Student Loan Planning

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A financial planner asks every new client the same question about their student loans

Most people who graduate with student loan debt know they need to have a plan to pay it off. Yet one in five young people with student loans expect to die before their debt is paid.

Be honest about your numbers, your values, and what aspects of your lifestyle are most important, and consider student loan payoff just like any other part of your long-term financial plan.

This sounds drastic — and it is. For a young person with five-figure student loan debt, looking at the numbers can be scary and overwhelming. But does it have to be?

According to Tim Baker, certified financial planner with Your Financial Pharmacist, the sooner you devise a payoff strategy for your loans, the better. Doing so helps you take control of your net worth and establish a sense of long-term financial peace, even if your plan includes staying in debt for a couple of decades. In fact, staying in debt sometimes makes financial sense — but you'll never know until you look at the numbers.

Whenever Baker gets a new client, his first question is, are you taking an "all-in" approach or a "long-game" approach to your student loans?

As Baker says, many of his clients are willing to "eat ramen and live at mom and dad's house" to pay off their loans in five years or less. But others are not — and that's okay.

An ideal "all-in" client is someone who has a low tolerance for debt, a low-cost lifestyle, and a high salary shortly after graduation. In this case, there is a strong incentive — and ability — to pay off loans faster. An "all-in" client is willing to do whatever it takes to be frugal and apply all of their discretionary income to paying off debt as fast as possible.

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This approach suits people with a particular personality, and the financial incentives are obvious — no one wants to carry a heavy debt load and pay years of interest. Once the debt is paid off, money is freed up for saving and investing. Baker advises a person to do this if they can reasonably pay off their student loan debt in about five years or less.

On the other hand, a "long-game" personality is someone who has a higher debt tolerance, meaning that carrying a student loan would not keep them up at night. In this case, there are some options. A person like this would benefit from making low monthly payments for anywhere from 10 to 25 years as part of a student-loan forgiveness strategy with an income-driven repayment plan (IDR).

IDRs are a great option for people who live in high-cost-of-living areas and cannot simply "knock out" their debt, or for people who will qualify for loan forgiveness due to a government or nonprofit job. In this case, it is best to think long-term. Choosing an IDR with a 10-year forgiveness plan allows a person to make low monthly payments, have a good chunk of their debt forgiven, and have discretionary income leftover every month for saving and investing.