It took four years, gallons of coffee, reams of scratch paper, and more sleepless nights than you could even count, but the day you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived. You’ll walk across that stage in your cap and gown to accept the degree you’ve worked so valiantly for and exit the stage a college graduate. As you prepare to take your seat before the ceremony, you feel a buzz from your pocket. You pull out your phone, planning to silence it – only to pause when you find a cheerful notification from your loan company reminding that your payment comes due in a few months.

You look at the number in shock, thinking: That can’t be right.

Unfortunately, it can.

For many bright-eyed freshmen, student loans are a means to an end. They facilitate tuition, smooth a study abroad trip, and provide funds for those all-too-expensive textbooks. In those first few years of school, it can be all too easy to view loan amounts as forgettable numbers on a page, rather than very real dollar amounts.

According to Forbes, there are currently over 44 million student borrowers in the US, with each borrower averaging about $37,172 in debt. All in all, Americans owe over $1.3 trillion in student loans. These numbers are sobering, especially since statistics have indicated that debt amounts have spiked over the past decade; a report from ValuePenguin notes that “the US saw an almost 90% increase in the number of student loan borrowers, in addition to a nearly 80% uptick in average balance size” between 2004 and 2014.

With debts on the rise, students today can’t afford to be careless when taking out loans. Here are a few deadly mistakes that potential borrowers should avoid when strategizing their payment options for college.

 

Overlooking free money.

Applying for scholarships and grants can be a long, arduous, even annoying process – but it could save you thousands of dollars down the line. Loans don’t provide free money; students are required to pay the amounts they borrow back with interest – so why should taking out loans be a student’s de facto strategy?

Snag as much “free” money as possible by applying for all of the scholarship opportunities you can find. Odds are, there are more out there than you think!

 

Spending loan money irresponsibly.

Loan money isn’t a gift or allowance, and it isn’t yours in any real sense. In the moment, it might feel great to buy that cool pair of sneakers or one of those fancy bath baskets – but you might regret your shopping spree when your bills come due, four years later.

 

Taking on debt without a repayment plan.

A thousand or two might not seem like much – at first. But after a while, several smaller loans can carry as much – if not more! – weight as a single, larger number. Keep aware of how much you borrow, and opt into a payment plan as soon as possible. You don’t want to take out money to ease your financial burdens for a few college years, only to find yourself paying a high monthly bill for the rest of your life. Thoughtfully consider which type of payment plan works for you, and stick with it.

Taking out loans to pay for school can be a dangerous necessity – so make sure that you have your accounts in order! Figure out how much you can afford to owe, and be responsible about paying it back.