Most military spouses understand going in that their married life will come with a distinct set of challenges.
When a husband or wife who serves is deployed, many of the duties married couples expect to share—from caring for children to running the household and making ends meet—fall to the one who stays behind. And the frequent moves military couples typically experience can be disruptive to careers, families, and friendships.
The federal government provides many forms of financial assistance and other benefits to personnel and their partners to make military life easier, including help with moving, job hunting, child care, and health care.
There are some educational benefits for military spouses as well. The Department of Defense’s My Career Advancement Account (MyCAA) Scholarship Program currently provides up to $4,000 in tuition assistance to eligible military spouses who wish to pursue certain associate degrees, certifications, or licenses for in-demand portable careers.
And the transferability option of the Post-9/11 GI Bill allows service members to assign all or some of their unused benefits to a spouse or dependent children.
Those benefits don’t cover past college debt, however. There isn’t a designated military spouse student loan forgiveness program or a military spouse school loan repayment plan.
There are options, though, for those who are struggling with student loan debt. Here are just a few options you may consider looking into:
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
Military spouses who share their loved one’s passion for helping others and want to have a career in public service—at a nonprofit organization, in public health, education, law enforcement, or government, for example—may want to check out the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF).
This program forgives the remaining balance on some federal loans after the borrower has made 120 on-time monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan while working full time for a qualifying employer.
Private student loans are not included in the program, and only federal loans received under the William D. Ford Direct Loan Program are eligible for PSLF.
Those who have loans under other federal student loan programs, such as a Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) or a Federal Perkins Loan, may become eligible if they consolidate them into a Direct Consolidation Loan.
However, only qualifying payments made on the new Direct Consolidation Loan can be counted toward the 120 payments required for PSLF.
The program has its pros and cons, and it certainly isn’t a quick fix. Applicants must be vigilant about tracking their employment through the years, and getting certified can be complicated.
According to the June 2019 PSLF Report Other Sources of Assistance
Those who don’t qualify for PSLF may be able to find career-based repayment assistance from other sources.
Under the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, for example, someone who teaches full time for five complete and consecutive academic years in a low-income school or educational service agency—and meets certain other qualifications—may be eligible for forgiveness of up to $17,500 on Direct/Federal Stafford Loans.
Nurses also may be eligible for help with their student loans through federal programs like the Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program or the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program.
The amount of repayment in those programs can vary depending on the nurse or nurse practitioner’s length of service at a qualifying facility, but they could knock thousands of dollars off an eligible person’s debt.
Many industries and professional associations also offer student loan repayment assistance, with programs for lawyers, doctors, medical researchers, and others. And there may be opportunities to apply for student loan help through state and local programs as well.
Federal Repayment Plans
For borrowers who don’t necessarily qualify for those career-related forgiveness and repayment programs, there are other options out there for those who apply and meet certain criteria.
The government offers four income-driven repayment plans that could lower a military spouse’s payments: the Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE), the Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE), the Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR), and the Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR).
Under all four plans, after making qualifying monthly payments, borrowers will be eligible for forgiveness on remaining loan balances. Keep in mind that lowering your monthly payment will likely mean paying more in interest over the life of the loan.
Military spouses can get an idea of what their payment will look like by logging in and using the Repayment Estimator at StudentLoans.gov. This tool can compare payments under different federal repayment plans to help find which one is right for you and your situation.
One thing to remember is that under an income-driven plan, the amount that’s forgiven is sometimes treated as taxable income—so a borrower may end up with a tax bill in the year the debt is forgiven.
Refinancing to a More Manageable Payment
You may have noticed that most of the options listed above are limited to borrowers with certain types of federal student loans and who are willing to do a bit of legwork.
But those who don’t have qualifying loans—or those who think they can find a workable repayment plan elsewhere with a more competitive interest rate—may want to check into refinancing student loans through a private lender.
Refinancing offers borrowers a chance to adjust their monthly payments and choose new repayment terms. And military spouses with multiple loans may find they like the idea of combining them into one manageable payment.
Lenders may offer both fixed and variable interest rates, varying loan lengths, and autopay options so borrowers can tailor a loan to suit their specific needs. Finding rates and applying online for a refinancing loan usually only takes a few minutes.
Before shopping for offers, however, it’s important to note that refinancing federal student loans turns them into private loans, which means losing access to all federal forgiveness programs, repayment plans, and other federal benefits and protections.
Once a borrower refinances with a private lender, there’s no going back to a federal loan or the advantages it may offer.
But borrowers who have good credit and solid employment (among other factors) may find they can qualify for a lower interest rate and/or a shorter repayment period—or to lower their monthly payments via extending their repayment terms—as well as other perks by refinancing with a private lender.
For example, SoFi offers member benefits that include career counseling, networking events, unemployment protection, and a referral program. And some private lenders, including SoFi, will combine and refinance both federal and private loans so there’s just one student loan bill to pay every month.
Dealing with life as a military spouse can be difficult enough without also having to grapple with the stress of student debt. Though there currently aren’t any student loan forgiveness or repayment programs designed specifically with military spouses in mind, there are ways to help get rid of that extra burden.
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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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