How to Tackle Six Figure Student Loan Debt Without Having a Mental Breakdown
So you went to college! Hooray! Hopefully you even grabbed a degree or two before you got out. If you’re like us, you’re one of the 44.2 million Americans who have student loan debt.
I enrolled in college twice and got myself two degrees in total. My husband enrolled in maybe three or four different degree or certificate granting programs at different times. He took courses, on and off, for over nine years. At the end of it all, he has no degree and a lot of student loan debt.
Also – real talk – I could’ve told you years ago student loan debt would be our next financial crisis. I mean, look at how reckless lenders are! Who lets a music major rack up over 100k in debt themselves as an undergrad when odds are high they won’t finish and won’t get a decent paying job?
Anyway – at our high point in November 2013, we were in for : $147,034.04 TOTAL
Let me spell that out for you. It’s a big number.
One hundred forty seven thousand thirty four dollars and four cents.
This is more money than what we took out in loans. They grew as we were unable to make regular payments that were larger than the interest that accrued on them each month.
Derek studied music. I studied social studies. Interdisciplinary social studies at that. Not exactly illustrious career paths where you can comfortably rack up over six figures in student loan debt and not fret too much about how to pay it back. We don’t have medical degrees. We both got ourselves freewheeling artistic, creative, meaningful, rounded liberal arts educations.
Now, this isn’t a “We’re debt free! Hooray!” Post. We’re not done yet.
But I do want to show that even if it seems impossible, you can make sizable dents in massive student loan debt and slowly build a plan to make it all go away forever.
Today, we only have 3 student loans (not 6) and are in for $119,989.44. We’ve paid down 27,044.60 in student loan debt in the past 3.5 years.
How to Tackle Student Loan Debt:
- Face your numbers. Know your numbers intimately. Know them backwards and forwards, inside and out. Prepare flash cards on your student loan interest rates if need be and drill yourself. But, whatever you do, don’t bury your head in the sand and hope you can just ignore your debt. Knowing is the first step to owning and solving.
- Find your bliss. Pick a plan of attack that gives you joy. Round up to the next dollar. Round up to the next $10. Or $100. Or pay off the smallest balance loan first to get to that first “win” fastest. Or dump extra money at the highest interest rate first. Yes, in a pure numbers sense there is a best way, a better way and “eh, still good” way. But, good money habits are a lot about emotions. So do what feels good to you and gives you satisfaction that progress is being made.
- Work the system. Student loans aren’t forever. As a debt obligation, they disappear eventually. Take advantage of what’s available to you. Consider doing “Income Based Repayment” (IBR) or other repayment options. Look at student loan interest deductions on your taxes. Are there work options that would help pay your debt? Some companies are now paying back employee student loans. Is the non-profit loan forgiveness an option for you? (Note DeVos may take it away but for now it’s still an option.) Just remember, student loans aren’t forever.
How We Applied These Principles to Our $147k+ Debt:
- I’ve been tracking the debt. Now, I’m not perfect. I didn’t closely track our debt from the time we signed the promissory notes to now. I can’t give you a month by month update of our balances from 2001 to now. But, I did periodically look, write it down, add it up, and think about it.
- We hit the debt that felt worst to us first. Derek’s one loan that his parent’s co-signed left a pit in our stomachs. We threw all extra money at it until it was gone. Then, I began to tackle my smallest loan (under $5,000 balance remaining), even though it wasn’t the highest interest rate. I did this because for me, paying three student loans back felt better than paying four back. Now we’re paying minimum payments on all that remains. If we had extra money to make payments, we will throw it at the highest interest rate debt first.
- IBR for the win. Fact: if you have no money, you can’t pay it to student loans. If our Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) was $0, our IBR payment would be $0, and the loans would be forgiven after so many years. We’ve tried to maximize our savings in pre-tax accounts to reduce our AGI, which in turn reduces our IBR required payments. This helps us free up our cash flow and disposable income. If it seems a little bit like a Catch 22 of buying eggs for 7 cents, selling them for 5 cents at a profit, that’s because it kinda is. Look at our net worth posts. This is why we’re worth something now.
And so, if you’re not reduced to tears by now, hiding in the corner, rocking back and forth just at the sheer thought of confronting your own student loan debt, CONGRATS! You’re already winning the battle of having the proper money mentality. Realize you can crush your loan debts. It doesn’t have to eat you alive.
Figure out what strategy seems right for you and go do it!