5 options to consider if you can’t pay your student loans

Worried young woman sitting at home thinking about how to pay off student loans.Image: Worried young woman sitting at home thinking about how to pay off student loans.

In a Nutshell

Student loan repayment can be stressful, but you have some options if you’re having a tough time. You can contact your loan servicer, change your repayment plan, and look into loan forgiveness. Or you can consider loan consolidation, deferment or forbearance.
Editorial Note: Intuit Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our third-party advertisers don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. Information about financial products not offered on Credit Karma is collected independently. Our content is accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted.

When bills are piling up, student loan repayment might be the last thing on your mind.

Even though it’s tempting to avoid student loan repayment altogether, it’s important to continue managing your student loans. You don’t want to default on federal loans — doing so can have serious consequences.

If you fall behind on payments, the government could garnish your wages and withhold federal payments and tax refunds. You could even be prevented from purchasing or selling certain assets, and you could be sued.

You may also end up owing collection charges and fees if you default on your federal student loans.

If you find yourself unable to pay your student loans because times are tough, here are some student loan repayment options to consider.

  1. Contact your loan servicer to discuss your options
  2. Change your repayment plan
  3. Look into consolidation
  4. Consider deferment or forbearance
  5. Look into loan forgiveness
  6. Hear from an expert

1. Contact your loan servicer to discuss your options

Instead of letting your federal or private loans fall by the wayside, consider contacting your loan servicer immediately if you can’t make your student loan payments.

Your loan servicer can discuss options with you and help you stay in good standing with your loans, so you can take steps to avoid student loan default.

2. Change your repayment plan

If you’re struggling to keep up with your federal student loans, another thing you may want to do is change your repayment plan.

Most federal student loans are eligible for income-driven plans, which cap your monthly payments at 10% to 20% of your discretionary income.


What is discretionary income?

According to the Federal Student Aid website, your discretionary income is defined as the difference between your income and up to 150% of the poverty guideline for your state and family size. This means that for some, the required monthly payments could be zero dollars until the borrower’s discretionary income increases.

Types of repayment plans

Federal loans have a few repayment plans. Let’s take a look at some of the different options available.

Standard, graduated and extended repayment plans

  • A standard repayment plan has a fixed monthly payment.
  • A graduated repayment plan begins your payments with a lower amount, which gradually gets higher.
  • An extended payment plan lets you choose — your payments either can be fixed or graduated.

The repayment term periods for standard and graduated payment plans are up to 10 years for individual loans or up to 30 years if your loans are consolidated. For extended repayment plans, it’s up to 25 years.

Income-driven repayment plans

There also are some pay-as-you-earn repayment plans (also known as the SAVE and PAYE plans).

Repayment plans vary by loan and each plan comes with specific guidelines, so visit the U.S. Department of Education website to learn more details.

Before you change your repayment plan

If you’re considering applying to an income-based repayment plan, it’s important to calculate your potential payments using the official loan simulator before switching. In some cases, your payments could be larger than what they would be under a 10-year standard repayment plan.

Choosing an income-driven plan can help lower your payments and make them more manageable. You’ll likely pay more interest over time under one of these plans — but it could be a lifesaver if you’re having trouble making payments.

3. Look into consolidation

If you’re struggling to keep up with multiple monthly payments, you may want to consider consolidation. Federal student loan holders can apply for a direct consolidation loan, which consolidates your loans into one loan from a single lender and one monthly payment.

There’s no application fee, and most federal student loans are eligible for consolidation. Private student loan holders aren’t eligible for a direct consolidation loan. But if you have a mixture of private and federal loans, the federal loans will still be eligible for consolidation, and total student loan debt, including private student loans, will affect how long you have to repay your direct consolidation loan.

As consolidation can offer you up to 30 years to pay off your loans, your new monthly payment could be lower than your current payments. The downside? You’ll likely pay more in interest over the life of the loan and you may lose certain benefits, such as interest rate discounts and cancellation benefits. Because of this, it’s important to weigh the costs and benefits before you consolidate.

Student loans 101: A guide to loans for college

4. Consider deferment or forbearance

If you’re unable to repay your student loans because you’re experiencing economic hardship or are having difficulty finding work, you may be able to defer your federal loans for up to three years.

If you don’t qualify for deferment, you may be eligible for forbearance, which can postpone or reduce your payments for up to 12 months. For instances of medical expenses and financial hardship, your lender decides whether to approve you for general forbearance. In other cases, you may be eligible for mandatory forbearance if you meet certain eligibility requirements.

Borrowers must request deferment and forbearance — and they must continue to make payments until they’re approved.  During forbearance you’re responsible for paying the interest that accrues on all types of federal student loans. But you may not be responsible for paying the interest that accrues on certain types of loans during the deferment period, so make sure you understand how your specific situation works.


What does it mean to defer your federal student loans?

Deferment is the process of temporarily postponing your student loan payments. Depending on the type of loans you have — such as Federal Perkins loans, direct subsidized loans and subsidized Federal Stafford loans — the federal government may even pay the interest on your loans during deferment. You must submit a request to your loan servicer if you’re interested in deferring your student loans.

5. Look into loan forgiveness

Another option you may want to consider is loan forgiveness.

Through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, federal student loan borrowers who work in public service at a qualifying nonprofit or government agency may have their loans forgiven after 10 years of qualifying monthly payments.

Borrowers on an income-driven plan can qualify for loan forgiveness on their remaining loan balance if they make qualifying monthly payments for 20 to 25 years.

Bottom line

Student loan repayment can be stressful, but if you’re having a tough time, there are options for help.

If you can’t pay your student loans right now, the best thing to do is contact your loan servicer to discuss your options. Not taking action can negatively affect your financial life and could lead to default.

Hear from an expert

Q: What advice do you have for someone struggling with student loan payments?

A: “Talk with one’s lender and also a reputable debt consolidation company. There are likely to be ways to restructure debt to reduce payments, either by taking advantage of current interest rates or lengthening the loan. It is better to do this before missing a payment harming one’s credit.”

Dr. Alex Brown, Professor of Economics, Texas A&M University

About the author: Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about education, financial literacy and empowering people to take control of their finances. Her work has been f… Read more.