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How to Turn Student Loan Nightmares Into Sweet Dreams

Face student loan repayment without fear using the YNAB Method.

Two identical figures stand side by side at the far end of a dimly lit corridor, their unsettling presence sending a shiver down your spine. They beckon with an eerie aura that's both captivating and chilling, their pale forms and blue dresses a stark contrast against the shadowy backdrop. 

Remember The Shining? It’s etched in my memory; the only scary film I’ve ever dared to watch. Those two creepy little twins have lived rent-free in my mind all these years, personified as my consolidated student loans and high interest rate.

For many borrowers—around 43.5 million Americans—daunting student loan payments resemble a scene from a horror film. The rollercoaster ride of the great pause followed by the glimmer of potential forgiveness has left many feeling helpless, haunted by the ghost of student loans in their lives. And we’re not talking Casper.

Student loan payment stress is real, and it's a problem that plagues the masses. Whether you just enrolled in the new federal Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) Plan, working toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), or facing a mountain of medical school debt, the thought of resuming payments can be scary. Does it sometimes feel like you’re being punished for passionately pursuing growth and education? Sure. Does it feel unfair to be burdened with debt when you have bigger financial fish to fry? Yep. But are you going to let your loan amount hold you back from your goals? Absolutely not!  

Here's the plot twist: student loans don't have to be spine-chilling. When I embraced the YNAB Method, my payments became manageable. I finally had a repayment plan. Treat your monthly payment amount as just another neutral monthly bill or subscription, and the fear dissipates. This newfound confidence allowed me to waltz down that seemingly endless dark hallway with certainty and confidence. Take that, creepy twins.

But what’s financial confidence if you don’t share it with others? Ben M., YNAB's student loan repayment plan guru, has some practical tips and essential advice for how to tackle your student loans starting now. The truth is, there may never be a nation-wide debt cancellation, loan forgiveness program, or another payment pause. So, grab your flashlight and join me as we navigate this financial maze and turn student loan nightmares into sweet dreams.

We’ve Officially Entered the ‘On-Ramp’ Period, Ghostbusters.

As we step into the eerie world of student loan resumption, it's essential to understand when payments actually started up again.

Student loans began accruing interest on September 1st, 2023, with actual payment due dates resuming in October. But wait, there's more to the story, and this is where things get a bit tricky.

For those of you who've been holding your breath, here's another little plot twist. There's a 12-month "on-ramp" period from October 1st, 2023 to September 30th, 2024. This grace period comes as a lifeline, and it's worth deciphering what it means for your financial journey.

During this on-ramp period, some financial boogeymen that typically haunt borrowers are pushed aside. After missing payments for 90 days, your credit score usually takes a nosedive, making it harder to secure good deals on mortgages or credit cards. But guess what? During the on-ramp period, your credit score won't be negatively affected by those looming student loans. 

And that's not all; usually, it takes 270 days of missed payments to plunge into default. When that happens, your servicer can hit you with a barrage of fees, making a bad situation worse. But federal loan servicers won't have that privilege during the on-ramp period either.

YNAB Teacher Tip: If possible, it's still in your best interest to make payments because, unlike the pause, (A) interest is still growing and (B) you'll need to make up for any missed payments. For payoff strategies, check out YNAB's guide to getting out of debt.

Phew. Now that we’ve established where we are along the very confusing student loan timeline, let’s get to the good stuff.

Practical Tips to Tackle Your Student Loan Balance Once and For All

Ben M., YNAB’s lead educator on student loans, has timely essential steps you can take right now to position yourself for student loan success.

First and foremost, find out your monthly student loan payment amount. Contact your student loan servicer, and if you're unsure who that is, reach out to your financial aid office to get the details. Knowing exactly how much you'll need to pay beginning October 2023 is your starting point.

Now, you might be thinking that squeezing that payment into your current lifestyle feels like trying to help a hippo onto a crowded elevator. It's a tight fit, and you're not sure where to make room.

The truth is, vague plans to "spend less" or "save more" can lead to guilt and anxiety whenever you spend. What you truly need is clarity; you need to know what it costs to be you. You need a plan.

Creating a spending plan is simpler than you might think. Start by listing all your monthly bills, excluding your student loan payment. Then, add what you think you need for regular spending on essentials, like groceries and transportation.

A spending plan in YNAB with an expenses category for Joan of Bark

If it's your first time using YNAB, don't hesitate to make educated guesses. When in doubt, lean toward higher estimates. Once you've got your basic expenses down, you'll have a clear picture of your monthly survival costs.

Now, compare that total to your monthly income. Does it leave room for your student loan payment? If the answer is no, don't worry; there are options to explore. If the answer is yes, add that loan payment to your YNAB spending plan. If there's still money left over, allocate it to things you enjoy. YNAB is all about making room in your finances for the things you love, like your annual haunted house adventure or tickets to see the Walking Dead Universe panel at Comic-Con...if you're into that kind of thing. 

However, life isn't just about sticking to the baseline. Unexpected expenses, like a waterlogged phone or a friend's destination wedding, can throw your financial plans off course. To get ahead of these surprises, treat everything like a monthly subscription. By embracing Rule Two and setting aside money each month for non-monthly expenses like car registration, repairs, or vet visits, you'll be prepared for life's unexpected twists and turns.

A YNAB GIF showing how to set a target for True Expenses like car insurance

By following these steps, you'll transform your financial roller coaster of spikes and dips into a steady stream of consistent numbers. It's financial stability at its finest. With YNAB, you’ll know exactly what you can afford and what you can spend—and spend you shall, with confidence! This flexible approach also helps you adjust course when you spend more than planned. Just remember, when you overspend in one category, you simply pull money from another. It's all about making mindful financial choices.

But what if, despite your best efforts, you still can't afford the payment? If you have federal student loans, explore the new SAVE income-driven repayment plan. Depending on your eligibility, this plan calculates your payment based on your income, potentially lowering it significantly. If you’re not eligible, rest assured—there are other repayment options out there. A little research through your lender or goes a long way!

Learn more about how to use YNAB as a student loan planner.

Tips and Tricks For a Happy Financial Future

YNAB also has a few game-changing features that make it easier to understand your loan situation and come up with a game plan for debt payoff. Consider them your Sleepy Hollow Ichabod Crane tool kit.

YNAB Loan Planner

The YNAB Loan Planner is an easy-to-use loan simulator, your secret weapon against these twin terrors. It enables you to visualize how extra payments can dismantle your student loan debt faster than you can say, "Eek!" No more financial surprises; just controlled, calculated progress towards your goals.

YNAB Together

What if you're not alone in this financial thriller? The YNAB Together feature allows you and your partner or family members to confront your combined student loan debt. Creating a shared spending plan is like teaming up to face the monsters together. You'll see how these payments affect your entire financial landscape and plan for a brighter, less frightening future. Not to mention, you can both use YNAB with just one subscription. What’s to lose besides all of those big, hairy money conflicts?

Reports and Insights

The YNAB app provides detailed reports, graphs, and insights into your spending habits. You can analyze your spending patterns, identify areas where you can cut costs, and allocate those savings toward your loan payments. It’s all out there in plain view instead of lurking in the financial shadows.

And remember, YNAB's four rules will be your lantern through the darkness:

  • Rule One: Give Every Dollar a Job
  • Rule Two: Embrace Your True Expenses
  • Rule Three: Roll with the Punches
  • Rule Four: Age Your Money

With these principles as your guiding light, you can make student loan payments a manageable part of your financial journey. You’ll start to see them as neutral—nothing to fear here, just another “True Expense” lined up in your monthly payments category. 

In the world of personal finance, student loans can seem like the ghosts that never leave. However, with YNAB as your trusty guide, you can confidently move down that dark hallway, knowing that those twins are nothing but a figment of your imagination. Your student loans will become just another item on your financial priorities list, no longer the stuff of nightmares but rather a sweet dream of financial freedom.

Don’t be scared, be prepared! Try YNAB's free trial on for size to conquer your student loans and start planning for a future where your financial goals take center stage.

YNABers IRL: Jyllea and Her Partner Slashed Student Loans With Rule One

Jyllea, a Marketing Coordinator in Spokane, WA, paid off a whopping $9k of student loans in just 3 months with YNAB. She and her partner used Rule One to get in the driver's seat of their finances—and splurge on Trader Joe's snacks whenever they darn well please.

YNABer Jyllea living her best life in her headshot
When I was single, I used a good ol’ spreadsheet. After getting married and merging finances AND getting a credit card, things got more complicated. I was always stressed about having enough for the things we needed and keeping track of how much we owed. We were only paying the minimum on my husbands $9k student loans and feeling like we’d never pay it off. Enter YNAB: all that changed within a week. Giving every dollar a job have us so much visibility of our money, and we realized we could throw SO much more at those loans. They were gone in three months.

I was looking at YNAB recently and realized there was nothing to do: nothing to add, move, anything! That seems like the definition of stress-free finances, and it’s all thanks to YNAB.
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How to Turn Student Loan Nightmares Into Sweet Dreams