Following house mortgages, student loans are the second financial burden of the nation. The latest numbers show that over 44 million Americans, which is roughly twice the whole population of the state of New York, have a student loan, adding up to 1.31 trillion dollars, a bit more than Russia’s GDP for 2016. These numbers are staggering and repaying an amount exceeding $ 30K per borrower takes time, organization and a clear strategy.
This is war and any weapon that is to your advantage should be considered and results maxed out. Personal finance management is the first line of defense against irresponsible spending that adds to the credit burden. Looking for ways to avoid paying for your own studies like scholarships and tuition aids is the second way of minimizing the impact of your studies on your wallet. Aiming for federal forgiveness is a strategy that is coming into play, but only applies to certain domains. Weird ways of repaying your debt, which are not exactly your first choice but could help, are also worth considering.
Personal finance management
Probably the first way advertised by any hard working and diligent young professional who managed to overcome the debt monster is just organizing your student loan as a project, with clear payment dates and amounts. There are a plethora of tools to help you do just that, from pen and paper to web-sites, calculators and apps.
This way of managing your student loans is similar to the effort you have to pun in when deciding to lose weight and, like slimming, there is no magic formula or pill, just diligence, hard work and turning good decisions into a habit and eventually a lifestyle. Instead of counting calories you will be counting dollars and success belongs to the highly determined. You need motivation, tools to keep you visually aware of your progress and a good set of rebound factors to help you get back on track when you make mistakes.
Set an ambitious goal for yourself, realistically plan for each payment by looking at your income sources, other gigs that could earn you extra money and cutting expenses, especially for those items that you are not getting 100% benefit from like cable, an expensive phone plan, or even a fancy gym membership. Find low cost alternatives, negotiate with suppliers or just borrow instead of buying.
The best option is to have thoughtful parents, grandparents or even older siblings that have invested early on in a 529 plan. This is a very flexible saving instrument that remains in the owner’s name, but can be used to fund several beneficiaries and the owner is the sole controller of the way money is spent. This is an option for the financially wise, since moderate but regular payments starting in early childhood can help the family and the student avoid financial burdens.
If you have already taken a couple of loans without proper research, there is still hope. Refinancing or consolidation is playing the market to your advantage, or at least getting organized. Having all your debt in one place with a lower interest rate or low payments is the way to go. Although it might be good idea for Direct PLUS clients, if you have other loan types you should take this option with a grain of salt, since it could give you the advantage of a lower rate for the moment, but deny you other options down the line, as accessing Federal Forgiveness, pay as you earn (PAYE) or defaulting a few payments during economic hard times.
Scholarships and financial aids
The most important state aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which opens the door towards federal grants, loans and work-study funds. The amount of money depends on the chosen programs and individual applications, but remember to go for federal loans first, such as those provided by Sallie Mae. Federal loans are subject to lower interest rates and open the door towards deferring your loan, paying based on earnings, applying for forgiveness or at least deducting some taxes.
Each educational institution usually has its own scholarships based on alumni’s contributions or specific research interests. Choosing a college that is willing to help you repay your student loans might not look as attractive as Ivy League, but could save you years of counting every dime, while providing an education that helps you become a top earner.
If you chose FAFSA and are granted your request in one year, remember this is not an auto-renewal program, since money is finite, you have to re-apply each year if you need help with your education.
Federal forgiveness and volunteering
As the old saying goes time is money and in the case of students one part of the equation can be traded for the other.
The federal forgiveness program applies to graduates who have served a certain amount of time in public services. The eligible categories for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) are public administration workers who have paid for at least 10 years and have not refinanced or consolidated their loans. The program also applies to military, teachers and people who can provide useful services in rural and poor areas. The best candidates for this program are REPAYE, PAYE, IRB, and ICR holders.
Other similar programs are aimed at stimulating graduates to join the Peace Corps, or other volunteering options that can cover from a few thousand dollars to almost 70% of loan and get you some experience on the resume too.
Do you have an interest in growing potatoes? Are you really tall? Do you intend to get a tattoo removed or you are a bowling star? All the things that make you a special individual could translate in scholarship money. When looking for ways to repay student loan debt try to find specific scholarships that are intended for helping people with your characteristics. Although they might sound weird, these are usually created in good faith and, as they say “when it is a question of money, everybody is the same religion”.
This idea is not new, in fact, someone who tried this approach a few years ago and did some extensive research decided to put all the information in the same place for further reference and he is not the only one. Other untraditional approaches include starting crowdsourcing campaigns for your dream on sites like Kickstarter, but these are by no means as extreme as the most controversial and barely legal way of seeking an arrangement. Before going so far scout deeper in the pile of regret free alternatives.
The ideas displayed here are just scratching the surface of what can be done to achieve financial independence. Even if you think that budgeting is boring and would rather hit the mall maxing out your credit card limit, take a moment to organize and treat each step of your life as an investment, not an expense, basically spending money only to make money.