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The average monthly student loan payment is more than $350. This can be a strain on anyone’s budget, but for some, it’s unsustainable and things can go downhill—fast.

If this sounds like an all-too-familiar struggle, you may have a student loan emergency on your hands. Here’s how to know for sure and what you can do to fix it.

3 Red Flags of a Student Debt Emergency

When your debt has become too much of a burden, you should prioritize paying off your student loan early. If you see any of the warning signs below, it may be time to take action.

1. You’re Uncomfortable with Your Balance

Douglas A. Boneparth, the president of Bone Fide Wealth and co-author of The Millennial Money Fix, emphasizes the fact that the numbers themselves, while important, aren’t the only part of the equation that matters.

In other words, it’s not just the balance you carry, but the way you feel about the balance. Some student loan borrowers, Boneparth continues, deal with high student loan balances but refuse to de-prioritize other goals. For example, even though Boneparth and his wife had six-figure debt, they also wanted to start a family—and that meant buying a home so they could get established in the right community for the next phase of their lives.

If you have a high balance but also other financial priorities, it’s okay to stick to your current payment plan so you can manage both. But if your balance makes you uncomfortable and even too scared to think about other priorities, then that’s something you should examine inwardly.

No one can tell you if your debt load is too high. It’s up to you to decide if you’re comfortable with your balance and repayment plan or if you want to accelerate your debt payoff.

2. Your Interest Rates Are in the Double Digits

Sometimes, the problem with student loans lies with the interest rate, not the balance. And if your interest rate is high, then it’s time to either get a lower rate or work on paying it off faster.

High interest rates are a game changer because they keep your monthly payments expensive and increase the total cost of your debt. The sooner you can lower your interest rate or pay the debt off, the more you can mitigate the problem.

If you refinance your student loans, you can reduce your interest rate and your monthly payments. In fact, the purpose of refinancing is to achieve a lower interest rate—and you’ll get new repayment terms at the same time.

When you choose your new terms, you can opt for lower monthly payments or a shorter repayment plan. So you can either take advantage of the flexibility of lower payments or use the shorter repayment plan as an impetus to get out of debt faster.

One thing to remember, though, is that refinancing federal student loans means buying them out with private student loans. You’ll no longer have access to benefits such as income-driven repayment plans, which could make it more difficult to meet your payments—bringing me to the next red flag.

3. You Can Barely Manage to Make Your Monthly Payments

Student loan debt might not be a problem if the bill is manageable, but if you have to choose between food and student loans, then it’s an emergency.

People with federal student loans can get help with an income-driven repayment plan, which caps your monthly payment at a certain percentage of your income. If that’s not enough, you can also turn to deferment or forbearance to temporarily stop or reduce your payments—options that are also sometimes available on private student loans.

If you decide to briefly pause or lower your payments, look for ways to improve your overall financial situation during the break. Deferment or forbearance can certainly help you when you’re running behind, but they can also keep you in debt for longer.

To increase your cash flow, consider taking on a roommate, working a side gig, or putting in a few extra hours of work when you can. If possible, consider making the switch to a more lucrative position in your field, in which case deferment or forbearance can offer you a little breathing room when you’re between jobs. And if you’re simply new to your career and know your income will grow as your experience does, then deferment or forbearance can give you some reprieve until your next pay raise.

There’s a Bright Side to Student Loan Debt

If you stay current on your loan payments, student debt can have its positives. For example, student debt can help your credit score when you consistently pay on time.

It contributes to your payment history to build, maintain, or repair your credit. So as long as you pay on time, there’s a bright side: you’re building a positive credit history as you go.

But whatever you do, don’t turn away from your debt because it scares you. It’s never fun to see a large balance or count the years left on a repayment plan, but ignoring the debt won’t make it go away. In fact, ignoring it and neglecting your payments can cause far greater problems if the loan goes into default, which can completely wreck your credit score.

As you chip away at your student loans, keep an eye on your credit score for free at Credit.com. You can also sign up for a detailed credit report card at no cost to you.

Image: diego_cervo

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