need to do a hard pull to deliver final rates as part of your official application.
One caveat: If you have federal loans, the government offers a variety of flexible repayment plans and options like Public Service Loan Forgiveness, in which you’re forgiven the balance on your loans after you’ve made 120 monthly payments while working full-time in a qualifying public service role. “You will no longer be eligible for these benefits and options if you refinance to a private loan,” Schaefer notes. “It’s important to weigh this against the potential benefits of refinancing.”
Go With a More Aggressive Payment Plan
While the federal government offers the ability to sign up for lengthy or graduated payment plans that may allow 25 to 30 years to repay loans, if you can swing the shorter payment schedule (10 years or less), you’ll be out of debt sooner and pay less in interest. The same goes for refinancing: Choose the shortest payback period you can manage.
“Lenders will offer payment plans across five, 10, 15, and even 20 years, with competitive interest rates,” Schaefer says. “If you have a 15-year loan and room enough in your budget to refinance to a 10-year repayment plan, then the savings could be substantial.”
Get Help at Work
Although student loan repayment assistance is still not the most common perk (only about 8% of companies offer it), it’s gaining steam as employers realize how much new employees value this benefit. A company might offer, say, $10,000 toward your student loans over the course of five years of working there. If your employer has a program like this, sign up and take full advantage. If you’re still job hunting, keep this in mind when you’re looking, and ask employers if they offer assistance. If they don’t already offer it, they might consider adding it to their benefits portfolio.
Even if your employer doesn’t offer repayment assistance, they may partner with certain lenders to offer special rates or benefits; some professional organizations do the same. Schaefer advises, “Talk to your network at work or at school about any special offers to make sure you’re not leaving money on the table.”