National Edition

Life and debt: Pay off student loans and get your life back

Published: Monday, June 16 2014 4:15 a.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, June 27 2014 3:21 p.m. MDT

Student loan debt can often feel like it's shackling one down, making the decision between life and debt a difficult one.

Andrew Bossi via flickr

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Marilyn Stanley sees them all the time. People worried about collectors, credit cards, medical and other bills and want credit counseling. So they come to Housing and Credit Counseling in Topeka, Kansas, where Stanley works as the COO.

"And then, when we are going through their entire financial situation, we discover, 'Oh! You have this much student loan debt and this much of a payment and you're delinquent,’ ” says Stanley. "They think the student loan can just go and wait a little while."

Even though student loan collections are not as quick or in-your-face as credit cards, student loan debt is inexorable, unrelenting and will not just go away. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York pegs total student loan debt in America at $1.1 trillion (credit card debt is at $650 billion). The average student loan balance upon graduation is $29,400, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. And except for those who can prove the difficult status of "undue hardship" the lender will be paid.

The burden of student loans is on politicians' minds, too. Last week, President Barack Obama extended a repayment plan option for student loans while Congress argues over how to pay for other loan relief. But rather than risk waiting for a partial solution from Washington, experts say simple ways to attack student loans are available and worth applying.

"You will eventually get the debt paid off," says Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of the education loan advice website, Edvisors.com. "And there is such a feeling of relief when you make your last loan payment. And maybe that will teach you to avoid debt wherever you can."

Get started, get mad

The first step to get out of student loans has to do with emotion, according to Rachel Cruze, co-author with her father Dave Ramsey of the book "Smart Money Smart Kids."

"You kind of get mad. You want this debt out of your life," she says. "Once you have that emotion, that is when you are going to see progress because you really want to see change at that point. The number one is your attitude. Number two is the tactical, the how to pay off the student loans."

Upon graduation, student loans have a six-month grace period before the first payment is due. Cruze advises not to wait six months to start setting aside money to pay off the loans. And making payments requires employment of some sort.

"It is probably not going to be your dream job," Cruze says. "This is where the mistake happens. People graduate and they say, 'This is my degree. This is my passion. I can't find a job in this area, so I'm not going to take one, I'm going to wait for my dream job.' That is not reality.

"You need to find any job. Go wait tables. Go work four jobs. Do whatever you can to make an income to start paying off those bills."

This way, when the dream job comes along, the debt will be smaller.

Get organized

Mark Kantrowitz, who is the senior vice president and publisher of education loan advice website, Edvisors.com, says people need to grasp the basic facts about their situation and be careful.

First, according to Kantrowitz, mark on a calendar the days that are two weeks before each payment is due on each student loan. "When people are late with a payment on a student loan, about a quarter to a third of them are late with the very first payment."

Borrowers also might think the payment isn't due until they get a payment coupon book or statement from the lenders. At the same time, they might not have been very diligent in letting the lender know their new address.

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