If you’re having trouble paying your student loans, you’re not alone. More than 43 million borrowers have federal student loan debt.
In fact, 20% of all American adults with undergraduate degrees have outstanding student debt and 24% of postgraduate degree holders report outstanding student loans, according to Educationdata.org. More than 7% of students use student loans from a private source, such as a bank or a credit union. The average federal student loan debt balance is $37,718, while the total average balance (including private loan debt) may be as high as $40,499.
If you’re among these borrowers, you may find it challenging to afford the payments on your loans—especially if you have other debt and financial obligations. Student loan debt is now the second-highest consumer debt category after mortgages.
If you are delinquent on your student loan for a certain period of time, your loan will go into what’s called default. One out of every ten Americans has defaulted on a student loan, and 5% of all student loan debt is currently in default. Another way to look at it is that roughly 4 million student loans enter default each year.
The consequences to student loan default can be serious–and if the student loan in question is private (rather than federal) there are particular factors to be aware of. We’ll look at what can happen if you don’t pay your private student loans, what your options are, and how best to avoid a default happening in the first place.
What Happens If You Don’t Pay Your Private Student Loans?
Each private student loan lender will likely be a little different, but generally, missing a student loan payment can put your loan into delinquency, and may incur late fees and/or penalties.
In addition, depending on the loan, interest can accrue on those penalties and on the unpaid principal loan amount, which then can get added to how much you owe. If you miss too many consecutive payments, you may be at risk of defaulting on the loan.
Each private lender has their own terms that trigger student loan default. That typically means multiple missed payments. Even if you declare bankruptcy, it’s unlikely your student loan debt goes away. It’s important to check the terms of your private student loans, since they vary by lender.
Once a student loan goes into delinquency or default, it will likely affect your credit score. That can possibly affect your ability to take out loans in the future or achieve other financial goals, like buying a house.
In addition, once a private student loan goes into default, the lender can send it to collections.
If you can’t pay your private student loans, you could ultimately face a judgment that could result in a garnishment of your wages. (There are, however, some protections and rights you have when it comes to debt collection on student loans.)
Ideally, if your student loan payments are too high, you might consider other options before risking delinquency or default.
💡 Quick Tip: Ready to refinance your student loan? With SoFi’s no-fee loans, you could save thousands.
What If You Can’t Pay Your Federal Student Loans?
The penalties and provisions attached to federal student loans are quite different than those for private student loans. If you have both federal and private loans it’s important to consider them separately when coming up with a plan to grapple with default.
Federal loans often come with more protections and options for repayment plans. One option is to pursue an income-driven repayment plan (IDR), which allows for more manageable payments based on your income and family size. Generally, your payment amount under an income-driven repayment plan is a percentage of your discretionary income. The percentage is different depending on the plan.
One such IDR plan is the SAVE Plan, which President Joe Biden announced in June 2023. According to the White House, the SAVE plan “forgives remaining balances after a certain number of years. The SAVE plan will cut many borrowers’ monthly payments to zero, will save other borrowers around $1,000 per year, will prevent balances from growing because of unpaid interest, and will get more borrowers closer to forgiveness faster.” Borrowers can sign up today by visiting StudentAid.gov.
Federal student loan payments were paused in March 2020, but the Debt Ceiling bill mandated that payments resume in October 2023. The Department of Education is instituting the “Fresh Start” program for people whose federal student loans are in default.
As part of the Fresh Start program, eligible defaulted loans will get the following collections relief:
• Tax refunds (and child tax credits) will not be withheld.
• Wages will not be garnished.
• Social Security payments (including disability benefits) will not be withheld.
• No collection calls will be placed.
• Billing statements will not be sent out (until the borrower gets out of default).
Even though federal student loans (both subsidized and unsubsidized) are government-backed and originated by the U.S. Department of Education, they’re administered by a student loan servicer, which is a private company in charge of the loan. This does not make these loans “private” student loans.
It means you might be making your payments to a private loan company, but it’s still a federal student loan and it comes with federal student loan protections.
Options If You Can’t Pay Your Private Student Loans
If your private student loan repayment seems too high, however, the options are different. You can’t apply for an IDR or Fresh Start program. Every private loan lender sets its own terms and conditions. Getting private student loan help varies with each lender.
While there are fewer options if you can’t make your private student loan payments, there are still some things you can consider.
1. Talking to Your Lender
If your private student loan payments are too high, then it might be worth talking to your lender. You could start by getting a copy of your promissory note so that you know all the terms and conditions of your specific loan.
Each private lender sets out its own repayment and deferment options, so your loan may differ from your friends’ loans.
Lenders, however, want to get paid, and it’s not in their interest for you to default. Once you have the terms of your loan in hand, then you can try talking to your private lender about potential alternative student loan repayment plans to see if they’ll work with you on what you can afford or even if you might be able to put your loan payments on hold if you need to.
For example, SoFi offers an unemployment protection plan on its loans, allowing eligible members to temporarily halt payments if they lose their job.
2. Exploring Deferment and Forbearance Options
In certain circumstances, deferment and forbearance are available to temporarily put payments for federal loans on hold. However, for private student loans, the forbearance and deferment options will be laid by your lender.
Private lenders may offer forbearance and/or deferment in certain circumstances, such as returning to grad school or entering active military duty. If you can’t pay your private student loans, then you may want to see if your lender offers these options.
It’s important to know, though, that in most cases, interest continues to accrue and compound during forbearance or deferment on private student loans. That means the interest on the amount you owe builds up and gets added to the loan principal (which then accrues its own interest), and could end up costing you more in the long run.
3. Making a Student Loan Repayment Budget
This may sound obvious, but it can be important to create a plan and budget for repaying your student loans. Cutting back on some expenses or looking for additional income to allocate towards student loan payments could pay off in the long run.
Because student loan interest accrues and compounds over time, every little bit paid off now can save more money later.
In addition, if a borrower makes as many payments as possible on time, it could save late fees or additional penalties.
There are a few principles for how to tackle student loan payment.
You can also benefit from prepaying more than the minimum monthly payment. If you allocate additional payment towards your loan principal, then you won’t accrue interest on that principal you paid down, and you could save yourself money.
4. Refinancing your Student Loans
If your private student loan payments are too high, one way to potentially lower your monthly payments could be to refinance your student loans by extending your term.
If you need lower monthly payments right away, extending your loan term is one way to accomplish this. (You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.)
Once you’re on more solid financial footing, refinancing could qualify you for a lower interest rate, which could save you money in the long run (since interest adds up and compounds over time).
5. Declaring Bankruptcy
It is possible to declare bankruptcy when the majority of your debt is made up of student loans. However, the legal bar for having your student debt discharged is high.
You may have your federal student loan discharged in bankruptcy only if you file a separate action, known as an “adversary proceeding,” requesting the bankruptcy court find that repayment would impose undue hardship on you and your dependents in the future.
Private student loans can also be discharged in bankruptcy. Note that private student loans are exempt from bankruptcy discharge (similar to taxes and child support) without a separate application. In that application, you would have to prove in court that you are unable to pay the loan and make a case that it will be extremely difficult to do so in the foreseeable future.
However, if you can make a case for it financially, the court may rule to discharge the loan. “Some private loans for educational purposes can be discharged in a normal bankruptcy proceeding, just like most other consumer debts,” according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
It’s important to take into consideration the serious impact a bankruptcy will have on your credit rating and ability to borrow money in the future.
Recommended: Bankruptcy and Student Loans, Explained
Lowering Your Student Loan Payments
If you’re struggling to make your payments and need private student loan help, then refinancing your private student loans with a longer-term loan could lower your monthly payments—which could free up money you may need for bills and other necessities. (You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.)
If your credit score or financial outlook have improved since you first took out student loans, however, then you might be able to qualify for a new loan with better terms and a lower interest rate.
Consolidating federal loans with private loans, even at a new interest rate, however, does turn the federal loans into private loans. That means you would lose access to federal benefits, such as deferment, forbearance, or income-driven repayment plans.
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.
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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