Would you run a marathon without training, or perform in a Broadway show without learning your lines? No one with an ounce of sense would. Yet millions of us have taken out student loans without preparation. We graduate from college, then act surprised about the amount of debt we've taken on.

The entire process is backwards. Yet ironically, we must work backwards in order to properly prepare. The best time to get your financial ducks in a row is months (or years) before you plan to enroll. Do not commit yourself to a student loan until you've asked yourself the following questions.

Young woman going to college

Image source: Getty Images

What do I want to be?

Whether you're 19 and going to college for the first time or firmly ensconced in middle age and following a dream, what career do you plan to pursue? Assess what you're passionate about and use it to target your ideal career. Then find out which degree provides the best training for that career. 

There are a number of sources -- including the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Glassdoor, and PayScale -- that provide information and educational requirements. 

How much can I expect to earn?

Once you know which degree is required, use the same websites to check the average salary for an entry-level position in your chosen career. Keep that information because you're going to need it later. 

Which college is right for me?

The best way to learn which colleges have strong degree programs for your desired major is to speak with professionals already working in that field. Say you want to be a mechanical engineer. Speak with someone employed as a mechanical engineer and ask them to share their insights. In addition, there are national ranking lists and college search tools online. Compare what you find online with what you're being told by those in the know. 

How much will it cost?

Make a list of your top school choices and research the annual cost of attending each. Include tuition, fees, books -- and unless you're commuting -- room and board. 

The school you end up attending will ultimately depend upon these four things:

  • Which college offers the best program for your major
  • Where you are accepted and what that college costs
  • The amount of financial aid offered
  • How much you are willing to spend and/or borrow 

How much do I have?

Take an account of any money you have earmarked for college, including funds tucked away in a college savings account, money pledged by parents or grandparents, and personal savings.

How much can I earn?

Figure out how much money you can earn between now and the time you plan to attend college. If you intend to work part-time while you're in school, include those earnings in your computations. 

Is there financial help available?

Explore every potential scholarship and grant opportunity. There is no reason to pay a company to do this for you -- there are many free, reputable sources online. If you have financial need, apply for a Pell Grant. It is one of the most under applied-for forms of financial aid. 

What's the bottom line?

By now, you should have the following information at your disposal:

  • The career you are studying for
  • Average earnings for an entry-level position in that career
  • Where you would like to attend college (or a very short list of schools) 
  • The cost of attending your school(s) of choice
  • The amount of money you have available
  • The amount of money you can earn before (and possibly during) college
  • Sources of potential scholarships and/or grants

Does the math add up?

Begin with the total cost of your education. Subtract how much money you have at your disposal today, the amount you expect to earn before beginning school, and any funds you have been promised via scholarships and/or grants. The sum you are left with is the amount you will borrow. 

Shop around for the best student loan interest rate and find out precisely how much the monthly payment will be following graduation based upon the amount you believe you will have to borrow. Quick tip: For a number of reasons, it is better to take out federal loans rather than private. 

Based on the estimated salary of the job you hope to score, figure out your take-home pay using a salary calculator. Once you have your estimated take-home pay, it's time to create a rough budget. 

List your expected source(s) of income following graduation. Now, list your monthly bills, beginning with student loans. Remember to factor in things like rent, utilities, cell phone, groceries, insurance, transportation costs, and miscellaneous expenses. Subtract the total of your bills from expected income. If your budget shows that you will bring in more money than you will spend each month, you're in good shape. If not, you'll need to search for ways to reduce your student loan debt, such as:

  • Do your first two years of school at a community college
  • Think about living at home and commuting to school
  • Postpone your planned start date in order to earn more money for tuition
  • Find out if there are any employers in your area that offer tuition assistance and do your best to land a job with them
  • Take on a side hustle that permits you to keep a flexible schedule but allows you to put money away for tuition

The statistics regarding student loan debt are staggering. Fortunately, careful planning can help you minimize the debt load. It all begins with imagining the future and working backwards.