5 expert strategies for paying off graduate school student loans

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Graduate school: It’s one of the biggest investments of your life. Not only does it extend your academic career, but it has the ability to make your student loan debt burden skyrocket.

If you go to graduate school, chances are you’re going to need help paying for its costs. Graduate student loan debt is proven to have higher borrowing rates and larger balances than undergraduate student loan debt, according to a 2018 report by the Urban Institute and AccessLex Institute. Those balances were more than three times the amount of undergrad balances during the 2015-2016 school year — and can seem like a daunting obligation to fulfill.

Just how much money are we talking? Research by New America finds one in four borrowers have a combined undergraduate and graduate student loan balance of nearly $100,000 — almost half of the national average mortgage debt in 2017.

Those considering graduate school shouldn’t be intimidated by the large balances, though. A graduate degree can double your earnings, according to the Urban Institute, making it an investment with the potential for generating a positive return.

Best ways to pay off graduate school loans

Bankrate asked a number of experts to share some of the best ways to pay off graduate student loans. Here’s what they recommend:

1. Find a repayment plan that matches your ability to pay

One of the hardest parts about having student loans is figuring out how to afford monthly payments. The higher the total balance, the more you’ll owe each month on a standard repayment plan, which spreads out an even number of payments over 10 years.

There are ways to lower monthly payments, though, which include putting yourself on a repayment plan. That includes some income-driven repayment plans, which cap payments at 10 percent of your discretionary income.

“I’m on an income-driven repayment plan, which means I can breathe a little bit knowing my payments won’t bankrupt me,” says Felicia Golden, a 30-year-old public relations specialist in London who had around $28,000 in student loans after graduate school. “But for me, it’s really important to pay as much as I can each month and not just the contractual minimum. Because then the interest just builds up until it’s unmanageable.”

Pros: Your monthly payment will likely be capped at 10 percent of your discretionary income, meaning they will be more affordable than payments on a standard repayment plan.

Cons: Some repayment plans stretch out payments for longer periods of time, meaning you might end of paying much more in interest than you would on a standard repayment plan.

Best for: Graduates with moderate-to-low incomes.

2. Consider refinancing to save on interest

If you took out private loans for graduate school, refinancing them can likely lower your interest rate. Plus, you can consolidate loans from multiple servicers, meaning you’ll likely only have one payment to make each month. This could also potentially lower your monthly payment, making it more manageable in your budget.

Before choosing a company to refinance with, it’s important to shop around for the best rate. Comparison tools like Bankrate’s help individuals look at refinancing options with multiple lenders in one easy place, allowing them to choose a loan with the best terms. (Compare student loan rates on Bankrate.)

Pros: Refinancing loans can save you thousands on interest and potentially lower your monthly payment.

Cons: Federal loans cannot be refinanced through government lenders, meaning if borrowers choose to refinance privately, they will forfeit their ability to use payment plans. Getting approved for private refinancing will depend on creditworthiness.

Best for: Individuals with fair-to-excellent credit scores who have private student loans.

(Check out Bankrate’s guide to refinancing student loans)

3. Figure out ways to earn more money

Earning extra money is quickly becoming a common way of life in America. A recent Bankrate survey found that nearly half of working Americans have a side gig outside of their primary job and use the money for a variety of purposes, such as spending, paying for regular living expenses or savings.

For someone with a large graduate loan debt balance, getting a side gig could be a great way to knock off that debt faster.

“I’m a firm believer that everyone can earn an extra $100 per month if they try to,” says Robert Farrington, founder of The College Investor. “That extra $100 per month can be applied to your student loan debt, eliminating $1,200 per year from your loan balance.”

Pros: Working a side gig can have multiple rewards, including creating your own schedule

Cons: Working more hours means not only giving up valuable personal time, but you run the risk of burnout. Be sure to get strategic with any side hustle, and keep in mind that gigs like driving for Uber won’t make you rich — they’ll just make a few extra dollars available toward paying back your loans. Additionally, many side-gig employees work on a freelance basis, and therefore are usually not eligible for standard employment benefits.

Best for: People willing to be flexible and put in extra effort for the extra cash.

4. Seek out state assistance

According to Farrington, 45 of the 50 U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia, offer some type of student loan assistance. These programs are often used as incentives to retain or attract talent in certain fields of work.

For example, Kansas offers student loan forgiveness up to $15,000 over five years for residents living in certain parts of the state; California offers loan forgiveness for doctors, health professionals and dentists.

Pros: Thousands of dollars in assistance are available to put toward your loan balance.

Cons: Some of these programs require individuals to live in rural opportunity zones, meaning they could be far from big cities with advantages like public transportation or easy accessibility. Additionally, these programs aren’t intended to forgive your loans in full, but they will help pay a good chunk of them off.

Best for: Those willing to relocate and establish residency, or provide professional services for a continuous period of time.

5. Learn how to budget

Creating a budget may seem like an obvious tip for conquering student loan debt, but Golden says it’s the “biggest thing” that has helped her manage her student loan debt.

“Once I started to seriously budget (using a template spreadsheet my very practical uncle gave me), I was able to cut down on wasteful things and divert that towards my monthly loan payment,” Golden says. “I was also able to determine how much I could realistically pay each month.”

Creating a budget not only will help you stay on track with your plan to payoff the debt, but it will give you the opportunity to analyze where you’re overspending. When it comes to interest accumulating on your loan balance, every extra dollar you’re able to put toward it will help.

Need help creating a budget? Start by writing down your spending and expenses. After seeing it all in one place, it’ll be easier to determine what your discretionary spending should be after accounting for your fixed expenses.

(Ready to get started? Here are Bankrate’s 5 secrets to creating a budget)

Pros: You’ll have a clearer picture of where your money is going each month. Additionally, you’ll be able to find ways to cut spending and be able to funnel additional money to your student loans.

Cons: Some folks have a hard time sticking to a budget. Keep in mind that budgets can be flexible; if you happen to spend more in one category, adjust the allowance of others to make up for it. You can easily adjust a budget using apps like Mint or You Need a Budget (YNAB).

Best for: Everyone! A budget is an essential tool no matter your financial situation.

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