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Dealing with debt 

There's a lot being blamed on student debt these days. Millennials are taking longer to buy houses or start families because of it. The economy is staggering under the $1.5 trillion burden. It's no wonder that not one but two Democrats in the presidential race are promising to wipe it all away.

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Still, it's too early to throw caution to the wind, and if you have loans you're going to need a plan. To help with that reality, we interviewed three people at different levels of the student lending operation: Renee Swift, the Associate Director of Financial Aid at Nazareth College; Karyn Rando, Director of Counseling Operations at Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Rochester; and University of Rochester alumnus Aleem Griffiths, who paid off $21,325 of student debt in just over a year. Here's their advice on how to stay on top of your loans, from edited versions of our interviews.

Renee Swift

CITY: What do students ask the most in relation to financial aid and loans, scholarships, grants, and all that?

Swift: That really depends on the part of the year that they're in. Overall, the question is how to pay for it and minimize the loan as much as humanly possible. At this stage, we're getting a lot of incoming new-student questions on how to pay, and going through our whole gamut of how our billing office offers a payment plan.

What are the common pieces of advice or tips that you give students about paying off their debt?

Only borrowing what you need, trying to do a good assessment of what your needs really are, and not maximizing out your loan debt every single year. Some of our students are work-study students, and use that money to pay off their unsubsidized loan every year. And if a student sees a negative balance on their student account, that's an indication to them that they borrowed too much and should return the extra loan.

Over the years that you've been in this role, what have you found most students or families are unaware of?

I think the whole financial aid process itself is a mystery, and a lot of families freak out with the loan piece especially. Student loans are a reality; borrowing smartly and wisely is the responsibility of the student and the family. I would have never been able to go to college without them. It's just walking that line of "Yes, we understand it's not the ideal form of financial aid, but it's a form of financial aid that is available," and letting the family make that decision.

Karyn Rando

CITY: How does CCCS work with students or their families on student loans? I know that part of the company does have a large role in that field.

Rando: We've been doing student loan counseling for a few years now, and we've been seeing individuals who are coming to us who have already completed college, or went back for a few semesters, and they're at the point of repaying their student loans. Most are struggling with student loans they have now and are obligated to pay. They're coming to us to give them guidance on the repayment options, how to bring your account out of default status, and to work towards bringing the account current.

What do you find post-graduates or students returning for a few classes are unaware of?

Well, I think a big part is the differences in the types of loans you can take out. There are the federal loans, where the interest rates are lower and there are more options for repayment. And I would say the private student loans typically have higher interest rates and are a bit more difficult in terms of repayment and in having options available, because you have to work directly with that banking institution.

What do meetings with college students typically focus on?

We focus mostly on the budgeting aspect: How do you create a budget? What is credit? It's really Finance 101. Employers are now pulling credit reports to see where their finances are, and it could come down to you getting your dream job or first job out of college, and whether or not your credit is in good standing.

Why is it important for students to create budgets?

I think it's easy to over-extend if you have no concept of what your budget is. Sometimes students will actually take out more in student loans than they need as a way to live off of if they're not working part-time. Have an understanding of what you can afford, so you don't just revert back to your credit card. Those extra activities add up, and there's interest on those credit cards. So whatever amount they're using credit cards for — for the pizza, the drinks — they're actually paying a bit more.

If you could let undergraduate and graduate students know one thing, what would that be?

Your budget and credit play a huge part in your goals. Pulling your credit report at least once a year to make sure it doesn't have any blemishes on it is important to reaching those goals. If you miss a payment, that's the biggest hit against your credit score, so make sure you're making your payments on time, even if it's just the minimum payment amount.

Aleem Griffiths

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CITY: How did you come to have student loans?

Griffiths: I was a student of Higher Education Opportunity Program, which helps students who come from an economically or educationally challenging background. Thanks to them, I only owed about $4,000 for every year that I was here, but coming from my background I wasn't able to pay that without loans. When I was in high school, I didn't understand what loans meant. I didn't realize they were something I would have to pay.

How has your thinking evolved over time?

Initially I thought, "It's only $21,000. I'm going to be making about $33,00 a year. I can knock that out in six, seven months." But I didn't realize how unrealistic that was when you're also paying for an apartment, and food, and other pop-up expenses. So then I realized I could probably finish by early June, and that became my next goal.

Tell me about your saving strategies.

Well, first I picked the lowest payment plan, which was $100 per month. I wasn't sure what type of job I would have yet, and I wanted to make sure that it would be prudent for me if I was unemployed. I also didn't want to be contractually obligated to pay an exorbitant amount. I just chose my lowest amount and went at it as much as I could. If I made any extra money I would throw it at my loans.

I also stopped eating out. I ate mostly PB&J sandwiches, because bread costs like $2.50 a loaf, jelly costs $2 or $3. All together jelly, peanut butter, and bread cost about $10 and last you a month or so. If you eat out for lunch: it's $10 a meal.

Also, the bus here only costs $1 a ride, so I limited my Uber and Lyft use and stuck to public transport. I live with my roommate, so my bills for rent and utility are split.

It sounds like you made a lot of sacrifices.

Definitely. I used to tell my closest friends, "As soon as I'm done paying off my loans, I'm going to get double meat at Chipotle." I haven't ordered Chipotle in a long time. I didn't really splurge on Christmas or my birthday. There's sacrifice in terms of material objects. But I feel good about it, because now it's difficult for me to spend money now.

What advice would you give your freshman self?

Try to not fail any classes: you will pay for that in some way. And save your money. If I had started paying off my loans earlier, maybe I wouldn't have had so much when I graduated.

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