If you have debt from the past and are currently living within your means, you have the option of doing more than making the minimum payments. How fast you want to get out of debt will depend both on the math of your situation and on your personal disposition toward debt and risk.
While you are a graduate student, you have the option of deferring your student loans, but the analysis laid out below will still be helpful in deciding whether to pay down those loans while you are in graduate school or to wait until after graduation.
Math and Facts
When deciding how quickly to get out of debt (or when evaluating new debt), the math of the situation should be given considerable weight. The most important factor is the interest rate on the debt. How does it compare to the long-term average rate of inflation? If you are considering paying down debt vs. investing, how does it compare to the long-term average rate of return you expect on your investments? How much interest are you paying on a yearly, monthly, or daily basis on your current debt balance? The higher the interest rate, the more weighty the argument that you should aggressively pay off that debt.
In addition to the interest rate, there are other attributes of your debt that should influence how quickly you pay it off (arguments for slower appear on the left, faster on the right):
- fixed vs. variable interest rates – interest rates are set to rise at any time, so the low current variable rates are unlikely to stay low forever
- low vs. high fees and penalties (pre-payment, late payment)
- flexible vs. inflexible repayment options
- secured vs. unsecured – this means whether the debt has collateral backing it, such as property, or whether it has no collateral tied to it, such as credit cards and student loans
- bankruptable vs. non-bankruptable – student loans can virtually never be discharged in bankruptcy
Math alone is unlikely to hold 100% sway over your decisions regarding your debt, especially because risk is difficult to quantify. Your disposition toward debt matters greatly as well. There are some financial gurus today who will tell you that any debt you have is an emergency and you should pay it off as fast as possible. There are other financial gurus who won’t get fussed about you keeping low-interest debt while aggressively saving and investing. You have to determine where you fall with regard to your personal disposition toward debt, independent of the math of the situation. Does having debt give you anxiety? Are you more excited about meeting other financial goals while making minimum payments on debt? The only disposition that is really dangerous for your finances is an apathetic one in which you devote no energy to increasing your net worth; in that case, your debt is likely to become expensive.
What you bought with the debt may also play a role in how quickly you want to pay it off. If the debt was for a long-term appreciating asset such as a home or an education, you may be less inclined to pay it off quickly. However, consumer debt such as for cars or shopping (and sometimes student loans), which is debt that enabled you to live beyond your means for a time, is a type of debt that you may want to quickly put behind you.
In the end, the decision of how quickly to get out of debt is up to you, and it will depend both upon the math of your situation and how you feel towards debt. These factors also play important roles in your choice of which debt repayment method to use. As a graduate student, you likely don’t have a lot of disposable income to put toward debt repayment even if you want to. But wherever you start today, if you choose to be energetic about paying off your debt, you can find ways to increase the money you have available to pay down debt by implementing frugal practices or increasing your income.
Further reading: The Goal: Defeating Student Loan Debt