Do You Need Help with Student Loan Debt?

January 22, 2024 · 12 minute read

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Do You Need Help with Student Loan Debt?

If you’re feeling as if your student loans are hard to manage, you’re not alone. Currently, more than 43 million Americans are grappling with student loan debt, and the amounts they carry aren’t small. The average amount of federal student debt per borrower is $37,338, and for those with private student loan debt, the number is $54,921.

That kind of steep debt can be a challenge to pay back. In October of 2023, as the pandemic-driven freeze on loan repayment expired, a whopping 40% of borrowers missed payments.

If your loans feel like a real challenge to repay and you’re stressed about your financial situation, take heart. Not only are you far from the only person out there with this issue, but there are also a variety of ways you can get help with student loan debt. Here, you’ll learn more about those resources and steps you can take. Remember, you can and will get through this challenging moment. Now, read on for some guidance.

Where to Start

If you’re finding it hard to manage your student debt, your best first step may be to contact your loan servicer. Both the federal government and many private lenders assign a student loan servicer to each borrower. You can think of these servicers as go-betweens who monitor accounts, keep track of payments, and help borrowers maintain their accounts in good standing and switch plans, if need be. You can find your federal student loan servicer by logging into your student aid account; if you have private student loans, ask your lender how to make billing inquiries.

Student loan servicers can help you understand your options if you are finding your current loan hard to pay off. But do educate yourself before calling your servicer, because they are loan professionals vs. advocates for borrowers. It’s possible that they may offer options that are not necessarily in your best interest.

However, there is likely considerable value in hearing what alternatives are available so you can begin getting help with your student loan debt. You’ll learn more about options below.


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What to Do If You’re in Default

When you default on your student loans, it means you are not repaying them according to your schedule. Almost 10% of borrowers can find themselves in default within the first three years of repayment.

When you first miss a student loan payment, your loan is considered to be delinquent, or late. The exact definition of being in default will depend on the kind of loan you have. Here are some guidelines:

•   If you have federal student loans, you are considered to be in default when your payments are 270 days (or about nine months) late. With Perkins loans, you can be in default as soon as you don’t make a payment on its due date.

•   For private student loans, many lenders consider a loan to be in default at the 90 day or three-month mark. Policies do vary, so check your loan’s promissory note for details.

You can find out if you are in default by contacting your loan servicer. If you are indeed in default, the consequences can be serious. The full amount of the loan becomes due ASAP. The loan holder can take other funds from you, late fees and interest can accrue, and your credit score can be negatively impacted, among other impacts.

Yes, that sounds scary, but this is a situation to be worked through; don’t let it define you or make you feel panicky. You might research the Fresh Start program for federal loans in default, or look into a student loan settlement, which would allow you to pay back less than what you owe. Student loan rehabilitation is another path and can be a one-shot solution to get federal loans out of default, repay them at a reasonable rate, and help build your credit score.

If you have private loans that are in default, it can be a wise move to speak to someone who specializes in student loans at the National Association for Consumer Advocates. You may then get assistance finding out if you can get a student loan settlement (that is, pay less than the full amount you owe) or find another road forward.

Next, though, learn about ways to avoid reaching the default stage if you are having trouble with your student loan debt.

Ways to Lower Your Federal Student Loan Payment

If you’re struggling to make your monthly federal student loan payments, it may be worth taking a look at your loan repayment plan. Federal student loans have several different loan repayment plans available, which may offer different monthly payment amounts based on your discretionary income and other factors.

Choosing a federal loan repayment plan that could give you a lower monthly payment, if available, could help you more easily make your monthly student loan payments. Consider these options.

Recommended: What Student Loan Repayment Plan Should You Choose? Take the Quiz

Income-Driven Repayment

You may have been placed on the Standard Repayment Plan when you graduated, which is the standard for students repaying federal loans.

Under this plan, you have 10 years to pay off your student loans, and you make a fixed payment amount each month in order to ensure that your full loan is paid by the end of the 10 years. This plan may have higher monthly payments than other federal repayment plans.

In addition to the Standard Repayment plan, there are the following plans:

•   One option is the Graduated Repayment Plan. Under this plan, loan payments are made over a 10-year period. But unlike the Standard Repayment plan, loan payments start at a lower amount and are gradually increased every two years.

•   Another option when it comes to federal repayment plans is the Extended Repayment Plan. The Extended Repayment Plan has a longer repayment term option — up to 25 years. Monthly payments under this plan can be either fixed or graduated amounts. The extended repayment term means that you may have lower monthly payments.

Be aware, however, that choosing a longer repayment period could cost you more over the life of the loan due to interest that accrues every month that the loan is still outstanding. Think carefully about what might best suit your needs so you can pay off your student loan debt comfortably.

There are also four income-driven plans that calculate monthly payments based on a percentage of the borrower’s discretionary income. The percentage will vary based on the specific income-driven repayment plan you are enrolled in, but can be between 5% and 20%. Depending on the plan, repayment is extended over 20 or 25 years.

The plans available are:

•   The new SAVE Plan (Saving on a Valuable Education; it goes into full effect on July 1, 2024), which replaces the REPAYE plan

•   The PAYE Plan (Pay as You Earn)

•   The ICR Plan (Income-contingent Repayment)

•   The IBR Plan (Income-based Repayment)

With federal loans, you can change your repayment plan at any time. If you are interested in switching the plan you are enrolled in to better manage your debt, the Federal Student Aid website offers a repayment
calculator
that could help give you an idea of what your monthly payments may be like under each of the different payment plans.

This could help you make an informed decision about which plan may work best for your personal situation, based on what you qualify for. You could also use an online Student Loan Payoff Calculator to get an idea of when your loan payoff date may be based on your interest rate and monthly payments. Yes, crunching numbers can take a bit of time, but these tools can make it simple, show you your alternatives for managing your debt, and provide some much-needed peace of mind.

Deferment and Forbearance

If you’re really in dire straits and can’t afford to make your normal monthly payments on your student loans at all, you may be able to put your federal student loans into deferment or forbearance.

These programs offer options to temporarily reduce your monthly payment amount or pause your monthly payments entirely for a limited period of time. Not all borrowers are eligible for deferment or forbearance — in order to qualify you need to meet certain eligibility requirements.

A few points to note:

•   If you’re interested in deferring your federal student loans to help with student loan debt, you’ll want to contact your student loan servicer. Your student loan servicer may require you to fill out paperwork or talk to an advisor before approving a deferral or forbearance of your student loans.

•   Student loan servicers may offer assistance with student loan debt management at no cost. They also may be able to explain how student loan deferral or forbearance will work in your specific circumstances.

•   It is also important to know that during deferment, depending on the type of loan borrowed, the borrower may still be responsible for paying interest that accrues.

•   If a loan is in student loan forbearance, the borrower will be responsible for paying accrued interest.

While deferring your student loans can be helpful when you’re undergoing a brief period of economic hardship, it may not be as helpful when it comes to managing loans long-term, since interest may continue to accrue and neither option changes your loan repayment terms. Keep reading to learn more options beyond deferment and forbearance.

Forgiveness Programs

One source of federal student loan debt help are loan forgiveness programs. These programs essentially forgive a remaining portion of federal student loan debt after you meet certain requirements. That means you don’t have to pay it; you may also hear this referred to as loan cancellation or discharge.

Here are specifics about student loan forgiveness:

•   One of the most well-known loan forgiveness programs is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. This program offers federal student loan forgiveness for some people working full-time in qualifying public interest fields for 10 or more years.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness, also known as “PSLF,” offers federal student loan forgiveness for certain public servants (teachers, government workers, and some health professionals) and non-profit employees who qualify after 120 on-time qualifying payments.

Unfortunately, PSLF isn’t available to everyone. To qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, you must work for a qualifying employer. Generally, government organizations and certain non-profits will be considered qualifying employers for the purpose of PSLF, but to be sure that your job counts for the PSLF program, you can submit a PSLF employment certification form to verify your employer’s eligibility for the program.

•   If you have a disability, you may qualify for student loan forgiveness.

•   If your school closed or misled you, your loan(s) may be discharged.

•   If you have declared bankruptcy, your debt may be canceled.


💡 Quick Tip: If you have student loans with variable rates, you may want to consider refinancing to secure a fixed rate in case rates rise. But if you’re willing to take a risk to potentially save on interest — and will be able to pay off your student loans quickly — you might consider a variable rate.

Options for Private Student Loan Borrowers

What you’ve just read covers how to get help with federal student loans. But what if you have private student loans? (Private loans are also an option for refinancing federal loans, but if you do so, be aware that you forfeit federal protections, such as forbearance, and if you refinance for an extended term, you may pay more in interest over the life of the loan.)

If your private student loans are proving challenging to pay, here are some ways you might move forward:

•   You could see whether refinancing your private loans with a different private loan can secure a more affordable payment.

•   See if your employer offers an assistance program. Some will match repayments of student loans up to a certain amount.

•   Retool your budget. The debt avalanche or debt snowball method might help you reframe your income and spending to help you get on top of your student loans.

•   Seek credit counseling. Learn more about that below.

Credit Counseling

If you are feeling overwhelmed or are in a quandary about how to proceed with your student loan debt, consulting with a nonprofit credit counselor could be a good idea. You can gain the expertise and insights of someone who specializes in this terrain and hear ideas for how you might handle the situation. One well-regarded example of such an agency is the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, or NFCC.

Here’s how credit counseling can help when you’re in this stressful situation:

•   A counselor can review your student loan debt and finances and develop a plan which you then manage on your own.

•   Another option may be to have the counselor join you on a phone call with the issuer of your student loans to discuss options.

Having a trusted professional in your corner can be a key source of support when you face challenges with your student loan debt.

Avoid Student Loan Scams

Here’s a sad fact: Yes, there are scammers out there, looking to take advantage of people who have student loan debt. They typically offer deals to help you get out of debt but wind up cheating you. Getting involved with these people can make a difficult situation even worse, so be cautious.

The two main kinds of scams to know about are as follows:

•   Student loan consolidation scams: In this ploy, a company promises to consolidate your federal loans. They charge you an upfront fee (never pay upfront fees, by the way) and then don’t do anything on your behalf. If you want to consolidate your federal student loans, you can do so for free at StudentLoans.gov.

•   Student loan debt relief scams: Companies that advertise or contact you, saying they can reduce or eliminate your debt, may be part of a scam. Above, you’ve read about the available options for managing your debt. There are no magic solutions to making the amount you owe vanish, so don’t be fooled by these promises.

How to spot these scams:

•   As noted, promises of making debt disappear to help with student loans are likely bogus.

•   Those that give you an urgent deadline to apply in order to eliminate debt are probably also fraudulent.

•   Requesting an upfront fee to apply for relief via the Department of Education is a signal that you are dealing with a scammer.

•   A company that says they are affiliated with the Department of Education but isn’t listed at StudentLoans.gov is one to avoid.

•   A business that says they need your FSA ID could well be a scammer.

Recommended: Student Loan Help Center

Student Loan Refinancing

As mentioned briefly above, another option for help with student loans may be refinancing them. For some borrowers, refinancing student loans could help lower monthly payments. However, if you refinance federal loans with private ones, keep in mind that you’ll forfeit federal protections and may, with an extended term, pay more interest over the life of the loan.

When you refinance your loans, a new private lender pays off your current federal and private student loans and offers you a new loan. The goal is to secure a better interest rate or better repayment terms, which can help you take control of your student loan debt. It’s one of several options you have available to get through what can be a challenging moment in your life.

Looking to lower your monthly student loan payment? Refinancing may be one way to do it — by extending your loan term, getting a lower interest rate than what you currently have, or both. (Please note that refinancing federal loans makes them ineligible for federal forgiveness and protections. Also, lengthening your loan term may mean paying more in interest over the life of the loan.) SoFi student loan refinancing offers flexible terms that fit your budget.

With SoFi, refinancing is fast, easy, and all online. We offer competitive fixed and variable rates.


SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. Please note that once you refinance federal student loans you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans or extended repayment plans.


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Non affiliation: SoFi isn’t affiliated with any of the companies highlighted in this article.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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