With so many people—not just millennials—buried in student loan debt, ways to crawl out from undercan sometimes appear unattainable.

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Meanwhile, the threat that such debt presents, not just today-to-day finances but also to workers' retirement, grows,especially if that loan balance doesn't shrink.

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The Squared Away blog on the website of the Center forRetirement Research at Boston College, however, presented 12rules people should follow as they whittle away at thosebalances—even if they feel overwhelmed.

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The rules came from two experts on student loans: Betsy Mayotte,director of consumer outreach for American Student Assistance, anonprofit that educates people about their loans, and CraigLemoine, program director for the American College of FinancialServices.

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In interviews, the two presented not just rules, but the reasonsone should follow them—and in so doing, provided a way out forthose who may feel trapped by student debt.

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If you're trying to dig yourself out, or know someone who needshelp, here are the rules that can help you, or them, do just that.But however the rules play out, remember that every situation isunique, and don't commit to a plan of action until you're sure it'syour best option.

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12. Avoid loan defaults, whatever it takes.

Not paying federal student loans will get you even deeper intotrouble than you are already. It will cost you big-time—yourbalance will rise by at least 25 percent or even more, thanks tothe feds' addition of collection costs and interest. Then there'sthe mess default can make of your job prospects, not to mention howmuch harder it can make your attempts to get loans in thefuture.

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In addition, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau hasestimated that one in three people who manage to get out of defaultstatus will wind up back in default.

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Some fields qualify you for help but never resort to deferment. (Photo: iStock)

11. See if your field qualifies you for loan forgiveness.

In some qualifying professions, those with student loan debt canbe forgiven by the federal government, provided they've madepayments on time for 10 years, or amassed a total of 120 on-timemonthly payments.

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Even some states will forgive loans, although there are—ofcourse—conditions. Veterinarians qualify in some states undercertain circumstances, and in California some medical professionalsdo.

10. Don't resort to deferment or forbearance unless youabsolutely must.

They'll give you breathing space by giving you a time duringwhich you don't have to make payments, but they won't lower yourbalance—in fact, interest and missed payments that continue toaccrue while you're not paying could end up adding hundreds to yourtypical monthly payment.

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If you have subsidized federal loans and get a deferment, you'relucky; interest accrual is frozen.

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But since most people have unsubsidized federal loans, thatinterest will continue to mount.

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Watch your credit score and never pay for student loan help. (Photo: Getty)

9. Watch your credit score.

The way you pay your bills, of course, affects your creditscore—and that's no less true for the way you handle those studentloan payments.

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Whether you've just missed a few payments or ended up infull-fledged default, that will weigh on your score and affect yourability to rent an apartment or even get certain jobs.

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As long as you haven't actually defaulted already—missingpayments for 270 days—you can apply for retroactive forbearance anddeferment.

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That will avert disaster, but it's still going to show on yourcredit score that you missed payments.

8. Never pay for help with student loans.

Companies that will help you for a fee with your student loansituation are only helping themselves.

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The information and repayment plans they offer you can be hadfor free, and some companies even imply to student loan borrowersthat they have a contract with the Department of Education to fixstudent loan issues.

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They don't.

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And they're expensive.

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Make a budget first before signing a repayment plan. (Photo: iStock)

7. Don't sign on to a repayment plan without making a budgetfirst.

If you do, you could be dooming yourself to failure.

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Either you could end up with payments that are too large for youto manage in the long term, or too small to make real progress.

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Remember that you'll need some flexibility to cope with a budgetthat could change after a few months or years, with the loss of ajob or some other problem, such as illness, impairing your abilityto make aggressive payments.

6. Don't pick a repayment plan by only considering the monthlypayments.

If you could pay more early on, with larger payments, you couldend up paying less in the long run.

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But if you only look at the size of the payments, you could endup locked into a plan with smaller payments that will cost youthousands more in the long term, or—if you're married—you could bestuck in a plan that calculates payments based on both spouses'incomes and student loans.

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Mayotte pointed out in the blog post that the U.S. Department ofEducation's calculator will estimate payments under every paymentplan available, as well as the total amount that will be paid backunder each plan over the life of the plan.

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An income-based repayment plan can help some borrowers. (Photo: Getty)

5. The best option for lower-income former students with highdebt levels is an income-based repayment plan.

Federal repayment programs recalculate and reduce students'payments to a low fixed and affordable percentage of what theyearn, with the potential for payments in some cases to fall tozero.

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But the interest rate on the loan is not reduced in a repaymentplan, and the remaining balance on the loan can be waived onlyafter 20 or 25 years under various repayment plans. You'll have topay income taxes on that balance.

4. Before you sign up for an income-based repaymentplan, consider not just how much you earn now, but how much youexpect to earn in the future.

In the blog, Lemoine said that repayment programs are great forsomeone who earns less than $30,000 per year, for instance, whodoesn't expect his or her earnings to increase substantially overtime.

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While monthly payments are adjusted annually to keep up withchanges in income, someone in a potentially high-dollar field, suchas a newly hired investment banker with the potential for asix-figure salary in the near future, would probably end up payingmuch more over time under an income-based repayment plan than bycontinuing to make the loan's standard payments.

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Call the loan servicing company but do some research first. (Photo: Getty)

3. Call the loan servicing company if you're having trouble,but do some investigating first.

If you're struggling to pay student loans, the companies thathandle them can be very helpful, since they're experts not just onyour particular loan account but also on the federal government'srules for loan repayment.

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However, representatives might not know much more than is on theU.S. Department of Education's website. In addition, sometimestheir advice can conflict with information from anotherrepresentative in an earlier phone call.

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You need to know as much as you can before you call, so that youcan be prepared with questions about your situation and potentialoptions. Read the information on the federal website.

2. Open your student loan mail.

Don't be an ostrich. If you owe the money and try to ignore thesituation, you'll only make it worse—especially when the amountconcerned is tens of thousands of dollars.

If you earn enough, start paying off those student loands. (Photo: AP)

1. If you earn enough to make your payments, start paying.

Most student loans must be repaid in full. The faster you canmake the full monthly payments, the sooner they'll be paid off andthe more money you'll save in the long run.

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Deciding how much extra you can pay on them needs to beconsidered in light of other financial goals and obligations, suchas high-interest credit cards and the need to save enough in a401(k) to get the full employer match.

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