7 Effective Ways to Lower Your Student Loan Payments

Here are seven ways you can pay less on your student loans each month.

Nobody takes out student loans expecting to have trouble repaying them. But once the realities of post-college life set in, many borrowers do find that keeping up on payments is a struggle.

In fact, more Americans are burdened by student loan debt than ever, with a delinquency rate of 11.2%. And that doesn’t include many more who are barely keeping up.

Student loan payments can become unmanageable for a number of reasons: a job loss, pay cut, unexpected expense or simply too much student loan debt to begin with. If you’re struggling to make your payments, know that missing them can lead to disastrous consequences for your finances. (You can see how your student loans are affecting your credit by viewing two of your free credit scores on Credit.com.)

Fortunately, there are several ways to get your payments lowered to a more manageable amount. Here are seven ways you can pay less on your student loans each month.

1. Income-Driven Repayment Plans

For federal student loans, income-driven repayment (IDR) plans can be a smart way to manage student loans. There are currently four IDR plans available for federal student loans:

  • Income-Based Repayment (IBR)
  • Pay As You Earn (PAYE)
  • Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE)
  • Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)

Borrowers who enroll in income-driven repayment have their student loan payments lowered to a percentage of their income — 10 to 20%, depending on the plan. Payments can even be as low as $0 under IDR.

Some income-driven repayment plans also take local living costs into consideration when calculating the lower payment. This gives extra relief to payers in pricey cities.

Income-driven plans also offer student loan forgiveness on any remaining balance after 20 to 25 years of loan payments.

To enroll in an income-driven repayment plan, contact your federal student loan servicer. They can discuss your options with you and give you the correct forms to apply for IDR.

2. Student Loan Refinancing

If you have private student loans, one of the only ways to lower payments is to refinance.

By refinancing, you replace your old student loan(s) with a new one through a private student loan refinancing lender. This allows you to lower your monthly payments by getting a lower interest rate, extending the repayment period, or both.

For borrowers who have older federal loans with high interest rates (such as Grad or Parent PLUS loans), it can be worth it to refinance to lower interest rates. Keep in mind you will lose federal benefits, like access to IDR, if you refinance with a private lender. Extending the repayment period can also result in lower monthly payments, but might end up costing more in interest over time.

If you’re not sure if student loan refinancing could benefit you, shop around and get some rate estimates from private student loan companies. Most will perform a soft credit check to pre-qualify you, which won’t affect your credit. (You can learn more about soft credit checks here.)

3. Student Loan Repayment Assistance Programs

Another option to manage student loan payments is to get help through a student loan repayment assistance program (LRAP). This is free help with your student loans. Many states, government agencies, nonprofits and other organizations offer student loan assistance, usually as a way to attract qualified employees.

This student loan repayment assistance tool can help you filter LRAPs by your occupation, state and type of assistance. It’s worth checking to see if you can get free help with your student loans.

4. Deferment or Forbearance

If you need a break from your student loan payments altogether, deferment and forbearance can help by pausing payments.

Deferment can be a good option for federal student loans. It can be granted for disability, unemployment, financial hardship, a return to college or military service. Subsidized student loans won’t accrue interest while in deferment.

Forbearance can also be granted to pause student loan payments. However, all student loans will continue to accrue interest while in forbearance.

With either option, make sure you understand how your loans will accrue interest. If necessary, consider making interest-only payments so your balance doesn’t grow to be bigger than when you started.

5. Graduated Repayment Plan

A graduated repayment plan can help set payments low to start with, then increase every two years (hopefully as your income also rises) over 10 years.

This can be a good fit if you can’t afford full student loan payments now — but you expect to be able to afford to pay more later. If you want to stick to paying student loans off in 10 years, a graduated repayment plan can help you do it.

6. Extended Repayment Plan

The standard student loan repayment schedule is 10 years. But if you stretch your student loan repayment out over more time, this will lower the amount you pay each month.

The extended repayment plan can help you do this by extending repayment to up to 25 years, with either fixed or graduated payments. You’ll need to have more than $30,000 in student loans to get on the extended repayment plan.

This can be a good option if you want to extend your repayment schedule to between 10 to 20 years. However, if you expect to be repaying student loans for 20 or more years, the forgiveness that comes with IDR plans could make those a better option. Again, extending the repayment period can also cost you more in interest over time, so consider this option carefully.

7. Consolidate Federal Student Loans

Federal student loan consolidation combines federal student loans into a single Direct Consolidation Loan. The new interest rate is a weighted average of the previous rates on your consolidated loans.

Consolidating also gives you the option to choose a repayment period of at least 10 years and up to 30 years, which can greatly lower your monthly payments. Some other repayment plans might also require you to consolidate federal student loans to make them eligible for participation.

Keep in mind that unlike refinancing, federal consolidation does not result in a lower interest rate or savings of any kind. It can, however, simplify the repayment process and help open up monthly cash flow with lower payments.

Getting Student Loans Under Control

There are several ways to manage both private and federal student loans. With these options to lower student loan payments, there’s no reason to keep struggling every month.

Remember, you owe it to yourself and your financial health to investigate your student debt repayment choices and move forward with the right one.

Image: Jacob Ammentorp Lund

The post 7 Effective Ways to Lower Your Student Loan Payments appeared first on Credit.com.

The Average Student Loan Debt in Every State

Borrowers in the class of 2015 had an average of $30,100 in student loan debt. We break down the average debt in each state.

Image: FatCamera

The post The Average Student Loan Debt in Every State appeared first on Credit.com.

50 Money Moves to Make Before Graduation

If you’re a senior in college, or the parent of one, you’re probably counting down the days until graduation. But are your finances prepared for the big step? Don’t worry if they’re not — most students feel overwhelmed by the task of managing money. To give you the confidence you’ll need to succeed in the real world, we’ve compiled a list of 50 money moves to make before graduation.

1. Start Saving Those Pennies

And whatever else you can afford to squirrel away before you graduate. Retirement may feel like eons away — and in your 20s, it certainly is — but you’ll never regret having money for that freak car repair or hospital visit.

2. Find Out Whether You Have Private or Federal Loans 

The first step to paying off your student loan debt is to find out what type of loans you have. Private loans are issued by financial institutions, while federal student loans are issued by the government.

3. Find Out What You Owe & to Whom … 

Several loans may mean several servicers, and it’s not always easy to keep track of them all. To see what you owe for federal student loans and who services them, you can go to the National Student Loan Data System, select “Financial Aid Review” and accept the terms and conditions. Be sure to have your FSA ID handy or the information you need to create one. You can check your credit reports to see who services your private student loans.

4. … & When to Start Making Payments

Most federal students come with a six-month grace period, meaning you’ll have some time to work that monthly payment into your budget. Many private student loans offer the same option.

5. Complete Exit Counseling

Federal student loans require exit counseling when a student drops below half-time enrollment, graduates or leaves school. You can do this online in about 20 to 30 minutes. Exit counseling will inform you when your first payment is due.

6. Know the Costs of Deferring Federal Loans …

With some loans, like federal Perkins, you don’t have to worry about interest if you enter deferment. But unsubsidized federal or Plus loans will continue to gain interest, causing your balance to soar. Be sure to find out how much interest you’ll accrue if you decide to take this option and read up on how student loan deferments affect your credit.

7. … & the Dangers of Default

Failing to pay your loans as agreed can lead to default. That can take some time (270 days for federal loans, to be exact), but it’s something you don’t want to do. You’ll lose access to deferment, forbearance and a range of government benefits, as well as the ability to apply for more federal aid. You could also face collection activity, legal action and poor credit.

8. Don’t Fear Your Loan Servicer 

If you’re worried about making your student loan payments after graduation, be proactive and talk with your servicer. They may outline options you wouldn’t have thought of that can help you avoid missing payments.

9. Catalog Your Basic Repayment Options 

That way you’ll have a idea of what can be done if money is tight. The government offers income-driven repayment plans for various situations, although a longer term and lower payment may mean you end up paying more than you’d hoped. There are also deferment, forbearance and even student loan rehabilitation if you go into default. You can find a full list of options here.

10. Familiarize Yourself With Refinancing  

You’re unable to refinance student loans within the federal student loan system, and while doing so could help you secure a lower rate, it will change the terms of your loan. Also keep in mind that refinancing federal loans with a private lender means forfeiting government benefits.

11. Avoid Student Loan Scams 

There are a lot of people trying to make a buck off the confusion around student loans. Don’t get tricked into paying someone for things you can do for free, like consolidate your loans, change your repayment plan or submit student loan forgiveness paperwork. If you really need help, consider seeking advice from a reputable consumer protection or student loan attorney.

12. Learn the Basics of Credit 

Consumer credit is tricky to learn, but it affects your life immensely. A landlord could pull your credit report before deciding to grant you a lease, and an employer could check a version of your credit report as part of their hiring process. To grasp how credit affects your life, do some research. (We have plenty of credit explainers to help you get started.)

13. Start Building Good Credit 

Before you graduate, you’ll want to work on building your credit, especially if you have a thin file, as most students do. A good place to start is with a secured credit card, which requires a deposit that serves as your credit line. There are also credit cards geared toward students.

14. Check Your Credit Reports

If you’re an authorized user on a parent’s credit card or you’ve been using your own starter card since freshmen year, you may have established some credit. Your student loans can help you build credit, too. To see what you have, pull your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also view two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

15. Dispute any Errors

Mixed files and identity theft are common occurrences. If you spot something on your credit reports — like multiple credit inquiries you didn’t make or an inaccurate address — be sure to dispute the error with the credit bureaus.

16. Know Warning Signs of Identity Theft 

From account withdrawals you don’t remember making to mysterious charges on your credit card, the signs of identity theft are usually easy to spot. This guide can point you to six other signs that you need to watch out for.

17. Shop for the Right Credit Card

Secured credit cards and student credit cards are designed to help you build credit, so look for the right terms and conditions. Be sure to check if the card has a low annual fee and competitive interest rates, and perhaps keep an eye out for features like rental car insurance and travel assistance. The best student credit cards tout rewards for smart spending habits.

18. Use Your Card Wisely 

Most credit card issuers report your activity to the three major credit bureaus (check before you apply), which can help your score improve over time. For best results, be sure to make your payments on time and keep balances low.

19. Pay Credit Card Bills on Time

Speaking of late payments, it’s a doozy of a move to pay your credit bills late. Doing this will drag down your score, result in fees and make you look irresponsible in the eyes of lenders.

20. Consider Upgrading Your Plastic

If you’ve been using a credit card responsibly since freshman year, you may be able to qualify for a better one. Next-level credit cards can include a higher credit limit, lower annual percentage rates (APRs) or rewards.

21. Know Other Options for Building Credit

Can’t stomach the thought of handling a credit card? You have options. Credit-builder loans are one, as are passbook or CD loans and personal loans. You can read more about how to build credit without going into debt here.

22. Draft a Budget for Your Money …

This will help you stay on top of your finances and plan for the best things (backpacking in Thailand) and the worst things (health scares). To make it feel like less of a burden, find the system that works best for you.

23. … & Your Time 

It may seem like you have a lot of it now, but time will fly once you’ve graduated. If you haven’t already, learn to budget your schedule so you have enough time for work and play. A balanced life can go a long way toward financial wellness.

24. Start Tracking Discretionary Spending 

Things like food and gas can quickly add up if you’re not being careful. By tracking this category, you’ll be sure not to go over budget and get a sense of how much you should put toward these items each month.

25. Watch for Irregular & Big-Ticket Items 

It’s always better to be prepared for a bill than surprised by it. Be sure to keep an eye on irregular expenses as you track your spending so you have an idea of how much you’ll need to set aside to cover them when they arise.

26. Open a Savings Account

What good is a rainy day fund if you have nowhere safe to store it? A savings account can help you do that and see what you have at a glance. When shopping for accounts, be sure to ask about interest, fees and conditions.

27. Start Paying Yourself  

Before you land a job, vow to pay yourself first. That means setting aside a portion of your paycheck or graduation gifts each month, and then budgeting the rest.

28. Consider a Side Gig

There are plenty of ways for full-time students to jumpstart their savings. Consider sharing your car, pet sitting, freelancing or tutoring during your downtime.

29. Sell Your Stuff

You can also make extra cash by selling used textbooks, dorm furniture and mint-condition clothing online.

30. Check Your Checking Account

If you’ve been using a student checking account, chances are that offer will expire. Check with your bank to see if you need to switch to a standard account.

31. Shop for Fee-Free Accounts 

With free checking accounts on the market, there’s really no reason to pay for one. If your bank happens to charge you a fee, ask to have it reversed or take your business elsewhere.

32. Open an IRA

If you have a part-time job, consider contributing to an IRA. You can find a full explainer on IRAs here.

33. Get a Health Insurance Plan

Under the Affordable Care Act, you can stay on a parent’s insurance plan until you are 26, with their permission. If you can’t get coverage through your parents or new employer, you’ll need to go through the government exchanges or face a tax penalty. Take time to research the options.

34. Automate Bill Pay …

You know the dangers of paying bills late, so why not streamline the process? By automating bill pay, you’ll never have to worry about missing a payment or getting hit with late fees.

35. … & Check Your Statements

You never know when fraud will strike, and you want to keep an eye out for new fees or fraudulent charges.

36. Sign Up for Alerts

Many banks and card issuers offer email or text message alerts that let you know when funds are low, balances are high or you’re in danger of missing a payment. These alerts can help you spot fraud and protect your credit before it’s too late.

37. Don’t Forget Your Rent 

Failing to pay your rent can torpedo your credit, and if you’re evicted, that will likely show up on a tenant-screening report. Worse still, if your landlord reports you to a debt collector, the collection account could appear on your credit report — and stick around for up to seven-plus years.

38. Sanitize Your Social Media Accounts

Your social media presence can work for or against you. So if you tend to post pics of getting sloshed every night, chances are future employers won’t like it. Think twice about what you post and do your best to keep it clean. You don’t want these things to jeopardize your financial stability.

39. Quit Smoking

And give up other vices. Not unlike drinking, smoking is a dangerous habit that can literally shave years off your life. It’s also expensive.

40. Track Down Your Documents

Make sure you have your Social Security card, passport, driver’s license and birth certificate since you’ll need to provide identification when you score your first job, apply for a loan and more.

41. Get Your Finances Under Wraps …

Keep sensitive documents under wraps, even at home, and never, ever share your credit or debit card information, especially PINs.

42. … & Stop Posting Pictures of Your Credit Card 

Your credit card may not display all the information hackers need, but you’ll be bringing them one step closer if you post pictures of your credit or debit card numbers online. Also, don’t send your credit number over email or text message. Even if you trust the recipient, there’s always the chance their account could be hacked (or their phone could be stolen).

43. Beef Up Your Passwords 

Aim to create passwords that no one can guess, and always combine upper- and lowercase letters with numbers, symbols and words not found in the dictionary. The more complex it is, the more secure you will be.

44. Check Your Email 

You wouldn’t leave your wallet on the New York subway, so why share your personal info by email? Avoid sending your Social Security number and any account information, and do your best not to store personal information in the event you get hacked. If something sensitive is in your inbox, delete it for good.

45. Get Scam-Savvy  

Never open an email that’s just a link, and if you’re in doubt, don’t click. If you know the sender, you can ask if the message is legitimate. But if something seems out of the ordinary, it probably is.

46. Get Frugal

Avoid the urge to splurge and get savvy as you gear up for graduation day. The next few tips can help you get started.

47. Learn the Art of the Promo Code 

Get in the habit of digging around for promo codes whenever you shop online. Who knows? You may save on shipping.

48. Start Checking Return Policies 

Shopping for your post-collegiate apartment? Read the fine print. No one wants to get stuck with a broken rice cooker.

49. Start Cooking at Home 

You don’t have to do it every day, but every bit counts. The less you eat out, the more you’ll save.

50. Start Buying Generic 

These products are often just as good as name-brand ones and cost a lot less.

Worried about going into debt after college? Don’t stress. Here are 50 smart ways to help you stay out of debt.   

Image: m-imagephotography  

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Why Student Loan Borrowers Are Being Treated Like Criminals

If it sometimes feels like student loan borrowers are treated like criminals, that's because the law actually does.

Student loans are different from almost any other form of borrowing. Unlike credit cards or other unsecured debts, they can rarely be discharged in bankruptcy. (You can learn more about the implications of bankruptcy here.) Legally, it’s better to think of college and grad school debt as akin to a child support payment.

The $1.3 trillion student loan crisis has many causes, but the slow erosion of consumer rights to gain student debt relief ranks right near the top. That $1.3 trillion debt is truly an anchor for life to the 44 million Americans who owe it. (And not paying those loans can have pretty severe consequences, including serious credit damage. You can see how your student loans affect your credit by a free snapshot of your credit report every 14 days on Credit.com.)

How It All Started 

The trouble began in the mid 1970s, as student loans became common and urban legends around “deadbeat” former students started to spread. In 1976, Congress considered a dramatic change to the nature of student loans — taking them out of the bucket that makes them similar to credit cards or personal loans, and moving them into the bucket that governs criminals like tax scofflaws. Back then, Congress was wise enough to commission a Government Accounting Office study, making such a step permanent.

The study came back showing that fewer than 1% of student loan borrowers had declared bankruptcy. That led Rep James O’Hara (D-Mich.) to say it would be grossly unfair to lump them in with the deadbeats. Soon after, the U.S. Senate voted to strip the provision from a proposed bankruptcy reform bill that made college debt non-dischargeable. But for reasons unknown, a group of Congressmen in the House, led by Rep. Allen E. Ertel (D-Pa.), held firm to their conviction that student loans were creating a moral hazard. They won the day, and non-dischargability of student loans was included in the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978.

The 1978 limitation meant students had to try to pay their loans back for at least five years before they could seek relief in bankruptcy court. Even today, critics of the way bankruptcy laws work don’t find fault in that notion — to prevent someone from leaving school and immediately erasing their debt before making an honest effort to earn an income.

However, the 1978 law opened the door for further tightening of the debt noose on borrowers, which happened methodically over the next decades. In 1990, the repayment period before a discharge was extended to seven years. The Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 allowed Uncle Sam to garnish Social Security checks. Then, in 1998, the seven-year ban became infinite. Loans made or guaranteed by Uncle Sam to students could never be discharged, with very few exceptions.

Worse still, in 2005, the permanent ban on bankruptcy for student borrowers was extended to private student loans — those that have nothing to do with Uncle Sam. Private banks lending teenagers money for college now hold a “till death do us part” contract.

Times Have Changed

Steven M. Palmer, a Seattle-based bankruptcy attorney who has written about the history of student loans, said it’s important to keep some perspective about what Congress might have been thinking back in the 1970s.

In 1976, tuition, room and board cost an average of $2,275, according to the Department of Education (in current dollars). By 2015, it was $25,810.

“Back then, the cost of education was so much less,” Palmer said. “The total amount of debt was a tiny fraction of what it is today … The system has led us to where we are now, where everyone has to take out student loans. And then they are getting out of school and not able to find jobs.”

For the desperate student borrower, there is an exception to the bankruptcy code, known as “undue hardship.” But practically speaking, that’s legalese for “nearly impossible.” (Disabled borrowers may also qualify for a total disability discharge of their education debt.)

An attempt to discharge a student loan requires a separate legal process from a traditional bankruptcy, called a Complaint to Determine Dischargeability. It’s an adversarial process that can require discovery, depositions and even arguments in court against Department of Education lawyers.

This can cost the debtor 10 times the price of a standard bankruptcy, Palmer said. And an attempt to get free from student loans can easily cost $20,000 to $30,000 in fees — which still may not work. Also, said Palmer, it’s critical to remember that declaring bankruptcy is hardly easy, nor does it erase all a family’s problems.

“Many of my clients have so much they still need to end up paying after bankruptcy, my counseling is often to ask, ‘How will you be better off?’ In some cases, they are really in a terrible spot … really still pretty well screwed after the bankruptcy.”

More Calls for Reform

In 2007, Michigan Professor John A. E. Pottow wrote the definitive history of the issue in an academic paper, “The Nondischargeability of Student Loans in Personal Bankruptcy Proceedings: The Search for a Theory.”

“This is harsh and dramatic treatment, and it is worthy of scholarly attention,” he wrote.

Pottow dispensed with most operating theories using data – that bankruptcy encourages students to commit fraud, or that Uncle Sam is merely protecting taxpayers, for example. He ultimately suggested some kind of income-contingent test, which ties bankruptcy eligibility to a calculation that takes into account school costs and potential post-school income.

“In addition to being attractive theoretically, income contingency could also help a troubling trend,” he wrote. Apparently certain “sub-prime” schools target a financially vulnerable client base by upselling classes and educational programs of dubious worth, confident that they will have repayment leverage through non-dischargeability in bankruptcy. An income-contingent approach might dry up this unwelcome market.”

More recently, in a 2012 report, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau called on Congress to make bankruptcy available to some student debt holders.

“(It would be) prudent to consider modifying the code in light of the impact on young borrowers in challenging labor market conditions,” CFPB director Richard Cordray said.

Palmer, the bankruptcy lawyer, noted giving such debtors a fresh start wouldn’t only help former students. College debt has been tied to delayed household formation, which can have a domino effect: Young graduates may get married later, start families later, buy homes later, and so on. (If this sounds like you, here’s how to tell if you’re ready to shop for a home.)

Other critics have gone even farther.

David Graeber, author of the book, “Debt: The First 5000 Years,” says the punishing student loan situation is wrecking a generation, and by extension, its future.

“If there’s a way of a society committing mass suicide, what better way than to take all the youngest, most energetic, creative, joyous people in your society and saddle them with, like $50,000 of debt so they have to be slaves?” he said at a talk in 2013. “There goes your music. There goes your culture.”

Image: Jacob Ammentorp Lund

The post Why Student Loan Borrowers Are Being Treated Like Criminals appeared first on Credit.com.

5 Things Every Student Loan Borrower Needs to Know

Here are five things you definitely need to know as a student loan borrower.

Have you looked at the cost of attending college recently? The price of tuition and fees has increased, on average, $280 per year for the last decade, according to College Board. That adds up over time, so it’s no wonder many turn to student loans to afford their education.

But now that you’re approaching the end of college — or perhaps you’re already done — it’s time to figure out how you’re going to repay those loans. Before you make a decision about how to move forward, here are five things you need to know as a student loan borrower.

1. The Difference Between Federal & Private Student Loans

The first step in deciding how to pay off your college debt is knowing whether you have federal or private student loans.

Federal student loans are issued by the government. These loans have interest rates set by Congress and come with certain protections and benefits (like income-driven repayment options, deferment/forbearance and loan forgiveness).

Private student loans, on the other hand, are issued by financial institutions. They usually have higher interest rates than the loans you get from the government. Private loans don’t come with the same benefits as federal loans. But some of the best lenders will offer options to borrowers who experience financial hardship.

To simplify the repayment process, you can consolidate all of your federal loans together to make one payment each month. But you can’t include private loans in a federal consolidation.

On the other hand, if you refinance your loans privately, you can include federal and private loans together in one big loan. However, once you refinance your federal loans, you lose those benefits and protections mentioned above.

When I was faced with this choice, I consolidated my federal loans and refinanced my private loans separately. Sure, I made two payments for a while until I paid off the private loans. But this ensured that the bigger chunk of my debt — my federal loans — retained protection.

2. When & How to Enroll in an Income-Driven Repayment Plan

If you can’t afford your student loan payments, there is hope. If you have federal loans, you can set up a repayment plan based on your income.

The government offers income-based repayment plans for different situations. Your payment each month is limited to a percentage of your income. At the end of a set term, if you still have some federal student debt left, the remaining balance is forgiven.

You can’t get income-based repayment for private student loans, however. If you refinance federal student loans privately, you lose access to income-driven repayment options.

Be careful when choosing income-driven repayment, though. A longer loan term and a lower monthly payment can mean that you actually end up paying more than you expected over time. On top of that, there is a good chance that loan forgiveness might come with hefty tax consequences.

There are a number of student loan forgiveness programs that can help you with your student loan debt.

3. How Much You Owe & to Whom

By the time you’re done with college, it’s not surprising if you don’t know exactly how much you owe. Thankfully, this is a simple problem to solve.

The Department of Education will usually assign a servicer to your account. Private lenders usually will, too. Your loan servicer is the middleman between you and your student loan lender. They’re in charge of facilitating payments, making sure the terms of the loan are met and working out a payment plan if you’re struggling to keep up.

Of course, if you have several student loans, you probably also have several servicers. And it’s not always easy to figure out who they are.

To find federal student loan information about what you owe and who services your loan, go to the National Student Loan Data System. Select “Financial Aid Review” and accept the terms and conditions. You will need your FSA ID, but you can create one if you don’t have one yet. Once you’re in, you can see how much you owe, how much you’re paying in interest and how to contact your loan servicer.

When it comes to private student loans, the best way to find out who services them is by checking your credit reports. Your credit report will list all your open accounts. (You can view a free snapshot of your credit report, with updates every two weeks, on Credit.com.)

4. Refinancing Your Student Loans Can Save You Thousands

If you want to save thousands of dollars over the life of your loans, refinancing your student loans can be a solid option. Depending on your credit and income, it’s possible to get a much lower interest rate through refinancing.

Refinancing means taking out a new loan with a private lender to pay off your existing loans. The goal is to consolidate student loans, get a lower rate and/or secure a new repayment term.

The decision to refinance should be made carefully, however. Again, refinancing federal loans with a private lender means forfeiting many government-backed benefits.

Check with different lenders to see what rate you can get if you refinance. Also, consider your eligibility for income-driven repayment. Many high-earning professionals with a lot of student loan debt don’t qualify for income-driven plans. In such cases, it can make sense to refinance privately to take advantage of long-term savings.

5. Extra Payments Can Cut Years Off Your Repayment (& Save You Money)

Finally, making extra payments can help you save more money over time. If you don’t want your student loan debt hanging over your head, you can pay it off faster as your income increases.

Extra payments reduce your principal balance. That cuts down how much you pay in interest and the how long it takes to pay off your debt. Consider refinancing to a lower interest rate, then making extra payments to supercharge your savings and pay off your loans faster.

You can even use a student loan prepayment calculator to see just how much time and money you’ll save.

Student loans are a necessity for most of us. However, they don’t have to prevent you from living a good life. Explore all these options and figure out what is likely to work best for your situation.

Image: Mixmike

The post 5 Things Every Student Loan Borrower Needs to Know appeared first on Credit.com.

How Did Student Loan Debt Reach $1.4 Trillion? Blame Russia (Sort Of)

There are other reasons, but the era of the student loan began with the launch of Sputnik.

American consumers owe mountains of debt, but one of these mountains looms large over all the others: student loans. It’s astonishing to consider: Add up every auto loan in the country, and total student loan debt is bigger. Add up every credit card bill in the country, you only get about three-quarters of the way up the student loan mountain. Only mortgage debt is greater, but those with mortgages have homes to show for their debt. These days, many Americans aren’t really sure what they got in return for their oppressive student loan bills.

There is little disagreement that adult life in America without a college degree is a struggle, and it’s only going to get harder as the economy continues to modernize and manual labor continues to be devalued. So it’s imperative that America figures out how to educate its young people without bankrupting them — but it’s important to understand how we got here.

A History Lesson

In some ways, you can blame the Russians. Sputnik, and the Space Race, specifically. The federal government first got into the student loan business as a direct result of the USSR’s successful launch of Sputnik into orbit, and widespread fear that America was losing the Space Race. In fact, the law that created student loans was called The National Defense Education Act.

America has lent money to teenagers ever since, with the good intentions of helping them compete in the global economy. Today, some 44 million Americans owe student loan debt — a majority of college students graduate with at least some debt, and the class of 2016 had an average student loan debt of $37,000.

But even before the National Defense Education Act went into effect, America had committed to helping young kids who showed promise get college degrees. The federal government’s first real foray into pushing people towards college was The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act — the GI Bill — passed at the end of World War II. Colleges swelled as America repaid some of its debt to the Greatest Generation through free or discounted college.

By the 1950s, there were calls to extend what was generally considered a wildly successful program. But three terms in a row, a Senate-passed measure to increase federal funding for college died in the House. Then, on October 4, 1957, the Soviets sent shock waves through the country with their successful launch of Sputnik into space. That day Sen. Lister Hill (D-Alabama), chair of the Education and Labor Committee, read a memo from a clerk with a clever idea.

“Perhaps if they called the education bill a defense bill they might get it enacted,” recounts a Senate history page on the subject.

Hill latched onto the idea and National Defense Education Act was born.

Despite widespread public opinion demanding government action “in the wake of Sputnik” (the Senate history page’s words), House members were still resistant, calling federal college grants “socialist.” Other critics worried that the legislation interfered with the long-held principal that states and local communities were responsible for schooling. As debate progressed, supporters in the Senate offered a compromise: Much of the aid offered would come in the form of low-cost loans instead of grants.

That argument won the day. Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act in September 1958, 11 months after Sputnik’s launch. Uncle Sam was now a bank for college students.

Uncle Sam Becomes a Direct Lender to Students

NDEA loans are generally considered precursors to subsidized loans that became known as Perkins Loans.

That because it wasn’t long before the NDEA was expanded, and its inherent encouragement of defense-friendly subjects dropped. An amendment to the law signed by Eisenhower in 1964 increased funding, raised borrowing limits, and struck the provision that special consideration should be given to students who showed proficiency in math, science, engineering, or foreign languages.

By 1968, America had spent $3 billion extending student NDEA loans to 1.5 million undergraduate students.

In other words, Uncle Sam’s role as a direct lender for higher education was fairly well established by the time Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society ideas took hold. In 1965, the Higher Education Act included a further expansion of both loans and grants, this time aimed at lower-income Americans. The HEA established what we now know as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and directed the Department of Education to administer lending. Thus, the Guaranteed Student Loan (precursor to the Stafford Loan) was created.

HEA loans were different than NDEA loans in an important way, however. Students borrowed from banks, with the federal government acting only as a guarantor. That made Uncle Sam a co-signer, expanding the kind of funding available. (Since then, Congress has vacillated between preferring the co-signer role, and the banker role. Today, most federal loans are direct loans, but that could change again.)

Not surprisingly, college attendance soared, more than doubling from 1960 to 1970 (from 3.5 million to 7.5 million).

The Higher Education Act requires reauthorization every five years, each one a chance for Congress to change the law. Many of those provisions have been intended to expand the opportunities afforded by it. The 1972 Equal Opportunity in Education Act, known as Title IX, was passed to prevent discrimination based on gender. That same reauthorization also created the Student Loan Marketing Association (Sallie Mae), designed to encourage lending. In the 1980 reauthorization of HEA, PLUS loans were created, ultimately allowing parents to borrow money from Uncle Sam to pay for their kids’ college.

As Enrollments Rise, So Do Tuitions

Each loan expansion meant college attendance continued to expand, hitting 10.8 million by 1983. Today, it’s 20 million.

With more customers, and more funding, it should be no surprise that college tuition has soared right along with them. According to the College Board, annual tuition at a public (state) college averaged $428 in 1971-72.  This year, it’s $9,648. During that same span, private tuition rose from $1,883 to $33,479.

So it should be no surprise that a chart showing the total outstanding student loan debt looks like a picture of the steep side of Mt. Everest. In 1999, former students owed $90 billion. By 2011, that figure had grown to $550 billion, an astonishing 550%. Since then, student loan debt has more than doubled … again.

In fact, student loan debt is the only kind of consumer debt that has grown since the recession.

Other Factors in Rising Tuition Rates

It’s important to note, however, that while one theory holds that the history of ever-widening availability of credit has led directly to higher tuition costs and higher debt, that’s not the only possible explanation. Higher education advocates also point to reduced state government spending on state colleges. As one example, Ohio State received 25% of its budget from the state in 1990. By 2012, that percentage had fallen to 7%. Students, often via borrowed money, must pay the difference.

F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University, painted a bleak picture in testimony before a Senate committee during 2015. More generous federal loan programs created in the 1950s and 60s had an unintended consequence: They nudged budget-crunched state governments towards a dark solution.

“State funding for higher education sits currently around 48% to 50% below where it was in 1981,” he said. “It was assumed that any new federal funding policies would simply supplement state funding, not replace it.”

But, today, states are ”getting out of the higher education funding business, to the point that the federal government has now become the primary funding source,” Alexander said. And while schools, states, and the federal government argue about the higher math of higher education, many students are left with personal education budgets that just don’t add up. To put a fine point on it, attorney and student loan expert Steven Palmer offers this sobering example:

“In 1981, a minimum wage earner could work full time in the summer and make almost enough to cover their annual college costs, leaving a small amount that they could cobble together from grants, loans, or work during the school year,” he says in a blog on the topic. “In 2005, a student earning minimum wage would have to work the entire year and devote all of that money to the cost of their education to afford one year of a public college or university.”

A Longstanding (But Growing) Problem

It’s important to note that burgeoning student loan debt — and the inherent problems those bills present to borrowers and their families —  did not go unnoticed until recently. In fact, back in 1987, a New York Times article summarized the issue in a paragraph that sounds an awful lot like something Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders might have said during the 2016 Democratic Party primary races.

The growth of the problem is affecting not only individual lives, some authorities believe. They say the burden of debt is also chasing many students away from poorly paid public service jobs and forcing others to defer the start of a family and the purchase of a home or car, with economic and social consequences that have not been measured … Such cases worry education officials and other experts, who say that record borrowing for college threatens the financial stability of a generation of young people and their families.

At the time the article was written, the average debt for public college graduates was $7,000 ($15,000 in 2017 dollars). Since then, college tuition has risen at about four times the rate of inflation, and student debt, right along with it.

How Do We Fix Those Inherent Problems?

President Donald Trump did discuss the student loan problem on the campaign trail; his most significant proposal involved slightly more expensive, but also more generous income-based repayment plans for debtors. His plan would require 12.5% income contributions, but provide loan forgiveness earlier. The timetable for such a proposal is unclear.

The newly-minted head of the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, said during confirmation hearings that the (then) $1.3 trillion in student loan debt is “a very serious issue,” but didn’t indicate support for any particular solution. In her testimony, there is this tea leaf:

There is no magic wand to make the debt go away. But we do need to take action. It would be a mistake to shift that burden to struggling taxpayers without first addressing why tuition has gotten so high. For starters, we need to embrace new pathways of learning. For too long, a college degree has been pushed as the only avenue for a better life. The old and expensive brick, mortar, and ivy model is not the only one that will lead to a prosperous future.

A comprehensive solution will almost certainly require another reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The last reauthorization was signed by George W. Bush in 2008. It has been temporarily extended since then — Congress punted on a reauthorization during election season, which means it is overdue for another overhaul. DeVos told the Senate that she’s ready to get to work on that.

“I look forward to working with Congress and all stakeholders to reauthorize the Higher Education Act to meet the needs of today’s college students,” she said. The Education Department did not immediately respond to Credit.com’s request for comment as to whether there were any updates regarding DeVos’ plans since she testified.

Many issues remain on the table: Stakeholders are already arguing about enforcement of new rules against for-profit schools and the future of government direct lending vs. “co-signing” for borrowers. But the $1.4 trillion, 70-year-old problem is now an elephant in America’s living room — and no administration can make debt like that simply disappear.

What Can Students Do? 

While solutions to the systemic student loan problem are unlikely to come to fruition overnight, there are some steps struggling borrowers can take to stay current on their payments — and to preclude that debt from harming their credit. (You can see how your student loans may be affecting yours by viewing two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)

Federal student loans borrowers, for instance, can apply for a deferment or forbearance if they’re temporarily unable to repay those bills post-college. They can also apply for an income-based repayment plan that can help lower monthly payments to an affordable level. Private student loan borrowers may also have these options available to them, but it varies by lender and there may be fees attached to certain requests. (It’s best to ask about these options ahead of time — you can find more about vetting private student lenders here.)

There are also ways to lower the cost of your college education before and while in school. These options include looking into scholarships and grants, working part-time while taking classes and attending community college for few years before transferring to a four-year institution — more on how to pay for college without building a mountain of debt here.

Image: Geber86

 

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4 Serious Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Lie on Your Taxes

Thinking of lying on your tax return? Here's why that's a very bad idea.

The average tax refund is more than $3,000. When you hear that number and do your taxes, only to find out that your refund is much less — or worse, that you owe money — it can be tempting to fudge the numbers and increase your refund.

But misrepresenting your income on your return counts as tax fraud, and has serious consequences. Below, find out what happens if you lie on your taxes and what IRS penalties you could face.

1. You Can Get Audited

Because the IRS gets all of the 1099s and W-2s you receive, they know if you do not report all of your income. Even if you accept unreported payments in cash or check, your financial activity can reveal red flags about what income you do not report, potentially triggering an audit.

An IRS audit is an extensive review of your taxes and financial records to ensure you reported everything accurately. Though most people have a less than 1% chance of being audited, it’s not worth the risk.

Undergoing an audit is a time-intensive and costly process that involves providing years of documentation and even in-person interviews. If the IRS audits you, you can (and probably should) hire a professional to represent you and your interests. While that’s a smart idea, it can be a pricey, unexpected cost.

While the IRS may have only flagged one return for audit, they can review any return from the past six years. If they find more issues, they can add penalties and fines for every year they find problems. If you made tax mistakes for the past several years, you could end up owing thousands for taxes you misrepresented.

2. Tax Fraud Carries Heavy Penalties and Fees

If the IRS does select you for audit and they find errors, the penalties and fines can be steep.

According to Joshua Zimmelman, president of Westwood Tax and Consulting, fudging your taxes to reduce your tax bill or boost your refund can cost you more in the long run.

“If you don’t pay your tax liability by the due date, the IRS will charge you a late payment penalty. Even if you file on time, you may still be charged a late payment penalty if you under report your income and the IRS finds out,” Zimmelman said.

And the penalty is just the start. The IRS can also charge you interest on the underpayment as well. “If you’re found guilty of tax evasion or tax fraud, you might end up having to pay serious fines,” said Zimmelman.

While tax evasion or tax fraud is normally imagined as something that affects high earners and big executives, even those with lower incomes need to be careful. When describing the penalties for tax fraud, the IRS does not differentiate between income amounts or how much you underpaid your taxes. If you falsify any information on a return, they can fine you up to $250,000.

3. Criminal Charges Are Possible

Besides potentially owing thousands in IRS penalties, fees, and interest, you could also face criminal charges.

“Tax fraud is a felony and punishable by up to five years in prison,” said Zimmelman. “Failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts might result in up to 10 years in prison.”

Criminal investigations and charges start when an IRS auditor detects possible fraud during their audit of your returns. Courts convict approximately 3,000 people every year of tax fraud, signaling how serious the IRS takes lying on your taxes.

The odds of the IRS charging you for fraud is relatively small — if you’re investigated, the chances are less than 20 percent that you’ll face a criminal charge — but the potential consequences are severe. It’s not worth the risk to get a little extra money in your refund.

4. You May Miss Out on a Mortgage or Loan

Finally, not reporting all of your income can have serious ramifications when it comes to buying a car or a home.

“If you under-report your income, it might hurt you when you try to buy a house or apply for a personal loan,” said Zimmelman. “You might not get it if it looks like you cannot afford to pay it back, so lying on your taxes may hurt in that respect.”

When mortgage companies and banks review your application, they request copies of your tax returns to check your total income. If you lied about your income to lower your tax liability, your full income won’t be on the return. That means you may be denied for the loan you need, hurting your financial future.

Accurately Report Your Taxes

No one likes owing money at tax time or missing out on a big refund. But tax fraud is a serious criminal action, and glossing over your income or boosting your deductions counts as lying to the IRS.

Saving yourself a little money at filing time can end up costing you thousands of dollars with auditing, penalties, and fines. Save yourself the trouble and report your information accurately.

For more information on filing your taxes, avoid these six common mistakes millennials make on their taxes.

Image: Jacob Ammentorp Lund

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Want to Pause Your Student Loan Payments? Here’s What You Need to Know

You might be able to postpone your student loan payments, but make sure you've considered the financial consequences before you do.

If you’re struggling with a medical emergency, unemployment or other financial crisis, making your student loan payments can be impossible. Rather than fall behind, you can opt to put your payments on hold through student loan deferment or forbearance.

Deferment is an option that lets you postpone both your principal and interest payments. If you qualify, you can pause payments for up to three years. Forbearance is more temporary — you can postpone or reduce your monthly payments for up to 12 months.

However, delaying your payments through deferment or forbearance can have serious financial repercussions. Depending on the type of loans you have, your loan balance can continue to grow due to interest and other fees.

Choosing Deferment or Forbearance

Below, find out how your loan type affects deferment and forbearance, and what alternatives you may have.

Deferring Federal Loans

With certain federal loans, you don’t have to worry about interest payments if you enter deferment.

If you have federal Perkins loans, Direct subsidized loans or subsidized Stafford loans, the government will cover the interest that accrues on your loans while your loans are in deferment. With your interest taken care of while you get back on your feet, you will have less to pay back in interest.

If you have unsubsidized federal loans or PLUS loans, the government will not pay for the interest that accrues during deferment. If you defer your loans, they will continue to gain interest, possibly causing your balance to balloon and costing you thousands. Not to mention your debt-to-income ratio will get worse, making it more difficult to qualify for new credit such as a mortgage or car loan. (Not sure where your credit stands? You can view two of your scores, with updates every 14 days, for free on Credit.com.)

Before entering deferment, use a student loan deferment calculator to find out how much interest will accrue on your student loans if you postpone your payments.

Federal Loans and Forbearance

Unlike deferment, your federal loans will continue to accrue interest in forbearance, regardless of the loan type. Because interest continues to build, entering forbearance can be costly, but it’s still better than missing payments and defaulting on your loans.

Is Deferment/Forbearance Available on Private Loans?

Technically, deferment and forbearance are federal loan benefits. Not all private loan servicers offer similar options — but some do. For example, SoFi offers deferment for students who are going back to school. And if you’re facing a financial difficulty, you may be able to enter forbearance for up to a year.

If you’re experiencing financial hardship, it’s worth asking your servicer if deferment or forbearance is an option. Just keep in mind that entering deferment or forbearance with private loans can be more expensive than federal loans. There are often fees you have to pay, and interest will accrue while you postpone your payments.

Alternatives to Deferment or Forbearance

If you want to avoid pausing your student loan payments completely, there are other ways to manage payments when they’re too high:

Income-Driven Repayment Plans

If you have federal student loans, you may be eligible for an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan. There are four IDR plans available today: income-based repayment (IBR), income-contingent repayment (ICR), Pay As You Earn (PAYE), and Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE).

Under each plan, the basics are about the same: The federal government extends your repayment term 20 to 25 years and caps your monthly payment at a percentage of your discretionary income. At the end of the term, your remaining balance (if any) is discharged. You still have to pay income taxes on the forgiven amount, however.

Enrolling in an IDR plan can drastically reduce your payments and give your budget more breathing room. Depending on your income and family situation, you may qualify for a payment as low as $0 per month.

Refinancing

Unfortunately, if you have private loans, your options are more limited. But one effective way to reduce your monthly payments is to refinance your debt. By refinancing, you take out a new loan that pays off your old private loans. Your new loan will have completely new terms, including — ideally — a lower interest rate.

Refinancing private loans can help lower your payments and help you pay less in interest over time. It’s a smart way to save money while giving yourself more room in your budget. Be sure to keep in mind that if you refinance federal student loans with a private lender, however, you forfeit federal protections such as IDR and deferment/forbearance eligibility.

Deciding What to Do in a Hardship

Student loan forbearance and deferment are useful options when you experience a financial hardship. If you’re facing an emergency and can’t keep up with your payments, deferment or forbearance can give you a much-needed break while you get back on your feet.

While entering deferment or forbearance is a much wiser option than defaulting on your debt, there are still consequences. Make sure you understand the financial impact of postponing your payments, as putting them off can add thousands to your student loan balance. And in the case of private loans, postponing may not be an option at all.

If you’re struggling to keep up with your loans, the most important thing is to be proactive and talk directly with your servicer to find out what options are available to you.

Image: PeopleImages

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3 Rules to Live by If You Want to Get Out of Debt

Desperate to get out of debt? Here are three rules to live by.

When you’re so good at saving money that you can retire at age 31, people understandably want to hear your money tips. That’s how Clark Howard ended up with his own radio show, where he takes consumers’ questions about all things personal finance.

As it often is, debt has been a popular topic recently, and Howard has a few tried-and-true tips he likes to share with consumers. Whether you’re committed to paying down huge credit card balances or simply want to avoid ending up in debt, here are three things Howard recommends you do.

1. Always Save Some Money

Saving money is Howard’s primary approach to getting out of debt. Shoot for a savings rate of a dime per dollar earned (or 10%), but if you’re not saving anything right now, start by setting aside a penny per dollar (1%) and increase your savings rate every six months, he said.

“Now you may wonder, what does this have to do with eliminating debt in your life?” he said. “You have to start off by learning to live on less than what you make.”

Unless you can find a way to make more money, that means you need to cut things from your budget and put that extra money toward your debt (or a savings account, so you don’t have to turn to a credit card in an emergency).

2. Pay More Than the Minimum

“A lot of people pay the minimum payment because that’s what the bill says,” said Alex Sadler, managing editor of Clark.com. Doing that could leave you in debt for a very long time, so make it a priority to budget for more than the monthly payment. Credit card bills also include a section that says how much you need to pay each month in order to get out of debt in 36 months (three years), which can help you figure out how much room you need to make in your budget to get out of debt.

When you have multiple debts to pay off, Howard recommends using the “laddering method” to save the most money. That means focusing on the debt with the highest interest rate first.

“Keep throwing money at it, and [on] all the others pay the minimum,” Howard said. “Methodically, step by step, work your way to zero debt.”

It helps to make a list of all your debts and their interest rates. In fact, most people who call Howard don’t know how much debt they have, so sitting down and getting a sense of the numbers is a great place to start.

“If you ever want to get out of debt … the first thing you have to do is figure out how much debt you owe, and then you can make a plan,” Sadler said.

3. Find a Cheaper Alternative

One of the most common kind of questions Howard gets these days is about student loan debt, particularly from older consumers who borrowed or cosigned on behalf of children or grandchildren. As with all kinds of debt, the best thing to do is avoid it in the first place, because once you’re in debt, there’s usually not much you can do to get rid of it other than pay it off. (This is especially true of education-related debt, because it’s rarely discharged in bankruptcy.)

“The reality with anybody approaching college is the cost of college needs to be the highest priority,” Howard said. “You may have your favorite, but if your favorite would put you into very heavy debt or your family into very heavy debt, you need to go with a different school.”

Though he’s talking about education, that approach applies to anything that could put you in debt. You can’t always avoid going into debt, but if you save up as much as you can and opt for more affordable things (like a vehicle with fewer options or a home with most but not all of the things on your wish list), you’ll end up borrowing less and spending less money on interest.

As you work to pay down and stay out of debt, keep an eye on your credit scores. Not only will good credit help you qualify for better terms on things like an auto loan or mortgage, it can also make it easier to get everyday necessities like a cell phone or utility accounts. You can see two of your credit scores for free, with updates available every 14 days, on Credit.com

Image: FangXiaNuo

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Will Rising Interest Rates Really Impact Student Loan Borrowers?

Will rising interest rates affect student loans? Here's what you need to know.

The Federal Reserve’s benchmark interest rate is on the rise. These rates already increased once in December, and experts are predicting another three rate increases for 2017.

This could mean more earnings on your savings, but it could also mean higher interest on your debt. While that’s hardly a welcome announcement for anyone paying down debt, it’s not all bad.

Federal Rates on the Rise

You might be wondering why, in a time of deep student loan debt, the Federal Reserve would consider raising its rate. According to Janet Yellen, the Fed’s chairwoman, the rate increase is “a vote of confidence in the economy.”

This is because the Fed decreases its benchmark rate during times of economic uncertainty. Since the Great Recession, rates have been historically low to give borrowers a chance to get out from underneath crushing debt. But as the economy improves, the rate needs to increase to prevent inflation.

In short, a higher federal benchmark interest rate means a strengthening economy. But what does it mean for your student loans? That answer will depend on the kind of student loans you have.

Fixed- vs. Variable-Rate Loans

First, it’s important to understand the differences between fixed and variable rates.

Fixed-rate student loans have interest rates that remain the same for the entire repayment period; they don’t change with the market. So let’s say you took out a 10-year student loan with a fixed rate of 6%. If the Fed raises rates today, your student loan interest rate will remain 6% until the loan is paid off. However, anyone who takes out a new loan after rates increase could end up with a higher rate than you.

If you have a private student loan, on the other hand, it could have a variable interest rate. Variable rates are tied to the market and can increase or decrease according to federal rate changes. How much and how often the rate changes is up to the particular lender.

If you’re wondering whether the rates on your student loans are fixed or variable, read your statements to find out. While you don’t have to worry about federal fixed-rate student loans, there’s no telling how much a variable-rate loan might increase. The Fed’s rate is a benchmark, but it’s entirely up to banks and lenders where to go from there.

How to Handle Rising Rates

If you have variable-rate student loans, it might be a good idea to do something now in case of potential increases. Here are a few things you can do to get ahead of the curve.

1. Look Into Refinancing

If you’re worried about any variable rates on your private student loans rising, refinancing can be a good strategy for lowering your rate as well as switching to a fixed-rate loan.

Currently, it’s only possible to refinance student loans through a private lender. That means refinancing federal student loans would result in some drawbacks, including the loss of federal loan protections such as forbearance, deferment and forgiveness.

In this case, however, there’s no need to refinance federal student loans; refinancing private variable-rate loans is what will protect you against future rate increases.

2. Strategize to Pay Your Loans Off Faster

If your rates are already as low as possible, an interest rate hike might be good motivation to get ahead of your debt.

Of course, you might not have the extra cash to pay off your loans faster. Instead try making bi-weekly payments: Split your monthly payment in half, and apply that amount to your loans every other week.

Why? This will result in making one extra payment per year without taking a huge chunk out of your budget. Just make sure your first two bi-weekly payments hit your account before the next month’s due date. You want to avoid accidentally paying less than the minimum.

3. Communicate With Your Servicer

If the interest rate on any of your student loans does increase and your monthly payment grows beyond what you can afford, contact your loan servicer immediately.

It can be a scary step to take, but it’s far more helpful than ignoring an impending issue. Missing payments on your student loans risks going into default, taking a big hit to your credit score — or even having your paychecks or tax refund garnished. Most lenders would rather work with you to come up with a payment plan, so find out what your options are right away. (Not sure where your credit stands? You can view two of your credit scores, with updates every two weeks, on Credit.com.)

Whatever You Do, Don’t Panic

Anyone with student loan debt can speak to the way it seems to affect every aspect of life. That’s why news of things like an interest rate hike can be so worrisome. But if you’re feeling nervous right now, don’t panic.

When the Fed raises rates, it does so incrementally. Though your lender doesn’t have to follow suit with an incremental increase, you probably won’t see a massive jump in your current rate. Until you know what your lender is going to do, stay calm and keep making those payments.

Use these tips to help you get out from under the rock of student loan debt. No matter what the Fed does to its benchmark interest rate, you’ve got this.

Image: mihailomilovanovic

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