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It doesn’t feel like it as I log-in to my student loan service account and stare down that remaining balance — that $20,000 figure that never seems to go down — but most of my time in college was spent working three jobs to afford regular tuition payments.

Despite half of my tuition covered by scholarships, plus my parents regularly handing out money and taking loans under their own names, I still managed to rack up the average student loan debt for Iowa and Illinois grads. But compared to a lot of people I know, plus national statistics, I could have it much worse. 

According to the New York Federal Reserve, around 70 percent, or 45 million students, graduate with debt. For the past few years, the average student loan debt per graduate has been more than $30,000.

Student loan debt is the second highest consumer debt category behind mortgage debt, and is higher than credit card debt, according to Forbes. And that debt, according to Financial Planner Matt Knoll with the Planning Center in Moline, is limiting the young workforce from buying homes and starting families. 

"People are coming out of high school and making some of the biggest financial decisions of their lives — going to college without having any conversation about money before," Knoll said. "Some people are lucky enough where their parents talk to them about it. But a lot of people jump feet first. And that's not a bad thing. There are tools to help. But it's hard to talk about. It's an unknown topic and it's scary." 

When I decided to transfer from community college to a private school, I definitely jumped feet first. The first two years of my schooling was paid for through working multiple jobs and living at home. But I accepted that to afford a bachelor's degree I would go into debt. I signed up for the federal loans I was able to receive, not knowing what it would tally up to until my last week of senior year. 

According to a 2018 report by New America, which looked at financial aid letters from 900 colleges, around 36 percent of award letters don't state how much a student will actually have to pay for schooling. Around one-third of the reported colleges did not include cost information related to the financial aid offered. And 15 percent of the letters called the Parent PLUS loan an "award." 

Basically, according to the report, it's no surprise several students blindly sign up for a decade worth of debt. 

Knoll, 27, said he often works with young people who are just getting started in their careers, looking to put a first payment on a home or afford a marriage, while also dealing with "overwhelming" student loan or credit card debt. He said the most important, first step is opening up about finances and finding a safe place to talk about it. 

"Everybody's view of money is different and there are so many emotions tied to money," he said. "Money isn't the most important thing in life but it affects what is. There aren't many safe spaces to talk about money. But get to that step and talk to someone, maybe not a financial adviser, but even a family member who knows about money. Then you can get to, not just paying rent every month and racking up a credit card bill, but making the step of trying to save and pay off debt." 

Last week, I set the goal of really sticking to a budget and managing my cash flow. Through that, I learned what extra money I can put toward paying off my loans each month. Knoll said that is the most important step in chipping away at debt faster than the 10 or more years it typically takes. 

Here's the advice he gave in managing student loans, which he said can apply to all kinds of debt: 

Consider loan consolidation

Because student loans are usually applied each semester, and often from various lenders, most graduates end up owing money to a long list of servicers. And each individual student loan has its own due dates, interest rates and payment amounts. 

Knoll didn't say consolidating loans — into one loan with one payment from one lender — is the right answer for everybody. He said consolidation has its pros and cons. But it might be a good option if it results in lower payments and a fixed interest rate.

However, consolidating loans might result in paying a higher interest over time, he said. And if someone is paying back loans through the federal government, he said the debt will be forgiven in case of the borrower dying. If the loans are consolidated through a private company, they'll stick around. 

Organize loans and start knocking them out 

Knoll said the most important tool for tackling debt is to organize loans by the balance, minimum payment and the interest rate. Then, take any extra money each month and put it toward the principal balance on one appropriate loan. The key here is paying on the principal balance, not offering up a pre-payment.

There are two methods for putting extra money down on a loan each month, he said. 

The first is the debt snowball method, where the borrower puts extra money on the principal balance of the loan with the highest interest rate. Once that balance is paid off, apply the same method to the next loan with the highest rate. In addition, take the minimum payment that was being applied to the first loan and add that to your extra monthly payments from there on. 

"Mathematically, that's what saves you the most interest and pays down your loans the fastest, if you use that strategy," Knoll said. 

The second option is the debt avalanche method. It's the same method, but instead of applying extra payments to the loan with the highest interest rate, he said borrowers can start paying extra money on the loan with the lowest balance. 

"Humans kind of make a game out of things sometimes, so they can see they paid off that loan faster. It's like reaching a different level, like a video game," he said. "There are apps out there that tell you when you finished paying on a loan and it gives you more incentive to keep going. That biggest loan might give you some fatigue as you wait longer to pay it off. If you're wanting to see more progress, the avalanche method might be the way to go." 

Stay realistic

Knoll said the Planning Center has seen couples go from "six figures in the red to the same amount in the black" by using the debt snowball method. But he said it all depends on income and how much extra money is left over at the end of the month. 

"One thing to remember is life is never going to go exactly as planned," Knoll said. "If you really focus on putting all this extra cash here, then your tires will go out on your car or stuff will happen. It's life. But what's important is going back to having your goals set up. That's what keeps you motivated and gives you accountability to stay on track."

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Sarah Ritter is the business reporter for the Quad-City Times. Each week, she will write an experiential column as part of the series, "Cash Course," aimed at reaching financial security and tackling stereotypes about money.

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