Student loans: how much can you really afford?

By Bella King
04/10/2017
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Great news! You just got into the college of your dreams. Not so great news, you’ll have to take out student loans to pay for it. But how much can you really afford? Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you figure it out.

1. Your monthly loan payment

For a typical ten-year loan, expect to pay roughly 1% of the total every month. For example, if you must borrow $40,000 to go to your dream school, your monthly loan payment will be about $400, depending on the interest rate and length of the loan*. Use eStudentLoan's student loan calculator to help you figure out your monthly payment.

*This is only a rule of thumb. Verify the actual amount with your lender before you take out the loan.

2. Your yearly income after graduation

  1. Find out how much graduates earn in your desired career and city during their first 10 years after college, which is the typical length a student loan.
  2. Next, go to College Scorecard, look up your college, and see how much graduate salaries compare nationally.

Use this information to determine your yearly salary range.

3. Your monthly income after expenses

  1. Divide your expected yearly income by 12. For example, say you'll earn about $56,000 per year. Divide $56,000 by 12 to get your total monthly income of $4,666.
  2. Subtract 20% for taxes. $4,666 x 20% = $933. $4,666 - $933 leaves about $3,732 after taxes.
  3. Now, estimate the monthly rent, utilities, and other living expenses in the area you'd like to live. Say you want to work in Austin. Monthly living expenses are about $2,500. $3,732 - $2,500 leaves you about $1,232 after expenses.

4. Your monthly spending money and savings

Subtract your monthly loan payment from your monthly income after expenses. In our example, $1,232 - $400 = $832. That's how much you'll have left each month for emergencies, savings, travel, social life, and fancy dinners. A good rule of thumb is 20% of your income should go toward savings. (That gets easier after you pay off your student loans!)

5. What to do if you can’t afford your dream school

If it turns out that your salary isn’t enough, don't despair! There are still a bunch of things you can do to afford school.

  1. Research other majors you’re interested in that lead to higher earnings.
  2. Save money by working part-time during the summer or taking a year off to work.
  3. Save money by doing your first year or two of gen-eds at a community college, then transfer to your dream school.
  4. If you’re interested in nursing, teaching, the military, or other public service work, you may have all or part of your loan forgiven.
  5. There is no “best college.” You can be successful at a less expensive school. College is what you make it. The more you put in, the more you’ll get out!
  6. Make sure you've applied for every possible scholarship. Start applying for scholarships as soon as you start high school and keep applying every single month until you graduate college.

College can leave you swimming in debt or open the door to an amazing life you couldn't otherwise afford. The more educated you are about the costs, the smoother paying off student loans will be.

There are millions of scholarships out there. But you don’t have to spend a million hours looking for them. Use our Scholarship Match to instantly find the ones that are perfect for you. And if financial aid and scholarships aren't enough, use our LoanFinder to help cover your college costs.

About the author

Bella KingBella is our 2016 All About Education Scholarship winner. She is a songwriting major and music business/legal studies double minor at Belmont University. In her free time, she enjoys writing and listening to music, playing volleyball, and catching up on her favorite TV shows on Netflix.

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