Student Loan Grace Period Almost Over? Get Ready

For many who graduated college in May, November is the start of something big: student loan repayment.

Subsidized and unsubsidized federal Direct and Stafford loans have a six-month grace period following graduation, meaning it’s time for May 2013 grads to pay up. (The grace period starts upon a student’s graduation, dropping below full-time student status or leaving school.)

Ideally, graduates are well-prepared for this financial responsibility, because this day has been coming since they took out the loans. Mitchell Weiss, a finance professor at the University of Hartford and a contributor, says student borrowers need to have a handle on their loan payments before leaving school, so there is plenty of time to arrange an affordable payment structure, if necessary.

It’s nearly November, so there’s no use fretting over what you should have done (but students and parents of future borrowers, take note: This should be dealt with long before October).

For borrowers entering repayment, here’s what needs to happen.

Determine Your Monthly Payment

You can look at your federal student loan information through the National Student Loan Data System, and you’ll be able to find your student loan servicers there. If for some reason you’re not already in contact with your servicers, reach out and confirm your monthly payments. Check your mail and email to be sure you haven’t missed any correspondence.

Figure Out How to Pay

The next step is to make sure you can afford the payments. If you haven’t yet found a job or are earning less than you anticipated, you may want to look into loan repayment plans that will make the payments affordable. Once again, this is where it is important to do the work well in advance.

“A good rule of thumb is their student loan payment should not exceed 10% of their prospective gross salary,” Weiss said. If it does, “they should really look at trying to get those things adjusted.”

The Department of Education offers a Pay As You Earn plan for eligible borrowers, so those concerned by high student loan payments should see if they qualify. Even if a borrower has procrastinated on making loan payments, the last thing to do is miss a payment.

Loan delinquencies leave a black mark on consumers’ credit reports, which can make it more difficult to access other forms of credit, like home and auto loans or credit cards. Especially for those with little credit history, delinquency is a fast track to poor credit scores.

What to Do If Your Payments Are Too High

Borrowers have to find a way to pay student loans. If your student loan payments don’t fit your budget, it’s your spending that has to change. Maybe you need to sideline that plan to move out of Mom and Dad’s, or split the rent among more roommates. The payments have to come from somewhere.

Even after corners have been cut, the payments can be too much. Concerned borrowers should talk to their loan servicers about consolidation, deferment or forbearance, keeping in mind that such measures could cost more money in the long run.

“You may have to do some things you don’t want to do,” Weiss said. “Debt will own you if you let it get away from you.”