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Taking out student loans will have a significant impact on your future — and whether that impact is positive or negative depends heavily on what you do before you sign a promissory note.

Even though borrowers may not have to repay their loans for several years after they receive them, cost needs to be near the top of your priority list when considering colleges. That involves more than just looking at tuition information on a school’s website — figuring out how much college will cost requires a lot of research and planning, particularly if you plan to finance some of your expenses. Here are some tips to help you keep those future loan payments as low as possible.

1. Focus on the Free Stuff

Scholarships may be considered “free money,” but make no mistake, you have to work for them. For high school seniors deciding their college plans for the fall of 2015, many scholarship deadlines have passed, but that does not mean there are no opportunities.

Don’t give up after a few failed attempts, either. Dan Evertsz, owner of College Money Pros, helps families prepare to pay for college and said you need to look at getting scholarships as a job. He tells the families he works with to apply for 50 scholarships a month and focus on offerings from local organizations.

“It’s the big W — you have to work at this,” Evertsz said. “A lot of people don’t want to put in the work.”

Applying for dozens of scholarships a month is probably not how most teenagers want to spend their free time, but lots of small scholarships can add up to thousands of dollars. Those thousands of dollars don’t need to be borrowed, and they won’t accrue interest, so it’s worth the effort, Evertsz said.

2. Save Now

Even if you’re just months from going to your first college class and haven’t saved anything, start setting aside money now.

“It’s never too late to start saving, because every dollar you save is a dollar less you have to borrow,” said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors Network.

Take that saving mentality onto campus, too. Reducing expenses means you can reduce the amount of loans you borrow — cutting out things like fancy housing, a daily cup of coffee or ordering takeout can add up to thousands of dollars over the course of a few years.

To balance out the expenses you have, work your way to those savings goals.

“Work part time during the semester and full time during the summer,” Kantrowitz said. “I don’t recommend working more than 12 hours a week during the semester because anything more takes too much time away from academics.”

3. Research Your Options

There are 4,599 Title IV degree-granting institutions in the U.S., according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, meaning students have a fair amount of choice in where they go to college. You can get a great education without going into $40,000 of student loan debt (the average was $28,400 among 2013 graduates).

Schools have varying tuition rates, but they also have different net costs — the difference between the sticker price and the average amount of aid students receive. Opting for schools with lower net prices will save you money in the long run.

Look at graduation rates, too. If you want to graduate within four years, see what percentage of students accomplish that at the schools you’re considering. Once you enroll, make sure you’re doing everything you can to stay on track to that graduation date, because another year could cost you thousands — tens of thousands — of dollars.

The biggest thing that determines the affordability of your education is your future income. Obviously, you can’t predict the future, but you can look up salary data of people who work in your chosen field. It’s a good idea to borrow only as much as you expect to make with your starting salary. That doesn’t mean you’re locked into a career from age 18 — at the same time, if you change from pursuing an engineering degree to one in psychology, you may want to re-evaluate where you’re getting that degree and how much you’re borrowing to do so.

Unaffordable student loan debt can make a mess of your finances, from a damaged credit score to wage garnishment or even losing out on a tax refund. If you’re already in a situation where you’ve borrowed more than you think you can handle, don’t wait for the problem to get worse. Look into student loan repayment options and do everything you can to stay current on your debts, because student loans, unlike other consumer debts, cannot normally be discharged in bankruptcy.

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