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How NOT to default on your student loans

Alyssa Pry
Personal Finance Reporter

There are 43.3 million Americans with student loan debt and 70% of college students will graduate with debt, according to the US Department of Education. Outstanding student debt in the US now totals a whopping $1.28 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Millions of borrowers are struggling to keep up with their large monthly payments, forcing over 3.8 million people to default on their loans.

But defaulting, or failing to make your full scheduled loan payments within a certain period, comes with serious financial consequences that could affect you for the rest of your life. Here’s how to keep up with your payments and NOT default on your student loans.  

#1 Don’t borrow above your means

The best way to avoid defaulting on a loan is to understand how much debt you will graduate with and compare that to an estimate of your starting salary a year after you graduate. If your total student loan is less than your starting salary, you should be able to pay off your debt within 10 years, according to experts.  

Financial experts advise that you should use 10% to 15% of your gross income toward your loan payments. So take this example: If you take out a loan for $60,000 and have 10 years to pay it back, by factoring in interest rates, your monthly payment would be approximately $690, according to this student loan calculator from FinAid.org. If you follow the rule of using 10% of your income toward your loan, you’d need to make at least $82,858 a year. If scoring an unpaid internship seems more likely than nabbing a high-paying job, you may want to look into a school that better fits your financial situation and start applying for financial aid or scholarships.

Already graduated? Read on!

#2 Don’t skip an entire payment

We get it – it may seem like you’re getting nowhere by paying just the minimum on your mountain of debt, but every little bit helps to chip away at your loan. If you find yourself struggling to meet your balance, talking to your lender could help you renegotiate or refinance your loan, according to Jason Vasquez, a consumer lending specialist at Wells Fargo.

Look into the options your lender offers to buy you more time. According to Vasquez, you may be eligible for forbearance on your loan which would temporarily suspend your student loan payments for up to 12 months. If you have a federal loan, you may be eligible for a deferment, which would postpone your loan payments for up to three years, according to the Department of Education.

#3 Don’t ignore your lending company

Taking out a student loan is stressful, and once you start falling behind on your payments, that stress can escalate quickly. Whether you have a federal loan or a private loan, communicating with your lender should be the first step if you’re having problems making payments. So answer the phone! Depending on the type of loan you have you may be eligible to lower your payments or adjust your payment plan to fit your financial situation.

If you do miss a payment, there’s a timeline lenders follow, and the worst-case consequences will not be immediate. According to the Department of Education, missing one payment on a federal loan will make your loan “delinquent”– consider this a warning from your lender. For federal loans, if no payments are made for 90 days, your loan is reported to three major credit agencies. If no payments have been made on your federal loan for 270 days, your loan is considered in default. Private loan companies have their own timeline; your loan will be in default after just 120 days of no payments, according to Edvisors.com, a college planning website.

Once your loan is in default, the consequences are severe. The loan could be sold to debt collectors, your credit rating will be damaged, and your wages and tax returns could be garnished if the loan remains unpaid, according to the Department of Education. Safe to say, it’s best to talk to your lender before your payments spiral out of control. Need help improving your credit? Yahoo Finance shows you Five Ways to Get Your Credit Score out of the Dumps.

#4 Don’t be scared to ask questions

Make sure to educate yourself on every aspect of your loan – know what type of loan you have, the costs of getting the loan, interest rates, and the terms for repayment. Be familiar with exactly how much money you’re responsible for paying back each month and when your payments are due. And if you’ve missed a payment, find out the exact date when your loan will go into default.

Understanding the terms of your loan and the potential consequences of missing a payment will help you make the smartest financial decisions to avoid default and responsibly pay back your student loans. Remember, ignoring your debt will only make it worse.

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