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Did you know that one out of every four adults in the United States is currently paying off their student loan debt? There are more than 44 million Americans who owe a combined $1.5 trillion in student loans.

Imagine receiving your college diploma one day, and then getting a statement from a financial institution the next day which says you now owe tens of thousands of dollars. Kind of ruins that “I just graduated” rush, huh? Now, imagine that the statement is for an amount that’s bumping up against $40,000. The average college student today owes more than $37,000 at the time of graduation and that’s only for their bachelor’s degree.

Those are the statistics that many high school students are willing to live with. The key is to go into the process of accumulating debt with a strategy on how you’ll pay it off when you graduate.

Making Priorities

The clock starts ticking as soon as you graduate from college. Will you be prepared to start paying those loans? The Consumer Affairs website cites a National Association of Colleges and Employers report which found that the average college graduate who does not leave school with a job already lined up will spend more than seven months finding one.

Every month without a job pushes you that much farther away from the goal of being financially free from the burden of student loan debt. Have a strategy that involves an immediate approach to starting to pay off those loans.

Become Financially Literate

If it’s something you didn’t learn in high school or during your college years, it’s time to take a crash course in basic financial literacy. Some ways to approach debt are more effective than others. For example, many financial experts recommend what’s known as the debt snowball strategy, which has you focus on paying off the smallest loan amounts as quickly as possible so you’ll start to see progress.

Pay close attention to the terms and language used on your student loans – especially if you start looking a refinancing or consolidating them. There is, for example, a big difference between “forbearance” and “deferment.”

A financial institution that allows loan forbearance may give you the option to put off payments for a period of time – but the loan interest will continue to accrue. It means you’ll actually end up owing more and could possibly have a higher monthly payment. On the other hand, some loans that offer deferment will freeze both the interest and pause the payments. It’s your responsibility to understand the specific terms and options of your student loan agreements.

Pros and Cons

This is especially important when it comes to refinancing a federal student loan. It’s true that competing financial institutions can offer you a lower interest rate – but it comes with a tradeoff. It’s possible that you’ll be giving up participation in the federal loan forgiveness program or the ability to explore alternative payment options.

Is a Traditional Four-Year College Your Only Choice?

Often, high school students think they have no choice but to take on the burden of student loan debt in order to take the pathway to a secure future with a well-paying job. It’s the most frequently traveled pathway, but it’s hardly the only one.

A growing number of high school students are taking a different route. They’ve discovered the fast track to the trades. A well-paying recession-proof job as a plumber, electrician or HVAC technician provides opportunities for a college-level education in half the time and a third of the cost. Learn more.