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For student loan borrowers, the financial assistance they sought to improve their future might now be holding them back from achieving their dreams. According to research from Citizens Bank, 60% of millennial student loan borrowers expect to be making loan payments well into their 40s, a burden that keeps many from pursuing the careers they really want.

If you want to beat this dismal prediction, you’ll need to double down on your student loan debt. The best way to pay off your student loans fast so that you can face your future debt free is to make a plan and stick to it.

Should you pay off your student loans early?

Paying off your student loans early saves you money on interest and shortens your repayment years.

Let’s say you have $10,000 in student loans with a 5% interest rate, and you’ve signed up for a 20-year repayment plan. If you pay an extra $100 per month on top of your required monthly payment, you’ll shave off over 14 years of payments and save $4,267 in interest fees. If you really want to knock out your debt quickly, you can dedicate an extra $500 per month in addition to your monthly payment, and you will be debt free in about a year and a half -- saving you $5,390 in interest.

You can really see the benefit of paying off your student loans early when you are looking at a much larger loan amount. Let’s say you have $120,000 in student loans with a 7% interest rate and are on a 30-year repayment plan. Paying just $50 extra per month will save you $32,852 in interest and knock off 5 years worth of payments. If you dedicate an extra $500 per month on top of your monthly payment, you’ll save a whopping $113,902 and pay them off in just over 11 years instead of being enslaved to your student loans for 30 years.

The answer is simple -- the earlier you pay off your student loans, the less you will pay over the life of your loans.

Strategies for paying off your student loans faster

Paying your student loans off early seems like a no-brainer, but it takes proper planning. Here are some strategies to explore to help get you on the path to financial freedom.

Refinancing student loans

Refinancing your student loans may be a good option to pay off your loans quickly and save money in the long run. The process of refinancing involves paying off your current student loans with a new loan that has better terms.

However, you’ll need to have good credit to qualify for the best student loan refinancing rates. Otherwise, refinancing may increase your interest rate or extend your repayment period. In addition, refinancing your federal student loans will cause you to lose access to more flexible repayment plans and opportunities for loan forgiveness.

Student loan consolidation

Consolidation is similar to refinancing in that it involves taking out a new loan to repay your current student loans. However, student loan consolidation focuses on repaying multiple student loans with one loan, thereby simplifying repayment by only giving you one loan to manage going forward.

Student loan consolidation can sometimes lower your interest rate, but many times it will actually increase your rate -- this isn’t the best arrangement if your goal is to pay off your loans early. Consolidation tends to be better for borrowers who need to decrease their monthly payments and increase their repayment term because they’re unable to meet their current student loan obligations.

Debt avalanche

The debt avalanche method is a repayment strategy that encourages you to make your minimum monthly payments and then dedicate any leftover income to paying off the highest-interest debt first. Once you’ve paid off your debt balance with the highest interest rate, you move on to focusing on the balance with the second-highest interest rate.

This is the most efficient repayment strategy, mathematically speaking, because it saves you the most money on interest. However, in practice, people tend to have more success with repayment strategies that produce quick results.

Debt snowball

With this strategy, after making your minimum monthly payments on all debt, you’ll direct any extra money to paying off your smallest debt balance first, followed by the next smallest, and so on. So if you have three student loans, one with $800 left, one with $5,000 left, and one with $7,000 left, you’d put all extra money toward the student loan with an $800 balance regardless of interest rates.

While this method is a little slower than the debt avalanche, many borrowers have more success with the debt snowball method because it provides a quicker psychological win. Seeing one of your balances paid off early on motivates you to keep paying down your loans.

Seven steps to setting, and sticking to, a timeline to pay off your student loans

Now that you’ve explored some proven repayment strategies, let’s look at how you can create a calculated plan of action to tackle your student loan debt.

1. Assess your debt situation

Begin by evaluating your current financial situation. Add up all of your debts and list out all important details, such as interest rates, minimum payments, and repayment periods. If you have multiple outstanding balances, pay attention to the interest rate on each account to determine how costly each loan is.

2. Optimize your monthly budget

Create a budget to plan for and track your monthly income and expenses. Look for areas where you can cut your spending and boost your income. Consider asking for a raise or picking up a side gig to increase your disposable income, and look into cutting out unnecessary expenses like dining out or paying for cable. Your goal is to tweak your budget so you can afford your monthly payments -- or, ideally, dedicate more money toward paying down your loans early.

3. Look into your repayment options and student loan forgiveness

If you have federal student loans, look into the various repayment options and student loan forgiveness programs available to you. Make sure you’re on a student loan repayment plan that fits your financial needs and goals to help you strategically pay down your student loans.

Some of the income-driven repayment plans also qualify for loan forgiveness after a certain amount of time. Although this won’t necessarily get your loans paid off quickly, it might save you money if you can only afford to pay the bare minimum.

4. Consider refinancing or consolidation

Now that you’ve figured out your interest rates and budget, it’s time to consider whether refinancing or consolidating would be a good option for you. If you have good credit and can afford your monthly payments, look into refinancing. If you’re having trouble managing multiple loans or can’t afford your current student loan payments, look into consolidating.

5. Play with a student loan repayment calculator

Analyze your budget and figure out the maximum amount you can afford to pay on your student loans each month. Play around with the numbers and calculate how much you’ll save by increasing your monthly payments based on your available budget.

6. Set a deadline for yourself

Once you’ve figured out the maximum you can afford to repay each month and have considered any future income increases, set a deadline for when you’ll have all of your student loans paid off.

Be reasonable, but don’t be afraid to set an ambitious deadline for yourself -- big, challenging goals tend to be more motivating than easy ones, and they’ll force you to come up with creative ways for paying off your loans early. Evaluate this deadline periodically to ensure you are sticking to the plan.

7. Allocate your monthly payments

You’ve now determined how much you can afford and need to pay each month in order to eliminate your student loan payments before the deadline. Set up automatic payments to prevent any mishaps and avoid spending additional money on late fees and extra interest. If you have multiple balances and can afford more than the minimum required payments, allocate any extra money using the snowball or avalanche method mentioned above, depending on what you think will be most effective for you.

Now that you have a plan of attack, it’s up to you to make it happen. Commit to your timeline and re-evaluate your budget each month. The more you are committed to the cause, the quicker you will be on your way to financial freedom.