When something is stressful or scary like student debt can be, the brain might have a natural response: Avoid it. But experts say that’s a mistake.
“Just by ignoring debt — it won’t go away,” said Joshua Harris, a certified financial planner and advisor for the department of finance at Clemson University’s College of Business. “It’ll only get worse with penalties, excess interest, and other ramifications.” By facing student loan struggles head-on, borrowers will be better prepared and more capable of living their lives to the fullest, he said.
Here are some strategies to take your student loan debt from under water to under control.
1. Face your student debt
The first step in coming to terms with your student debt is to shine a light on it. Be willing to face the truth, no matter how ugly.
Start by figuring out exactly how much you owe:
- Check the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to find a full list of federal student loans in your name.
- Review your credit report to verify it lists your NSLDS accounts accurately. Your credit report also will list your private student loan amounts.
Once you know how much you owe, it’s time to own your debt. You agreed to the lender’s terms when you took out the debt, and now you must manage and repay it. You should resolve to take this responsibility seriously and create your own solution.
2. Use your debt stress to fuel action
Student loans sometimes can feel so scary that even the thought of them can trigger a fight-or-flight response. In fact, our student debt stress survey found that more than 67% of respondents reported suffering from physical symptoms as a result of their student debt stress, including headaches, sleep loss, muscle tension, and stomachaches.
If you’re having these reactions, treat them as important feedback from your nervous system. They’re telling you that your student debt is getting scary and possibly out of control.
These reactions also come with a rush of physical responses designed to make you take action. Allow your heightened emotional state to help you focus and motivate you to work toward a student loan solution.
3. Don’t let your student debt define you
Unfortunately, student loans can affect more than your emotions and mood. “Borrowers will carry a lot of mixed feelings about their debt, and it’s important to recognize those feelings before you make a plan to get out of debt,” Harris said.
Student debt can reinforce negative beliefs you might harbor about debt, money, and even yourself. Instead of being one issue you have to deal with, your student debt can become part of how you view yourself.
Pay attention to how you think about yourself and your debt. Notice if it brings on negative self-talk. You might call yourself stupid, for instance, or berate yourself for taking out the loans.
If that happens, take a step back and challenge those negative beliefs. “What’s … important to remember is that numbers on a spreadsheet don’t make you you,” Harris added. Remind yourself that your value and worth as a person could never be measured by your assets or debt. Take a compassionate and less judgmental view of yourself and your student debt.
4. Recognize the progress you’ve made
Have you ever made a student loan mistake? If it comes to mind right away, try to think of something you did right with your student debt. It might not be as easy to come up with an example.
That’s because the mind has a tendency to overlook successes. Instead, it might catalog and dwell on every misstep. This process is called mental filtering.
Since your mind might more naturally recall student debt mistakes, try being your own mental champion. “Student loans are scary and overwhelming — but remember that with each payment you’re closer to being completely independent of that debt,” Harris said.
Celebrate every student loan win, even the small steps forward. Give yourself credit for the work you’ve done and are doing on your debt (you’re reading this article, for instance, to learn about more strategies).
5. Talk about your student debt
Another way to come to terms with your student debt is to talk about it with others. That might go against your natural instincts. More than 74% of borrowers shut other people out of their lives in response to student debt stress, according to our survey.
Reaching out to others for social connection and support can be a powerful component of your student debt strategy. It can help in two important ways.
It normalizes your student debt
Borrowers often feel embarrassed by and ashamed of their student debt. You might think that everyone else seems to have it figured out while you’re struggling. But if you start opening up about this struggle with people you trust, you might find that others in your social circle facing similar situations.
“Wouldn’t it be great if everyone posted their pain and agony each month when they make their student loan payment via social media?” Harris asked. You might start to see that student debt is a part of many adults’ lives and finances and that it doesn’t make you a failure.
It provides support on your path to student loan payoff success
As you start talking about debt with trusted friends, you could find support in paying off your student debt.
“Don’t be afraid to be proud of each payment you’re making, as it’s bringing you that much closer to being free of the debt,” Harris said. “You’d be surprised how much support you’ll receive from friends who are experiencing the same thing.”
6. Take a break from student debt when needed
Sometimes you need a break from your student loans. While many get-out-of-debt gurus suggest tackling debt with laser focus, the truth is life might not always cooperate with your efforts.
For instance, you might need to defer your student loan payments after a job loss. If your income is low compared to your student loan balance, an income-driven repayment plan can give you some breathing room in your budget.
At times, the most responsible way to manage student debt might be to take a break from it. “Explore the repayment options available to you and determine what time frame, monthly payment, and overall interest works best with your own financial plan,” Harris said.
7. Seek professional help
A professional can provide invaluable advice and support while you manage your student debt and financial stress. “If that still feels overwhelming, working with a certified financial planner who specializes in student loans can help you make a plan to eliminate the debt,” Harris said.
You also might benefit from therapy with a licensed mental health professional who can give you personalized support and treatment.
Lastly, never forget that you’re bigger than your student debt. “Right now, your life is not defined by how much debt you have,” Harris said. “You define your own life and how you want to live it.”
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