Were you born after 1980? Did you attend college? Are you burdened by worrisome debt? If you answered yes to questions 1 and 2, odds are you also answered yes to number 3. About two-thirds of Millennials have at least one source of long-term debt, usually a student loan, with an average balance of $40,000. Total student-loan debt in the U.S. is more than $1.2 trillion.
Those sad statistics--and many more--come from Yellowbrick, which provides mental health and other services to younger adults. The organization recently released an exhaustively researched infographic showing exactly how bad the Millennial student-debt problem is. More than 40 million Americans carry student-loan debt--more than the entire population of Canada. Two-fifths of them will fall behind on that debt within the first five years of repayment.
The infographic goes on to show the stark effect this debt has on young people's lives. For instance, 75 percent of Millennials report that student-loan debt has affected their decision to buy a house, and 43 percent say it's caused them to put off starting a family. It can also affect their mental health, the research shows, with those struggling to pay off debts twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, with that depression level increasing 14 percent for every 10 percent increase in debt.
And it gets even worse: Student debt is actually killing people. People with high levels of debt stress are three times as likely as the general population to have ulcers or digestive tract issues, almost three times as likely to have migraines--and twice as likely to have heart attacks.
If you're a Millennial with hard-to-manage student debt, what should you do about it? It's a tough problem to solve, but here are some approaches that work:
1. Organize your loans.
Many student borrowers have more than one loan, and many are unaware just what they owe to whom and what interest rates they're paying. (Keep in mind, most people take on these loans as teenagers.) So the first step is assembling all that information. Get help from your college, or from this website. As with credit card debt, your strategy is to figure out which loan you want to pay off first, and make the highest payments possible on that one while maintaining minimum payments on the others. Which one should you pay off first? Perhaps the one with the highest interest--but also consider which loans have the best repayment terms or qualify for forgiveness programs when making your decision.
2. Talk to your school.
Especially if you are a recent graduate, make an appointment to sit down with someone at your school's financial aid department. He or she may be able to help you make a payment plan and organize your loans. The department may even have programs in place to actually help you pay off those loans.
3. Research your repayment options.
The typical student loan has a 10-year repayment term, but you can create a payment plan and thus get a longer term, or get a deferment if you're unemployed or your income is low. Do some digging to find out whether you qualify for any of these programs. Two caveats: First, there are many repayment services out there offering to slash your student-loan payment that may not really be helpful, and some of them may even give you the impression that they're government programs. So check carefully before you sign on. And second, if you do take deferment, look into at least paying your interest during that period. Otherwise, you'll wind up with a bigger loan than you had before.
4. Work in public service.
Working for the public good in civil service or certain jobs or professions, including law enforcement and teaching, can come with student-loan forgiveness. There will likely be strings attached--you may need to commit to the job for a certain period of time, for instance.
This won't be an option for everyone, but if you can move, find out if there are communities that appeal to you and have work in your field that are offering student-loan repayment contributions. From Kansas to Saskatchewan in Canada, communities seeking to attract young professionals are offering incentives like these.
On the extreme end of relocation, you could join AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, or volunteer in other national service roles. And Zerobound and SponsorChange are two organizations that help you find volunteer work in exchange for student-debt reduction.
7. Consolidate your loans.
If juggling several loans is leading to confusion and missed payments, then student-loan consolidation is a good idea, as it will eliminate that confusion. If you have a variable-rate loan--highly possible if your loan is more than 10 years old--then consolidating to a fixed-rate loan is definitely a good idea, as interest rates are primed to rise in the coming years. If you have federal student loans, consolidate them with a federal consolidation loan rather than switching to a private lender, as you would lose the various advantages that come with a federal loan.
8. Earn extra money.
If you negotiate or are given a raise, consider devoting all or most of that extra cash to paying down your student loan. Even without a raise, you can generate extra cash by taking on extra projects, adding part-time work, or selling unneeded possessions online. Again, use most of this "found money" to reduce your student debt.
9. Stop blaming yourself.
Shame and secrecy is a common response to debt. In an American Psychological Association survey, 85 percent of respondents were reluctant to talk about their credit card debt. Student-loan debt may be only slightly less of a source of shame. Some people are so ashamed about their student-loan debt they aren't even aware of how much debt they have. By keeping it secret and refusing to talk about it, you make the problem worse than it needs to be.
The reality is that the cost of education at a private college has more than doubled in the past 30 years, and the cost of a public college education has more than tripled. Meantime, when adjusted for inflation, average compensation has stayed flat or even declined over that time. So it stands to reason that most people born in the 1980s or later who get a college education will wind up with more debt than they can easily handle. It's not your fault--but it is your responsibility to deal with it. If you've been putting that off, the time to start is now.