For all the knowledge you gained in college, you might feel uneducated and unprepared about how to handle your student loan payments once you graduate. After all, that grace period after graduation when you don’t have to make student loan payments won’t last forever.
With the average graduate’s monthly payment hovering around $351, you might find yourself scrambling to pay that bill if you’re not prepared for it. Luckily, our seven-step checklist below will get you ready to tackle your payments. That way, you can stay on track as you work toward being debt-free.
Here are seven actionable steps you should take before making that first payment.
|1. Complete exit counseling||Federal student loan borrowers are required to take a course on student loan repayment before graduation. If you have private loans, research your repayment options.|
|2. Make the most of your grace period||Make sure you know when the grace period for each of your student loans ends. Learn how much you owe and to which student loan servicers.|
|3. Review or change your repayment plan||You might be stuck with your repayment plan for private student loans. But you could tie your federal student loan payments to a percentage of your income if you meet certain qualifications.|
|4. Budget for loan payments||Whether you already have a job or not, figure out how your student loan payments will fit in with your other postgraduate expenses.|
|5. Set up autopay||Sign up for automatic payments. Many loan servicers offer an interest rate discount if you do.|
|6. Track your credit score||As you approach your first student loan payment, find your credit score for free online. Then, start tracking its progress as you improve your debt-to-income ratio.|
|7. Set a goal for your last payment||Once you complete the first six steps of our checklist, you’re ready to set a long-term goal for ending your student loan debt.|
1. Complete exit counseling
When you graduate or leave school, you’re required to complete exit counseling for your federal student loans.
You can complete the counseling in 20 to 30 minutes at StudentLoans.gov. You’ll need to track down or create a new Federal Student Aid ID to sign up.
The counseling might seem as boring as taking a defensive driving course online, especially if it goes over what you already learned as a freshman when you went through entrance counseling.
Whether it serves as a refresher course or seems like new material, exit counseling is important because it will review the following:
- The basics of how student loan interest works
- Student loan repayment plans that are available to you
- Strategies you can use to avoid defaulting on your loans
- Financial tips on budgeting, saving, and improving your credit score
If you’re solely a private student loan borrower, there’s no requirement to undergo postgraduate counseling. But if you want to understand your student loan repayment situation, contact your lender and ask them about:
- Your interest rate and estimated monthly payment
- Your first payment due date
- The terms of your grace period after graduation
2. Make the most of your grace period
As you learned during exit counseling, most federal student loans come with a grace period.
You have six months from the date of your college graduation before your first federal student loan payment becomes due. Many top private student loan companies, such as CommonBond, offer their borrowers the same benefit.
No matter how much time you have left, make the most of your grace period by:
- Finding your servicer: Federal student loan borrowers can go to the National Student Loan Data System to find their servicer. Fun fact: You might have more than one federal loan servicer. Each federal loan is assigned to one of nine servicers after it’s paid out.
- Creating an account with your servicer: Learn exactly how much you owe and what interest rates your loans have. Unless you only took out a Direct Subsidized Loan, your loan amount likely accrued interest while you were busy going to class.
- Talking with your servicer: Open up lines of communication by asking about your repayment plan options and first payment due date. If you have multiple servicers, track them down and speak with each of them.
3. Review or change your repayment plan
If you have multiple federal student loans, you might find it difficult to repay them on the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan you initially received.
You could opt to lower your monthly payment by switching to one of the income-driven repayment (IDR) plans available to federal student loan borrowers. Your payment would increase or decrease annually, depending on how your income changes. If you go this route, you’ll need to recertify your income annually. So, create a calendar alarm to ensure you don’t miss the deadline.
Say you switch to an Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan. It could limit your monthly payment to around 10% of your discretionary income. But it would also increase how much interest you’d pay over time.
Moving a $30,000 loan debt with a 5.70% interest rate to an IBR plan, for example, could shrink your monthly payment from $328 to $58. But you’d pay an additional $3,707 over your 20-year repayment term before qualifying for loan forgiveness, according to our IBR calculator.
If you have multiple loans with different federal loan servicers, you could also explore a Direct Consolidation Loan. It groups your federal student loans into one larger loan but won’t lower your average interest rate. In fact, it would be a weighted average of your existing loan rates.
Say you have one $5,000 loan at 5.00% and another $5,000 loan at 6.00%. Your Direct Consolidation Loan rate would be about 5.50%.
Before switching repayment plans or consolidating your federal student loans, understand that the following could change:
- Your monthly payment
- The length of your repayment term
- The amount of interest you’ll pay over that term
- Your access to student loan forgiveness
You can use the Repayment Estimator tool from the Department of Education (DOE) to choose the best plan for you. First, you enter your loan information into the tool. Then, it’ll spit out what your repayment would look like under each plan you’re eligible for.
For private loans, you’re likely stuck with the repayment plan you selected when you first took out your loan. Your options probably included making in-school payments to stay on top of accruing interest or deferring payments until graduation.
4. Budget for loan payments
Even if you switched to an IDR plan, you’ll need to get a handle on the dollar amount of your monthly payment.
Make it a line item on your budget of expenses. Your list could include:
- Student loan payments
- Transportation costs
- Monthly bills, such as utilities, cable, and phone
Then, calculate your income. If your first job out of college pays you every two weeks, multiply the after-tax amount by 2. To ensure you’re earning enough money to account for student loan payments and other essential expenses, use the following calculation:
Income – Expenses = Savings
But if you’re not left with any savings after subtracting your expenses from your income, you might have to make some sacrifices. If you drive to work, for example, you could consider ditching the car and its fuel costs for public transportation.
If you want to increase your income, look for the best side hustle to bring in some cash.
5. Set up autopay
Whether you’re working with a federal loan servicer or a private lender, you’ll have the option of setting up automatic payments.
Once you supply your bank account information, your servicer will charge that account for the amount you set. It’s the simplest of ways to make your first payment.
Although it won’t feel great to have your servicer dipping into your bank account, it will ensure you don’t miss a payment. You’ll just need to make sure you have enough cash in your bank account every month to cover the payment.
The other benefit of autopay is that many lenders, including the DOE, offer a 0.25% interest rate reduction when you sign up.
If your budget leaves you little margin for error, you might opt to manually pay your servicer each month. To avoid a late payment, set a reminder for yourself. You can create recurring alarms using mobile apps like Google Calendar.
6. Track your credit score
Even before you make your first student loan payment, you should find your credit score for free online.
Once you start making timely student loan payments, you should see your credit score creep up. Chipping away at your debt makes up to 35% of your credit score, according to FICO.
If you improve your credit score significantly, you also open the door for refinancing your student loans later on. Student loan refinancing companies can help creditworthy borrowers consolidate their older loans into one new loan. Unlike with a Direct Consolidation Loan, you could score a lower interest rate by refinancing your federal and private loans.
Many lenders require potential refinancing borrowers to have a minimum credit score of 660 to 700. But you’ll need an even higher score if you hope to receive an especially low student loan refinancing interest rate.
Having steady income would also help you score a lower interest rate. Just be sure you’re OK with missing out on exclusive federal student loan borrower protections when you refinance your loans with a private lender.
7. Set a goal for your last payment
Letting autopay run its course will keep you on track with making monthly student loan payments. But to truly rid yourself of student loan debt on your own terms, you’ll want to stay on top of your finances.
Say you earn a raise at work or receive a big tax return. You could adjust your budget so you can increase your monthly student loan payment or make a big one-time payment to bring you closer to being debt-free.
To ensure you end your student loan debt in a timely fashion, set a goal for the date of your last payment. You could tie your goal to your age and plan to be debt-free before turning 35, for example.
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