Without a strategy for paying down student loan debt, it’ll feel more like an anchor than the life jacket it was designed to be.

Graduating from college, or any post secondary school, is a time for celebration. You’ve worked hard, sacrificed much, and are theoretically ready to jump into the real world.

But hold on … this new phase of your life comes with a lot of new responsibilities, one of which is tackling those student loans that helped get you to the edge of this springboard. The average student loan debt for 2016 graduates is a record $37,173, up 6.05% from last year’s level, according to Mark Kantrowitz, Publisher and Vice President of Strategy for Cappex.com, a college scholarship website.

students everywhere are taking out student loans to cover their schooling but are finding themselves with a lot of debt on the other sideWithout a strategy for paying down this debt, it’ll feel more like an anchor than the life jacket it was designed to be.

We’ve compiled 10 tips for paring down your student loan debt. Choose the ones that work best for you and your situation and you’ll be one step closer to reaching financial freedom.

  1. Know how much you owe. Denial is not a strategy and neither is procrastination. Face your debt head-on. Add all of your student loans together and keep track of them on a spreadsheet. Knowledge is power and even if you start with a high number, you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment as that number declines over time.
  1. Set reasonable goals. Yes, the goal is to repay your debt as quickly as possible, but committing to repay 50% of your outstanding debt in one year is not only unrealistic, it will likely also set you up for disappointment and failure. When you make and reach reasonable goals that fit within your budget your progress brings much more satisfaction.
  1. Pay highest interest rates first. The higher the interest rate, the more the loan costs you. Yes, it may be visually neater to pay off a low-balance loan and delete it from your spreadsheet, but don’t do it! It’s financially smarter to pay down the highest interest rate loan first.
  1. Consider refinancing. Since the majority of your loan repayments go toward interest, you may want to consider refinancing. It does, however, come with both pros and cons. You may lose some student loan federal protections, but you also have the chance to lower your interest rate and your monthly payment.
  1. Automate payments. Did you know that according to org some lenders offer a discount when you enroll in auto pay? The most common discount is a quarter of a percentage point off your interest for each loan, which doesn’t seem like much, but that’s money in your pocket. Plus, you’ll never miss a payment. Set it and forget it. It doesn’t get easier than that.
  1. First Financial Security, Inc. believes in empowering the next generation by putting them in a position to win financiallyPrioritize your spending and increase your savings. It takes discipline and determination, but when you are committed to paying down your student loan debt everything else has to take a back seat. Set a list of spending priorities and stick to them. Overcoming the need for instant gratification is difficult, but the reward of financial freedom will be well worth it.
  1. Find a part-time job. Part-time jobs can be just about anything these days. Freelance writer, barista, tutor, website designer, landscaper, dog walker, photographer, salesperson … anything to make a few extra dollars. Every penny counts, so if you have the free time, don’t waste it. Some opportunities may even sharpen your skills or teach you new ones that you could potentially add to your resume.
  1. Negotiate help from your employer. There are several programs already in place that help employees repay student loans. Some are through employers, while others are more public service-oriented, but even if your potential employer is not participating in one of these programs, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Employers are increasingly willing to consider adding student loan repayment to benefits packages, especially to attract top talent. 
  1. Ask for loan repayment money as gifts. If you’ve set a goal to reduce your student loan debt, let your family and friends know about it. You may want to tell them that instead of traditional birthday, holiday and graduation gifts, you’d love some help with money that you’ll use to repay your student loans. People want to give you what you need and if you’re using it as you say you will, they’ll be happy to help.
  1. Reward yourself. Paying down your student loans is difficult and it will take time. The important thing is to keep your motivation high and be sure to celebrate when you reach a milestone. Yes, you’re saving money, but dinner celebrating the final payment of your highest interest loan is well worth it!

We know that paying back student loan debt can be intimidating. It takes a lot of sacrifice, dedication, and hard work, but the reward of achieving financial freedom will be one of the most worthwhile and valuable things you ever do.

Implementing just a few of these steps will not only put you on the right path, it will also help you establish some excellent habits that will set the foundation of your future financial health.

The sooner you start; the sooner you’ll reach your goal.  Start planning now!