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Student loan debt is a huge problem these days. The total amount of U.S. student loan debt has reached about $1 trillion and the average amount owed is $25,000. Surprisingly, the majority of student loan holders are over 30 years old — which means a lot of people (not just 20-somethings) are being limited by their student loan debt. For those reasons, many students who are graduating right now are rightly concerned about their own student loans and how they will pay them off.

Does that include you? If so, don’t worry — I’m going to give you some steps you need to pay off your student loan debt as fast as possible, and avoid letting it crush you. These tips come from my own life and from working at ReadyForZero, which helps people manage and pay off debt on their own. With these tips, you can be proactive and take control of your student loan debt.

1. Understand Your Student Loan Situation

One of the hardest things about student loans is how complicated they are. Do you know what type of loan you have? There are two main types of student loans: federal (borrowed from the government) and private (borrowed from a private company). You can find out which type you have by checking the National Student Loan Data System. And keep in mind, you may have both federal and private student loans.

You also need to know what interest rates you’re paying. Some federal loans have rates as low as 2-3%, while others have rates of 7%, 8% or even higher. You should be paying off the highest-interest debt as fast as possible, while paying the minimum payments on all other debts. Make a plan for how much you can pay each month and dedicate all the extra to your target account.

As an example of how this kind of plan can help you get on track, Nick has paid off $21,000 in debt, including student loan debt and credit card debt. Before he made a plan, his efforts weren’t focused. He said, “it was one of those things where I was making all my payments… But I was scared to look at [the total].” Once he had a plan in place, he started making more progress toward his goal.

2. Figure Out Which Student Loan Programs Can Help You

Before you even make your plan, you should know about some really good programs that can help you manage your student loans and perhaps even get rid of them. If you need more breathing room in your monthly budget, then you should definitely look at the Income Based Repayment (IBR) program, which can cap all your student loan payments at 15% of your income.

While you will end up paying more interest in the long run, the IBR program has been a lifesaver for some people. And although this program only applies to federal loans, you can ask your private lenders for an adjusted repayment plan similar to IBR that will work with your budget — and in many cases they will give you one.

Another important program is Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Anyone who works at a qualifying job (including teachers, civil servants, some military service jobs, public safety officers, non-profit workers, and others) and makes monthly payments for 10 years can have their remaining balance forgiven by the government.

3. Boost Your Finances While Staying Focused on Student Loans

If you want to ease the monthly burden of student loan debt and pay off your loans faster (which you probably do), here are some things to keep in mind about your overall financial picture. You can boost your finances by making extra money and saving more money. I know that sounds obvious, but bear with me.

In order to make a little extra money on the side, you can make use of some of the new websites that have cropped up online — sites like Elance.com and Odesk.com — which allow anyone to find freelance jobs. You can spend a few hours a week doing any number of freelance jobs, from graphic design to writing, accounting and even transcribing, and then use that extra money to pay off your debt faster.

You can also take a hard look at your budget and see if there are areas where you are spending more than you need to. For example, are you eating out regularly? Commit to making dinner at home in order to save some cash. Do you have a problem with shopping too often? Cut up your credit card or lock it away somewhere safe, and vow to avoid any more trips to the mall. Most importantly, be sure to track your spending every month so that you know exactly where each dollar is going. This way, you’ll avoid losing money that could go toward paying off your student loans.

For Nick, a renewed focus on his spending helped him a lot. He said, “There are things I want, and there are things I can buy right now, but I know I don’t need them. Like an iPad… but then the logical side comes out and says ‘No, you don’t need it.'” And it’s that kind of mentality that has helped him make great progress on his student loans.

4. Keep Your Motivation Strong Over the Long Run

The last piece of advice I have for you is to take certain measures to stay motivated for the long run. Start by sharing your debt-free goal with your loved ones and close friends who you can count on to support you. Tell them what you’re working on and the strategies you’re going to use. This way, when you talk with them over the coming months and years, they will be able to offer encouragement during the rough patches and cheer you on when you’re doing well. They can also help you avoid spending more money if they know that is a priority for you.

It’s also a good idea to write down your goal and even put some kind of photo on the same piece of paper with it, to symbolize your motivation. Keep it on your desk or bedside table and it will keep you focused every day on where you’re trying to get.

Hopefully these tips are helpful as you grapple with how to pay off your student loan debt. No matter how big the amount is, just know that you can pay it off. Good luck!

Image: James Woodson

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