Student loan forbearance is a way to lower or stop making your payments temporarily. It is not a long-term affordability strategy, nor is it a way to put off repayment indefinitely.
And that means very few people should use it — probably far fewer than are right now. In the first quarter of 2019, almost 2.7 million federal student loan borrowers had loans in forbearance, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Think of forbearance as a last resort to avoid student loan default. Use it only if all the following are true:
You can’t pay your loans.
You don’t expect to wait long to restart repayment.
You won’t qualify for deferment, which is a better option for pausing repayment.
If you’re worried about affording your federal student loans in the long run, opt for an income-driven repayment plan instead to help keep your payments manageable.
What is student loan forbearance?
Student loan forbearance is an option that lets you temporarily pause or reduce your monthly payments.
Federal student loan forbearance usually lasts 12 months at a time and has no maximum length. That means you can request forbearance as many times as you want, though servicers may limit how much you receive.
There are three overarching types of federal student loan forbearance: general, mandatory and administrative. Here’s when you would use each one.
Many private lenders offer student loan forbearance as well. This is usually for a total of 12 months, but there’s no standard or required amount. Look at your loan’s paperwork or contact your lender to learn about your forbearance options and the application process.
Is student loan forbearance bad?
When you put loans in any type of forbearance, interest continues to accrue on your balance. That interest is capitalized, or added to your balance, at the end of the forbearance. This increases the amount you end up repaying.
Because forbearance is often available to anyone with financial difficulties — and there’s no limit to how long you can get it for — these costs can really add up over time.
For example, after putting $30,000 in loans on hold for 12 months at 6% interest, $1,800 worth of interest would have accrued. Now, you’d owe $31,800, and future interest would accrue on that higher balance. Estimate how much a forbearance could cost you with this calculator.
Who should use student loan forbearance?
Student loan forbearance is a quick fix, but its costs make it a less-than-ideal repayment option. Choose forbearance only for short, one-off financial crises, like when you need money for a big auto repair or medical bill.
If forbearance makes sense for you, opt to reduce your payments — instead of stopping them altogether — or to at least pay the interest that accrues before it capitalizes. This will help prevent a tough financial situation from getting worse.