How Much Should You Spend on College and Student Loans?

Calculating a college spending plan that won’t devastate your finances

(Image: iStock by Getty Images)
(Image: iStock by Getty Images)

Like many financial journalists I know, it moves me deeply to see the ways in which America’s more than $1 trillion in student loan debt is impacting people’s lives.

I was recently speaking to a group of Millennials at Rider College in New Jersey, and was unsettled to learn how many have given up dreams of getting married, starting a family, or buying a home all because of the financial burden of student loans.

There are many often untapped options to pay off student loan debt:

  • Income-based repayment for federal loans, which keeps your monthly payment down to 10% of your discretionary income.
  • Loan Forgiveness: You can get public service loan forgiveness for federal student loans if you work in government or a non-profit, after you make 120 payments, and it doesn’t have to be consecutive. Some jobs like teaching also have loan forgiveness options.
  • The Federal Student Loan Program will pay $10,000 a year towards your student loan debt, maxing out at $60,000 for many government jobs.
  • Ask your employer to pay: More and more employers are willing to pay your student loan debt if you commit to working for them for a certain number of years. Be sure to ask when you’re interviewing for your job.

Still, not taking on too much student loan debt in the first place remains the cornerstone of a sound financial plan for paying for higher education.

The general rule of thumb for student loans is that you should not have to borrow more than you expect to make as an annual salary for your first job out of school. Go to sites like Salary.com to research salaries. Also, talk and network with other young people in your field. Your college alumni office can be a good resource to open up those networks.

It’s also important to be clear on costs. The National Center for Education Statistics has a website that can help you calculate costs. CNN Money’s College Cost Calculator is a great resource. There is also an interesting site called CollegeRiskReport.com that a University of Arkansas grad put together to help people figure out if their degree is worth their financial investment.

In addition, be sure to put together a realistic budget, including tuition and fees, books and supplies, housing and food, as well as transportation and personal expenses.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Pay close attention to the amount of time it will take you to get your degree. Some schools may have a lower sticker price, but it would take you 5 years to get the degree you want – that’s a year you’re not working.
  •  Also get very clear with your family on the “Expected Family Contribution.” Parents need to be realistic about what they can really afford, and keep in mind that they should never compromise saving for their own retirement. You can borrow money for college, but not retirement.
  •  There are scholarship options for just about everything. Zinch.com and Fastweb.com are good sites to help you find them.

Despite a challenging economic recovery, and student loan debt problems, a college degree is a worthwhile endeavor. Someone with a bachelor’s degree will earn, on average, twice as much as someone without a degree over a lifetime.