(BPT) - With each passing year, student loan debt is digging a deeper hole for more young Americans. Over a nine-year period, the average student loan balance among 25-year-olds has grown 91 percent, from $10,649 in 2003 to $20,326 in 2012. More than 38 million Americans have outstanding debt amounting to nearly $1 trillion. This figure has nearly quadrupled over the last four years, surpassing both credit cards and auto loans as a leading source of personal debt, according to Pew Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
While the statistics are startling, some of today's young people are prepared to take on the financial challenge. Younger generations (those in their mid-20s to early-30s) are showing signs of taking their finances seriously, according to a MassMutual 2013 State of the American Family Study. Nearly two-thirds want to be actively involved in all decisions regarding their finances, and almost half are actively seeking ways to educate themselves about personal finance, a rate significantly higher than older generations. For young people looking to take control of their future, there are ways to ease the strain of student debt. MassMutual offers the following tips to help graduates manage their loans:
* Seek out scholarships - College is expensive, and taking out student loans is often inevitable. If you are still in college or considering getting your degree, be sure to research and apply for a range of scholarships to help lower your education costs. 'One of the most powerful steps young people can take to mitigate educational debt is to aggressively seek out scholarships to help fund college,' says Michael Fanning, an executive vice president with MassMutual. 'Graduating from college with less debt can help take the financial worry out of the equation when making 'grown up' decisions like homeownership, starting a family and saving for retirement.'
* Make a budget that includes all expenses - Expenses fall into three categories: fixed, flexible and discretionary. Sit down and review all of your monthly costs, from meals to rent payments, and identify which category they fall in. From there, you can allocate funds to each area. It's critical that you have a full understanding of all expenses, debt and assets in order to not only stay on top of fixed expenses - like your student loans - but also build a realistic financial plan.
* Borrow or swap - Before making a purchase, ask a friend or relative if you can borrow or swap for a similar item. This especially holds true for items you may use only once or very few times. Going on a backpacking trip abroad? See if you can borrow a friend's backpack rather than buying a new one. Looking to update your wardrobe? Ask a friend to swap outfits, doubling each other's wardrobes instantly. Buying something with your money isn't the only way to get it.
* Keep living at home - Rent is a huge expense. If you're moving away from your hometown to work, it's unavoidable. But if your first job is close to home, consider asking if you can move in with your parents for the first year or two to save on expenses. Use the money you're able to save during that time to make larger payments toward your student loans to pay them down quicker. That will also allow you to bolster your savings for when you do move into a place of your own.
* Avoid credit card debt - Post-graduation is a crucial point that will help determine your credit-score for years to come. Younger generations have close to $5,000 in credit card debt, according to MassMutual's study. To keep credit card debt in check, only use one or two cards at a time with limits that aren't high, and pay your balance in full each month to avoid interest. Missteps could affect the rate you pay on big purchases down the road, like a car or home loan.
* Ask for a raise - Once you have established a solid foundation at your job, usually around the one-year mark, raise your hand and ask for a raise. Be sure to approach your supervisor prepared, both with how much more you want and why you deserve it. Highlight how you've demonstrated value to company over the year and how your work merits a raise. Even if you don't get it right away, you've started the conversation.
Taking steps today to manage your finances and get out of debt will help ensure a successful, debt-free financial situation in the future. For more tips and information regarding smart money management, check out www.massmutual.com/myfuturenow.