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Student loans take a mental toll on millions of borrowers—here's how you can cope

Select offers some advice on lightening the mental burden of your student loan debt.

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The ongoing federal student loan payment and interest freeze that has been in effect since March 2020 has given millions of borrowers a temporary break from paying down their student debt.

But it hasn't totally relieved borrowers of the mental strain that comes with carrying such a heavy debt burden.

In fact, a recent survey by Student Loan Planner found that 1 in 14 respondents had suicidal ideation at some point due to student loan debt (an increase from their 2019 findings) and 1 in 17 reported experiencing suicidal ideation in the past year alone.

As May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, Select has some advice to borrowers who are facing anxiety over conquering their student loan debt.

1. Make a plan

Having a strategy for how you will tackle your student loans is the best way to alleviate the stress of your debt, says Andy Taylor, founder and CEO of Douugh, a smart banking app that helps users autonomously manage their money.

"If you can visualize when you're able to pay off the loan, then you can find some peace of mind," Taylor tells Select. "Oftentimes, student loans feel overwhelming because they seem like such a huge hurdle to overcome."

Sometimes, making a plan is half the battle. Start with creating a realistic goal for where you want your debt load to be within a year and then calculate how much you can contribute each month to reach that goal. If you can afford to do so, paying more than the minimum due each month is a smart way to effectively pay off your debt faster. Make sure when you're making these extra payments, they're being applied to the loan principal, not just the interest.

Federal student loan borrowers should consider making monthly payments even during the current forbearance period. With interest set to 0%, these payments go directly to your principal, which helps you pay off your debt faster.

2. Automate your payments

Once you make a plan, consider automating your monthly student loan payments. Automating ensures you chip away at your debt without having to think about it each month — also known as "set it and forget it." The key here is to make paying down your student loan debt a built-in habit.

Another perk of automation? Setting up autopay on your federal student loans will likely lower the interest rate on your loans by 0.25 percentage points. It might seem like a small thing, but it really can make a big difference.

3. Get a lower interest rate

If seeing your student debt balance balloon is what contributes to your anxiety, getting a lower interest rate might help.

Refinancing your student loans means trading in your current loan(s) for one new, consolidated loan through a private lender.

Through refinancing, you can earn a lower interest rate while also having the opportunity to choose a loan repayment term that works best for your current financial situation. Perhaps you want to accelerate your debt payoff and shorten your loan term by making higher monthly payments each month. Or you could choose to extend your loan term so that your monthly payments are smaller.

Breaking your debt into smaller, more manageable payments may help you feel more at ease, says Taylor.

With federal student loan payments on pause and interest set to 0% through September 2021, federal student loan borrowers should wait to consider refinancing until the forbearance period ends. (Just keep in mind that you lose any federal loan protections if you ever do refinance down the road.)

On the other hand, refinancing right now is a good idea for private student loan borrowers since rates still remain low.

While most lenders require you to have good credit, Earnest Student Loan Refinancing allows fair credit applicants with a minimum credit score of 650 to qualify, and there are no minimum income requirements.

Read our full review of Earnest Student Loan Refinancing.

Earnest Student Loan Refinancing

  • Cost

    No origination fees to refinance

  • Eligible loans

    Federal, private, graduate and undergraduate loans

  • Loan types

    Variable and fixed

  • Variable rates (APR)

    Starting at 1.99% (rates include a 0.25% autopay discount)

  • Fixed rates (APR)

    Starting at 2.98% (rates include a 0.25% autopay discount)

  • Loan terms

    Flexible terms anywhere between 5-20 years

  • Loan amounts

    A minimum of $5,000, up to $500,000 (residents of California must request to refinance $10,000 or more)

  • Minimum credit score

    650

  • Minimum income

    No income requirement

  • Allow for a co-signer

    No

Terms apply.

4. Ask for help

No matter how big or small your student debt load is, there are professionals whose job it is to help coach you through the emotional burden of it all.

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) offers a portal for people to call and receive free credit and student loan guidance from a nonprofit credit counselor.

There can be something cathartic about having a professional present all your payment options for you. Knowing that you have choices can relieve some of the stress.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.