Need money for college? Student loans might seem like the easy answer, but borrowing too much today could later limit your freedom to build the future you really want.

If you’re not sure how to figure out the appropriate amount of student loans to borrow, check out the guide below for answers.

How much student debt can I afford?

Planning out how much you should borrow will help you more effectively manage your student loans later. To find the answer, ask yourself the following five questions about your college, costs, and future.

1. How much will I need to borrow?

A big factor that could affect your student loan amounts is the college you choose to attend. As you’re considering colleges, it’s helpful to estimate how much debt you’d have to take on to attend each one. To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Find the annual college costs you’ll face. This includes tuition and fees as well as room and board, textbooks, and more.
  2. Subtract any gift aid you’ll receive, such as college grants or scholarships, from this total cost. This will reveal your college net price, which is the actual out-of-pocket cost you and your family must pay.
  3. Consider your savings and cash. Think through how much of your net price you can afford to pay for out of college savings, earnings from a part-time job, or other funds.
  4. The result you come to is how much you’ll borrow each school year. This will be on an annual basis. So, you’ll need to multiply the amount by the total number of years it’ll take to complete your degree.

2. What will my student loan payments be?

Once you know how much you’ll need to borrow, estimate what your monthly student loan payments will be after you graduate. The easiest way to do so is using a student loan payment calculator.

This will tell you what the student debt you take on now will look like once you have to repay it. How financially burdensome will this debt be? Will the monthly payment lead to student debt burnout?

To know for sure, you might need to think through other factors affecting your post-college life.

3. How much can I expect to make after college?

Whether your student debt is affordable after graduation depends on how much money you make. No one knows exactly what the future holds, but you can do your own research and estimate how much you’ll make after college:

  • Check your college’s website or ask its financial aid office for employment outcomes and average starting salaries of recent graduates.
  • Look up post-graduation salaries for your college with the Department of Education’s College Scorecard.
  • Estimate your salary based on your major, gender, and age with this interactive income tool from The Hamilton Project.

As a general rule, student loan payments should be less than or equal to 8% of your monthly income to be considered affordable. This calculator from Mapping Your Future can be used to compare your student debt balance to income.

4. What are my life, career, and financial goals?

Consider more than just your income when picturing your future with student debt. Student loans could hold you back from many important goals, such as:

  • Starting a business after college
  • Getting married or taking another major life step
  • Moving to a city with a high cost of living
  • Pursuing nonprofit work or other typically low-paying careers
  • Traveling the world or having other enriching experiences

Although it’s possible to do all of the above and more with student debt, there’s no doubt that borrowing less now gives you more financial freedom later. So ask yourself: What life plans do you have, and how will student debt affect them? Is that a trade-off you’re willing to accept?

5. Can I change my plans to pay off student loans faster?

If you’re concerned that your student loan balances might get too high, revisit your college or career plans. Here are some ways you can change your plans now to keep student loans manageable in repayment.

Find more funds for college

If the amount you’ll have to borrow is too high, it’s time to start searching for ways to cover more of those costs without getting into debt:

Choose a cheaper college

Choosing a less expensive college can make a huge difference in your student debt. Consider cost-saving strategies, such as attending a college that allows you to live rent-free with your parents.

You could even complete your first two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year school. Our study on community college found that this strategy saves students $11,377 on average.

Pursue a higher-paying degree

If your current area of study leads to low-income work, consider pursuing an in-demand degree that will lead to a high-paying job, instead.

Engineering graduates, for example, earn the highest starting salaries out of college. Those in this major who graduated in 2017 were projected to earn an average salary of $66,097, according to a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey. For comparison, the overall average starting salary for the Class of 2017 was $51,022.

Get help from your financial aid office

Don’t forget to reach out to your school’s financial aid office for help. Peruse its online resources, set up an in-person appointment, and ask for assistance when you need it.

Through your journey, however, never forget your own responsibility: to limit your student debt to what you can reasonably afford to repay. Your future financial stability and freedom depend on it.

The article How Much Student Debt Can I Afford? Answer 5 Questions to Find Out originally appeared on

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