Editor's note: Student loan repayments will not resume until May 1, 2022. On Dec. 22, 2021, President Biden announced his administration will extend the pause on repayments for an additional 90 days.
Federal student loan payments, which have been paused for almost two years as part of pandemic relief, resume at the start of February.
The pause since March 2020 allowed for the suspension of payments, a 0% interest rate while suspended, and a stop to any collections on defaulted loans.
But almost two-thirds of borrowers who owe roughly $1.7 trillion are worried about how they’ll afford their payments, according to a recent study from CreditKarma, while the Student Debt Crisis Center estimates that almost 9 in 10 borrowers aren’t financially prepared for the payments to return.
If you’re among the millions who aren’t ready to resume payments, Yahoo Money asked some loan experts for tips on how to navigate their return.
Plan early if possible
You’ve heard it a million times, but timing is of the essence when it comes to preparation.
Anna Helhoski, student loan expert at NerdWallet, strongly recommends revisiting your loan information long before the suspension ends.
“We’ve never seen 43 million loan accounts start up at once, which means there are bound to be long waits at the student loan servicers for help and email responses,” Hehoski said. “If you think you might have trouble repaying or want to explore your repayment options, you should contact your student loan servicer now.”
Verify your contact and banking information
It’s been almost two years since millions of students have made payments and you may have moved or changed banks in that time.
“Make sure contact information is up-to-date to receive status updates and relevant information regarding your loans from your loan servicer,” said personal finance expert Nika Booth, founder of Debt Free Gonnabe.
Fine-tune your expenses and create a budget
Most people have no idea how much money they actually spend each month, said Guadalupe Sanchez, founder of Budgeting in Blue, so track your expenses and figure out what you need each month and what expenses you can ditch.
“The first step to getting ready to resume your student loan payments is organizing your finances and understanding how much you have left after paying your fixed expenses,” Sanchez said, noting those include bills you have to pay each month like your mortgage/rent, utilities, taxes, car insurance, cell phone, transportation, and daycare. “Once you understand how much you have to spend each month, you'll be clear on how much you have left.”
Prioritize your student loan repayment, she said, and make sure you’ll be able to cover the monthly cost.
“The remaining amount will be spent on variable categories such as groceries, eating out, clothing, gym memberships and streaming services,” she said. “Don't let your student loan payment fall last on your spending list. It comes right after paying your fixed expenses.”
Weigh your payment plan options
There are several ways you can repay your student loans and some take your income or career field into consideration.
The standard 10-year repayment plan is the least expensive option, Helhoski said, but your monthly payments will be higher compared to other plans. She suggests enrolling in an income-driven repayment plan, which will set your payments at a portion of your income.
“After 20 or 25 years, your loans will be forgiven after that time. You have to recertify your income each year to continue on this plan. But we recommend an income-driven repayment plan as the first course of action because if you’re out of work, your payments will be $0,” she said.
Lindsay Clark, director of external affairs for student loan repayment start-up group Savi, said the income-driven plans are under-utilized with only 33% of federal borrowers currently enrolled in one.
If you work in public service, you can also enroll in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
L.J. Jones, a financial planner and founder of Developing Financial LLC, said unlike other federal student loan forgiveness plans, any amounts forgiven after 120 qualifying payments under the PSLF are not taxable.
There are several other forgiveness programs available, including teacher loan forgiveness, closed school discharge and total and permanent disability damage.
Consider if refinancing is right for you
If your loans come with a high interest rate and you’re in a position to shop around for other options, it could benefit you to refinance.
Kevin Walker, publisher at CollegeFinance.com, said refinancing could lead to lower payments or the total cost of repayment.
“If refinancing is a good option, plan to do so only after February 1 when the interest accrual holiday on your federal loan has ended. If possible, take steps to improve your credit before February 1. This will help you qualify for the best rates when you do refinance,” he said.
Beware, though. Matt Hylland, a financial planner at Arnold and Mote Wealth Management, warns borrowers that federal loans come with a few perks that private loans lack.
“Federal loans have a lot of advantages despite their higher interest rates,” Hylland said. “There are income based repayment options, which can be great as you initially enter the workforce and perhaps begin with a low salary. They are also great later in your career as a protection against losing your job. If you have a Federal Loan and lose your job you may be able to get your payments drastically reduced, perhaps even to $0. With private loans, no such protections exist, and you would still be stuck with your payment if you lose your job.”