"Ask Brianna" is a Q&A column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I'm here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to email@example.com.
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Q: I want to get married, buy a house and hit other adult milestones in my 20s and 30s, but my student loan debt is holding me back. Should I put off other goals while I repay my student loans?
A: Feeling stymied by student loans is becoming a defining part of being a 20- or 30-something. The numbers are stacked against us: College is more expensive, we're taking on more debt to afford it, and it's harder for us to repay the money we borrow.
According to the College Board, the average public four-year college's net price — the amount you pay for tuition, fees, room and board after accounting for scholarships, grants and tax benefits — jumped from $9,940 a year to $13,320 from 2003-04 to 2013-14. Not surprisingly, the average amount of student loan debt at graduation went up 56 percent between 2004 and 2014, the Institute for College Access & Success reports. Meanwhile, the median household income fell 6.5 percent between 2007, the year before the recession hit, and 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Your concerns are real, and don't let anybody tell you that you just shouldn't have taken out student loans, or that you should have chosen a more lucrative major when you were 18 and couldn't plan past your next meal.
But there are ways to make your student loan payments more manageable so you can afford a wedding, a down payment and other trappings of adulthood. You can also recast your expectations of what you're supposed to achieve in your 20s and 30s to lessen that feeling of falling behind.
LOWER YOUR STUDENT LOAN PAYMENT
Affording your student loan bills should be your priority because the consequences of default can be severe. When you default, the government, for instance, has the power to withhold your pay or seize your tax refunds to collect your unpaid federal loan debt.
If you're having trouble making your payment, switch to an income-driven repayment plan . These options can reduce your monthly student loan bill to 10 percent or 15 percent of your income. Check whether you're eligible for student loan forgiveness, too: Public Service Loan Forgiveness will make your remaining loan balance disappear after 120 on-time payments if you work for a nonprofit or government agency.
Refinancing can also help you manage your student loans. A private lender will pay off your current debt and issue you a new loan at a lower interest rate. You must qualify based on your income, credit score and job history, so it's best for those who aren't in danger of falling behind on payments. You'll also lose certain benefits if you refinance your federal loans.
SET YOUR OWN EXPECTATIONS
Before you lament the cushy lifestyle your loans robbed from you, remember that those loans helped get you a college education. A degree earns 25- to 34-year-olds an extra $20,000 a year on average compared with those with a high school education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Yes, you might hit those classic adult milestones later — but you'll still hit them. Starting about age 27, home ownership rates are higher among those who took on debt to go to college than those who didn't go to college at all, according to a recent report by Susan M. Dynarski, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at the University of Michigan.
Keep in mind, too, that buying a house isn't the ultimate sign you're an adult, and putting it off doesn't make you a failure. Helen Ngo, a certified financial planner and principal at Capital Benchmark Partners in Atlanta, says her 20- and 30-something clients who recently graduated with medical, law and other graduate debt aren't eager to buy homes .
"Most of them just want to make money and pay off debt and travel," she says.
Is that such a problem? Given the chance, I know you'd get rid of your student loans tomorrow; I would, too. But if they got you a degree, they were probably worth it. Work them into your budget, plan for the future anyway, and know that you don't have to meet anyone's expectations but your own.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.
Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.
NerdWallet: A guide to getting out of student loan debt
Federal Student Aid: Income-driven repayment plans https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/understand/plans/income-driven
Brookings Institution: The dividing line between haves and have-nots in home ownership: Education, not student debt