If you’re a recent graduate from college or graduate school, you probably have a lot on your mind – employment, housing, bills, maybe even professional licensing examinations (I’m still traumatized from the bar exam). If you took out student loan debt to finance your education, you should be thinking about your student loans, too, even if you don’t want to.
A lot of people have advice and suggestions for what recent graduates should do with their student loans immediately after graduating. However, I have the unfortunate position of seeing what happens when borrowers don’t do the right thing – they may make a seemingly innocuous error or oversight, which can come back to bite them later in a very big and damaging way. The system shouldn’t be so tricky to navigate and so riddled with land mines, but unfortunately, that’s the student loan landscape that we currently have to work with.
Here’s what you should be doing and thinking about as a recent graduate with student loans:
Get Updated Info On Your Student Loans
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to lose track of the multiple student loan accounts that are in your name. Lenders and schools make it exceptionally easy to obtain student loans, but tracking down your student debts post-graduation can be daunting. Start with the U.S. Dept. of Education’s federal loan database, called the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS). This database contains critical information about a borrower’s federal student loans. And if you think you may have private student loans but you’re not sure, pull your credit reports for more information.
Make Sure Your Loan Servicers Have Your Current Contact Info
When you first applied for your student loans, you may have provided contact information that is no longer accurate. Reach out to all of your student loan servicers and make sure they have up-to-date information including your mailing address where you will actually receive mail, your phone number, and a non-school-based e-mail address. If there’s a problem with your student loan account and you can’t be reached, you can’t fix it. This may seem like a silly tip, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen borrowers go into default because their servicer could not communicate with them due to outdated contact information.
Know Your Grace Periods
A grace period is a finite period of time following graduation when no payments are due. The idea behind a grace period is that borrowers should be given some time to find a job and get situated before being billed. The tricky thing is that different types of student loans have different grace periods (some are six months, some are nine months). Furthermore, grace periods can only be used once; this is particularly important for graduate students, who may have used some or all of their grace periods for their undergraduate student loans, and those older loans may therefore be entering repayment a lot sooner than expected. Contact your loan servicer for the specific dates on which your grace periods end.
Consolidating? Make Sure the Timing is Right
Consolidating your federal student loans through the Direct consolidation program may make sense for many borrowers. But if you’re going to consolidate, make sure the timing is right. You can’t consolidate too soon; if you consolidate while still technically in an in-school status, your application will be rejected. Don’t wait too long, either, however. A consolidation loan is technically a new loan, so if you start making payments on your underlying student loans and then decide to consolidate a year or two later, you’ll be starting over. That means that any progress you may have made towards, say, a loan forgiveness program or a payoff date, will be erased.
Unemployed or Underemployed? Avoid Deferment and Forbearance
Deferments and forbearances allow borrowers to postpone their student loan payments during times of economic hardship. However, for your federal student loans, a better alternative is an income-driven repayment plan, like Income Based Repayment (IBR), Pay As You Earn (PAYE), or Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE). With minimal or no income, your monthly payment under these programs may be as low as $0/month in some cases. And under an income-driven plan, you can make progress towards loan forgiveness, even if your calculated monthly payment is initially $0. If you go into deferment or forbearance, you can’t make any progress towards anything.
Stay Away From Graduated Repayment Plans
A graduated repayment plan is one where you start off making very low payments (often barely covering interest), and then you ramp up your payment amount as the repayment term progresses. I generally do not like graduated repayment plans – you’ll be treading water on your loans for the first couple of years, and then your monthly payments will likely increase at a higher rate than the rate that your income will be increasing. And you’ll wind up paying a lot more in total by the time you repay your loans than under most other repayment plans. Instead, consider either a level, balance-based repayment plan, or an income-driven plan if you cannot afford that.
Prioritize Private Student Loan Repayment
Federal student loans have a lot of consumer protections that private student loans don’t have — such as income-driven repayment, generous deferment and forbearance options, and multiple loan forgiveness, discharge, and cancelation programs. Private student loans typically don’t have these protections, and they also may have higher interest rates. Thus if you’re lucky enough to land a good job right after graduating and you have extra income, prioritize the payoff of your private student loans first, starting with the highest interest loan. The sooner you can knock out these private loans, the better off you’ll be from a consumer rights standpoint, especially if you encounter a financial hardship at some point in the future (and, like it or not, that will probably happen).
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask For Help, But…
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or don’t fully understand your rights and options, don’t be afraid to seek help from your school’s financial aid office, from free resources provided by your loan servicer or the U.S. Dept. of Education, or from a qualified, trained professional (like a student loan lawyer!). Just be wary about scam operations out there; companies are looking to take advantage of recent graduates by offering too-good-to-be-true services at outrageous prices. If it feels shady, it probably is, and you should do your research before hiring professional help.