If you’re a woman and a college graduate, here is some sobering news: Statistically, it will take you longer to pay off your student loans than it will a man in the same situation.

A 2016 study from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) looked at graduates four years after they had completed their degrees. It found that full-time working men were able to pay off 44 percent of their debt, while women in the same situation had paid only 33 percent. Black and Hispanic women in the same time frame had paid less than 10 percent.

The AAUW cites large gaps in wages as the reason for this disparity. According to their research, women working full time in the United States in 2014 made 21 percent less than their male counterparts. To put that in other terms, a man might be paid $50,383 and a woman $39,621 annually for the same job; and statistically, black and Hispanic women would make even less. Women also tend to live longer and have more health care costs in their lifetimes, so setting yourself up in a good financial position is especially critical from an early age. And that often starts with getting a handle on college debt.

“There are actually quite a few things that women can do to help themselves long term,” says Northwestern Mutual Wealth Management Advisor Melinda Wilke, CFP®, CLU®.

Wilke offers four tips to get rid of education loans:

  1. SET A HOUSEHOLD BUDGET — AND STICK TO IT

    This can be especially important for women, who are likely earning less than men. “It means you have less to spend on living expenses,” says Wilke. “Go out to eat less, and reduce your entertainment budget. All of those items are controllable. With that extra money you free up, pay above and beyond your minimum payment on your student loans.” This tip, though hard, yields great benefits. You’ll pay less over time on your loan and create excellent financial habits that will set you up well for future financial challenges.

  2. KNOW YOUR INTEREST RATE

    And look for consolidation opportunities. “You could ultimately have one payment instead of many, which is easier to manage. You should ideally be getting a lower interest rate, too. Put those two things together, and it means you pay less over time.”

    If you can’t consolidate, focus on taking any extra money you have and putting it toward the higher interest rate loan first.

  3. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF WINDFALLS

    Use the majority of any unexpected money, like a gift or a bonus at work, to pay off the loan. “You weren’t planning on getting that money, so you don’t need it in your budget. Get ahead and use it to pay down debt,” says Wilke.

  4. Go out to eat less, and reduce your entertainment budget. With that extra money you free up, pay above and beyond your minimum payment on your student loans.
  5. EXAMINE YOUR PAYMENTS

    “Instead of paying one payment every month, take that same amount, divide it in half, and make the half-payment every two weeks. It feels like it’s the same amount of money, but you actually wind up making one extra full payment per year by paying it every two weeks.” In other words, you’ll be making 26 smaller payments as opposed to the equivalent of 24 if you paid monthly.

    Also, make sure that your payments to your lending company are set up to automatically deduct from your checking or savings account. This often reduces interest rates.

    Depending on your type of loan and other factors, you could consider looking for a job that offers loan forgiveness. Some employers will pay your loan for you after you have been with them for a certain number of years. That’s an option when other choices are not working.

Wilke’s advice is to aim to pay off student loans in four to five years; and when you finally get the last statement in the mail, celebrate with a nice dinner out or long-awaited vacation. “Put your last loan statement on the refrigerator, let the world see it, and also keep it on the bulletin board at your office,” says Wilke. “Use it as a reminder that you did it and can do it again for whatever financial hurdle is next.”

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