We’ve heard the statistics: 44 million Americans carry almost $1.5 trillion in student loan debt with an average of more than $35,000 per borrower. So figuring out how to balance loan payments with day-to-day living expenses and future financial goals is on a lot of people’s minds. We asked Navy Federal’s Carrie Foran-Sepulveda, Manager of Education Lending, and Randy Hopper, Senior Vice President of Mortgage Lending, how people can manage their money, and even save, while they’re paying off their student loans.

  1. Is there a good strategy for repaying student loans, and is it worthwhile to pay extra?

“If you want to make progress on your student loan principal, make sure you’re making full principal and interest payments so that you gradually pay what you borrowed and the interest you agreed to pay. If your payment type is ‘interest only’, you’ll only be paying the interest. You won’t be reducing the principal on your debt, even if you’re paying what you agreed. If you’re not sure about your payment type, call your servicer.

It may be a good idea to pay even a little extra. You’ll pay off your loans a little sooner and reduce the total interest you pay over the life of the loan.”

  1. If a borrower has more than one loan, what’s the best way to repay them? Is it better to keep them separate or consolidate them into one?

“It depends on what is most important to you. Refinancing student debt may simplify your budget and can help you manage what you owe more easily. If you choose a loan that allows you longer to pay it back, you’ll likely have a lower payment.  If you choose a loan with a lower interest rate, you’ll probably pay less interest.

Do some comparison shopping. But if your rates are already lower than what’s available, or your loan has perks that you’d lose (like rate discounts, principal rebates or loan cancellation), ask yourself if the change is worth it.  Whatever you decide, your top priority should be to make at least the required payments each month and pay extra when you can.”

  1. Can both federal and private student loans be consolidated? If so, when would it make sense?

“While both can be consolidated, federal loans offer unique income-based repayments and forgiveness that typically aren’t offered through private lenders. Make sure you’re aware of the options you’re currently using or may want to use in the future. If you determine that you won’t use those federal options, then the next step would be to apply for a private refinance and see if you qualify for a better interest rate or terms that work better for you!”

Navy Federal is one of a few lenders that will allow you to consolidate and refinance your federal and private student loans together.

  1. Is there a magic number when it comes to saving and paying down student loans?

“How much to save depends on many factors, like how old you are, how much you earn, whether you already have some savings and what other debt you carry like credit cards and auto loans. You may consider refinancing your student loans to potentially reduce monthly payments and interest rates, so you have more flexibility in your budget. The best option is to meet with a trusted financial advisor to help you develop a personalized financial plan that meets your specific needs.”

  1. Do student loans affect credit scores and future credit needs?

“The short answer is yes, many lenders report student loan debt to the credit bureaus and it will likely affect your credit score. If you’ve been making your payments on time, that could help to build your credit history. But, if you’ve missed payments or paid late, it may harm your credit.

When you apply for new credit, like a mortgage, lenders consider how much of your monthly income goes to paying debts like credit cards, student loans, and auto loans to determine if you qualify.”

  1. Would it be better to wait to buy a home until after student loans are paid off?

“It depends on whether you can afford both. Lenders will consider your down payment and how much you owe compared to how much you earn.  If you earn enough to qualify for a mortgage even with your student loan debt, it’s an option as long as you are comfortable with the payments. If you don’t qualify for a loan because of your student loan debt, you may need to wait until you’ve reduced the amount you owe.

Depending on the types of student loans you have, you may be able to reduce your payments by signing up for an income-based repayment plan or refinancing at a lower interest rate. Both strategies could help you to qualify for a mortgage loan.

  1. What should couples with student loan debt consider if they’re planning to get married?

“It’s important to start talking about finances as soon as possible. It is generally a good idea to discuss financial goals and objectives, including the timing of major purchases. For example, if home ownership is a priority, the couple should meet with a trusted lender to find out where they currently stand in terms of budgets and buying power and how factors like credit scores, debts, and savings will impact them in the short- and long-term.

You might be able to get a student loan interest deduction on your taxes. It will depend on income and other factors. To see if you qualify, visit irs.gov or ask your accountant. You should also check out the Federal Student Aid website to learn what payment options are available to you now and if you were to get married. Once you evaluate those options, investigate private refinancing options to see if you qualify for a better interest rate or terms that help repayment work for you!”

As a Navy Federal member, you have access to a range of savings, checking and loan options, plus access to a financial counselor.

Some responses have been lightly edited for length, clarity, or spelling.