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Are You Afraid of Your College Debt?


By Brianna McGurran, NerdWallet

Ask Brianna” is a column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I’m here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. 

Student loans aren’t scary the way roller coasters are — a quick hit of adrenaline and a silly souvenir photo to capture the moment. No, student loans are scary because they alter the way you see your future. They fill you with dread that you’ll never have a house, a vacation to remember or a secure retirement.

It’s understandable that you would avoid looking at something that gives you nightmares.

But just like exposure therapy can help people who are afraid of snakes, for example, you must face your student loans if you want to free yourself from their grasp. That dread will dissolve once you make a plan to lower your bills and say goodbye to debt.


Step 1: Find out where you stand

A fifth of those with student debt were behind on their payments in 2017, according to the Federal Reserve. You’re far from alone if you’re overwhelmed. To move beyond your fears, come face to face with what you owe, to whom you owe it and when it’s due.

Go to the National Student Loan Data System, click “Financial Aid Review” and create or enter your Federal Student Aid username and password. On the next screen, you’ll see a list of the federal student loans under your name. Click on the number of the loan in the left-most column to bring up details about it. You’ll see the total amount left to repay and the name and website of the company that collects your bill, known as your servicer.

Next, check your credit report for private student loans. You can access one report from each of the three major credit bureaus annually at annualcreditreport.com, or you can use a free online credit reporting service. In the accounts section, student loans will likely be listed as installment loans. Take note of the company that owns the loan and what the balance is.

That’s the hard part. And now it’s over.


Step 2: Get control of your bills

While you must know your overall student loan balance to make a strategic repayment plan, your total monthly bill is the more important number. Not sure how much you’ve been paying to each bank or servicer? Log in to their online portals to find out. While you’re there, note the interest rate on your loans, too.

At this point, make a list of loans that includes the company you pay, whether the loan is federal or private, the amount you owe per month, the amount you owe overall, and the interest rate. Rank the loans by interest rate, with the highest at the top.

This is what you’re working with. Now, compare your total monthly payment with your take-home pay. Are you earning enough to cover not only your loans, but also the essentials like your housing costs and food? Do you have anything left for retirement or emergency savings?

If the answer is “no” to either or both, cutting your loan bill is your priority now.

Step 3: Take action

To give yourself more breathing room, you have a few options:

  • Sign up for an income-driven repayment plan. For federal loans, this limits your loan bill to a percentage of your income, and will free up the money you need in other parts of your life.

  • Call your lender. Your ability to pay less toward private loans depends on individual lenders’ policies. Ask for lower or interest-only payments for a period of time.

  • Avoid extended forbearance. While postponing your payments might sound like a good idea, reserve this for short-term stints — like a month when you have a big medical bill to pay. If you can’t afford your loans for the foreseeable future, choose a more permanent strategy.


If you have a month of expenses or more saved for emergencies and you’re able to contribute up to the employer match on your 401(k), you can tear into those loans. Pay off the highest-interest loans first to save the most money. Or refinance, if you have good credit or a co-signer; you may be able to get a lower interest rate, especially on higher-interest private loans, which will help you pay off loans faster.

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