5 easy steps to stay on top of your student loans

Reading Time: 8 minutes For most of us, student loans are a necessary evil of the college experience. Use this practical guide to pay off your student loans fast.

Apps and podcasts we love: PocketGuard

Reading Time: 2 minutes This money management app will help you get a handle on your expenses.

A simple, hands-on guide to making a budget

Reading Time: 2 minutes Yes, it IS possible to pay your bills, buy some stuff you want, and even put a bit of money aside for the future—and it all begins with a budget.

14 ways to build better money habits today

Reading Time: 12 minutes Easy ways to stop spending all your money.

7 steps to pain-free budgeting

Reading Time: 6 minutes As a student, sometimes the money goes out faster than it’s coming in. Learn how to track your spending with this step-by-step guide. (Your future self will thank you.)

How to pay for school when you can’t

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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Paying for college sure can induce a sense-of-humor failure. But at Student Health 101 we had to find an upside, so here it is: The cost of higher education is an opportunity to build certain vital life skills—like stress management, financial self-empowerment, damage limitation, and problem solving. We’re confident these skills will be at least as valuable to you as your degree is. To get started, check out what students wish they’d known about loans, scholarships, and grants.

Student loans come in many shapes and sizes

“I wish I would have done my research and realized sooner that there are multiple options.”
—Graduate student, University of Wyoming

  • The federal government offers several types of student loans.
  • Private student loans are provided by banks, credit unions, state agencies, and other lenders.
  • All loans must be repaid.

Gobbledegook overwhelm?

“I wish I’d known more about what different things mean: variable interest rates, deferment, deferral, etc.”
—Graduate student, Suffolk University, Massachusetts

dollar signTranslate loan language into English


“Look at when the interest starts accruing, how much interest will accrue in school and later, and how long it will take to pay it off at what monthly payments.”
—Undergraduate, University of Alaska Anchorage

  • Know when you’ll be expected to start making payments.
  • Know what your minimum payments will be.
  • Know whether your interest rate is fixed (never changes) or variable.
  • Know when interest will start to accrue.
  • Know your grace period (how long until you’ll start making payments).
  • Know whether your loan gets you a tax deduction.

Subsidized vs. unsubsidized

“[I didn’t know] the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized government loans, as well as the payback rules.”
—Undergraduate, Utah State University

  • The federal government provides subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
  • Direct subsidized loans are available to undergraduates in financial need. The interest is paid by the government until you’re done with school.
  • Direct unsubsidized loans are available to undergraduate and graduate students; there is no requirement to demonstrate financial need.

Get organized

“I wish I had known to start that spreadsheet immediately.”
—Undergraduate, Santa Clara University, California

  • Keep track of loan amounts, providers, etc. This helps with your taxes, loan repayments, and self-empowerment.
  • Read the info carefully. Don’t miss a deadline.
  • If possible, start paying on the interest as a student to keep rates lower later.
  • Routinely track your spending.

dollar signOrganizational tools & tips

Reconsider how much you need

“I didn’t have to accept the loan in full. If I had known this I may have borrowed less.”
—Undergraduate, University of Montana–Western

  • Check out the “cost of attendance” info on your school website.
  • Take out as few student loans as possible.

dollar signCalculate your needs

Don’t miss your repayments

“Even if your mom pays your loan, it’s still in your name. Make sure she makes those payments on time!”
—Undergraduate, Metropolitan State University, Minnesota

If you don’t pay on your loan, you will go into default. This can negatively affect your credit score and reduce your options for getting a cell phone, or buying or renting a place to live.

dollar signInfo on defaulting

dollar signOptions for if you can’t pay


“I wish I’d known how readily available scholarships are, if you just look for them.”
—Student, Normandale Community College, Minnesota

Student story
Felecia Hatcher was awarded $130,000 in scholarships. Her advice: Focus on what you’re great at or what you love, and apply for local scholarships: “The pool is so much smaller.” Hatcher is author of The “C” Students Guide to Scholarships (Peterson’s, 2011).

  • Scholarships are usually merit-based. Some scholarships support students facing challenges or contributing to their communities, or employees of certain companies.
  • Scholarships don’t need to be paid back.
  • Check regularly for opportunities others miss with the office of financial aid or the scholarship office, and online.
  • Apply for scholarships every year, even if it didn’t work out last time.

Grants & paid positions

“I wish I had known a way to avoid having to take out loans in the first place.”
—Undergraduate, Humboldt State University, California

  • Grants provide free* money for college (*usually).
  • The federal government offers grants based on need. You will need to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
  • Check for grants with your office of financial aid or the scholarship office, and your academic department.
  • Also look for grants from your state or local government, non-profit organizations, and research and travel programs.
  • Apply for grants every year, even if it didn’t work out last time.
  • Ask about work-study jobs, residential advisor (RA) positions, and other paid part-time roles.

dollar signScholarships & grants

Essential info from the US Dept. of Education:

dollar signTypes of federal loans

dollar signFederal vs. private loans

dollar signLoan subsidies

dollar signRepayments and grace periods

dollar signCalculate repayment timeline

dollar signFAFSA info

Students’ stories

"I wish I’d seen the big picture"

“I knew in high school that a family member was going to cover all my expenses for college, so I didn’t pay attention when they were explained my senior year. But after two years there was family drama and they dropped my funding. I had about a month to learn everything I needed to know about loans and get two federal direct loans and a private loan. Should have paid attention.”
—Undergraduate, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington

“I just wish I had applied for more scholarships. It took me until grad school to start doing that.”
—Graduate student, University of Southern Maine

“’I didn’t realize how easy it was to just accept [loans] and how hard it was to pay them off. The available amount looks great but just makes you stuck with more debt!”
—Graduate student, California State University, San Marcos

“I wish I would have known about alternatives before I signed away to be in debt.”
—Graduate student, California State University, San Bernardino

“[I wish I’d known] community college is cheaper and I could work before I got to school. Also the average amount of years it would take a person in my financial situation to pay off a loan of the size that I took out.”
—Undergraduate, Western Illinois University

"I wish I’d known this earlier"

Without looking it up, could you say how long it will take you to pay off your loan?

  • Yes: 55%
  • Guesstimate: 27%
  • No idea: 18%

Source: Student Health 101 survey, August 2015. 950+ students answered this question.

 “I wish I’d known that I should pay off unsubsidized loans before subsidized loans.”
—Undergraduate, Western Washington University

“I wish I’d known that each student is allotted a certain amount of federal aid for the whole course of his/her undergrad education, which means students have the potential to run out of federal aid if they need an extra year or two.”
—Undergraduate, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth

“I wish I’d known about income-based repayment plans. If so, I would not have had semesters with no textbooks or a shortage of toilet paper.”
—Graduate student, Western Illinois University

“I wish I [knew] the importance of paying off the principal as I attended school. This really helps in the long run!”
—Undergraduate, University of Wyoming

“I wish I knew how much I owe, how to pay it off as I go, how much they’re growing in interest, and how long it will take me to pay off!”
—Undergraduate, Roger Williams University, Rhode Island

"What I’d do differently"

How quickly could you locate the details of your student loans?

  • Right now; it’s all in one place: 54%
  • Give me an hour; it’s sort of organized: 32%
  • Give me a day; I’d need to search: 11%
  • Help! Could be anywhere: 3%

Source: Student Health 101 survey, August 2015. 950+ students answered this question.

“Don’t lose your login information. Phoning student loan help is basically useless.”
—Undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta

“I wish I’d tracked the total amount. I had so many smallish loans that when I graduated and got the total I was shocked. Way higher than expected.”
—Graduate student, Husson University, Maine

Budget smartly and know the benefits of having a savings account.”
—Undergraduate, Humboldt State University, California

“[I wasn’t aware of] the high interest rate. I should’ve saved up while I had the chance rather than buying those shoes I wanted.”
—Undergraduate, University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley

Vote for a legislature and government officials who will work for lowering student loan interest rates.”
—Graduate student, University of the Pacific, California


Does your spending need a reality check?: How to budget better

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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The college or university years are typically our first experience of managing (or blowing) adult finances. The responsibility can be empowering, but greater control over our finances calls for conscious planning. In a recent CampusWell survey, 91 percent of student respondents thought keeping a budget would help them better manage their personal finances. But wouldn’t most of us rather drink the latte and eat the pizza than track their prices?

Our spending habits have consequences that go beyond our immediate financial dilemmas (can I afford to go out tonight?) and reverberate through our futures. “You either have enough to pay the rent or you don’t. The payment either arrives on time or it doesn’t,” says Gail Cunningham, chief spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, based in Washington DC.

We asked three undergraduates to estimate their weekly expenditures during the semester. Then we crunched the numbers to see what they’d actually spent and how that matched up with their own estimates.

Financial expert:
Leslie H. Tayne, Esq., attorney specializing in debt-related services, New York City

Which would you cut? utlities v. celebrations

Category Estimate Reality Difference
Academics $180 $190 $10
Utilities $30 $60 $30
Personal $10 $24 $14
Transportation $40 $40 $0
Health & fitness $5 $5 $0
Rent $100 $100 $0
Food, socializing, & entertainment $70 $60 $10
Total $435 $479 $44

Korena H. is a fourth-year student at California State University, Sacramento.

If this were a typical week, Korena’s extra spending per calendar year would be around $2,300.

Korena’s reaction
“I was really surprised with my personal expenses. I did not take into account all the birthdays I buy for. I don’t generally handle the utilities bill so I’m not super-familiar with it.”

Expert’s reaction
The key issue Tracking costs

“This student is living close to the edge and over budget on some things. Try and break it down to see where you’re spending the most money. With your utilities, if it’s your electric, see if you can conserve power by unplugging things you aren’t using and turning off lights and electronics. If it’s other areas, consider calling the companies and asking for a student discount. You may be surprised at their response.”

Student budget tools

More budget strategies

Strategies that force daily savings and build that habit for life

  • Do a version of this exercise, estimating your expenses per month on food, transport, health and fitness, academics, socializing and entertainment, rent, utilities, and personal expenses. Then review your bank records.
  • Create a monthly budget for yourself using student budget calculators.
  • To keep track of cash expenses, hold onto your receipts or write down every time you spend money.
  • Carry your student ID and routinely ask for discounts.
  • Use public transit and student gyms for little or no cost.
  • Leave your ATM card at home. “If you go to Target with $50 in your hand, you won’t spend $51,” says Andrew Krouk, a financial planner in Philadelphia.
  • If you’re not eating in a cafeteria, make a weekly meal plan and follow it. Planning ahead (and teaming up with roommates) helps you save money. Buy in bulk, avoid rumbly-tummy grocery store splurges, and prevent food going to waste.
  • Get creative with socializing and entertaining. Instead of going out and spending $50 each, invite friends over for a potluck.
  • Practice “Starbucks Theory”: Instead of going out for coffee each day, make coffee at home to bring with you. “Planning ahead with coffee, snacks, water, etc., will drastically cut down your expenses,” says Andrew Krouk.
  • Save. “You pay your groceries and your rent, but instead of paying everyone else first, pay yourself first. You’re working hard: Pay yourself for it!” says Andrew Krouk. Then live off what’s left. If you put away $2 each day, that’s $60 a month for your savings or leisure activities. “There’s no cost in saving money. You can always use it at a later time. People think of saving as an expense, but it’s a reward.”
  • Give yourself a margin for error. “Set aside 10 percent of your income for contingencies/emergencies. This will help you recover if you go over budget one week,” says Kuljeet Notay, a financial aid counselor at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Can you afford school supplies and eating out?

Category Estimate Reality Difference
Food $30 $48 $18
Academics $0 $26 $26
Utilities $8.75 $8.75 $0
Rent $81.25 $81.25 $0
Personal $5 $25 $20
Total $125 $189 $64

Alice R. is a fourth-year student at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

If this were a typical week, Alice’s extra spending per calendar year would be around $3,330.

Alice’s reaction
“I was surprised by the amount I spent on food. I didn’t take into account that I went out of town, forcing me to purchase more meals at restaurants. It is shocking to see how eating out can add up.

“This is a reality check about where my money is being spent. The amount that one overspends in a year could be enough to pay the bills for several months.”

Expert’s reaction
The key issue Budgeting for variable expenses

“This student has a great sense of fixed expenses but is not budgeting for the variable expenses, such as academics, personal items, and food. This can result in her having less money to pay fixed obligations such as rent. It’s also important to keep some money aside for the unexpected.

“I suggest budgeting each week and trying to break down the categories and see where you are overspending. Maybe you can switch to generic for certain items or cook more at home.”

How many students keep a budget?
Of 750 students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey… 47% said they keep a budget and plan to continue 27% said they plan to make a budget in the near future 14% said they plan to make a budget at some point 8% said they’d like to but were not sure they’d get around to it 2% said they didn’t intend to keep a budget

The case study no one expected

Category Estimate  Reality Difference
Transportation $50 $50 $0
Utilities $20 $20 $0
Rent $98 $98 $0
Food $80 $65 $15
Socializing & entertainment $30 $22 $8
Personal $30 $20 $10
Total $308 $275 $33

Charlie R. is a fourth-year student at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, New York.

If this were a typical week, Charlie’s savings per calendar year would be around $1,700.

Charlie’s reaction
“I think I spend more than I actually do, which is surprising. On average my costs are low, but when I’m busy, I tend to get fast food or buy food more often, increasing my spending. Overspending, especially on a limited income, makes everything more stressful and definitely makes purchasing even food tough. Saving helps relieve that stress but can also open up temptation to spend on things that aren’t required but just wanted.”

Expert’s reaction
The key issue Making the most of savings

“This is great! This student is really cutting costs and able to save money. My suggestion would be to put all this money aside in case you go over on expenses one month or something unexpected comes up. Any money left over can be put towards loans or saving for the upcoming semesters.”

10 tips for having a blast on a budget

  1. Carry cash
  2. Necessity or luxury?
  3. Carpool, bike, bus
  4. Separate checks
  5. Student ID
  6. Group discounts
  7. Clubs
  8. Community events
  9. School events
  10. Plan ahead
Does your spending need a reality check

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