How to tackle student loan debt

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Question: “I need serious help. I’m a 39-year-old single man with over $140,000 in student loan debt. I recently had to quit my job making $125,000 a year due to severe anxiety and depression. It was so extremely overwhelming that my doctor put me on all types of meds to cope. However, I ended up quitting because of severe panic attacks. Now I’m making nearly 50% less of what I was making before and I’m currently in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. I’m in really bad shape. Please tell me how I can get assistance with my student loans. I’m in dire need of help.”

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Answer: You’re not alone in facing high student debt: In fact, Americans have more than $1.7 trillion dollars in student loans, according to the Federal Reserve.  And though it’s rare,  it’s possible to get your student loan debt discharged in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, explains Rebecca Safier, certified student loan counselor and education finance expert at Student Loan Hero. “The court will need to decide that your student loan debt causes undue hardship. It looks at a few factors to decide whether your debt causes undue hardship,” says Safier. (You can find details and what you need to do here.).One, it looks at whether repaying the debt would mean you aren’t able to maintain a minimal standard of living. Second, it looks for evidence that your financial hardship will continue for a large portion of your loan repayment period. And third, it wants to see that you made good faith efforts to repay your loan before filing bankruptcy. “Since discharging student loans in bankruptcy is a complex process, it might help to consult a student loan lawyer about your chances of qualifying,” says Safier. 

More likely you, and other borrowers struggling with student loan debt, will need to take a path like this: First, contact your loan servicer to see if it can offer any relief. Remember that “if you have federal student loans, you don’t have to make payments on them until the emergency forbearance ends on January 31. After this period, you might consider getting them on an income-driven repayment plan, which will cap your payments at a certain percentage of your discretionary income,” says Safier. It’s also possible to pause payments completely through forbearance or deferment, but you might accrue additional interest charges during this time. This guide can help you figure out if these options might be right for you.

Unfortunately, private loans don’t qualify for federal programs like this, but some lenders will work with you if you’ve run into financial hardship, says Safir. Some private lenders, for example, may let you pause some payments through forbearance or skip a payment. “Definitely reach out to your loan servicer to find out about your options,” says Safier. It may also be looking into refinancing your private student loans, if you can get a lower interest rate.

It’s also key that you work out a plan to manage debt and make a budget going forward, says Grace Yung, a certified financial planner at Midtown Financial Group. “If you’re unable to pay for basic living expenses, your student loans don’t need to be your top priority. Cover your necessities first and do what you can to stay current on your student loan debt and avoid default, even if that means applying for multiple deferment or forbearance periods,” says Safier. 

Finally, it’s worth looking into loan forgiveness, experts say. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program lets borrowers who work in certain government and non-profit jobs get their federal debt forgiven after making 120 payments (you can see details here). Some employers, as part of their benefits package, will also repay part of your student loans. And some borrowers even look for unconventional ways to repay their loans, such as starting a crowdsourcing campaign and asking friends and family for help.

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