If you're a college student, you have a lot on your plate -- who could blame you for not paying attention to that mounting student loan balance? But once you graduate, your new monthly student loan bill will be hard to ignore. After all, missing a payment isn't like turning in a term paper late; debt collectors aren't nearly as forgiving as your Chemistry 201 professor.
A few tips can help keep your budget on track and your student loan servicer happy. First, know that you can lower your monthly federal student loan bill by switching repayment plans if you need to. After that, tighten up your spending so you don't fall behind on your loan payments. Here are five ways to free up cash when that student loan bill comes due.
Pick the right student loan repayment plan
Start by making sure you can afford your student loan bills. You'll build the rest of your budget around them, along with other big expenses, such as rent and transportation.
If you can manage it, repay your federal loans on the standard 10-year repayment plan. You'll pay less interest and get rid of your loans sooner. And it's a good idea to throw extra money at your bill when you can to speed up the process.
If you're really strapped for cash, switch to an income-driven student loan repayment plan. The government offers four options that make your payments a percentage of your income, so you'll pay less when you earn less. The newest plan is known as REPAYE, and it gives all federal loan borrowers the ability to pay, at most, 10% of their discretionary income each month. That means you'll have more money to pay for the other stuff you need.
Private lenders aren't as flexible. Some have programs that will let you pause your payments for a time. If you're struggling to pay your bills, call your lender and ask about ways to postpone or lower your payments.
Prioritize your spending
Next, think about where you can cut costs elsewhere in your life so you can keep your loan bills current. Focus on saving money in ways that make sense for your lifestyle. That way you won't feel deprived of everything you enjoy, and you can cut out expenses that you truly don't need.
For instance, someone who likes to travel might live with several roommates or outside the city center so she can save money on housing. Or a grad who likes to eat organic meals might skip buying a new car so he has more flexibility in his grocery budget, says Brian McCann, a financial advisor and founder of Bootstrap Capital in San Jose, California.
"I know people that have relatively constrained finances, but they shop at Whole Foods every week because that's important to them," he says.
Choose ridesharing over owning a car
Rent and transportation are often grads' two largest expenses, so those are good places to lower your costs if you can.
"I encourage people to try and get the big things right and not overstretch," McCann says.
Car payments can be especially costly. Consider forgoing a car and signing up for Zipcar, car2go or another car sharing service if it's available in your city. These companies let you rent a car hourly, which can help when public transportation won't get you where you need to go. Plus, you won't rack up extra expenses for car insurance or parking.
"Members really just pay for the time that they use," says Dacyl Armendariz, car2go's external communications manager.
If you need a car where you live and don't have access to these options, look into buying a used car instead of a new one.
Trim recurring monthly costs
Now it's on to smaller expenses -- and some you might not even know you're paying.
It's easy to sign up for a service that automatically charges you every month, such as the gym, ClassPass, Spotify or Netflix. Cancel them if you're not using them at least a few times a week. A service such as Truebill will track your monthly subscriptions and show you which ones you're not using so you can cancel.
Instead of paying for services like these, find free ways to do the things you love: Quitting the gym, for instance, doesn't mean you have to stop exercising. Join a free fitness group such as the November Project, which meets to exercise in the morning in cities across the country. You'll avoid the monthly fee and the long wait to use the elliptical.
Take advantage of free events in your city
If going out is a big expense for you, get creative.
Sign up for newsletters or bookmark local blogs that keep track of free and cheap movies, plays, concerts and readings around town. Take advantage of inexpensive ticket deals for 20-somethings at cultural institutions; the New York City Ballet, for instance, offers $29 tickets for same-day performances if you're 29 or under. Make your own free fun by starting a book club or hosting themed potlucks.
You can always add to your income by picking up extra part-time work. No matter how you do it, it's possible to pay down your loans, keep up with your other bills, and maybe even have some money left over. A grad can dream.
More from NerdWallet
This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by USA Today College.