Yes, You Can Pay Off Your Student Loans and Still Have a Life

It's not as scary as you might think.

student loans debt finances

photography by PHUONG NGUYEN


There is more than 1.45 trillion dollars in outstanding student debt across the United States. At Stash Wealth, our average H.E.N.R.Y.™ [high earner, not rich yet] has around $80,000 in student loans—and it’s costing them more than just interest.

Studies show that 20-somethings and 30-somethings are delaying major life goals like buying a home, saving for retirement, and having children due to their loans. If you’re like most young professionals with student debt, it’s likely that at some point you’ve wondered how to balance those nagging payments with saving up for all the other things you want to do in life.

Many people feel like they can’t start living until their loans are paid off, while others feel like their loans will never go away, so why bother waiting? But I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to choose. You can manage your student loans like a pro and still plan for the future.


First, it’s important to remember that while your student loans are technically considered debt, they are also an investment. Your loans allowed you to invest in your education and by earning a degree, you secured a job that you presumably couldn’t have without them. That said, if you ignore your student loans, you can turn what was a great investment into a not so great one.

Case in point: If you’re making payments to your loans but supplementing your lifestyle with a credit card, you are seriously detracting, and in some cases negating, the return on your investment.

So, here’s what to do.

FIRST: UNDERSTAND YOUR LOANS

When was the last time you looked at your loan paperwork? Like really looked at it. Sometimes when I ask clients whether their loans are federal or private, they aren’t sure. It’s important to understand the basic elements of your loans so you can make informed decisions about how best to manage them.

Take a look and figure out how many loans you have, whether they are federal or private, the total balance of each, what kind of repayment plan you are on (10-year, 20-year, income-based, etc.), the associated interest rate, and finally, the monthly payment amount.

Also good to know is the total interest you are paying on the life of the loan. You can calculate it here. Yes, it’s scary, but avoiding the number isn’t going to help and if anything, may provide some needed motivation to create a game plan.
 
NEXT: SIMPLIFY YOUR LOANS

Before we discuss how to pay off your loans, we advise simplifying your loans. Refinancing and consolidation are scary words that are actually quite helpful once you understand them. So let’s start with the definitions. Consolidation refers to merging multiple loans payments into one payment. Refinancing means paying off your old loan with a new one—preferably at a lower interest rate. I mention them together because often they go hand-in-hand.

Keep in mind that if you have federal loans, and you refinance with a private lender, you will lose certain features available only to federal loans like Income Based Repayment or eligibility for public service loan forgiveness. That said, some private lenders offer other features (like Sofi’s Unemployment Protection) that help to offset the loss of these benefits.

It’s important to ask questions around how consolidation might impact your current benefits and weigh the pros and cons. Losing federal benefits, if you have no plans of using them, isn’t necessarily a bad thing but this is most definitely something that should be decided on a case-by-case basis.

FINALLY: PAY OFF YOUR LOANS AND SAVE FOR THE FUTURE

Instead of prioritizing paying off your loans or saving for the future, we advise that you take a balanced approach and do both. The amount that should go to each depends on a variety of factors, but at Stash, we suggest the following high-level breakdown for individuals with debt.

Divvy up your net paycheck (what actually hits your bank account) so that 20 percent is allocated for debt pay down, 10 percent is allocated for short and long-term goals, and the rest, 70 percent, goes towards your life—everything from rent to dining out with friends. By no means are you expected to hit these targets on day one, but it’s something to work towards.

Example: Removing 401(k) contribution to keep the example simple.
If you make $80,000 per year, and we assume a 28 percent tax rate, your net income would be $57,600 or $4,800 per month.
In this case:
  • 20 percent or $960 per month should go towards your student loans
  • 10 percent or $480 per month should go towards your short and long term savings
  • 70 percent or $3,360 per month should go towards your life (including rent)
If you live in an expensive city (hi, New York) this can be challenging to accomplish without making adjustments to your expenses. That said, in my experience while most of us think we know where our money is going, we don’t have a clue.

So before writing off this plan, take a few minutes to become more intimate with your numbers. Comb through your credit card or bank statement to spot any subscription or recurring payments that you really aren’t using or wouldn’t miss—cancel those. Also, determine what a day costs you, what a week costs you. Simply knowing your numbers can help you make more informed decisions going forward. Even putting an extra $200 per month towards your student loans could save you tens of thousands of dollars in interest over the life of your loan.

Another suggestion and a personal favorite: Automate your monthly payment. Not only do certain lenders offer a discounted interest rate when you automate your payments, but putting your financial life on autopilot is a smart move so that you don’t leave it up to chance. There are repercussions to missing a payment so save yourself the trouble.

While this can seem very exhausting at first, don’t give up before you start. You can do this and remember that you’re not alone. There are tons of resources out there to help. I thought I would end by sharing a few of my favorites:
  • Credible and Sofi: to check your refinancing options. If you choose Sofi, that link entitles you to a $300 cash bonus.
  • CalcXML: to run the numbers on your current loans and how changes to your monthly payment will impact you.
  • Student Loan Hero’s Refinancing Guide: in-depth information to help you decide how best to approach refinancing.
Priya Malani is the co-founder of Stash Wealth, a modern financial firm for H.E.N.R.Y.s™ [High Earners, Not Rich Yet]. In 2009, she left her job on Wall Street to become a financial resource for our generation. For almost five years, Stash has been changing the way 20-somethings and 30-somethings think about their money—whether they’re saving for a vacation or thinking of buying an apartment.

Get more financial advice:
How to Feel Like a Pro When Buying Your First Home
4 Reasons Why Renting Isn’t Throwing Money Away
4 Quick Tips to Start Saving Money for Your First Home

Published on October 27, 2017 - 6:30am EDT

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