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Congratulations, you’ve finally graduated from college! You’ve got the diploma to prove it—and the student loans.
Unfortunately, student loans can be pretty confusing. You know that you have a six month grace period where you don’t have to make any payments, but other than that, you don’t even know what you don’t know.
If you’re anything like me when I graduated, you’ve got a lot of questions when it comes to paying back your student loans. How can I manage my student loan debt? How can I make my student loans less confusing? How can I pay off my student loans as fast as possible?
Free Student Loan Spreadsheet
The answer to all of these questions, luckily, boils down to one simple piece of advice: If you want to be successful in paying off your student loans, you need to be organized. And to be organized, you need to keep track of your student loans.
By keeping track of your student loans, you’ll always be able to answer important questions like:
- How many student loans do I have?
- How much do I owe on my student loans in total?
- Are my student loans federal, private, or a mix?
- If they’re private student loans, is the interest rate variable or fixed?
- If they’re federal student loans, are they subsidized or unsubsidized?
The answers to these questions will ultimately impact the strategies that you use to pay off your student loans, so it’s important for you to quickly and easily be able to access the information. For example, knowing whether your loans are federal or private might impact your decision to refinance; knowing if your federal loans are subsidized or unsubsidized may make you think twice about entering deferment. Beyond this, keeping track of your student loans will allow you to have a quick snapshot of your finances. Once you have all of your student loan information gathered together in one place, you’ll be able to quickly check in to see the progress you’ve made in paying down your debt.
Just like you should always know how much money is in your checking account, or how much you’ve got saved for emergencies, you should be able to answer these questions.
At this point, you’re probably feeling really overwhelmed. How do I track my student loans? Where can I find all of this student loan information?
It’s completely understandable that you’ll feel a little overwhelmed at first, but I’ve got some good news for you: It really isn’t as hard or as complicated as it seems. To make things easier, I’ve written the step-by-step guide below on how to keep track of your student loans. Just follow these steps and you’ll be one step closer to paying off your student loans.
A Note Before Beginning
The steps below assume that you have already graduated from college, but that doesn’t mean that you need to wait until you graduate to begin tracking your student loan information.
In fact, starting while you are still a student is much better idea. By keeping track of your student loans as you take them out each semester, you won’t need to go hunting for the information after you graduate.
Plus, tracking your student loans while you are a student can help you shift your mindset about finances. Unless you have federal student loans that are subsidized by the federal government, your student loans are going to begin accruing interest from the day that you first take them out.
Tracking your student loan balances will help put this growth into perspective, and will hopefully help you see that you shouldn’t wait until after graduation to begin tackling your debt. There are steps that you can take now, as a student, to reduce your college expenses and begin paying down your student loans before you graduate. But you need to be paying attention, or else you won’t do it.
Without further ado, here’s how to keep track of your student loans.
1. Conduct a student loan audit.
Many student loan borrowers graduate without knowing how many student loans they have, who their lenders or servicers are, or even what their total account balance is. Between the stress of moving back home, applying for jobs, and starting a career, it’s easy to understand why sometimes people don’t even know about a student loan until they get a late bill once their grace period ends.
It’s understandable, but it isn’t necessary. By conducting a student loan audit, you can make sure that you know about all of your student loans so that they don’t sneak up on you. Just think of it as taking inventory of your student loans.
Student Loan Fast Fact: Federal student loans can be transferred between different servicers depending on the needs of the federal government, and private student loans can be bought, sold, and transferred between lenders. So even though you may have agreed to a loan from one lender, by the time you start making payments your loan may actually be in the hands of a different bank. Talk about confusing.
First, start with the loans that you know about. Gather together any information that you have (paper statements, emails, online accounts). You’ll need these for Step 2 below. Once you’ve gathered together the student loans that you know about, you need to double check to make sure that you haven’t forgotten about any other student loans.
To do this, you have a couple of options. You can:
- Contact your school’s Financial Aid Office. If you are unsure how many student loans you have taken out in total, you can reach out to your school’s Financial Aid Office. Because the loans are dispersed directly to your university once you have accepted them, they should have a record of any student loan that you borrowed while you were a student at that school. If you attended multiple colleges or universities, bear in mind that you’ll need to contact the financial aid office at EACH school that you attended.
- Check the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS). The NSLDS is a database operated by the Department of Education to keep track of all federal student loans. You can check the database for any FEDERAL student loan that you took out for college. This is called a “Financial Aid Review,” and it will list out the student loan servicer that holds each of your loans; the current balance and interest rate on each of your federal student loans; the type of student loan (subsidized or unsubsidized); and the status of each loan (in repayment, in a grace period, delinquent, etc.). If you want to get a financial aid review through the NSLDS, all you need to do is log into the NSLDS with your Federal Student Aid ID and request a review. Remember, this financial aid review will not include information about any private student loans you may have.
- Check your free credit reports. Because the NSLDS only lists information for your federal student loans, you will need to find information about private student loans some other way. One way to do that is to check your credit report on a site like Credit Karma. A free credit report will list any and all loans that are associated with your social security number and name, and will include federal and private student loans. This will include the name of your student loan lender or servicer; the initial amount of the loan; the most recent balance of the loan; and a payment history (including any missed payments). In theory, your credit report should list all of your student loans, but even the credit companies sometimes make mistakes. To be certain that you haven’t missed any, consider pulling a credit report from all three major bureaus, not just one. Credit Karma will include a report from both TransUnion and Equifax.
Student Loan Fast Fact: The Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID) replaced the Federal Student Aid Pin (FSA PIN) in 2015. If your federal student loans are from before 2015, and you have not yet logged into the NSLDS, fafsa.gov, or studentloans.gov, then you will need to create an FSA ID before requesting your financial aid review.
Requesting a financial aid review through the NSLDS and requesting credit reports can both take a bit of time to complete, so the sooner you can start your audit, the better. Once you are certain that you are not missing any student loans, you can move onto Step 2, where you will combine all of this information into a handy spreadsheet.
2. Create a student loan spreadsheet.
Now that you know you have all of your student loans, you may be starting to feel overwhelmed again. Between paper statements, emails, online accounts, NSLDS financial aid reviews, credit reports, and paperwork from your school’s financial aid office, there’s just too much to keep straight. That’s why you need to create a student loan spreadsheet that will keep all of this information in one spot.
By creating a student loan spreadsheet, whenever you have a question about your student loans you can open it up, find the information that you’re looking for, and be on your merry way. You’ll never need to rifle through paperwork saying, “I know I had that account statement here somewhere” ever again! Doesn’t that sound great?
If you don’t want to go through the trouble of creating and formatting a spreadsheet on your own, you can download our free Student Loan Spreadsheet Template below. It includes pre-formatted columns and everything, so all you’ve got to do is plug in your own student loan information and be done.
Free Student Loan Spreadsheet
If you want to create your own spreadsheet, though, we recommend doing so in Google Sheets, since you can access the file from anywhere (even on your phone!) which is just so much easier than needing to be at your home computer to access a Microsoft Excel file. Ultimately, the decision is yours to make though.
Your student loan spreadsheet should include the following information:
- Number: This column just assigns a simple number to each of your student loans so that the spreadsheet is easier to organize and understand.
- Loan Name: This column should directly match the student loan name as it appears on your monthly bill or in your online account. For example, some of my student loans are named “1-01 Stafford – Unsubsidized” and “1-01 Stafford – Subsidized.” Just mimic the names exactly as they appear on your statements and you should be fine.
- Lender/Servicer: Here, you will list the name of the company that “owns” your student loan. This could be a lender (like Wells Fargo, Citi Bank, Peoples, etc.) or a federal student loan servicer (like Navient, Great Lakes, MOHELA, etc.).
- Current Balance: This column will be the current amount due on your student loan. This will change daily, depending on when you check it, as student loan interest accrues daily. For the lowest number (and greatest psychological boost!) update your spreadsheet the day after your student loan payment has been credited to your account, since this will be the day of the month when your balance is lowest.
- Payoff Amount: This column will include the amount that you would need to pay right now if you wanted to pay off your student loan today. It will typically be provided in your student loan details, both your paper bill and in your online records. Depending on how you pay your student loans, this amount will vary. If you were to pay the loan off online, then the payoff amount would match your current account balance (since it would be credited to your account immediately). If you were to pay off the student loan by mailing in a check, though, it would be slightly higher, because interest would continue to accrue while your check is in transit.
- Last Updated: This column will include the date that you last updated your student loan spreadsheet. Make sure you change this each time you update the spreadsheet so that you do not confuse yourself (like I have many a time!).
- Interest Rate: This column is where you will record the interest rate on each of your student loans. You can use this information later to decide which loans you would like to prioritize in paying off. The higher the interest, the more expensive your student loan is.
- Loan Status: This column is where you will track the status of your student loan. Is it in repayment? In deferment? In forbearance? In a grace period? Delinquent? In rehabilitation? Make note of the status here.
- Federal/Private?: Because federal and private student loans are so different (federal student loans have a number of benefits and borrower protections) it is important for you to be able to keep track of where your loans come from, especially if you have both federal and private student loans.
- Subsidized/Unsubsidized: This column will only apply to federal student loans. Federal student loans can either be subsidized (the loan does not accrue interest when it is in a grace period or deferment) or unsubsidized (the loan does accrue interest when it is in a grace period or deferment). It’s really important to know which of your loans are subsidized and which of them are unsubsidized, since the government treats them so differently. Track that here.
- Loan Type (if federal): Federal student loans come in a number of flavors, or types: Stafford, Perkins, Direct, and PLUS. Each of these student loan types has different perks. For example, certain types of federal student loans may be eligible for certain income-based repayment options or student loan forgiveness, while others will not be. To make it easier to see what you may qualify for, it’s important to know what kind of federal student loans you have.
- Variable/Fixed: This column will keep track of whether your student loan interest rates are variable (fluctuate up or down depending on the Prime Rate) or fixed (remain the same no matter how the Prime Rate changes). Federal student loans are always fixed. Private student loans may be fixed or variable.
- Notes: The Notes column is sort of a catch-all column where you can track any additional information that doesn’t have its own column. For example, in my notes column I track my scheduled end date (when my last payment is expected) and my monthly payment amount. You can also track information like interest rate reductions (from signing up for autopay), the date that your loan was dispersed, or anything else that strikes your fancy.
It might be a pain in the butt to gather all of the information at first, but once it’s done, it’s done. Only the “Current Balance” column and the “Last Updated” column really needs to be updated regularly. Otherwise, the additional columns are just meant to keep all of your student loan information organized so that it is easier to find in case you ever need it.
If you’re brand-new to the world of student loans, you should take a look at our introductory guide that will help you understand all of the student loan basics.
3. Update your student loan spreadsheet regularly.
Creating your student loan spreadsheet is probably the most time-consuming part of this whole process, at least up front. But you can’t just create the spreadsheet and be done. You’ve got to be committed to updating the spreadsheet regularly. Otherwise, the information that you’ve gathered together will be outdated in just a month’s time.
I recommend that you update your student loan spreadsheet monthly so that you always have a clear picture of how you are doing in paying down your student loans. Updating your account balances monthly will give you a psychological boost every month, because you’ll be able to see your student loans shrinking right before your eyes—yay!
Additionally, updating your spreadsheet every month will keep you engaged in your battle against your student loans. If you’re seeing good results in paying down your student loans, getting a reminder every month is a great way to stay motivated; if you’re not seeing the results that you want, then each monthly disappointment can help spur you to make larger payments or find new ways to pay down your student loans. The hardest part of paying off any debt is staying engaged throughout the fight. Regularly tracking your payments will help keep you engaged.
Plus, tracking your account balances monthly will help you identify anything fishy that might happen. Misapplied payments (which can be a major concern if you are making extra payments), late fees that shouldn’t be on your account, and other mistakes happen all the time, from both federal student loan servicers and private lenders. You need to be vigilant to make sure that you aren’t being wrongly penalized.
Student Loan Fast Facts: Navient, the largest servicer of federal student loans, is currently in the middle of a lawsuit revolving around misapplied payments, processing delays, unexpected late fees, and general disorganization. It just goes to show you, you’ve got to stay engaged while paying down your student loans!
I recommend you update your spreadsheet on the same day each month, preferably the day after your payment is applied. This will be when your student loan account balance is at its lowest, which will give you the greatest psychological boost.
If you really can’t commit to updating your student loan spreadsheet monthly, then try doing it quarterly (every 3 months) or, at the least, yearly. Otherwise, there’s really no point in doing any of this anyway.
4. Keep your monthly account statements organized.
Okay, once you’ve finished creating your student loan spreadsheet you may think that you never have to think about—or even open—mail from your lender or servicer ever again. But don’t be silly: Of course you do!
Your student loan lender or servicer is going to continue to send you mail and email on a regular basis. This will include everything from monthly account statements to information about taxes to the status of your student loan. It is extremely critical that you always make sure you open and read any mail or email that comes from your servicer, and you should hold onto it in an organized way so that you always have a piece of hard evidence to point to in case something ever goes wrong. Your student loan spreadsheet is there to make life easier for you, but it doesn’t replace the need for keeping organized financial records.
To organize the communications from your lender or servicer:
- Split mail or emails into separate files/folders based on the lender or servicer.
- Save it by date, so that you can always find it easily.
It’s as easy as that! In addition to being hard evidence in case you ever have a dispute with your lender or servicer, the physical records will also act as a backup in case something were to happen to your student loan spreadsheet.
5. Select a student loan repayment plan based on your financial goals. (Optional)
When it comes to paying back student loans, a lot of people are happy with just paying the minimum balance. There’s nothing wrong with that! But paying a little extra each month—even as little as $25 or $50—can add up to big savings. By paying down the principal, you can save a lot in interest payments over the life of the loan.
If you want to pay down your student loans quicker, having a bunch of different loans at different interest rates certainly doesn’t make things easier. You’re probably wondering Which student loan should I pay off first? Should I pay off the student loan with the highest interest rate first? Or should I pay off the student loan with the lowest balance first? Should I pay off my private student loans first, or my federal student loans?
Luckily, there’s no correct answer to this question: It all boils down to your own personal psychology and long-term financial goals. As long as you pick a repayment strategy and stick with it, you’ll do perfectly fine crushing your student loan debt.
Below are three student loan repayment strategies that you should consider. Two of them are common debt repayment strategies—the Avalanche debt method and the Snowball debt method—that you can use to pay off your student loans, and the third is a method that I personally follow that you also might find helpful. Just choose one of these three repayment plans and stick with it until your goals change or you have succeeded in winning the fight against your student loans!
The Snowball Method
The snowball method (also called the debt-snowball) is a debt repayment strategy where you pay off the loan with the lowest balance first. This frees up money that you can then apply to the loan with the next lowest balance, and so on, until you are tackling your loan with the highest balance.
To use the Snowball Method to pay back your student loans, just:
- Create your student loan spreadsheet and sort your student loans so that the loan with the lowest balance is on top and the loan with the greatest balance is on the bottom.
- Make your regular minimum payments on all of your student loans.
- When you have extra money, use it to pay down the student loan with the lowest balance. Completely ignore the interest rates on your loans, and just focus on paying off the loan with the lowest balance first.
- When you’ve paid off that first loan with the lowest balance, you then move on to the loan with the next lowest balance. Apply any money that you were putting towards that first loan to the next loan, and when you pay that loan off, move on to the loan with the next lowest balance. This is where the “snowball” comes in: As you pay off each loan and move onto the next, your payment continues to grow (just like a snowball rolling down a hill).
The debt snowball method works really well for a number of reasons. For starters, it can supply a quick win that will keep you motivated while repaying your student loans. Beyond that, it can also make your finances simpler by removing a bill. If you’re overwhelmed by your student loan debt, this is probably the best method for you to follow, because it is so simple and because it will give you that quick motivational boost. We all need a “win” every so often to keep us on track!
That being said, if your goal is to save as much time and money as possible while paying back your student loans, this isn’t the method for you. Because it doesn’t take into account the interest rates on your loan, you may wind up paying off the loan with the lowest interest rate first, which means that you’re paying your loans with the higher interest rates for longer. If you want to save as much money as possible, then the Avalanche is more up your alley.
The Avalanche Method
The avalanche method (also called the debt-avalanche) is a debt repayment strategy where you pay off the loan with the highest interest rate first. Because student loans with higher interest rates are more expensive, paying off these loans first will save you the most money over the course of your loan.
To use the Avalanche Method to pay back your student loans, just:
- Create your student loan spreadsheet and sort your student loans so that the loan with the highest interest rate is on top and the loan with the lowest interest rate is on the bottom.
- Make your regular minimum payments on all of your student loans.
- When you have extra money, use it to pay down the student loan with the highest interest rate. Completely ignore the balances on your different loans. Whether the loan with the highest interest rate has a high balance or a low balance, you will apply all of your extra money here.
- When you’ve paid off that first loan with the highest interest rate, you will move on to the loan with the next highest interest rate. Apply any money that you were putting towards that first loan to the next loan, and when you pay that loan off, move on to the loan with the next highest interest rate.
This payment method saves you the most money out of them all because you’re targeting the loans with the highest interest rate, which is technically the most expensive student loan that you have. Over the long run, this means you’ll save a lot of money in interest payments. Technically, the avalanche method also helps you pay off your loans faster too, since higher interest rates increase your balance, potentially adding extra time to your payment schedule.
But, of course, this means that you might go a long time without that motivational boost that comes from paying off a loan: If your loan with the highest interest rate also has the highest balance, it could still take years to pay off, even with those extra payments. If this describes you, make sure you celebrate all of the little milestones along the way—say, after paying off every $1,000 from a $10,000 loan. This will keep you motivated on the way.
The third option is something that I call the “Benefit-focused method,” since it takes into account the different benefits that are associated with your different student loans. The main principle behind this debt repayment strategy is that you should pay off your loans with the fewest benefits first, and then move up the chain.
The word benefit is probably confusing you. Since when are the words “student loans” and “benefits” used in the same sentence?! But it’s true: Certain student loans carry benefits that others don’t.
For example, federal student loans come with a number of borrower protections that are not usually found in private student loans. These borrower protections include income-based repayment plans, student loan forgiveness options, and deferment and forbearance options. All of these are benefits to you, because you can tap into them if you are ever having trouble paying back your student loans. Private student loans don’t really have comparable protections.
In addition to lacking borrower protections, private student loans usually carry a higher interest rate than federal student loans, which ultimately makes private student loans more expensive. The relative “cheapness” of federal student loans is another benefit for you to weigh.
Typically, following this method will mean paying off your private student loans first and then turning to your federal student loans. You will then target your unsubsidized federal student loans before turning to your subsidized federal student loans.
To use the Benefit-focused Method to pay back your student loans, just:
- Create your student loan spreadsheet.
- First, sort your spreadsheet so that any private student loans are at the top. Organize your private student loans according to either the snowball method or the avalanche method.
- Next, sort your spreadsheet so that unsubsidized federal student loans are below your private student loans. Again, organize your unsibsidized student loans according to either the snowball method or the avalanche method.
- Then, sort your spreadsheet so that your subsidized federal student loans are below your unsubsidized federal student loans. Like above, you will organize these according to either the snowball method or the avalanche method.
- Make your regular minimum payments on all of your student loans.
- When you have extra money, use it to pay down your top private student loan.
- When you have finished paying off the top private student loan, move to the next private student loan in your spreadsheet. Apply any money that you were putting towards that first loan to the next loan, and when you pay that loan off, move on to the loan with the next.
- In this way, you will first pay off your private student loans, then your unsubsidized federal student loans, and last your subsidized federal student loans.
Does that sound like a lot of trouble to go through just to pay back your student loans? I’ll admit, it’s a little confusing. Here are a few examples to hopefully clarify things a bit.
This benefit-focused method is ideal for people who would like to have some piece of mind when it comes to repaying their student loans: If you work in a volatile industry or at a struggling company, paying off your private student loans first, will save you a lot of financial pain if you ever lose your job and are unable to make payments (since you can’t place private student loans in deferment or forbearance). Targeting your unsubsidized student loans next can potentially save you a lot of money in the form of accrued interest if you ever need to place your federal student loans in deferment or forbearance. Because subsidized federal student loans are the loans that are most forgiving to borrowers, they are the ones that you should keep the longest.
Of course, this plan values stability and peace of mind over saving as much money as possible or paying off as many loans as possible. Because of this, you probably won’t reach all of the benefits of either the snowball or avalanche method.
For the first three years that I was repaying my student loans, I worked in publishing, which is a struggling industry. On top of that, I worked for a struggling publisher, which meant that layoffs were always hanging over head. I luckily didn’t have any private student loans, but I did have a mix of subsidized and unsubsidized federal student loans. I was constantly worried that I would be laid off and need to place my loans in deferment, which could have easily wiped out the progress that I had made paying down my unsubsidized student loans.
For me, the benefit-focused method just made sense: It gave me the peace of mind that I needed to feel confident and motivated in my situation (and it really came in handy when I was eventually laid off and had to place my loans—just the subsidized ones—into deferment for six months).
6. If you’re bad at keeping track of your loans, sign up for autopay.
Okay, I know, I know, we just got through this whole spiel about how to keep track of your student loans. But the fact remains: Some people are really bad at keeping track of their payments, and that usually spells disaster for their finances. I get it, between rent, utilities, phone bills, cable, and credit cards, some things just fall through the cracks. Juggling half a dozen student loan bills on top of that each month can push anyone past their breaking point.
Luckily, if this describes you, you can sign up for autopay and rest your weary mind.
For starters, so long as you know that you’ll always have enough money in your account, consider signing up for autopay. Autopay is offered by all federal student loan servicers and most private student loan lenders.
Autopay essentially just means that you are agreeing to allow your student loan lender or servicer to automatically withdraw your student loan payment from your checking account each month, so you no longer need to make manual payments. In addition to making your life easier, signing up for autopay will also qualify you for an interest rate reduction in a lot of cases. If you have federal student loans and sign up for autopay, you can earn a .25% reduction in your interest rate (in most cases) and even some private lenders are getting in on the action.
Why do they offer the interest rate reduction? It might cost them a bit of money over the life of the loan, but it ensures that you’re going to make your payments. And that means they don’t have to spend money sending your account to collection. In the long run, it’s cheaper for them to be nice.
Student Loan Fast Facts: Not sure a .25% reduction in your student loan interest rate is worth it? To illustrate: If you have $60,000 in student loans with a 6.8% interest rate, and you knock it down a quarter of a percent to 6.55%, you’ll save about $1,000 in interest over the life of the loan. That’s enough to buy a cheap car.
A quarter of a percent off your interest rate might not seem like a lot, but it definitely adds up over the life of the loan. Every small bit counts in the fight against student loans!
7. Know your options if you can’t make your payments.
Okay, so keeping track of your student loans is one thing. But what can you do if you are having a hard time making your payments? Luckily, you have a lot of options available to you, especially if you have federal student loans. You can:
- Place your federal student loans in deferment or forbearance. Deferment and forbearance are, generally speaking, periods of time where you do not need to make your regularly scheduled monthly payments. If you have subsidized federal student loans, they WILL NOT accrue interest during deferment, but WILL accrue interest during forbearance. If you have unsubsidized federal student loans, they WILL accrue interest during both deferment and forbearance. Private student loans do not typically guarantee forbearance as an option, but you may be able to get a few months off of making payments if you reach out to your student loan lender; if they do grant you a forbearance, interest WILL continue to accrue. For more information about the differences between student loan deferment and forbearance, read our post here.
- Sign up for an income-based repayment plan. These plans work by calculating your monthly payment based on your after-tax income. Typically, enrolling in one of these plans will lower your payments early on during repayment. Then, as your income grows, your payment amount will also grow. When you are first starting out in life after college, or when you are having financial difficulties, these plans can make it much easier to afford your student loan payments. Though these repayment plans can be amazingly helpful, keep in mind: The less you pay towards your loan (especially early on) the more money you will end up paying in interest over the life of the loan. For more details about specific income-based student loan repayment plans, read our post here.
- Consider looking into student loan refinancing. If you have private student loans with high interest rates and high monthly payments, you may be able to make life a little easier by refinancing your student loan to a lower interest rate, a lower monthly payment, or both. Refinancing is, essentially, the act of opening a new loan, at more favorable terms, than your current loan. LendEdu has a free rate comparison calculator that you can check out to see if refinancing would make your life any easier.
Student Loan Fast Facts: If you cannot afford to make your student loan payments because you have been impacted by a natural disaster, read our guide “What to do if You Can’t Make Your Student Loan Payments Due to Natural Disaster,” which outlines steps you can take to get back on track financially.
The Bottom Line
And there you have it: The complete, step-by-step guide to tracking your student loans, from finding missing loans to creating a student loan spreadsheet to updating your student loan information regularly. Think you have a tip that would make the process easier? Let us know in the comments and we might add it to our methodology!