Graduating with student loans can feel like starting out adult life with a negative score. Every monthly payment is another effort to move forward towards the starting line. And only when you pay off your debt can real life finally begin.
Some 46 percent of those with student loans report delaying having kids due to their debt, while 35 percent delayed even discussing marriage, a new Student Loan Hero survey found. And the wait is long: It can take an average of about 20 years to pay off student loans, CNBC reports.
But you don’t have to lose out on your 20s and 30s just because you have debt. Here’s a list — by no means an exhaustive one — of some of the things you can do even when you owe student loans.
1. Move out on your own — or out of town
Although moving back in with your parents can be a good way to save money and pay off your student loans faster, it’s not your only option.
If the rent where you live is too high, look for a roommate — or roommates.
The same goes if you want to move out of town. If you’re having trouble finding roommates in a new city, you could start out with a one- or two-month Airbnb. That way you won’t have to buy furniture right away — and you can get to know the city before committing to a neighborhood.
2. Change jobs
Changing jobs is always a bit scary, especially with loans. But that shouldn’t prevent you from taking calculated steps to grow your career.
If you need some relief during your transition, you can get help with federal student loans by applying for an income-driven repayment plan. Although it won’t help you pay your debt off faster, it can help lower your payments for the time being.
And if your new job pays more, you can try to continue living on your old paycheck amount and apply the surplus of the new pay to your student loans. And that higher salary can qualify to refinance your student loans at a lower interest rate.
3. Attend graduate school
The last thing you might want to do while in student loan debt is to take out more student loan debt. But if graduate school is on your horizon, you might not have a choice.
You can at least get some breathing room while you’re in school by deferring your undergraduate loans until you graduate. Or, if you really want to avoid more debt and aren’t approved for a fellowship, try to find employment that will pay for you to get an advanced degree.
4. Save for retirement
It might seem crazy to think about retirement when you’ve barely started adult life. But this is the optimal time to do so.
Thanks to the phenomenon of compound interest, the earlier you start saving, the less you’ll need to save each month.
Take advantage if your employer offers a 401(k), or, if not, open an IRA and deposit just a little each month. Some might think your 20s is too early to save for retirement, but if you wait until your loans are paid off, then you’ll have to double or even triple your savings rate to make up for the lost time.
And if you feel you can’t afford to save in an IRA, you could even just save your spare change via Acorns or similar apps.
One way to travel while paying off student loans is to get paid while doing it.
You could look for house-sitting opportunities in your desired locale, or try to find a remote job that enables you to live anywhere, a job that requires you to travel (flight attendant, anyone?), or maybe an English teaching gig overseas.
Just make sure that you’re making your minimum student loan payments at the very least.
6. Buy a house
If putting down roots is more your thing, you can get started on the process as soon as you feel ready. Some might worry that having student loans will hurt your chances of qualifying for a mortgage, but the effect they have on your credit score can be more positive than negative if you always pay on time.
Besides automating savings for a down payment, you can expedite your home buying process by looking for tax breaks where you live. In some cases, these tax breaks can make homeownership a reality years before you expected.
7. Get married
There’s no reason to avoid marriage because of debt. Instead, talk to your partner about your student loans. Explain your plan for paying them off and listen to the fears they might have.
This isn’t just a way to clear the air about finances before you get married. It can also help you build the communication skills you’ll need if you do embark on a life together.
Marriage is a challenge with or without debt — a challenge that can be managed with a willingness to have the hard conversations. Don’t let student loan debt stand in the way of growth in your relationship.
8. Have kids
Perhaps one of the scariest financial truths about having kids is the fact that you can’t predict the costs you’ll incur over a lifetime as a parent.
For that reason, you might feel like you have to hold off on having a family until your student loans are paid off. But that could mean delaying some of your best parenting years. If you want kids sooner rather than later, talk to a certified credit counselor, fee-only financial planner, or even a financial therapist.
A financial professional can objectively look at your money situation and not only tell you what you can realistically do, but also help you create a plan to make it happen.
It’s all about strategy and priorities
In short, things you can still do while paying off student loans are, well, anything your heart desires. It all comes down to strategy and priorities.
Although having student loans could mean slower progress toward your goals, you can still start now in small chunks. Then build momentum over time as your career grows and your pay increases. In the meantime, don’t let student loans halt your life.