I'm just going to put it out there: I think about my debt all the time. It's a relentless source of anxiety. I've got both consumer debt (credit cards) as well as student loans.

I'm not alone. Student loan debt in the U.S. rose to a staggering $1.4 trillion in the first quarter of 2019. That's a 116 percent increase in ten years. According to Matt Tatham, manager of content insights at Experian, student loan debt is "one of the country's most significant and widespread financial burdens to date."

Debt isn't just a financial issue; it's a health issue. According to the Mayo Clinic, people in dept have higher rates of anxiety and depression, which lead to things like headaches, weight gain, digestive problems and other physical problems (like IBS). 

Another study found that young adults with debt have elevated blood pressure rates, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. And a scientific review of 65 studies found that the likelihood of having a mental health problem is three times higher for those who have debt. These problems include problem drinking, drug dependence, depression, psychotic disorders ... and suicide. 

In other words, debt can make you feel sick. It can make you feel worthless. It can make you want to kill yourself.

I'm not saying this to say the situation is hopeless. I'm saying it to let you know that if you're in this position, it's "normal" that it eats you alive sometimes. I know what it's like to fall asleep thinking about your credit-to-debt ratio and wake up feeling overwhelmed about how you're ever going to get ahead.

Here are five practical ways to help reduce your student loan debt:

1. Volunteer at Shared Harvest Fund

Similar to AmeriCorps, where you get a stipend for working for certain organizations, Shared Harvest Fund will directly pay down your student loans in exchange for you volunteering in your community. You can "make" anywhere from $250 to $1,000 a month.

This is an elegant solution, especially if you want to volunteer anyway. You simply enroll, list social causes you're interested in (i.e. gender equality or homelessness), and then work on projects for nonprofits or local businesses. Shared Harvest Fund directly pays your student loan consolidation company.

The organization was founded by three women physicians who wanted to help with debt reduction, because they know what a toll it takes on a person's health.

(FYI, the funds you "earn" count as income on your taxes. But it's worth it. You could eliminate $3,000-$12,000 worth of debt in a single year.)

2. Move to Maine

If you're a digital nomad (you can work from anywhere) and have student loans, you should consider this. To attract younger residents, Maine offers student debt relief to graduates who live and work in the state.

The details of the program vary based on when you graduated and whether you're from Maine itself, but in general participants get to subtract student loan payments from their state income tax liability. So if you owe $3,200 in state income tax and you paid $2,800 in student loans that year, you only pay Maine $400 (you save $2,800). 

3. Move to Ohio

Same idea, different execution: If you attend a four-year college or university and buy a house in Newburgh Heights, Ohio within five years of graduating, the town will pay off a full half of your student debt (up to $50,000). So if you have $48,000 in debt, they'll pay off $24,000.

If you think purchasing property is out of your reach because you need to put 20 percent down, think again. In the U.S., first-time homebuyers only have to put down 3 percent. So for a $75,000 house (like this 3-bedroom in Newburgh Heights, OH), you could make a down payment of just $2,400. Then your monthly mortgage payment would be $469. (That includes estimated homeowner insurance and property taxes.)

Read that again--your entire mortgage payment would be $469

Average rent for a studio apartment in Manhattan is $2,400. That's the same as money down for that house!

To be fair, this is a long-term play--there are two payouts of the money, 80 percent at the 10-year mark and the rest after 15 years. However (and this is great), even if you've paid off your student loans by then, you still get the original amount of your loans. In other words, if the town was going to gift you $44,500, they still do--they just give you cash instead of paying your student loan consolidation company. 

4. Take advantage of any program your employer has to reduce your student loans

According to Wayne Weber at Gift of College, "The student loan debt crisis will be solved in the workplace -- much like retirement."

An increasing number of large companies offer student loan debt reduction assistance to employees, and if you're at such a company, you should take advantage of it. Consulting powerhouse PwC launched its student loan reduction program in 2016; since then, it has paid off $25.9M worth of its employees' debt. 

5. Work in healthcare

The federal government will pay off up to $75,000 worth of student debt for health care workers who take on the opioid epidemic. Eligible healthcare providers include doctors and nurses, of course, but also midwives, physician assistants, pharmacists, behavioral health professionals, and addiction counselors.

If you've been wondering "what to do with your life" and you like helping people, you should really consider a career in healthcare. You don't have to go to medical school to become a registered nurse (an RN), for example, and their average salary is over $100,000 in the state of California. If you already have a bachelor's degree, you can get a nursing degree in just one year. 

Bonus idea: Get a loan from a family member

Given the relatively high interest rates for student loans (mine are 4.25 percent), if you're in a position to borrow from a relative and pay that person back at a lower rate (say 1.5 percent), do it. Every single dollar matters. Even if you have $44,000 in debt and they "only" lend you $10,000, it matters. 

Obviously you can only do this if you've got a relative able to help you out, but if you do, take advantage. The less these banks get from you, the better.

---

The most important part of the process is your own belief that it's possible. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and then want to just give up.

Don't give in to that. Know that there are a lot of people interested in supporting you, and creative solutions continue to emerge.

Keep the faith. We're all in this together.

Published on: Jan 3, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.