Investment gurus agree that getting an education is one of the best uses of your money. It pays intangible benefits and opens the door to increased career opportunities. However, when you are weighed down with student debt, that investment might not seem so great.

The average undergraduate leaves their university over $30,000 in debt. For those with advanced or specialized degrees, this figure can get as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those loan payments can burden your budget like the proverbial albatross, making it harder to sail to the bright future you imagined.

Slogging through your loans by making the minimum payment is not the best way to pay off your debt. There are many programs to help you consolidate federal student loans as well as refinance private student loans.

If you're having problems making payments, there are options worth considering. Below are some simple ways to pay your existing debts faster, saving you money in interest and freeing up your funds sooner.

Make extra payments. When determining your monthly payment, lenders (including the government) include a specific amount for interest. If you pay more than the minimum, that extra goes to the principal loan amount. This reduces how much you owe and allows you to pay off the loan earlier and with less of your hard-earned dollars going toward interest.

Let's take a simple example. Say you took out a five-year loan for $10,000 at 7.25 percent interest. Your monthly payments would be $199.19, and you'd pay $1,951.62 in interest over the life of the loan if you make the minimum payments faithfully. Say, however, you up that payment to $210/month, just $9.89 more. You would pay off the loan three months earlier, saving $104 in interest. Put in $30 each month toward the principal, and you would pay off the loan 10 months early, saving over $300 in interest. Contribute $100 to the principal each month, and you pay the loan off almost two years ahead of schedule, saving over $700 in interest.

There are loan calculators online that can help you calculate the savings for your specific situations.

Pay off multiple loans with the snowball method. Also known as the stacking method or the avalanche method, it's a simple concept: Pay off one loan, then put the amount you had been paying toward the next loan, and so on. You can add all your debts to this method, but let's just look at a sample of student loans.

  • Loan A: A five-year loan taken out in December 2015 for $5,000 at a 5.9 percent interest rate. Payment: $96.43. Payoff Date: Dec. 2020
  • Loan B: A five-year loan taken out in January 2014 for $7,000 at 11 percent interest. Payment: $152.20. Payoff Date: Jan. 2019
  • Loan C: A five-year loan taken out September 2015 for $10,000 at 7.25 percent. Payment: $199.19. Payoff Date: Sept. 2020.

Assume you can scrounge up an extra $100 a month to put toward your loans. The snowball method says to ignore the interest rates and prioritize the loans by payment, paying off the smallest first. Suppose you start this August 2016. (The dates are only here to show passage of time.)

  • Loan A: Payment: $96.43. You Owe: $4,415
  • Loan B: Payment: $152.20. You Owe: $3,860
  • Loan C: Payment: $199.19. You Owe: $8,426

If you put that extra $100 into the smallest loan payment, Loan A, paying $196.43 a month, you pay off your debt in Aug. 2018. Now, you have an additional $196 to put into Loan B. By this time, you only owe $595 dollars, so you pay it off in two months. Now, you have $348 to apply to Loan C, on which you'll still owe $3,387. You'll pay off the loan 11 months early and have saved about $500 in interest.

Pay off multiple loans with the first taken/first paid snowball method. You'll note that with the above example, the loans were all taken out within a year of each other. The snowball method works best when this is the case (or when dealing with credit card debt, which does not have a set end date.)

If your loans are spread throughout your college career, then you might want to stack them by payoff date, then apply the snowball method. Let's look at the example again, but with more realistic loan dates:

  • Loan A: A five-year loan taken out in December 2015 for $5,000 at a 5.9 percent interest rate. Payment: $96.43. Payoff Date: Dec. 2020
  • Loan B: A five-year loan taken out in January 2014 for $7,000 at 11 percent interest. Payment: $152.20. Payoff Date: Jan. 2019
  • Loan C: A five-year loan taken out September 2012 for $10,000 at 7.25 percent. Payment: 199.19. Payoff Date: Sept. 2017.

In this case, arrange the loans by payoff date, again ignoring interest. As before, assume that it's August 2016, you've been paying faithfully but don't have extra money to put toward payments.

  • Loan C: Payment: $199.19. You Owe: $2,483
  • Loan B: Payment: $152.20. You Owe: $3,860
  • Loan A: Payment: $96.43. You Owe: $4,415

You pay off Loan C on time Sept. 2017. That gives you an extra $199 to put into Loan B starting October. This lets you pay off Loan B eight months early, May 2018. Now you have $351 to put into Loan A, of which you still owe $2,766.

Using this method, you'll pay off all your loans in Jan. 2019, almost two years ahead of schedule, without paying any more than you were already.

What About Refinancing?

Is it more cost effective to refinance? Assume you have the same three loans, with the spread out dates. It's now Aug. 2016. Interest rates on student loan refinancing run 3.5 percent to 7.75 percent, so let's use an interest rate of 5.5 percent, which is about halfway between.

All told, you owe $10,758, and have been paying $448 a month in payments. If you take out a five-year loan, you only have to pay $207.48 a month, which is very doable. The loan will be paid off in September 2021, and you'll have paid $1,571 in interest. This would save money, though you're paying for a longer time.

Suppose, however, you took this loan and continued to pour all $448 into paying off the loan. This means $241 a month is being applied to paying off the principal. This lets you pay off the refinancing loan in November 2018, almost three years early, with only $668 going toward interest.

Refinancing student loans can be a cost-effective way to get out of debt quickly, especially if you continue to pour money into the principal by making more than the minimum payments. If you're interested in this option, check out our Best Student Loans reviews. Several of these lenders offer refinancing.

Most people look back on their college years fondly, but not while they're making payments on a student loan! Even though student loans generally have easy terms than other kinds of debt, it's to your financial advantage to pay them off as quickly as possible.

Consolidation and refinancing ease the burden, but even if you cannot qualify for a loan, with a little extra work, you can climb out of debt quickly, saving you interest and freeing up cash for the next stage of your life.

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