Millions of student loan borrowers have just one month left to figure out how they're going to resume monthly payments on their education debt while the coronavirus pandemic is still crushing the economy.
Monthly payments for most federal student loans have been on pause since March, when the CARES Act gave 42 million borrowers relief during the coronavirus pandemic. For the more than 37 million of those borrowers that haven't made a payment in months, the unprecedented break is coming to an end. The moratorium will lapse in December, meaning payments will resume again in January unless another extension comes soon.
In addition to monthly payments, the Department of Education paused accruing interest and stopped collections on defaulted federal loans to give borrowers a break as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy. In August, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that continued through December and said he may extend it through next year.
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In the meantime, the government hasn't been able to make a deal on another stimulus package, and it's unclear if the President will keep to his word and extend the moratorium on federal student loan payments beyond the December deadline.
Student loan experts are encouraging borrowers to brace for the lapse in payments and prepare to resume them in 2021.
"Borrowers should sort of prepare for the worst and hope for the best," said Betsy Mayotte, president and founder of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors.
Check in with your debt now
Those with student loan debt should take inventory of their finances and reevaluate their payment plan as soon as they can, said certified financial planner Lauryn Williams, founder of financial firm Worth Winning in Dallas.
After nine months of skipping student loan payments, borrowers may be out of the habit or used to putting cash aside for other things, such as building up an emergency fund or paying down other debt.
"It's worth the investment of your time to make sure that you're clear on what your plan is going forward, so that you don't get caught off guard," said Williams, a member of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council.
Borrowers should log back into their accounts, look at their monthly bill and recalculate the total timeline for paying off their loans with tools available on the Department of Education site, said Mayotte.
For those who haven't been negatively financially impacted by the pandemic, it may be a good time to increase monthly amounts to pay off their loans faster.
"The name of the game is paying the least amount over time," she said.
Of course, many borrowers may have experienced unemployment or loss of income since March because of COVID-19. If that's the case, it's still important to check in with your student loan debt now, said Mayotte.
Experts are worried that the education loan system will be overwhelmed by the number of borrowers who have experienced hardship and will need to apply for relief, she said. That means that borrowers who know they won't be able to make the same or any monthly payments should apply for a different repayment plan or deferral as soon as possible.
Switch your repayment plan
Borrowers who need to lower or pause monthly payments have a few different options.
Those on a standard repayment plan can switch to an income-driven one, which will generally lower monthly payments by increasing the time it will take to pay off the loan in full, said Bridget Haile, head of borrower success at Summer, a company that helps borrowers simplify and save on student debt.
Going forward, borrowers can either recertify for an income-driven plan once a year as required or can switch back to a standard repayment plan if their situation changes, she said.
Those already on an income-driven repayment plan should make sure they've recertified before January, especially if their annual date was during the pause period. If you're already on an income-driven plan and still can't pay your monthly bill, recertifying or asking for a recalculation given your current situation can lead to a lower amount.
This is especially beneficial if you're working toward student loan forgiveness in any program, Haile said. That's because payments in income-driven plans can be as low as $0 and will still count toward the total months you need for forgiveness in 10, 20 or 25 years, depending on the program.
Apply for unemployment deferment
For borrowers who are out of work due to the pandemic, can't afford to make any payments and don't qualify for a $0 monthly bill on an income-driven plan, applying for an unemployment deferment on their student loans may be the best option.
Unemployment deferment will generally pause monthly payments for a total of 36 months, but borrowers will have to reapply every six months and show proof of unemployment benefits and that they're actively seeking work. Interest will also be paused but only for subsidized loans — it will continue to accrue for loans that are unsubsidized.
Those who aren't unemployed and still cannot make monthly payments could apply for other forms of deferment.
To be sure, pausing or lowering monthly payments on student loans likely means you'll pay more over time, especially if interest is still growing. Before making changes, borrowers should be sure to think through both the short- and long-term implications of a different payment plan, said Elaine Griffin Rubin, senior contributor and communications specialist at Edvisors.
If you're not sure what you should do or have a question about your specific situation, it's best to contact your lender directly for help, said Griffin Rubin, adding that there's no penalty to making a change before payments resume.
"Just because you get set up doesn't mean you have to make payments right away," she said.
Don't hold out for another pause or debt forgiveness
Adding to confusion for many borrowers is an uncertain future for student loan debt. People are anxiously waiting to see if Trump will extend the pause and are weighing the possibility that President-elect Joe Biden will be able to forgive some student debt when he takes office.
Yet experts say borrowers shouldn't count on either. It's unclear that there will be a further pause on payments and interest in the short-term by Trump or through another stimulus bill from Congress.
"While we all want and hope for Congress to provide financial relief for borrowers that are struggling, we have to be mindful of the fact that we can't just hope and pray for Congress to pass anything in an environment that's more politically divided than we've ever seen," said Will Sealy, co-founder and CEO of Summer.
And many other questions loom around forgiving student loan debt, such as if Biden could do it through an executive action and what the tax implications would be for borrowers.
In the meantime, the consequences of missing payments can be dire — borrowers may have to pay extra in fines, could eventually fall into default and see their credit score take a hit.
"Nothing is guaranteed until it's really there," said Griffin Rubin. "Don't hold out for some decision to be made."
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