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Four Strategies to Stay Sane While Battling a Student Loan
The most surprising part about paying off my student loan has been the mental anguish it causes. I get sad thinking about how much money I owe — like, actually sad. If I ever find myself staring at a wall with a blank look on my face and my mouth slightly agape, zoning out, it’s usually because I’m thinking about the burden of my loan.
What if I lose my job? What if the stock market rockets up 10% or more, and I’m losing money paying down my debt that carries a 7% interest rate? What if the day I make my very last payment, Congress passes a law that abolishes all student loan debt? As good as I’d feel for all my comrades with loans, there would be a not-so-small part of me that would want to scream into a pillow for an hour straight.
All these thoughts can be stressful, almost to the point of becoming debilitating. You just want to close the browser window showing your current loan balance, start looking at cat GIFs, and hope that you have an eccentric, rich relative somewhere who’s going to surprise you with a windfall once they pass.
That’s all normal, but unfortunately, it’s not productive. The only real way to deal with the oppressive weight of student loan debt is to take action. Here are some of the things I’ve had to deal with, and how I go about solving those challenges.
Make a Plan and Get Started
Paralysis by analysis is a real thing. I’ve spent hours researching debt consolidation. I’ve downloaded a million fancy spreadsheets to stay organized. I’ve looked on Ancestry.com to see if I have any royal bloodlines, and thus a claim to some ancient stash of gold sitting in a palace somewhere.
I hemmed and hawed for years trying to decide whether I should put excess money into the stock market, or some money into a Roth IRA and some toward the debt, or if it made sense to pay the debt one year and then invest the next. I was about to look into whether people had better luck paying off debt when Mercury was in retrograde if they were a Gemini born after 1980, when I realized enough was enough.
As with investing, the most important thing to do is to simply get started, and the best time to do so was yesterday. So I picked a strategy that sat well with my mental makeup. For me, that meant an all-out, hyper-aggressive, no-holds-barred plan to pay off every last penny of debt as fast as was humanly possible.
I don’t know if that’s going to be the best plan when I look back in 10 years. Maybe the market will have a historic rise, and I’ll miss out on all those returns. Maybe I’ll really, really wish I had more money in my Roth IRA account when I turn 60. You just never know.
And that’s the key thing to keep in mind. You have to pick something and stick with it, because the future is uncertain — and sitting and moping is always the wrong decision.
It always helps me, a naturally pessimistic thinker, to remember that I could also be right. The stock market could take a nosedive the next 10 years, and I’ll be thrilled that I decided to take the “guaranteed” return that comes with paying down my debt.
In my case, I decided to pay it off aggressively, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two years — throwing any extra money I can at my student loan balance. I want to note that I’m fortunate to be in a situation where I can even make a dent in that loan. I empathize with the millions of people out there who can’t even make their monthly payments. And I know my current income level might not last, so I’m going to do everything in my ability to attack my mountain of debt while I’m in a position to do so.
Create Rules for Your Bank Account
When you’re putting the vast majority of your non-food, non-housing-related money toward your debt, it helps to have ironclad rules so you don’t get sidetracked. For me, the key is to make sure my checking account contains as little money as possible.
If I let the money sit in my checking account for a few days after I get paid, I start to get ideas. It’s like in the cartoons, when a devil appears on your shoulder.
“You’ve been working so hard, why not get that new laptop you’ve had your eye on?”
“Are you suuuuuuure you don’t want to buy some stocks, they’ve been going up!”
“Why don’t you write a scathing letter to the Dean of your University, ripping her for charging exorbitant tuition fees when the school has an endowment worth more than many countries’ GDPs? You’ll be a hero to alumni everywhere!”
This is counterproductive, to say the least. Automating my payments would help eliminate those temptations, but I’m unable to do that with my current loan. So I’ve made a rule that I have to put the money toward my loan within 24 hours of it arriving in my account, and that makes for less of an internal struggle. It’s there, it’s gone, and I get on with my life.
Share Your Progress and Seek Encouragement
Using a debt payoff calculator can be a sobering experience. It’s usually after inputting some realistic numbers and seeing how far I am from debt freedom that I start thinking about whether college was even worth it. It feels like I’m going to be eating rice and beans for the next 10 years because my 18-year-old self thought it’d be wise to spend a ton of money getting a non-STEM degree. I paid a hefty price to learn about the Federalist Papers and Shakespeare.
But ultimately, regret serves no useful purpose. I deal with the Sisyphean feeling of paying off debt in a few different ways.
One favorite is imagining how I can help people once it’s gone. I’ve become interested in several charitable causes lately, and I would like to be able to support them. Thinking about giving money to people who really need it instead of making loan payments is motivating.
Similarly, I think about being able to help my family members. My brother and sister both have student debt of their own. I’m nowhere near being able to help them make payments, and I might never be able to, but just thinking about the possibility keeps me focused and hungry.
Finally, I get a big lift from talking to some select friends and family about my progress. When I tell my fiancee or my mother about progress I’m making, they’re always incredibly supportive and tell me how proud they are. There would be no such response if I told them about how I’d just bought an Oculus Rift. Those little encouragements take away some of the loneliness that can set in as you slog through the debt payment process.
It’s OK to Say ‘No’
My dad always told me that honesty is the best policy, and the older I get the more I realize his simple advice was right. When I get invited to things that are beyond my budget, I don’t think of excuses to get out. I’ve made it a point to just be honest.
If I can’t afford to do something, I tell the person why, even if it makes me uncomfortable. I think that owning up to the debt is a better long-term plan than pretending it doesn’t exist, as many of us tend to do in this country. You only have to look at this recent article in the Atlantic that details a middle-class man’s “secret shame” about living paycheck to paycheck to see how common it is to feel bad about your financial standing. Our culture is one in which you’re looked down upon if you aren’t “living the dream.”
I think this might be easier if Instagram made a rule stating that next to every picture you post of yourself smiling and looking perfect in some impossibly exotic locale, you had to state how much it cost you, and whether you thought it was worth the price. The captions might change from “Not WINE-ing about this trip to a French vineyard!” to “Total cost: $2,300. That’s two weeks’ pay so I could battle jet lag and a sea of tourists to get this picture. Maybe I’ll visit the brewery near my house next time.”