Welcome to another installment of IonTuition’s Q&A series with personal finance bloggers. We have Wise Bread’s Executive Editor, Janet Alvarez sharing her financial expertise with us today.

Janet Alvarez is a veteran financial journalist with a background as both a financial TV and radio host, and a former editor at large financial publications including TheStreet, Mint.com, and Reuters – BreakingViews. She’s also a personal finance expert and frequently appears on major media.

What career advice do you have for those who have recently graduated college or started looking into new career paths?

Your early career is the time to explore your real interests and abilities before determining your ultimate path. Think of this as a time for career experimentation – not just for the novelty of it, but also for the breadth of experiences and skills you’ll cultivate which will diversify your talents and ultimately make you a more marketable candidate. My advice is thus to do and learn as much as you can across a variety of disciplines. You’ll pick up skills that may prove useful in the future. At a minimum you’ll develop a better perspective on your interests and abilities and a more comprehensive understanding of the employment landscape.

What are your best tips for people who have debt?

Debt prevents you from taking real steps forward in your financial life – such as investing, saving, and making major purchases. It limits your freedom and can hang over you as a source of constant worry and stress. Make ridding yourself of it as important as any other major goal you set for yourself. Educate yourself and learn the best ways to pay debt down quickly, such as negotiating lower bills or payments, getting lower interest rates, consolidating debt, or getting on an income-driven repayment plan for student loans. Then find ways to both cut expenses AND find additional income (such as from side gigs or by selling unwanted goods) to find the money to pay it off as quickly as possible. Wise Bread is one excellent resource for learning about various debt reduction techniques.

Can you offer some advice for people who carry student loan debt and are working toward repayment and trying to become financially stable?

I share your pain – MBAs aren’t cheap, and I’m still repaying mine. First, determine whether you’re likely to be able to repay your debt within the standard ten-year period. If you’re able, it should be your priority to do so. (IonTuition shows this info on your loans by default or you can try this repayment calculator to plug in loan data manually: https://studentloans.gov/myDirectLoan/mobile/repayment/repaymentEstimator.action ) If given your debt and income levels ten years seems like too short a repayment horizon, put any federal student loans on an income driven repayment plan (such as IBR or PAYE) immediately. This will lower your monthly payments to a manageable level for your income, and help reduce stress while you work on ways to improve your income and pay off debt. The simplest way to pay off your debt is to improve your income, but also consider debt forgiveness programs for federal loans, such as those offered after ten years in public service jobs. Or consider consolidating your private loans to help reduce your interest rate and monthly payments.

In your opinion, what are the most important workplace benefits recent graduates should watch for when accepting job offers?

Anything that contributes to your future – such as a 401K match, tuition reimbursement, or free training is worth its weight in gold. If given the option, however, almost always take a higher salary offer over better perks. Cold hard cash in hand means you can pay off debt, save, and invest more easily.

What was your biggest challenge when you entered the workforce (after graduation, if you attended college)? How did you overcome it, and would you do anything differently if you had another chance?

Learning how to develop a career plan is essential – it means understanding exactly where you want to be in 5, 10, or 20 years, and developing a precise roadmap to arrive at that intended destination. Success doesn’t happen accidentally. Find mentors who have the job you want, and ask them how they got there. Get the additional job skills or training you need for the role you want. And never forget that it can take more than a couple of jobs to get on the right path. The key is to keep forging forward even if you occasionally deviate from your route.

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