This article is part of a collection of stories about balancing student loan repayments and prioritizing other savings goals. Read more about this topic.
Got student loans? You’re not alone—in fact, you belong to a very non-exclusive group of about 40 million Americans. The average class of 2014 undergraduate has $33,000 in student loan debt, according to a recent study from financial aid website Edvisors. For those who have completed a professional degree, the amount is even higher.
While you may be happy with the education—and future earnings opportunities—this debt has afforded you, chances are you’d like to tear up your student loan membership card as soon as possible, not just to avoid the hefty monthly payment, but so you can shift your focus to other important financial goals, like figuring out how to save for retirement.
While there’s not much you can do to make your loans disappear overnight, with the right strategy, you can pay them off much sooner than you thought possible, and potentially even save yourself some money along the way. Here are five steps you can take to make it happen.
1. Identify your minimum monthly payment.
All lenders, both federal and private, offer the option of penalty-free prepayment, or paying more than the minimum on your loan—and you’re going to want to take advantage of this feature. In most cases, any amount you pay in excess of your monthly bill will decrease the amount of principal you owe (check with your loan servicer to make sure it treats prepayments this way). As interest is charged as a percentage of principal, the more you prepay, the less you spend on interest and the faster you’re done with your loans.
You can use a student loan calculator to input your loan amount, loan term, interest rate, and loan start date—and determine how much you need to pay each month. For example, if you just graduated with a $50,000 loan at a 6.8% interest rate, you would need to pay a minimum $985.35 per month to be free of this debt in five years.
Other tools that can help you consolidate all of your loan information to get a better sense of what you owe include Tuition.io and Student Loan Hero, which allow you to aggregate all of your loans under one roof, then use their calculators and tools to assess different payment strategies.
2. Factor your number into your budget.
Keeping expenses low is the key to making this number work. After all, if you’re planning to make a nearly $1,000 loan payment every month, you’re likely going to have to cut back in certain areas that aren’t necessarily must-haves.
Eric Rosenberg, founder and editor of Narrow Bridge Finance, paid his MBA off in two years by keeping his expenses low and making sacrifices in areas where his friends were spending more. “Saving $500 on rent compared to some of my friends gave me an extra $6,000 per year to pay into my loans,” Rosenberg said. “At that rate, you’ll only need a few years and you will see major progress on even the biggest loan balances.”
To make big dents in his loans, Rosenberg did things like take public transit or ride his bike instead of taking taxis or owning a car, and he typically packed his own lunch for work instead of buying food each day.
3. Use windfalls wisely.
You can accelerate your loan payoff by putting any extra money you receive throughout the year, such as a work bonus or tax refund, toward your loans. For example, using the same numbers from above ($50,000 in loans at a 6.8% interest rate over five years), you can expect your monthly payment is $985.35. Then, let’s say you receive an annual bonus of $2,500. By putting that bonus toward your loans every year and continuing to make your usual $985.35 monthly payment, you will shave off an entire year from your payoff date, according to the Bankrate calculator.
4. Consider refinancing.
Another way to accelerate loan payoff is to lower the interest rates on your loans. If you qualify to refinance and consolidate student loans, it can lower your monthly payments or shorten your payment term, and it will save you money on interest over the long term.
For example, if you have $50,000 in student loans at a 6.8% interest rate with a 10-year term, and you’re able to refinance those loans and reduce the interest rate by just one percentage point (to 5.8%), you can save more than $3,000 in total interest. The average borrower who uses SoFi, a student loan refinancing company, saves almost $12,000, according to data provided by the company.
Refinancing is often a no-brainer for eligible borrowers, but many people don’t even know that the option exists. That’s because borrowers tend to ‘set and forget’ student loans, selecting a repayment plan after graduation and never looking back. Meanwhile, if your financial situation has improved over time, you may actually qualify for a lower interest rate through refinancing (learn more about that here).
The opinions expressed by Dan Macklin are strictly his own and do not necessarily represent those of Betterment.