millennial looking at computer on couch

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Many college graduates have no choice but to take out student loans in the course of obtaining a degree. And while the current student debt crisis extends to millions of Americans across a wide range of ages, it's easy to see why millennials might struggle with those loans in particular. After all, as relatively recent grads, they're likely to have piles of debt coupled with lower salaries than their more experienced counterparts -- not a great combination. 

In fact, as of late 2018, millennials had an average of $34,770 in student loan debt, up 8% from $32,239 the previous year, according to Experian. Clearly that's not a small amount of money, and if your student loan balance looks anything like that, you'll need to get a handle on that debt before it wreaks havoc on your finances. Here's how to keep your student debt manageable, even when it's substantial. 

1. See what protections are available to you

If you took out federal student loans for college, here's some good news: You may be entitled a number of borrower protections that can help make your debt more manageable. First, if you're struggling to make your loan payments, you can sign up for an income-driven repayment plan. With one of these, rather than be locked into your old monthly loan payment, you'll have a new payment that's calculated as a reasonable percentage of your earnings. 

Another option you might pursue is deferring your federal student loan payments for a period of time. This is a reasonable solution if you're out of work, or are undergoing a financial hardship that makes making any sort of monthly payment difficult. 

2. Negotiate with your lender

If you took out private student loans for college, you should know that they don't come with the same built-in protections as federal loans. But that doesn't mean there's no wiggle room whatsoever. If you're having a hard time keeping up with your loan payments, reach out to your lender and try negotiating the terms of your debt. Your lender might agree to lower your monthly payments if doing so increases your chances of actually making them on time. And in some cases, you might even get a private lender to agree to a period of deferment. 

3. Look into refinancing

If you borrowed privately for college, and your original lender isn't willing to budge on your repayment terms, try seeing how much money you can save on your monthly loan payments by refinancing. When you refinance, you effectively swap an existing loan for a new one, only that new loan comes with a lower interest rate, which, in turn, lowers your monthly payments. 

Refinancing is a good option if you have excellent credit, or if your credit score has improved substantially since you first took out your loans. Also, whereas it costs money to refinance other debts, like a mortgage, you can generally refinance your student debt at no cost. Therefore you have nothing to lose by digging around for the best rates and seeing what you qualify for.

You can't go back in time and undo the debt you racked up for college. What you can do, however, is take steps to stay on top of that debt so you don't wind up defaulting and hurting your credit in the process. This holds true no matter how old you are, and whether your student loan balance is less, similar, or even more than that of the average millennial.