With so many people—not just millennials—buried in student loan debt, ways to crawl out from under can sometimes appear unattainable.
Meanwhile, the threat that such debt presents, not just to day-to-day finances but also to workers’ retirement, grows, especially if that loan balance doesn’t shrink.
The Squared Away blog on the website of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, however, presented 12 rules people should follow as they whittle away at those balances—even if they feel overwhelmed.
The rules came from two experts on student loans: Betsy Mayotte, director of consumer outreach for American Student Assistance, a nonprofit that educates people about their loans, and Craig Lemoine, program director for the American College of Financial Services.
In interviews, the two presented not just rules, but the reasons one should follow them—and in so doing, provided a way out for those who may feel trapped by student debt.
If you’re trying to dig yourself out, or know someone who needs help, here are the rules that can help you, or them, do just that. But however the rules play out, remember that every situation is unique, and don’t commit to a plan of action until you’re sure it’s your best option.
12. Avoid loan defaults, whatever it takes.
Not paying federal student loans will get you even deeper into trouble than you are already. It will cost you big-time—your balance will rise by at least 25 percent or even more, thanks to the feds’ addition of collection costs and interest. Then there’s the mess default can make of your job prospects, not to mention how much harder it can make your attempts to get loans in the future.
In addition, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has estimated that one in three people who manage to get out of default status will wind up back in default.
11. See if your field qualifies you for loan forgiveness.
In some qualifying professions, those with student loan debt can be forgiven by the federal government, provided they’ve made payments on time for 10 years, or amassed a total of 120 on-time monthly payments.
Even some states will forgive loans, although there are—of course—conditions. Veterinarians qualify in some states under certain circumstances, and in California some medical professionals do.
10. Don’t resort to deferment or forbearance unless you absolutely must.
They’ll give you breathing space by giving you a time during which you don’t have to make payments, but they won’t lower your balance—in fact, interest and missed payments that continue to accrue while you’re not paying could end up adding hundreds to your typical monthly payment.
If you have subsidized federal loans and get a deferment, you’re lucky; interest accrual is frozen.
But since most people have unsubsidized federal loans, that interest will continue to mount.
9. Watch your credit score.
The way you pay your bills, of course, affects your credit score—and that’s no less true for the way you handle those student loan payments.
Whether you’ve just missed a few payments or ended up in full-fledged default, that will weigh on your score and affect your ability to rent an apartment or even get certain jobs.
As long as you haven’t actually defaulted already—missing payments for 270 days—you can apply for retroactive forbearance and deferment.
That will avert disaster, but it’s still going to show on your credit score that you missed payments.
8. Never pay for help with student loans.
Companies that will help you for a fee with your student loan situation are only helping themselves.
The information and repayment plans they offer you can be had for free, and some companies even imply to student loan borrowers that they have a contract with the Department of Education to fix student loan issues.
And they’re expensive.
7. Don’t sign on to a repayment plan without making a budget first.
If you do, you could be dooming yourself to failure.
Either you could end up with payments that are too large for you to manage in the long term, or too small to make real progress.
Remember that you’ll need some flexibility to cope with a budget that could change after a few months or years, with the loss of a job or some other problem, such as illness, impairing your ability to make aggressive payments.
6. Don’t pick a repayment plan by only considering the monthly payments.
If you could pay more early on, with larger payments, you could end up paying less in the long run.
But if you only look at the size of the payments, you could end up locked into a plan with smaller payments that will cost you thousands more in the long term, or—if you’re married—you could be stuck in a plan that calculates payments based on both spouses’ incomes and student loans.
Mayotte pointed out in the blog post that the U.S. Department of Education’s calculator will estimate payments under every payment plan available, as well as the total amount that will be paid back under each plan over the life of the plan.
5. The best option for lower-income former students with high debt levels is an income-based repayment plan.
Federal repayment programs recalculate and reduce students’ payments to a low fixed and affordable percentage of what they earn, with the potential for payments in some cases to fall to zero.
But the interest rate on the loan is not reduced in a repayment plan, and the remaining balance on the loan can be waived only after 20 or 25 years under various repayment plans. You’ll have to pay income taxes on that balance.
4. Before you sign up for an income-based repayment plan, consider not just how much you earn now, but how much you expect to earn in the future.
In the blog, Lemoine said that repayment programs are great for someone who earns less than $30,000 per year, for instance, who doesn’t expect his or her earnings to increase substantially over time.
While monthly payments are adjusted annually to keep up with changes in income, someone in a potentially high-dollar field, such as a newly hired investment banker with the potential for a six-figure salary in the near future, would probably end up paying much more over time under an income-based repayment plan than by continuing to make the loan’s standard payments.
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 that handle them can be very helpful, since they’re experts not just on your particular loan account but also on the federal government’s rules for loan repayment.
However, representatives might not know much more than is on the U.S. Department of Education’s website. In addition, sometimes their advice can conflict with information from another representative in an earlier phone call.
You need to know as much as you can before you call, so that you can be prepared with questions about your situation and potential options. 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 the situation, you’ll only make it worse—especially when the amount concerned is tens of thousands of dollars.
1. If you earn enough to make your payments, start paying.
Most student loans must be repaid in full. The faster you can make the full monthly payments, the sooner they’ll be paid off and the more money you’ll save in the long run.
Deciding how much extra you can pay on them needs to be considered in light of other financial goals and obligations, such as high-interest credit cards and the need to save enough in a 401(k) to get the full employer match.