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How can I get rid of student loan debt faster?

September 2, 2011: 5:05 AM ET

I have a grad school loan of around $43,000. The interest rate is 4.75% and I can only afford to pay $300 a month, which barely covers the interest. It is a degree in the arts and I have never been able to pay more than the $300 a month. I let the interest roll over the first few years foolishly, but started making regular payments in 2005 and I have only paid the loan down a thousand bucks from the original amount that I graduated with back in 1999. I am 41 years old, have no savings, and I work in the arts and fear that I will be paying off this loan into my 60s or 70s. What can I do to get this monkey off my back faster beyond the obvious -- paying more each month? — Name withheld, Jersey City

We understand your frustration. Nobody wants to be grappling with student loan debt while bouncing a grandchild on his knee.

That said, your options depend in part on whether your student loan is private or federal, says Lauren Asher, president of the Project on Student Debt. If it's private, you are at the mercy of your lender, so reach out to them to see what's available. If it's federal—which it sounds like it is—some debt repayment plans may offer relief, but they won't necessarily get the debt paid off faster.

If you haven't already done so, one option to consider is the relatively new income-based repayment program, offered through the Department of Education for federal loans. Here, payments are based on your income, and after 25 years, your outstanding debt is forgiven, although you may owe taxes on the forgiven debt. Click here to get an estimate of what your payments might be.

Another possibility would be to take a job in public service, say, as an art teacher for a public school system. After 10 years of fulltime work, your remaining student loan debt would be forgiven. Check with the Direct Loan program to see what other options may be available.

But the truth is there likely is no magic bullet: You're probably going to have to find a way to earn more or spend less. So while it may be a tough pill to swallow, consider taking on projects that are more commercial or even a second job. If you live alone, add a roommate. Not only will improving your finances help with your student loan debt, it can also help you accumulate some savings—something that's just as important as paying down what you owe.

--Stephanie AuWerter

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