Congratulations! You’ve just graduated from college. As you embark on your exciting journey into adulthood, you are likely weighed down by a mountain of debt.

Student debt is the most obvious burden graduates face, but credit card debt and auto loans can also add to the stress.

There are good ways and bad ways to approach your debt. Panicking or trying to ignore creditors won’t make the bills go away.

Instead, take the time now to create a rational, long-term plan for tackling debt. Having a plan is also useful for keeping emotions in check.

When you know you’re taking responsibility for your finances and implementing best practices, you’ll feel better about where you are in life and your ability to master the challenges ahead. Here’s how to get started today:

Create a budget

First and foremost, get a handle on exactly what you owe and when payments are due. Reviewing a credit report is a handy way to see all of your commitments in one place. Keep a calendar and set reminders to alert you when bills are due.

Next, establish a budget to get a handle on exactly how much money you have, what you spend, and what you owe. There are plenty of online budget tools to guide you. NerdWallet and Mint are just two examples.

Beyond bringing order to your money situation, a budget can help you identify expenses that you really don’t need—for example, high cable bills, phone plans, music services, and the like. Cutting back on unnecessary expenses can add up over a year’s time and free up money for more important bills.

Choose a debt-elimination strategy

There are different ways of handling debt. Some people prefer to pay off the smallest debt first, while making minimum payments on the rest. For others, paying off the bill with the highest interest rate first makes the most sense.

In both cases, the money that went toward eliminating the first debt is then put toward the remaining debt. If you’re dealing with a collection agency and your credit score has been affected, it’s usually best to eliminate that outstanding debt as soon as possible.

It’s also vital to make at least the minimum payment on all your debts. The last thing you want is to add to your burden by missing a payment and then finding out that a late fee and a higher interest rate have increased your debt.

Consider restructuring your debt

If what you owe each month is difficult for you to afford, there are ways to bring down those payments. This is especially true for student debt. For example, income-driven repayment allows you to adjust your monthly payment based on your income.

If you have more than one loan, consolidation may be to your advantage. Loans at various interest rates may be consolidated into one loan with a fixed rate, possibly making your repayment schedule more convenient and more affordable.

Finally, loan forgiveness is even possible if you work for a qualified public service organization like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps.

Build an emergency fund

If at all possible, try to construct a budget that allows you to accumulate an emergency fund, however slowly. Having $1,000 or more available for unforeseen expenses can be a lifesaver and prevent the worst-case scenario of adding to your debt.

Time is money

Finally, you may decide that the quickest way to get out of debt is to work an extra job. If you have time to spare, consider working a second job or at-home work that brings in extra money.

The bottom line

You’ve already proven that you have the smarts to achieve major goals by earning a college degree. By applying the same discipline and intelligence to your financial challenges, you’ll ensure a prosperous future.

Your path to financial freedom starts here.

Guided personal finance tools and education

www.EveryIncome.com

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