February may be a month for romance, but nothing kills the mood faster than a mountain of shared student loan debt.
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As more people graduate college with higher student loan balances than ever before, it’s rare to find a couple these days that isn’t dealing with debt. In my work at SoFi, a student loan refinancing provider, I often hear from couples who are looking for ways to more effectively manage student loans. Here are a few strategies I’ve learned along the way.
1. Put Your Loans in Context
Student loan debt is just one piece of your bigger financial puzzle, so it’s important not to consider it in a vacuum. Before diving into the details of who’s going to pay what and how much, first spend some time getting on the same page about your long-term financial goals. Do you want to buy a house one day? If so, how soon? Where do you want to live, and what kind of lifestyle do you both want to have? Being mindful of what you’re working toward not only helps you make good decisions day-to-day (like sticking to a tight budget), but also gives the two of you a shared dream to get excited about – instead of focusing on the stress of the extra debt you’re carrying.
2. Look at the Big — and Little — Pictures
Whether one or both of you have student debt, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with more than just one loan. In fact, the average borrower carries four separate loans, often from different lenders and with varying interest rates and terms, according to Experian data. Understanding and tracking all these moving pieces is key to coming up with an effective game plan, so start by gathering your collective loan information and documenting it in one place (like a spreadsheet or online debt management tool).
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3. Agree on Your Approach
There are a few common debt payoff strategies that borrowers can employ. For example, you may choose the “snowball method,” where you tackle your loans in order from smallest to largest balance. This approach allows you to get some quick wins under your belt in the form of paid-off loans, which can motivate you both to keep working toward your ultimate goal of being debt-free. However, it might not be the most cost-effective way to dispose of your debt.
Another approach is the “avalanche method,” in which you’d pay off loans with the highest interest rates first. This plan prioritizes efficiency and cost savings, but if your high interest rate loans are also your biggest loans, it may not provide the same feeling of progress that the snowball method does. This is where it’s important to be on the same page about what your shared priorities are, as well as what motivates each of you (i.e. saving money vs. feeling a sense of accomplishment).
4. Optimize Your Interest Rate
Refinancing student loans at a lower interest rate is one of the best ways to cut interest costs and potentially be done with loans sooner, so for many eligible borrowers it’s a no-brainer. Another benefit is that each borrower can consolidate multiples loans together, reducing the number of line items on the above-mentioned spreadsheet and simplifying your payments.
5. Lean on Each Other
We’ve all seen the stats about how money issues are a key driver of relationship problems and divorce, but there’s also a huge advantage to having a partner in your corner when it comes to dealing with this kind of stuff. In fact, the people I’ve seen who are most successful in achieving their debt payoff goals are the ones who actively enlist support from their entire circle — they ask for advice when they face challenges and proudly share their accomplishments. When you’re part of a couple, you have that sounding board and support system built in – so take advantage of it.
Finally, as you and your partner pay off your debts, it’s also helpful to keep an eye on your credit standing. That means pulling your annual free credit reports from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, and tracking your credit-building progress by looking at your credit scores regularly (you can see your credit scores for free on Credit.com).
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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.
Dan Macklin is one of the founding members of SoFi, heading up the company's Business Development team. He is a thought leader whose perspectives on student loan refinancing have been featured in a variety of media outlets including CNBC, Fast Company and Mashable, as well as his personal favorite, Italian Vogue!