Almost time to start paying back your student loans? Contrary to popular belief, your student loan payments don’t have to stop you from living your life. You just have to weigh your options and find a strategy that works within your budget. Here are some steps to get you started.
1. Compare monthly payment amounts
The amount you pay each month toward your student loans will depend on the repayment plan you choose. If you take no action, you will be automatically enrolled in the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan. If you don’t think you can afford that amount or you want a lower monthly payment, consider switching to an income-driven repayment plan, where your monthly payment could be as low as $0 per month. Just know that when you make payments based on your income your monthly payment amount may be lower, but you will likely pay more in total over a longer period of time.
Use our repayment calculator to compare the different repayment options.
2. Decide whether to consolidate
If you borrowed federal student loans before 2011, you may need to consolidate any FFEL loans into the Direct Loan program before you can qualify for the better income-driven repayment plans or Public Service Loan Forgiveness. You may also want to consolidate if you have multiple loans and/or servicers and want a single monthly payment. The application takes about 10 minutes.
3. Choose an affordable repayment plan
If you decide to consolidate, you will choose a repayment plan from within the consolidation application. If you’d like to choose an income-driven plan, choose the Pay As You Earn Plan. It’s the best plan available, and if you don’t qualify for it, your servicer will put you on the next best income-driven repayment plan.
If you aren’t going to consolidate and you’d like to enroll in one of the income-driven repayment plans, learn how to choose the right income-driven repayment plan and apply here. The application takes about 10 minutes.
If you’re interested in a plan other than the standard or one of the income-driven plans, contact your servicer to ask how to enroll.
4. Set up your payments
You will never pay the U.S. Department of Education directly. In most cases, federal student loan borrowers will make payments to one of our loan servicers. Loan servicers work on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education to collect your payments and provide customer service. If you don’t know who your loan servicer is, find out here.
Your loan servicer will contact to let you know when your first payment is due and how to make a payment, so it’s very important that you provide your servicer with updated contact information.
TIP: To simplify the repayment process, consider enrolling in auto debit and your payments will be automatically taken from your bank account each month. As an added bonus, you get a 0.25% interest rate deduction when you enroll. Ask your servicer how to enroll.
5. Know who to contact if you need help with your student loans
Beware of student loan scams. You never have to pay for help with your student loans. As you’re researching repayment and forgiveness options, make sure you’re getting information from trusted sources, like .gov websites or your servicer’s website. The government and your servicer will never charge application or maintenance fees, so if you’re asked to pay, walk away.
If you have questions or need help, contact your servicer.
TIP: Save your servicer’s contact information in your phone so you can access it when you need to.
Nicole Callahan is a Digital Engagement Strategist at the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.
Image by Getty Images