Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Student loan survival guide: drowning in student loans? Save yourself from debt using our simple step-by-step plan

Philip Jones wanted nothing more than to marry his fiancee, fly away to Costa Rica, and embark on the rest of his life. But something was holding him back--the $40,000 in student loans he owes to Direct Loans and Sallie Mae.

Jones, 30, was stressed out because he knew that if he fell behind on his loan payments, the U.S. Department of Education could provide offsets against Social Security payments and garnish his wages and tax refunds, without a court order. Until recently, only the Internal Revenue Service wielded such power.

Luckily, the 2004 graduate of Rutgers University College of Engineering knew a little something about forbearance, a temporary suspension of loan payments that most lenders will allow when times are tough. For Jones, his wallet was being pulled in too many directions; he was trying to pay for a house, a wedding, and a honeymoon within a six-month period.

"I didn't have to make a payment for six months, so that money went toward the wedding and honeymoon. It's easing the financial stress," says the mechanical engineer, who works for Hayes Pump Inc., an industrial equipment distributor in Fairfield, New Jersey.

For the class of 2002, the most current information available, the median student debt was $16,500, according to Sallie Mae, the nation's leading provider of education funding. And with the average college debt burden increasing, many recent grads are finding it hard to manage when the bills are due.

While Jones opted for forbearance, there are plenty of other ways to stay on track with student loan payments without breaking the bank. Erin Korsvall, spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, offers a few tips for taking the pain out of repayment.

* CHOOSE YOUR REPAYMENT PLAN CAREFULLY. "There are a number of different repayment options to help you manage your monthly payments," Korsvall says, offering income-based and interest-only payments as examples. Borrowers can also extend their payment terms to lower the monthly payments.

"Each situation would apply for borrowers who are in a position where they need to minimize their monthly payments. Perhaps they are a recent graduate who has just entered the work force," she says.

* STAY IN TOUCH WITH YOUR LENDER "Make sure they have your current address. You don't want to miss the bills," Korsvall says.

* PAY ON TIME. "It's the best thing to do," Korsvall says. "Sallie Mae offers an interest rate discount when you pay on time. There are no pre-payment penalties."

One way to ensure you pay on time is to pay electronically. There are a number of benefits associated with electronic payments, in which the lender takes the money directly from your bank account. Payments are never late, so the borrower never has to worry about late fees. This also builds good credit, showing lenders that payments are consistently paid on time.

Forgoing stamps has another advantage. Some lenders, including Sallie Mae, will lower your interest rate if you choose to pay back loans via direct debit. For example, one borrower saw his interest rate drop from 4.8% to 4.25% after he switched to electronic payments. Between consolidating his debt and paying by debit, this student was able to lower the monthly payment for his Perkins and Stafford loans from about $300 to $138.

* ALERT LENDER BEFORE MISSING A PAYMENT. "The consequences of default are significant and could include a tarnished credit rating, garnishment of pay, and the inability to obtain additional aid and future credit," says Chris Greene, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. "In addition, legal action can be taken to recover unpaid loan balances and fees. If borrowers are experiencing trouble meeting their obligation, they should contact the Department of Education at 1-800-4FEDAID or their lender directly."

Borrowers have 270 days of nonpayment before their loan goes into default, according to the Department of Education. If the loan holder can't recoup its money, it may then decide to use an outside agency to try to collect the money. If that happens, as much as 25% of the amount of the loan could be added to the loan to cover the cost of collection.

"The last thing the department wants is for a borrower to go into default and force us to collect on the loan. Borrowers experiencing difficulties in making payments should contact their lender or the department, and we will work with them," Greene says. "Remaining in an active, current repayment status is in the best interest of the borrower and the department."

The government is currently trying to collect about $31 billion in defaulted loans, according to the Department of Education.

* TAKE A BREAK FROM PAYMENTS. Borrowers can postpone repayment through deferment or forbearance. Both allow for a period of time when the borrower doesn't have to make payments, and they are better alternatives to defaulting.

Deferment allows borrowers to stop loan repayment for specified periods of time under certain conditions, such as re-enrollment in school, unemployment, or economic hardship. You must formally request a deferment from your loan holder. You may need to complete a deferment form and show documentation that you are eligible for the deferment, according to the Department of Education. There is a three-year limit for deferring loans for those with an economic hardship or full-time unemployment. There is no limit for deferment based on reenrollment in school.


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