8 Ways to Navigate the Student Loan Waters

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Shortly after graduating from New York University with a Master’s degree, Melanie Lockert turned to food stamps, as she worked her way out of $81,000 in student loans.

“There were a lot of emotions around carrying that debt. It caused a lot of stress and depression and anxiety for a long time,” she shared with me recently during an interview on my podcast.

The student loan crisis in America has reached epidemic proportions. With households across the country carrying $1.26 trillion in student loans, it is the second largest category of debt following mortgage debt.

For the class of 2016, the average student loan balance is $37,172, up six percent from the previous year, according to a new analysis by student loan expert Mark Kantrowitz published in the Wall Street Journal.

If you’re struggling to make ends meet due to student loans or wondering how you’ll ever pay off the debt in a timely manner, here are some key steps to support you along the way.

Never Pay Late. Ever.

Whoever likes to call student loans “good debt,” has probably never faced a late payment. “Falling behind on payments can cause federal loans to enter default, triggering expensive fees and collections,” says Heather Jarvis, attorney and student loan expert.

If you miss several payments and are in default, federal loan borrowers may also seize your wages, tax refunds and possibly social security benefits. And you can only imagine how all this can damage your credit score. (Keep reading for advice on what to do if you’re already in default.)

To avoid ever paying late, sign up for automatic payments with your lender. Doing so could also earn you a reduced interest rate (usually 0.25%), which could save you hundreds of dollars, maybe more, over the life of your loan.

Extend the Term

Speaking of your loan’s life, extending the term from 10 to 15 or 20 years could provide you with some payment relief since when you extend the term, your monthly payments decrease.

Bear in mind that since your interest rate remains the same this strategy may mean you’ll end up paying more to pay off the loan over time.

One way to avoid paying too much more interest is to take advantage of the smaller monthly payments for only a window of time. As soon as your finances strengthen place more than the monthly minimum towards your balance to help you get out of debt closer to your original term. Be sure to place extra payments directly towards the principal to knock down the debt even faster.

Tap Government Assistance

If you have federal student loans you may qualify for Income-Based Repayment (IBR), a government program that helps qualifying borrowers cap loan payments to a percentage of income, typically 10% of their income. The program will also forgive any remaining student loan debt after 20 or 25 years of making payments.

The Department of Education also has a program called Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). If you work full-time for a “public service” employer such as not-for-profits, AmeriCorps or PeaceCorps, the military or a government agency, PLSF may forgive your remaining federal loan debt after 10 years of employment.

If You’re Already Behind…You Have Options

If you’re in default, Jay Fleischman, a student loan and bankruptcy attorney, says you may be able to consolidate your loans under the U.S. Department of Education’s Direct Consolidation Loan Program, which is free and does not depend on creditworthiness.  “You could also rehabilitate by making nine agreed-upon monthly payments over a 10-month period of time with the collector assigned to the account. Those payments may be adjusted based on your income, and payments can be as low as $5 per month,” he says.

For private student loan borrowers, “the situation is markedly different because there is no right to consolidate or rehabilitate unless the lender has a specific program to do so,” says Fleischman. Contact your loan servicer and learn about ways you may be able to reduce or eliminate payments until you get back on your feet, he says.

If your lender won’t budge, you may choose to remain in default until a settlement opportunity presents itself or until the statute of limitations for collection expires. As a last resort, you may also consider bankruptcy as a way to wipe out other debts and repay your student loans under court supervision. “Though bankruptcy may not wipe out your student loans except in limited circumstances, many people opt for bankruptcy as a way to get more control over the ways in which your loans get paid,” says Fleischman.

Tap Home Equity…With Caution

Homeowners may be eligible to use a home equity line of credit (HELOC) to pay off their remaining student loan balance. This allows them to pay off the student loan with the existing equity in their home and save money if the HELOC has a lower interest rate than the student loan.

There’s also a new program offered by online lender SoFi called the Student Loan Payoff ReFi that allows some homeowners to pay down student debt using their home’s equity.  SoFi refinances the total amount of your student loans and existing mortgage at a lower rate. Through that process your student loan balance is paid off directly to the loan provider.

To qualify, SoFi says borrowers need healthy credit scores (check your free credit score to verify you qualify), a debt-to-income ratio that’s 45% or less (calculate debt-to-income ratio to see if you fall under this number) and a loan-to-value ratio that’s 80% or less (meaning you can’t be underwater on your mortgage). You can calculate your debt-to-income ratio with Turbo, and

Just keep in mind that when paying off your student loans with home equity – be it through SoFi or another lender – if you default on the consolidated loan the lender has the right to use your home as collateral and foreclose on the property. It’s a serious risk if you don’t have enough in savings or stable income to help you get by during tough times.

Remember to Deduct It

Student loans are no fun, but paying them can yield lower taxes. Each year the IRS lets borrowers deduct up to $2,500 in student loan interest from their taxable income.

Maybe Your Employer Can Help?

A growing number of companies are helping employees squash their student loans as an added perk like a 401(k) and health care.

Gradifi is a Boston-based start-up that’s working with over 200 employers to set up its student loan pay down plan, including PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

It’s a trend that’s likely to grow over the years with more than 50 percent of student loan borrowers saying they would rather receive student loan benefits than heath care from their employer.

Start a Side Hustle

While it’s important to cut back on spending to make room for paying down debt, that move alone isn’t always enough. “Pinching pennies and cutting back is really useful as an initial strategy, but at some point, there’s only so much you can cut back,” says Lockert, whose now chronicled her debt payoff strategies in the book Dear Debt: A Story About Breaking Up With Debt.

Through a series of side hustles over the years, including housecleaning, event assisting and pet sitting, earning $10 to $50 per hour, Lockert managed to not only afford her living expenses, but also erase five figures worth of student loan debt.

Depending on your interests, you can find relatively easy gigs at sites like TaskRabbit, Tutor.com, GigWalk and Care.com.

Have a question for Farnoosh? You can submit your questions via Twitter @Farnoosh, Facebook or email at farnoosh@farnoosh.tv (please note “Mint Blog” in the subject line).

Farnoosh Torabi is America’s leading personal finance authority hooked on helping Americans live their richest, happiest lives. From her early days reporting for Money Magazine to now hosting a primetime series on CNBC and writing monthly for O, The Oprah Magazine, she’s become our favorite go-to money expert and friend.