Twenty million people, or nearly 45% of federal student loan borrowers, will see their debt wiped away through President Joe Biden’s student loan cancellation, according to an August press release by the White House. However, for the 23 million borrowers with debt left over, now is the time to develop a payoff plan.
“January is going to be here before you know it,” says Damian Dunn, a certified financial planner and vice president of corporate financial wellness platform Your Money Line.
Payments resume in January 2023. But, Dunn says, with upcoming holidays, between now and January is prime spending and borrowing time for many people. As a result, many borrowers may be overextended in January if they don’t plan now.
They won’t just pick up where they left off in March 2020, when payments and interest were halted. Payment amounts and options could be different.
Borrowers can expect their remaining loan balance to be re-amortized after cancellation. That means their cancellation amount, either $10,000 or $20,000, will be deducted from the total they owe. Their time to payoff won’t change, but they will get a new monthly bill based on the recalculation of the remaining balance. Many borrowers will see a smaller bill as a result.
Here’s what to do next.
If you work in public service
Prioritize completing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness, or PSLF, waiver if your work makes you eligible. The Department of Education can count more payments toward the 120 needed for forgiveness under the waiver. This means you could see full forgiveness much sooner.
The last day to apply for the waiver is Oct. 31.
You can still apply for PSLF after the waiver ends, but the terms won’t be as generous.
If you’re comfortable with your regular payments
If you’ve been making regular payments during the pandemic pause without financial strain, continue to do so. Keeping up payments during the pandemic means you saved money because your dollars went straight to the principal balance.
However, if you weren’t making payments during the pandemic, start setting aside your payment amount now to ensure it will fit back into your budget. By doing so, you could pay a three-month lump sum once payments resume.
If your student loan bill is smaller after cancellation is applied, keep making your original payment amount if you can. This way, you’ll save money on interest costs and pay down your debt faster.
Making space in your finances allows you time to adjust your budget if necessary. But you have other options if you can’t make it work.
If you need smaller monthly payments
If you know you’ll have problems making your monthly payments, contact your servicer to discuss options for income-driven repayment, or IDR. Four income-driven repayment plans currently set your payment at 10% of your discretionary income. Payments could be set at $0 if your income is low.
These plans also wipe out your remaining balance after 20 or 25 years.
Borrowers can also look forward to a new income-driven repayment option, announced alongside cancellation. The new plan will decrease the amount of income that counts as discretionary and halve the payment percentage to 5%. It will also cut the time to forgiveness to five years for those whose original total loan balance was $12,000 or less.
While unpaid interest continues to accrue and capitalize under existing plans, the government will cover unpaid interest with the new IDR. This means borrowers who want to decrease their monthly payments — potentially by half or more — and don’t mind extending their repayment term could benefit most from the new plan.
However, high-income borrowers may not see lower payments with income-driven repayment.
If you want to pay off your debt faster
If you want to pay down your debt faster and don’t want to refinance with a private lender, the best strategy is:
Stick with the standard repayment plan.
Make extra payments and ask your servicer to apply them to the loan principal.
Make biweekly instead of monthly payments.
Consider refinancing if you have private student loans or federal debt carrying higher rates.
With student loan refinancing, borrowers replace their existing loan with a new one. Ideally, the new loan will have a lower interest rate and more favorable repayment terms.
Student loan refinancing rates have been rising, but borrowers with the strongest credit profiles may still find a lower rate.
Borrowers shouldn’t refinance until at least 2023 — once cancellation is applied to their account and the interest-free forbearance is over. If you refinance, your federal student loans will become private and no longer eligible for federal benefits, like forgiveness and IDR.
The decision to refinance should come down to the long-term financial benefit, says Clark Kendall, a certified financial planner and president of Kendall Capital Management. For example, if you can get from a 7% rate to a 5% rate, you can save that 2% or increase your 401(k) contribution.
Dunn cautions borrowers also to consider their risk of losing federal benefits. “I would double-check the math and make sure you are going to be in a better position,” he says. “Maybe a slightly smaller payment doesn’t outweigh the overall benefit of having federal protections.”
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Cecilia Clark writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.