Though student debt can sometimes feel like an ever-present shadow, knowing exactly how much debt you have doesn't always come easy.
Luckily, you have a few avenues for accurately determining how much you owe in student loans:
- Downloading your credit report.
- Logging into the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS), or
- Contacting your lender (or lenders plural, as the case may be).
Downloading your credit report is the easiest way to get a full picture of what you owe, especially if you have both private and public student loans. But each option has its merits, so let's dive in.
3 ways to find out how much student loan debt you owe
If you're wondering right now if it's actually important for you to stare that number down, the answer is yes. And it's not just so that you can practice hyperventilating into a paper bag.
Without knowing your actual debt balance, how can you set goals for paying it off? How can you congratulate yourself when you've hit a milestone? You can't. Borrowers who don't know their loan balance are more likely to believe they'll pay their loans off "someday."
Translation: they'll be making student loan payments for the next 20-30 years. And maybe that's fine, but wouldn't it be better to find out whether a few actions could help you pay your loans off in 15 years instead? Or even in 25 instead of 30? Five fewer years with a loan payment is no small success.
It's cheesy, but it's true. Knowledge is power.
1. Log into NSLDS
If you have federal student loans, the NSLDS is your go-to spot for detailed information about how much you owe — and to whom. You'll need an Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID to sign-in. If you don't have one or don't remember it, you can get one on the NSLDS website at nslds.ed.gov.
The NSLDS is an especially helpful resource because student loans, like other loans, are often sold or transferred between loan servicers, and you may not even be aware that it happened. But no matter who holds your federal loans, they have to report to the NSLDS, so the information on the site — including how much you owe — should be up to date.
The one big caveat is that the NSLDS pertains only to federal loans. If you have private loans, you'll need to find your loan balance elsewhere.
2. Download your credit report
If you have private loans — educational or otherwise — your credit report is the best way to get the full run-down. Your credit report will show you both private and federal student loan balances.
And while student loans may be your primary concern, many of us are carrying more than just educational debt. Downloading your credit report will give you a thorough picture of your debt situation, including credit card debt, car loans, private student loans, or a mortgage.
You can get your credit report free once a year from AnnualCreditReport.com, and you'll receive the information held by all three major credit bureaus.
3. Contact your lender
Contacting your lender is last on the list because, while it sounds relatively straightforward, it's not always the clearest option. It could be a simple process — if you know who your lender (or loan servicer) is and you only have one loan. But many borrowers have multiple lenders and may not actually know who they all are.
As we mentioned above, the NSLDS can help you find that information for any federal loans. But if you have private loans and aren't sure who currently services them, you may need to fish out your original paperwork and contact your original lender.
No matter which method you choose to figure out your debt load, remember that the number you see is the amount you owe right now. That number could grow as you accrue interest — especially if you experience a period of non-payment (like during a deferment or forbearance) or are using an income-driven repayment plan that doesn't cover the interest accrued each month.
How to reduce the amount you owe
If looking at that number in stark black and white sent you into an anxious tailspin, we feel you. Though sometimes ignorance is bliss, we promise you: this is not one of those situations.
Now that you have an accurate grasp of how much you owe, you're in a much better position to do something about it — like pay those student loans off faster.
These are four of our favorite ways to make quick work of your monthly student loan bills.
1. Refinance your student loans
If you're looking for the one single thing you can do that will create the biggest impact on how quickly you can pay back your loans, there's no question. It's refinancing.
When you refinance your student loans, you're taking out a new loan with a lower interest rate, which means you're paying less each month — and over the life of your loan. In fact, the average borrower saves $16,183 when they refinance. And that's all without cancelling your Netflix subscription or cutting back on your coffee shop budget. It's about as close to free money as you can get.
2. Pay extra each month
Paying extra may be easier said than done, especially if you already feel strapped for cash. But even a small amount can help. Adding $20 a month to your autopay right now could reduce the amount you pay over time by thousands.
This works because paying ahead takes a bigger bite out of the principal every month. That means you're paying less interest. Over a 15 or 20 year term, all that monthly saving adds up to big money.
3. Make additional payments whenever you can
Just like paying a little extra each month can create big savings down the road, so can making an additional payment now.
So when you get your tax refund or a holiday bonus or a bump in your salary, don't spend it all in one place (unless that place is your student loan bill). Take a percentage — say 20% — and make an extra payment on your student loans. You weren't expecting the cash, so you won't even miss it.
4. Pay bi-weekly instead of monthly
The bi-weekly payment trick is one of our favorites. Why? Because it feels like magic.
Simply split your payments in half — without increasing them — and poof! you're paying your loans off faster. It works because you'll actually be making one extra payment a year (26 half-payments per year equals one more full payment than your standard 12) and because you'll be accruing less interest each month.
Remember this: the point of finding out how much you owe is not so you can use the number to berate yourself or populate your anxiety nightmares. The point is to more fully understand what your financial situation is so that you can take concrete actions to claim your financial freedom. Start by learning how much you could save by refinancing your student loans.