Don't Let Your Student Loans Hold You Back - 5 Ways to Tackle Your Debt

Jess and Ryan Weaver of Elkhart, Indiana, can't qualify for a mortgage. The couple have a household income of around $70,000 per year, four kids age 7 and under -- and $200,000 in combined student loan debt. That makes their total debt high compared to their income -- a red flag for lenders.

Jess and Ryan, who went to Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana, aren't unusual. They're part of a growing group of graduates who are delaying major life milestones because of their student loan debt, according to a 2015 study by the Boston-based nonprofit American Student Assistance.

"When we first took out student loans, we couldn't see the impact it was going to have later in our lives," Jess says.

For others, like Cyndi and Rick Blalock of St. Charles, Missouri, student loan debt isn't debilitating; it's just a means to an end.

"We kind of just consider student loan debt the cost of doing business," says Cyndi, who owns her own dental practice. She and Rick, a chiropractor, had $375,000 in student loan debt when they graduated in 2011. But with six-figure incomes and no kids, the couple was still able to purchase a home in 2014 through Health Care Family Credit Union, which offers mortgages specifically for healthcare professionals. And now, after years of aggressive payments, Cyndi and Rick have eliminated around $169,000 of their principal student loan balances.

Whether your student loan debt is paralyzing or just a pain, it's possible to ease your burden so you can buy a home, have a family or start a business. Here are five ways to get started.

1. Switch to an income-driven repayment plan.

are one of several solutions the government offers federal student loan borrowers who are struggling with debt. These arrangements -- which include income-based repayment, Pay As You Earn and the Revised Pay As You Earn plans -- allow qualifying borrowers to cap their payments at a percentage of their income, and have their remaining debt forgiven after 20 or 25 years of payments.

Given their income and their four kids, the Weavers qualified for an income-based repayment plan that currently allows them not to make payments on their $100,000 in federal student loan debt.

The couple has to reapply for the plan every year, and if their income increases, they may have to start making monthly payments. But as long as they qualify for income-based repayment - no matter what their monthly payment is - their remaining federal student loan balance will be forgiven at the end of their repayment period.

They still pay around $900 per month toward their $100,000 in private student loans. Loans taken out from a private lender, rather than the government, aren't eligible for federal repayment plans.

2. Take advantage of student loan forgiveness programs.

The government offers federal borrowers who've worked for the government or a nonprofit for 10 years full student loan forgiveness. Another federal program partially forgives federal student loans for teachers who work in low-income public schools for five years. You can maximize the amount you'll save through these programs by making payments on an income-driven repayment plan.

3. Defer your loans if you can; ask for forbearance if you have to.

are both programs that allow certain borrowers to temporarily stop making monthly loan payments. The government allows borrowers to defer their federal loans if they're facing an economic hardship, going back to school or serving in the military; it grants forbearance to borrowers with medical issues or other financial challenges.

If you have certain types of federal loans, you won't have to pay interest during deferment, but all loans accrue interest during forbearance. Some private lenders offer deferment and forbearance, but their programs aren't typically as generous as the federal government's.

Rick Blalock opened his chiropractic clinic shortly after graduation and didn't turn a profit right away. That qualified him for two years of loan deferment. His loans still accrued interest, but he used the cash he saved on monthly payments to build his business.

"Cash flow was so important," he says. "When you're starting a new business from scratch, it's hard to get a bank to give you a loan."

 4. Consider student loan refinancing.

You can lower your interest rate by
, whether they're federal or private. However, bear in mind that refinanced federal loans become private and no longer have federal borrower protections and benefits, including access to income-driven repayment plans, forgiveness programs, deferment and forbearance.

5. Let your employer help repay your debt.

An increasing number of employers, including PricewaterhouseCoopers and Fidelity Investments, are contributing to employees' student loan payments. A March 2016
found that borrowers can save more than $4,000 in interest by taking advantage of this perk.

Even if your employer doesn't officially offer to help repay your student loans as part of your compensation, it doesn't hurt to negotiate for it, says Kevin Fudge, manager of consumer advocacy and community affairs at American Student Assistance.

"You never know what's possible until you ask," he says.

Teddy Nykiel is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @teddynykiel.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by USA Today College.