I Just Graduated College, And I’m Already Freaking Out About Debt!

06/27/2017 11:48 am ET Updated Jun 27, 2017

Are you barely out of college and already panicking about debt? Fortunately -- well, really, unfortunately -- you’re not alone.

In a series of surveys, my organization, the 1,000 Dreams Fund, determined some pretty crazy statistics about millennial debt. And one thing’s for sure: The sooner you can get out of it, the better. Here are three steps to calm your debt anxieties and, in time, totally solve them.

Stop avoiding your student loan statements. In the short term, it might feel easier to just delete those email reminders about paying back your student loans. After all, your debit card balance is low, and the loan figure is high. So why make yourself feel worse with the actual numbers? This isn’t hypothetical: Our research found that 40 percent of millennial women don’t know how much student loan debt they’re in. They just know a certain amount is looming out there like a big storm cloud.

If the “pretend it doesn’t exist” strategy sounds familiar, this is your official instruction to ditch it. The longer you put off knowing what you owe, the harder it’ll be to square it all away. Take a deep breath and look at the full scope of your financial situation. How much do you have? How much do you owe? From there, you can start creating a solid plan of action -- and start taking control.

Are you swiping yourself into credit card debt? After surveying hundreds of millennial women, my team was concerned to learn that of those who are cardholders, 79 percent are already in credit card debt. That’s right: Nearly four out of every five young women with a credit card is already behind on her payments. And as older people in long-term credit card debt can tell you, climbing out once you’re in only becomes harder over time.

Just because you can pay less than your actual bill amount doesn’t mean you should. If you’re consistently accumulating more debt on your credit card, you need to take a hard look at what you’re buying. Are they necessary expenses? If so, why are they running up such a tab? If not -- which is more often the case -- what can you do differently in future months?

Break the habit as soon as possible: Pay off existing credit card debt ASAP, and stick to a budget that won't put you back behind payments. Just paying off that extra sum -- even if it’s only a few hundred dollars -- will alleviate financial stress.

Do some research before you buy. One of the biggest traps recent grads fall into is simply overpaying. Do some research before you buy, whether they're big- or small-ticket items. Before signing an apartment lease, take time to find out what others pay for comparable places. When you hit the drugstore, look for generic-brand items -- do you really need name-brand soap and toilet paper? -- and do the same at the grocery store. (And buy real food, not just snacks, or you’ll just end up blowing money later at a restaurant.)

Debt isn’t fun, and at some points in life, it might be unavoidable -- including right now, if you have years of school to pay off. But start chipping away at it, and as you progress in your career, it’ll feel more and more manageable. And it’ll stop keeping you awake at night. Hopefully.

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