The first bill has arrived in the mail and the grace period is over. You have to pay your student loans. Whether you borrowed just a little bit or a lot, whether you have a job or not, there is the bill, looking a little smug and maybe even stressing you out. 

What are you going to do next? If you're in a thorny financial situation or if the payment amount has taken you by surprise, you might be feeling a rising panic about how to tackle it. 

Don't ignore the problem
Especially in situations where you feel like you just don't know what to do, it can be very tempting to ignore the problem until a solution presents itself. This seems to be a widespread approach. Default rates are rising -- 14.7% of borrowers whose payments began in 2010 defaulted in the subsequent three years -- and unfortunately the costs of more interest and late fees accrue to the borrower.

A lot of us have been in the position of wanting to ignore a bad situation, but in the end, letting your loans go delinquent or default is going to bring much more stress. After all, it's hard not to be stressed out when collectors are calling all the time! 

Find out about your options
Instead, start by figuring out your options. Take a look at Student Loan Help or the Department of Consumer Finance, which give really nice overviews of repayment plans and their individual costs and benefits. 

For Department of Education loans, you can make payments based on income, set up an extended payment term, or even get partial forgiveness depending on your line of work (and payment history). They'll even tell you which option will leave you paying the most or least over the long term. 

For private loans, your options will depend on the loan. Either way, if you're even a little bit confused or not sure what to do, just call your loan provider. These companies seem to have stellar customer service training programs because their reps always seem to be really, really nice. 

Try to avoid a forbearance 
It can be tempting to sign up for a forbearance, which allows you to postpone payments for a set period of time. This can sound like an especially good option if you're in a tricky financial situation, like looking for a new job or dealing with other debt. 

On the other hand, forbearances also cost you money. Your loans will be compounding in the background, and without any payments to tamp down the interest the growth can be significant. A $20,000 loan with a 5% interest rate can become $22,000 in just two years -- it might not seem like that much, but consider that the extra $2,000 will also be compounding, making your loans more and more expensive over time. 

That said, try to avoid a forbearance unless it's absolutely necessary. Even renegotiating your payment into a small one will go a long way toward making your life easier over the decades to come. 

Prepay if you can! 
The longer you are paying student loans, the longer it could take you to do other things you want to do, like save for retirement, buy a car, plan for kids, or get your own home. Even a small additional payment will help -- and the financial freedom you'll have later is well worth the sacrifice. 

To give you an example, throwing another $20 a month at the loan above might not seem like much, but it would save you almost 15% in interest fees and reduce a 10-year loan term to nine years. If you need encouragement, play around with an online calculator like this one, which shows you how many payments and how much interest you'd save by adding extra money to your payment. 

How much can you afford to add? Even if it seems like an insignificant amount, it could save you a lot of money. 

If you can find a way to contribute even more, whether it's by going out with friends a bit less, or taking lunch to work a bit more, make it a goal to put more money toward your payments. You could add modestly or go big, like this Harvard MBA who paid of $90,000 in debt in seven months. Either way, paying those loans off faster will make for a much more liberated future. 

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