Live for today or save for tomorrow? When it comes to socking away money for future life goals — say, buying a home, establishing a retirement fund, or simply building a nest egg for a rainy day — the truth is that too many young Americans feel they can’t afford to do so. A 2018 consumer report from Northwestern Mutual found that a whopping 78 percent of millennials experience anxiety as a result of trying to balance their present and future financial responsibilities. And nearly a third said they felt afraid, uncomfortable, or guilty spending money.
So what’s at the root of all this money stress? Well, as higher education loan balances have jumped to all-time highs in recent years, student loan payments have left many millennials crippled with financial insecurity. In fact, college graduates with student debt are twice as likely to report they’re either financially struggling or “just getting by,” compared to graduates without college debt, says a recent Pew Research Center survey.
There’s no doubt that student loan debt is a significant burden, but there are ways to navigate it with your sanity intact and still reach other financial goals. “The biggest issue young people face is they don’t fully understand their student loan commitments,” says Rod McRae III, C.F.A., C.F.P., managing partner of McRae Capital Management in Morristown, N.J. “They’re not taught about this in school, and no one told them how to pay it off.” As a result, they feel like they’re “doing it all wrong” and that everyone else will be 10 steps ahead with their finances.
The truth is, there’s no cookie-cutter approach to financial well-being when it comes to student loans. But these expert-backed tips will help you stop resenting your bank account and start building the life you want to live.
Face the facts
While avoiding the details of all your debts may seem like a tempting way to reduce stress, the truth is that gaining control of your financial well-being starts with getting clarity on everything you owe. Take stock of all of your student loans and other debts. Write down the total balance of each, the interest rate, and the minimum payment amount. From here, you can make a game plan from an empowered place.
Slay your biggest stressor first
Once you know exactly what you owe, it’s time to develop a plan of attack. While prioritizing in order of the highest interest rate will save you the most money, some people choose to pay off their smallest loans first — regardless of interest rate. Both are valid strategies, according to McRae, so the best path forward for you may be the one that reduces stress and boosts your motivation. The one exception is credit card debt. “It doesn’t make any sense to pay more than you’re required to on student loans, mortgages, or auto loans if you are carrying high-interest credit card debt,” writes Matthew Frankel, C.F.P., of The Motley Fool. After all, the typical interest rate on a credit card is at least double that of the average federal student loan — so making the minimum payment on your student loan while paying off a high-interest credit card quickly can save you money in the long run.
Ditch financial FOMO
Many clients come to McRae concerned that they’re off-track compared to others around them. A sample complaint: “My best friend is buying her second investment property — and I’m still a renter with three roommates.” McRae’s advice? “Forget what everyone else is doing — what do you want to do? What are your longer term financial goals, and how do you want to get there?”
Develop a saving habit
Paying down debt is just one component of a healthy financial life, and it doesn’t have to stand in the way of saving for both small indulgences and larger goals. Farnoosh Torabi, personal finance expert and Chase Financial Education Ambassador, tells CNBC Make It that activating a regular auto-debit from your checking account to a savings account, even if it’s only $5 a day or even a week, is absolutely worthwhile. “Getting into the habit of saving can be really simple as long as you just commit to a little bit at a time,” Torabi explains.
Know your benefits
While tuition reimbursement help is more common, some companies offer student loan repayment assistance as an employee perk. Be sure you understand your employee benefits so you don’t leave any cash on the table.
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