Should I Make Student Loan Payments Right Now, Even If I Don't Have To?
You could get ahead on your student loan debt even while payments are paused
Millions of student loans are in forbearance with no interest through Jan. 31, 2021. The CARES Act—passed in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—included several temporary policies that offered relief to borrowers with federally owned student loans. Beyond suspending payments, it also set interest rates at 0% during the forbearance period from March 13, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2020. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos twice extended that forbearance period, most recently on Dec. 4, 2020, through the end of the following month.
Should You Pay Your Student Loans Right Now?
You might wonder if you have to make student loan payments right now—and if it’s a good idea to pay anyway. Here’s what to consider before making that decision.
If Your Student Loans Aren’t in Forbearance
Before you stop making payments, check to make sure your student loans are actually covered in this forbearance period. For example, these common student loan types aren’t federally owned, making them ineligible for CARES Act student loan relief and forbearance:
- Private student loans
- Student loans extended and owned by state or local education agencies
- Federal Perkins loans
- Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) that are privately owned
Because these loans are ineligible, you’ll need to continue making your full, regular monthly payments. Student loan interest will continue to accrue at the rate stated in your loan agreement.
Not sure if your loans are federally owned? You can log into the National Student Loan Database System (NSLDS) to view federal student loan information, or check your credit reports for information on private student loans.
If You Want a Break From Payments
You don’t have to do anything to take advantage of the loan program forbearance. Having no monthly student loan payment gives borrowers more financial options. This can provide crucial breathing room in the budgets of borrowers experiencing unemployment or other financial hardships.
The CARES Act shields borrowers from the usual potential downsides of forbearance, such as unpaid interest accruing.
If You’re Pursuing Student Loan Forgiveness
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) and income-driven repayment plans provide potential paths to student loan forgiveness and repayment. But both programs require that borrowers make a certain number of on-time payments to be eligible to have their remaining student loan balance canceled.
The good news is that CARES Act student loan forbearance will still count toward satisfying these requirements for federally owned loans, even if you suspend payments now.
If You Already Defaulted on Your Loan
What if you have federally held student loans already in default? The CARES Act offers relief for you, too. It suspended involuntary collections such as wage garnishment or reductions of tax refunds.
The CARES Act student loan forbearance period could also be a good time to rehabilitate federal student loans in default. One path to student loan rehabilitation requires nine months of on-time student loan payments, which the current forbearance period would count toward.
If You Want to Get Ahead of Your Student Debt
Just because payments on your federal student loans are suspended doesn’t mean you can’t make a payment. If your income hasn’t been affected by COVID-19 and you can afford to do so, it could pay off.
All payments made during the forbearance period will be applied first to unpaid amounts accrued before March 13. If you have unpaid interest, this could be a chance to pay it off and avoid having it added, or capitalized, to your student loan balance.
Then payments are applied to your principal balance. You’ll pay your loan balance down more quickly and get out of debt sooner. Because your outstanding balance is what you’re charged interest on, a lower balance will mean lower costs, once the temporary 0% rate ends.
Borrowers in forbearance are still free to send partial or full payments at any time to their student loan servicer, with no penalties for underpayment. You can also choose to opt out of this automatic forbearance altogether, in which case your servicer will resume billing you for monthly payments.
Explore All Your Options
With so much economic uncertainty, money decisions carry more weight now than ever. As you make decisions about your student loans, consider your full financial picture.
Ask Your Private Lender or Servicer for Help
If you have student loans that aren’t covered under the CARES Act, you could still qualify for some form of forbearance or relief. Reach out to your lender or servicer to explain your needs and ask for assistance, such as lowering your monthly payment or interest rate, or forbearance.
Explore Options for FFEL Loans and Perkins Loans
Even if these loans aren’t eligible for CARES Act forbearance, general federal forbearance or repayment plans can still offer relief. Another option is consolidating these loans into a Direct Consolidation loan that would be eligible for the CARES Act payment and interest suspensions.
Weigh Student Loan Against Other Payment Priorities
Even if you can afford to continue making payments on federal student debt, there might be a wiser way to use that cash. You might put it toward your emergency savings in case you’re laid off, become ill, or face another hardship. You could also redirect that money to pay off a high interest debt, such as a credit card balance.
If you make a payment during this period of forbearance only to find you need it later, you might be able to get it back. The Department of Education has directed servicers to refund payments made during this forbearance at the borrower’s request.
The Bottom Line
For many, not making student loan payments will be crucial to financial survival during the coronavirus pandemic. For others, it could be a chance to finally get ahead of student debt.
And even if your student loans weren’t issued by the federal government, your lender or servicer may offer some form of forbearance or relief if you’re struggling to make payments during this crisis.