Tuition and fees for college are dramatically outpacing household incomes. More and more students are turning to student loans to bridge the gap, graduating with debt loads averaging just under $40,000. Even if you are fortunate enough to qualify for scholarships or financial aid, things like room and board and books and supplies can cost just as much as your tuition. The really difficult part is student loans can never be forgiven, remaining as a burden to your finances until you finally pay them off.

It takes, on average, 21 years to pay off student loan debt, and there are nearly 10 million Americans who aren’t able to make their payments, only a third of which are in deferment. Not going to college is still more expensive than going to college and racking up student loan debt, though, because you are likely to miss out on half a million dollars in lifetime earnings without a college degree.

So what can you do to lighten the load? Plan ahead. Start by calculating how much money you will need to finish college with a degree, because the most expensive college education is one you don’t finish. Public in-state colleges are a must if you are on a budget. Save money before you start college- the earlier the better. A work-study program, RA program, or part time job can help supplement your financial needs, and taking a “gap year” to work in a related field can also give your career a boost, as long as taking a break doesn’t affect your scholarships.

Learn more about hacking your student loan debt from this infographic. The best way to avoid student loan pitfalls is to not take on as much debt to begin with. The less your debt load, the better off you will be.

Hacking Your Student Loans

Hacking Your Student Loans

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