3 things to do ahead of the impending student loan payment restart

It’s been 19 months since the initial freeze was placed on federal student loan payments through the CARES Act. And Jan. 31, 2022, will mark the final day of freedom for student loan borrowers to choose whether or not to make their payments; in February, student loan payments will become part of their monthly budgets once again. 

Borrowers have questioned whether there’s a possibility of an additional freeze extension, but student loan experts have told Fortune that’s “highly unlikely.” President Joe Biden and White House officials have also said that January 2022 will mark the end of student loan forbearance. 

One thing is for sure: Feb. 1 is fewer than 100 days away. With that in mind, federal student loan borrowers must bootstrap themselves for the impending payment restart, especially if this will be their first payment in nearly two years. 

Some federal student loan borrowers have been holding out on making payments in hopes that debt cancellation could come to fruition. Student loan experts caution against that hope, however, and instead encourage borrowers to take a hard look at their financial situation and make any necessary adjustments before forbearance lets up.

“Continue to keep a pulse on discussions that are out there,” Kaitlin Walsh-Epstein, senior vice president of marketing at Laurel Road, a loan refinancing platform, tells Fortune. “Make sure that you’re not putting your financial future on hold waiting for something to happen.”

With just three months to go until payments restart, here are three steps to take now.

Contact your federal student loan servicer

Federal student loan servicers should contact you about the restart of your loan payments. For example, I’ve received several voicemails from my federal student loan servicer, Nelnet, reminding me that payments will be due again beginning on Feb. 1, 2022. Make sure you haven’t ignored those calls or letters.

“The most important piece of advice I share with all borrowers, regardless of how long they’ve been paying their loans, is to read,” Stacey MacPhetres, senior director of education finance at EdAssist Solutions, tells Fortune. “Read every piece of mail and email you get regarding your loans so you can make knowledgeable and informed decisions about your payments.”

Some student loan servicers don’t appear quite ready yet for this massive load of transactions to start up again, though. In July 2021, Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey sent a letter to Biden with findings from a questionnaire sent to federal student loan servicers that indicate the companies needed more time “to ensure that borrowers are supported when reentering payment on their student loans.”

It’s also important to know that a few student loan servicers have ended their contracts with the federal government, including Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), also known as FedLoan, and Navient, which passed along its business to Maximus. Affected borrowers will have a new loan servicer going forward. Borrowers should check in to make sure they have the same servicer as before the CARES Act, which put a pause on federal student loan payments.

“Borrowers who had been in repayment prior to the CARES Act should identify their loan servicer,” MacPhetres says. “They may be able to restart with the servicer they had prior to the CARES Act forbearance if loans are in transition, which should be identified on the servicer site.”

Understand your repayment plan

Most borrowers have a mix of federal and private student loans, so it’s critical to understand what your breakdown is. The Jan. 31, 2022, deadline also marks the end of the 0% interest rate federal student loan borrowers have gotten during the pandemic. 

All borrowers, regardless of the type of loans they hold, can look into refinancing options to lower their interest rate or find other options for their loan term. Both federal and private loans have their pros and cons, Walsh-Epstein reminds borrowers. For example, federal student loans allow borrowers to look into income-driven repayment options and unemployment protections. 

“Do your homework,” she says. “Understand what’s available to you and what the benefits are for both of those. Don’t just set it and forget it. It’s important for you to continually revisit this and understand what your evolving options are.”

Take time to budget

Now is also a good time to create a budget to “make sure that those monthly payments match your ability to repay that debt each month,” Walsh-Epstein suggests.

“A student loan is absolutely a line item in the budget,” she adds. “You have to understand how much money is coming in each month and how much money is going out.”

During the next three months, MacPhetres says, borrowers should get in the habit of tracking their spending and make a plan that “accounts for all necessary expenses and eliminates unnecessary expenses to free up cash flow that can be redirected towards paying down their student loans.”

To avoid default, it’s important to know your payment due date each month.

“It’s also critical to make your payments on time, and if you can’t, you should communicate that to your servicer as soon as possible,” MacPhetres says.

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