When you signed on to go to college, you knew it would be expensive, but it’s an investment, right? A degree should lead to good jobs that pay well and let you grow professionally and financially, so you took out student loans to cover the costs until you could graduate and start that dream job. At the end of your university stint, the letters started arriving with how much you owe, and when you add it all up…that’s a really big number.

Don’t panic. The average student loan debt is more than $30,000, so you’re not alone. As with any major expense, it can be paid off over time with some careful budgeting and without living exclusively on ramen. Follow these five steps for tackling student loan debt and moving on to a financially freer future.

  1. Understand the big picture.
    The first thing to do is get a handle on the debt you’re dealing with. Make a list or create a spreadsheet with key details, like:

    1. The types of loans you have
    2. The balance on each
    3. The interest rates
    4. The term lengths (usually 10 years)

Use a loan calculator to help figure out your monthly payments as well as how much you can save on interest if you pay off your loans faster.

  1. Get on a budget.
    Student loan payments can eat up a big chunk of your income, and the last thing you want is to damage your credit by missing payments. Putting together a budget will not only help you make your payments while paying your other bills but could also help you pay off your loans faster.

    Once you’ve covered all your bills and set aside money for savings (at first, building an emergency fund is more important than paying extra on your student loans), use the loan calculator from above to see how much extra you can put toward your loans each month.

One thing to note: Your lender may apply any extra money you pay to the next month’s payment instead of applying it toward the principal, which is what you need to pay off your loans faster. You may need to contact your lender to tell them how you want the extra money applied.

  1. Pick a debt payment method.
    While you can always just make the standard payments each month, there are two methods that can help you stay motivated to pay off your loans faster. With the debt snowball method, you tackle the smallest loan first so you can pay it off and then cross it off your list. The feeling of satisfaction that comes with that ‘win’ will encourage you to keep going.

    The debt avalanche method tackles the loans by going after the one with the highest interest rate first, because this saves you the most money in the long run. There are pros and cons to both methods, so pick the one that feels best to you.

  2. Apply any extra to the debt.
    Even if it means living frugally for a while, paying off your student loans will help free you to accomplish other goals like buying a house or traveling. Limiting your expenses and applying any extra money to your loans can pay them off faster, which means you pay less in interest over time.

    If you pay off one of your loans, take that same monthly payment and start applying it to your other loans. If you get a raise or a tax refund, you can put a little aside for something fun but then put as much as possible toward knocking down your loan balances. If you’ve already cut all your expenses and income is the issue, take on a part-time job or side hustle and put the extra toward your debt.

  3. Research other options.
    If the mountain of debt feels too overwhelming, there are other options you can consider like enrolling in autopay, income-driven repayment plans, refinancing or debt forgiveness.
  • If you sign up for autopay—automatically deducting your monthly loan payment from your account—your lender may offer you a small discount on your interest rate.
  • An income-driven repayment plan can adjust your monthly payments to an amount you can afford but will likely extend the terms to pay off the loans.
  • Refinancing lets you take all your individual student loans to a single lender that will pay them off and then give you a new combined loan with a single interest rate. This is only beneficial if you end up with an overall lower interest rate.
  • There are student loan forgiveness programs that will pay off your student loans, but only if you meet strict requirements and they often require you work in specific fields like teaching or public service.