One of the concerns I often hear students express is about the ‘what if?’ scenarios. What if I can’t make my loan payments once I graduate because I lose my job? What if I can’t make my payments because I get sick? All of the ‘what ifs’ are valuable and important questions to know about, but not because you need to worry about every possible scenario; it’s because in most cases the ‘what ifs’ are already covered.
Benefits of the Federal Student Loan Programs
The biggest benefit (in my opinion) of the Federal Student Loan programs are not just the low interest rates and easier eligibility requirements, but the number of different repayment options and contingencies that they offer. I have always been a ‘what if’ kind of a person myself, so knowing that all these options exist for students is one of the many reasons I have worked in this field for over fifteen years.
Whether you have just begun paying back your student loans, or if you have been in repayment for a while, there are a number of different options available if you struggle to make your monthly payments. However, if you are applying for Teacher Loan Forgiveness or Public Service Loan Forgiveness down the road, you should always check with your loan servicer(s) before making any changes to your federal loan repayment. Sometimes the changes you may make now will have implications in your Teacher or Public Service Loan Forgiveness eligibility, so it’s always best to know the full array of options before making a decision. More information on contacting your loan servicer or finding out who your servicer is can be found here.
Ways to Reduce, Adjust, or Postpone Your Loan Payments
Below are some of the most common ways to reduce, adjust, or postpone your federal student loan payments:
Reduce or Adjust Your Payments:
- Apply for an Income Driven Repayment Plan (IDR) – If you are looking for a long-term solution to reduce your monthly student loan payments, changing to an Income Driven Repayment (IDR) plan is a great option. These repayment plans cap your monthly payment at a percentage of your monthly discretionary income, assuring that you will always be able to afford your loan payments. There are four different types of Income Driven Repayment Plans which all have different requirements and options. For information on how to apply or to get a repayment estimate, click here.
- Recertify your Income Driven Repayment Plan (IDR) – If you have had a change in income during your annual payment period, you can opt to update your income and recertify your IDR early before your 12-month cycle is up. This way if you have an unforeseen change in income you can adjust your payments automatically anytime. Information on the recertification process is located here.
- Change your Income Driven Repayment Plan (IDR) – If you have had an increase in family size or the number of people you are taking care of (such as having a baby, getting married, taking care of relatives, etc.), you can apply to have your IDR plan recalculated. This can be done anytime during your annual application process, and you do not need to wait until your year is up. The same is true if you want to switch from one of the four different IDR plans, because one may benefit you more now than before based on the changes in your family circumstances. Information on changing your plan can be found here.
Postpone Your Payments:
- Deferment – Deferment is an automatic ‘pause’ on your student loan payments if you qualify. Depending on your circumstances, you could be granted up to 36 months to suspend your loan payments. However, interest will accrue during this time and will be capitalized on your loan balance. This is a particularly helpful option if you have unexpectedly lost a job, had a large or unforeseen medical expenses within your family, or some other financial crisis. A deferment will give you time to get back on your feet financially without any negative impact to your credit score for the time you are in deferment. Common situations that would qualify for a deferment include:
- In-School Deferment – Returning back to school at least half-time
- Graduate Fellowship Deferment – Enrollment in an approved graduate fellowship
- Military Service Deferment – Service in the US Military, Peace Corps, or AmeriCorps. The application is available here.
- Rehabilitation Program Deferment – Enrollment in an approved program for vocational, drug abuse, mental health, or alcohol abuse treatment. Apply here.
- Unemployment Deferment – If you are currently unemployed or working less than 30 hours a week while searching for full-time employment, you could qualify (for up to 3 years!). Apply here.
- Economic Hardship Deferment – If you are receiving a means-tested benefit, such as TANF, SSI, SNAP, welfare, or other government benefits, or if you work full-time and have earnings below the poverty guidelines for your family size and state of residence, you may qualify. Apply here.
- NEW Cancer or Medical Hardship– Starting in 2019, the Department of Education Appropriations Act now allows for a deferment while you or someone in your immediate family is undergoing cancer treatment. This is a new program, so it’s best to contact your servicer directly if you think you may qualify. Find more information here.
- Forbearance – Forbearance is at the discretion of your loan servicer and can also allow for you to temporarily suspend your loan payments for up to 12 months. This is a good option if you need to extend your deferment or if you have a situation that may not qualify for an automatic deferment. Contact your servicer directly for their forbearance application, but common reasons for a forbearance include financial difficulties, medical expenses, changes in your employment, or other catastrophic or unforeseen life events. While a forbearance is only approved for 12 months at a time, you can receive up to 3 consecutive forbearances so you could pause your loan payments for a total of 36 months.