- Personal finance professionals Tarra Jackson and Kelly Lannan joined Insider's Master your Money Virtual Event.
- They broke down the best ways to tackle debt repayment, including huge student loans.
- Before you try to pay them off, make sure you have savings, know what you owe, and contact your lender to get your options.
- This article is part of a series focused on millennial financial empowerment called Master your Money.
Before you start tackling an enormous debt like a student loan, experts have some advice.
Kelly Lannan, Vice President of Young Investors for Personal Investing at Fidelity, and Tarra Jackson, author of "4 Financial Languages" and "Financial Fornication," explained during Insider's virtual event, "How to control your debt, build your credit, and set yourself up to build wealth," that there are a few steps to take before you start writing checks.
1. Figure out exactly what you owe and can afford to pay
Before you pay off your debt, you need to know exactly what debts you have, Lannan said. For a lot of people, this is easier said than done.
"Sometimes if you're scared of the numbers and what they're going to show you, it's like inertia sets in and you don't check them," Lannan said. "But if you have no idea what you even have to begin with, how can you ever take action on it?"
Lannan recommended using apps to get an overview of your finances, but you can also start a basic spreadsheet or even a written list of your debt amounts, interest rates, and lenders to keep everything in one place.
Knowing what you owe and to whom is one side of the coin; knowing how much you can afford to pay is the other.
Jackson explained that before you consider refinancing or consolidating your loans, make sure you have a holistic picture of your spending and you know how much you can afford to pay your lenders each month. If you need to pay more than you can afford, she continued, use this as an opportunity to take a closer look at your spending habits and see where you might want to make a change to free up some cash.
2. Get all your options from your lender
Jackson, who held the role of interim president and CEO of a credit union, suggested that borrowers struggling under large debts get in touch with their lenders to figure out all of their options for repayment. The lending institution might offer a deferment program, suggest refinancing, allow borrowers to split up the payment or extend the term of the loan to lower payments, or have other options for situations of financial hardship. As Jackson put it, "You can't give what you don't have."
In her role at the head of a credit union, Jackson remembers struggling borrowers offering to give up their home or car in lieu of payments. But the union doesn't want the collateral, she explained. "Most financial institutions, all they really want is the money," she said, and they're willing to work with you to get it.
3. Make sure your emergency fund is on track
One of the first steps in paying off a large debt balance seems counterintuitive: Start saving.
Before you worry about paying off your debt, make sure you're saving an emergency fund. Lannan said, "The most important thing is that you make sure you have money set aside in case the unexpected happens." An emergency fund is generally defined as about six months' worth of living expenses saved somewhere easily accessible, like a savings account. That money is earmarked for an emergency like a job loss or medical emergency - something that might otherwise cause you to take on debt.
"What we don't want to have happen is people are not prepared for the unexpected, and then they go further into debt, because they either can't pay off the debt that already existed, or they have to take on more loans to do so," Lannan said.
It's important to save this fund somewhere separate from your checking account, to reduce the ease (and temptation) of tapping it when you need a little more cash in checking, added Jackson. She recommends automating your contributions, and then leaving that money entirely alone - no debit card, no regular access to the account. "That's the best way to build your savings," she said. "Set it and forget it."