You don’t have to struggle to manage student loans by yourself. But use caution if you pay to get help.
Some so-called “debt relief” companies claim they’ll eliminate your student debt, but they charge for services you can obtain on your own for free. If you’ve been in touch with a for-profit company that’s charging to consolidate your loans or sign you up for federal loan forgiveness, check if it’s on NerdWallet’s Student Loan Watch List. If it is, you might want to think twice.
The resources below are legitimate ways to get student loan help, and they’re alternatives to working with “debt relief” companies. Some are free, while others cost money, like credit counselors and student loan lawyers. But these fee-for-service options offer reputable, personalized service, and they may be worth it if you have a complex debt situation.
Here are your options — and which circumstances make it wise to pursue them.
1. Call your student loan servicer
The federal government and many private lenders assign a student loan servicer to each borrower. The servicer collects student loan payments and should serve as the first point of contact for nearly every question about your student loans.
Servicers process requests for student loan consolidation or changes to repayment plans, and they provide administrative help.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your loans, call your servicer to discuss options to relieve the stress. Servicers process requests for student loan consolidation or changes to repayment plans. They provide administrative help, too, like dealing with errors on your bill or updating your address.
Find your federal student loan servicer by logging into the National Student Loan Data System with your Federal Student Aid ID. For private loans, ask the original lender whom to contact for billing and customer service inquiries.
2. Sign up for income-driven repayment
Perhaps you’re certain you need a lower student loan payment for the foreseeable future. It’s always a good idea to call your servicer for help navigating the options. But if you have federal loans, you can also skip directly to signing up for income-driven repayment.
This program is a suite of four repayment plans that reduce your monthly bill to a percentage of your income. After 20 or 25 years of payments, you’ll also receive forgiveness on the remaining balance. The best plan for you depends on many factors, so use the Federal Student Aid’s Repayment Estimator tool to see which you qualify for. Sign up for free on studentloans.gov.
Private loans have fewer repayment alternatives. Still, stay in close contact with your lender or servicer and ask how you can reduce payments, perhaps through an interest rate discount or interest-only payments for a period of time.
3. Apply for forgiveness if you qualify
There’s no such thing as “Obama student loan forgiveness.” Some “debt relief” companies use this term as a catchall for income-driven repayment plans. But while income-driven repayment can make loans much more affordable on a month-to-month basis, forgiveness doesn’t happen immediately and shouldn’t be the main reason you sign up.
Federal student loan forgiveness is available in a shorter time frame, however, in certain limited situations. Some depend on your job: Ask your servicer if you qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness or Teacher Loan Forgiveness, or contact your school for questions about Perkins loan cancellation, which is available to certain public-sector workers. Loan discharge due to a borrower’s total and permanent disability or school closure is also available. Check out Federal Student Aid’s discharge chart for a complete list of programs.
4. Work with a nonprofit credit counseling agency
You may feel so overwhelmed that you’re unsure how to begin wrangling your loans, you don’t know what questions to ask your student loan servicer, or you’re scared to look at your balance. Paying for one-on-one student loan counseling might be for you.
Student loan counselors at nonprofit credit counseling agencies are different from customer service representatives at “debt relief” companies. They receive training in student loan management and generally charge less money for more customized help. Fees vary by agency, but you’ll likely pay $50 for an initial session that will provide you with a personalized repayment plan. For $250, or sometimes more, a counselor will offer more intensive help as you carry out the plan.
Fees vary, but you’ll likely pay $50 for an initial session that will provide you with a personalized student loan repayment plan.
Search for a counselor trained by a respected organization such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
5. Hire a student loan lawyer
When you skip federal student loan payments for nine months, or private loan payments for an even shorter amount of time, those loans go into default.
That will severely impact your credit and could lead to serious stress. You can get out of federal student loan default using options like rehabilitation and consolidation, and your servicer can help you determine the best outcome.
But private loan default can get especially messy. Private lenders may sue you to collect the debt because they’re unable to retrieve it by garnishing pay or seizing tax refunds, as the government can. If you’ve been sued, it’s often best to hire a student loan lawyer, or at least set up a short consultation with one to figure out your defense.
Find an attorney using the National Association of Consumer Advocates. If you’re unsure you can afford legal help, search for free or low-cost aid on lawhelp.org.