What Happens if You Just Stop Paying Your Student Loans

By Lisa Moran · September 12, 2023 · 9 minute read

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What Happens if You Just Stop Paying Your Student Loans

If your student loan payments seem overwhelming, you’re not alone. U.S. borrowers owe a combined $1.77 trillion in student loan debt, and one in ten Americans has defaulted on a student loan, according to the Education Data Initiative.

And now, for the first time in a long time, many student loan borrowers are faced with making payments again. The reason: The end of the three-year pause on federal student loan payments, which requires interest accrual to resume on September 1, 2023 and payments to resume on October 1, 2023. This resumption in federal student loan payments was part of the debt ceiling bill that President Biden signed into law in early June 2023.

In addition, the Supreme Court’s ruling against the President’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt means that student loan borrowers who may have been hoping for that forgiveness now don’t have that option.

You may be thinking, I haven’t paid my student loans in years – do I really have to start now? What happens if I just don’t pay?

The answer is that borrowers do indeed have to start paying their student loans again, and simply not paying can have consequences. Late or missed “delinquent” payments can make it harder to get a credit card, car loan, or apartment lease. And if you default on a loan, the balance of the loan will become immediately due, your wages may be garnished, and your tax refund can be withheld, among other serious consequences.

There are several options that can help you avoid defaulting on your student loan, such as deferment, forbearance, and income-driven repayment plans. Here’s what to know before you stop making payments on your student loans.

Key Points

•   Stopping student loan payments can lead to delinquency and default, affecting credit and future loan approvals.

•   Delinquent payments can hinder the ability to secure credit cards, car loans, or apartment leases.

•   Defaulting on a loan triggers the entire balance due, potential wage garnishment, and withholding of tax refunds.

•   Several options like deferment, forbearance, and income-driven repayment plans can prevent default.

•   It’s essential to compare these options to determine the best course for managing student loan debt.

Do Student Loans Ever Go Away?

The short answer to the question of do student loans ever go away? is no, unless you’re part of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Unlike other forms of debt, such as home and auto loans, student loans generally cannot be discharged during bankruptcy. Borrowers are still required to repay student loans even if they don’t graduate or are struggling to find a job.

So what happens if you don’t pay student loans? In addition to the interest that accrues over time and increases in the amount you owe, failing to repay a student loan on time can result in additional fees if your debt gets moved into collections.

Because on-time payments account for a portion of a borrower’s credit score, failing to make payments can negatively impact a person’s credit score. Having a low credit score can impact your ability to get a mortgage, car loan, credit card, or apartment lease.

If you default on federal student loans, the government can take your tax refund or up to 15% of your wages. You can also be sued, though this is more common with private loans.

💡 Quick Tip: Often, the main goal of refinancing student loans is to lower the interest rate — federal and/or private — by taking out one loan with a new rate to replace your existing loans. Refinancing makes sense if you qualify for a lower rate and you don’t plan to use federal repayment programs or protections.

Is There a Student Loan Statute of Limitations?

There is no statute of limitations for federal student loans. That means you can be sued at any point for not paying your loans.

There is a statute of limitations for private student loans, which is set by individual states and generally ranges from three to 10 years. But even this limit just means the lender can’t sue you anymore — it doesn’t mean the loan goes away or they stop trying to collect what is owed.

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Is Getting Out of Paying Student Loans Possible?

There are options that allow borrowers to temporarily stop making student loan payments. Here’s what happens if you don’t pay your student loans because you’ve been approved for one of these plans.

Relief for Federal Student Loans

If you have federal student loans, the end of the federal payment pause requires payments to resume on October 1, 2023. To help borrowers, the Department of Education is launching a 12-month “on-ramp” to repayment, running from October 1, 2023 to September 30, 2024, so that financially vulnerable borrowers who miss monthly payments during this period are not considered delinquent, reported to credit bureaus, placed in default, or referred to debt collection agencies.

Federal student loan borrowers can also temporarily pause payments by requesting a deferment or forbearance. You might qualify if you’re still in school at least part-time, unable to find a full-time job, facing high medical expenses, or dealing with another financial hardship. The type of loan held by the borrower will determine whether they can apply for a deferment or forbearance.

Federal student loans can be deferred for up to three years. There are two types of forbearance; general and mandatory. Borrowers facing financial difficulties can request a general forbearance, and their loan servicer determines whether they qualify. General forbearance is awarded in 12-month increments and can be extended for a total of three years.

You can temporarily pause payments on your federal loans by requesting a deferment or forbearance.

Loan servicers are required to award qualifying borrowers a mandatory forbearance. Qualifications include participating in AmeriCorps, National Guard duty, or medical or dental residency. The Federal Student Aid website has a full list of criteria for mandatory forbearance. Mandatory forbearances are also granted in 12-month increments but can be extended so long as the borrower still meets the criteria to qualify for mandatory forbearance.

Borrowers who enroll in an income-based repayment plan can qualify to have their loan balance forgiven after a certain amount of time; the amount of time depends on the plan. (Keep in mind, you’d still have to pay taxes on the amount forgiven.)

For instance, under President Biden’s new SAVE Plan, which is based on income and family size, qualifying federal student loan borrowers with undergraduate federal loans can get their monthly payments reduced by half — from 10% to 5% of their discretionary income.

In rare cases, certain loans can be canceled or discharged, if your school closes while you’re enrolled or you are permanently disabled. For obvious reasons, these aren’t options to count on, so you can assume your loans will be sticking with you.

💡 Quick Tip: When rates are low, refinancing student loans could make a lot of sense. How much could you save? Find out using our student loan refi calculator.

Consequences of Defaulting on Your Student Loans

As mentioned earlier, what happens when you stop paying student loans is that the loan is at risk of going into default. The national default rate was 2.3% for fiscal year 2019 (the most recent year for which numbers are available), according to the U.S. Department of Education. (Because of the pause on federal student loans payments during the pandemic, the default rate dropped significantly from 7.3% in 2018.)

There are serious financial repercussions for defaulting on a student loan.

For federal student loans, if a borrower fails to make payments for more than 270 days on a loan from the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program or the Federal Family Education Loan Program, the loan will go into default. (For loans made under the Federal Perkins Loan Program, the loan can be declared in default after the first missed payment.)

At this point, the balance of your loan becomes due immediately through a process called “acceleration.” You’ll also lose eligibility for federal programs such as deferment, forbearance, income-driven repayment plays, and additional federal aid.

Recommended: Student Loan Refinancing Guide

Your wages may be garnished (meaning that your employer may be required to hold back a portion of your paycheck) and any tax refunds or federal benefit payments may be withheld.

Defaulting on a student loan will damage your credit rating and you may not be able to buy or sell certain assets, such as real estate. If your loan holder sues you, you may also be charged related expenses such as attorney fees.

Temporary Relief for Private Student Loans

Private lenders sometimes offer relief like forbearance when you’re dealing with financial hardship, but they aren’t required to. If you have a private student loan, check with your lender directly to see what temporary relief programs or policies they may have.

Private student loans generally go into default after 90 days. Private lenders may also take you to court or use collection agencies to collect your student loan debt. Whether you have federal or private student loans, contact your loan servicer immediately if your loan is delinquent so you can understand what options are available to you before your loan goes into default.

Recommended: Should You Refinance Your Student Loans?

The Takeaway

Because student loans don’t disappear, it’s important to stay on top of payments, especially with federal student loan payments resuming on October 1, 2023. Borrowers with federal student loans may be able to take advantage of the Department of Education’s 12-month on-ramp to repayment until September 30, 2024. Or they might qualify for deferment, forbearance, or income-based repayment options which can provide some temporary relief or help make monthly payments more manageable.

Options available for borrowers facing financial hardships with private student loans vary by lender.

For some borrowers, student loan refinancing may be a way to lower interest rates, reduce monthly payments, and combine all your loans into a single monthly payment. Reducing monthly student loan payments by extending the life of the loan may result in more interest over the life of the loan. If you qualify for a lower interest rate, you could save money over the life of the loan.

It’s also possible to refinance both federal or private loans, or a combination of the two. However, it’s very important to understand that if you refinance federal loans, you’ll lose access to federal benefits and protections, including deferment, forbearance, income-driven repayment, and loan forgiveness for public service, so it’s not recommended for borrowers who are planning to take advantage of those programs.

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.

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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.

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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