Repayment on the most common student loans (federal Stafford loans) starts six months after the borrower graduates. So, if like most new college grads, you donned a cap and gown in May of this year, it’s about time to pay up.
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Paying off student loan debt can be intimidating, but there are many things you can do to reduce the stress of the situation.
1. Connect With Your Lender
The first thing you need to do is figure out how much you need to pay and when that first payment is due. Between now and then, get yourself organized, but make sure you don’t miss that first payment.
When you borrowed the money, your student loan servicer would have contacted you, and you’ve probably been receiving mail from them ever since. If you’re unsure who has your loan, you can look it up in the National Student Loan Data System.
Once you know who you’ll have to pay, set up your online account with the servicer. The student loan servicer’s website is where you’ll most likely manage everything having to do with your loan, including making payments, reviewing statements, communicating with servicer representatives and requesting any changes to your account.
Get familiar with your servicer and its website. You’ll be making payments on these loans for the next several years, and while it’s possible your student loan servicer will change, you need to know where to go if you ever have questions about your loans.
2. Make a Budget
Once you’ve looked up your loan information, you should know what your monthly payment will be. You need to make your student loan payments in order to keep the account and your credit in good standing, so it should be a top priority when determining your budget.
You can very rarely discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy, so if you fall behind, it takes a lot of work to catch up. If you default on your federal student loans, the government can garnish your wages and seize your tax refund, not to mention the debt collectors you’ll have to deal with. Get in the habit of making your loan payments on time every month from the very beginning, and regularly check your credit score to see how your loans affect your credit (you can get two credit scores for free every 30 days on Credit.com).
3. Research Repayment Options
If you’re crunching the numbers and you can’t figure out a way to afford the monthly payments, immediately reach out to your student loan servicer. With federal loans, most borrowers can set up a monthly payment based on their income with pay-as-you-earn or income-based repayment plans. Some private student lenders also have options for adjusting payments, so if you’re not sure about your options, ask.
Depending on your loans and your career path, you may also qualify for student loan forgiveness. You might even have a student loan repayment assistance program through your employer. Take advantage of whatever help might be available to you.
There are many resources available to borrowers to guide you through communicating with your loan servicer and understanding options available, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's loan repayment tip sheet.
4. Commit to a Plan
Put a reminders in your calendar so you know when a loan payment is coming up. Make sure you’ve budgeted for the loan payment, and send the money on time. To make matters easier, you can set up a recurring automatic payment so you don’t have to worry about getting checks in the mail on time or accidentally missing a due date. Your servicer might even lower your interest rate if you sign up for the automatic payment.
Take the time each month to make sure your payments go through (and that you have enough money in your bank account to cover them), and if your financial circumstances change, make sure you’re doing everything you can to keep your loan accounts in good standing. Sometimes, figuring out that first payment is the hardest part, but once you get in the habit of it, paying off your student loan debt may not be so bad after all.
This article originally appeared on Credit.com.
Christine DiGangi covers personal finance for Credit.com. Previously, she managed communications for the Society of Professional Journalists, served as a copy editor of The New York Times News Service and worked as a reporter for the Oregonian and the News & Record. More by Christine DiGangi