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Saddled with student loans? Here's what to do

"Today" financial editor Jean Chatzky offers tips on how to handle the debt without putting your entire life on hold.
/ Source: TODAY

If you're like many people (OK, if you're like me) you actually go through life with a bit of a checklist. Finish school. Get a job. Get married. Buy a house. Have a baby.

For some people, lists like these actually kind of work out. For others, they become a little discombobulated by unexpected events and adventures: Twins, for instance, or transfers to Tunisia.

In cases like these, checks appear on the list, just not in the anticipated order.And then there are those people with student loans. According to a new study from Alliance Bernstein Investments, adult Americans age 21 to 35 who graduated with heavy debts have put off their checklist for later. Some 28 percent of respondents still paying off debt have delayed having children. Nearly 20 percent have pushed back tying the knot and 44 percent put off buying a house. One-in-four has even postponed a medical or dental procedure.

"Everyone expects to struggle the first few years out of college, but when you are 30-plus still living paycheck to paycheck because of your college debt, that is startling," says Jennifer DeLong, director of college savings plans at Alliance Bernstein.

Indeed, today's college graduates are saddled with more debt than previous generations. The average tops $20,000. The folks who responded to the survey today shell out an average $260 a month for their educational debts and anticipate continuing to do so for more than 10 years on average.

If you're struggling (or even just saddled with) student loans, how can you best manage them to get on with your life?

  • Consolidate. Now. On July 1, interest rates on federal student loans are set to jump nearly 2 percent, from 5 percent to 7 percent — one of the largest increases in the program's history. By consolidating your loans now, borrowers can lock in today's low rates for the life of the loan. If you carry the average $20,500 in loans, you can save as much as $3,300 over the life of your 10-year loan. If you consolidate while in your six-month grace period immediately after graduation, and sign up for automatic monthly payments, you can land a 4.5 percent rate. Remember that it costs you nothing to consolidate. Do not wait until the last minute. When rates hiked last year, jammed phone lines and servers became problems as the deadline neared.
  • Consider your potential. The consequences of college debt depend on your career choice. So first be realistic about what type of life you can afford based on your profession. If you are pursuing a career in a lucrative field with the potential to earn a much larger salary down the road, then you may not feel the urgency to pay off your debt before moving on with life. If you are in a low-paying job and do not expect to receive large salary increases, rather than put your life on hold, you need to develop (and then adhere to) saving and spending patterns that you can afford.
  • Prioritize. It may seem like paying off the debt ranks as your most important money goal. But think again. Student loans charge low-interest rates, much lower than other types of consumer debt such as credit card. So pay off your high rate debt — credit cards and car loans, for instance — first. One thing not to do: Put all your money toward your debt and ignore other financial priorities. "Even with student loan debt, you for sure should at least invest in your 401(k) up to the company match," says Ross Levin, a certified financial planner in Edina, Minn. "It is free money. The return on that is much higher than the cost of servicing the student loan debt." You should also establish an emergency fund that covers at least 3 to 6 months of expenses, and make sure you have life insurance once there are other people depending on your income stream.
  • Don't delay life. My mother always says that if she and my father had waited to have children until they could "afford it," my brothers and I would have never been born.
    With today's prices, so much of life looks unaffordable it's important to resist the urge to put everything on hold. After all, notes Levin, when you eventually get your college debt paid off, you will have other financial issues — including college for the next generation.
    "Don't punish yourself because you were a motivated student," he says. It is okay to have student loans and save for your first home (or even have a baby) at the same time.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .