Since March 13, 2020, federal student loans have been set to 0% interest rates and payments on the loans have stopped. This interest-free forbearance has brought welcome relief to many student loan borrowers who've seen their finances take a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. We've been calling this the "student loan pause".
But the student loan reprieve is set to expire on September 30, 2021.
After such a long break, it's safe to say that no one is excited about having to make room in their budgets again for student loan payments. But it's also important to have a plan. Here’s what you need to do to prepare for when the dreaded moment finally arrives.
When Do Student Loans Unpause?
While the world is still far from normal, the Department of Education will end the coronavirus forbearance period on September 30, 2021. That means payments on federal student loans will begin as soon as October 1, 2021.
If you have auto-debit set up for your student loans, you should expect to see your normal payment come out in October 2021. Check with your loan servicer for the exact date.
What Happens When Student Loans Unpause?
Two big things will happen when student loans unpause. First, the interest rate on your loans will increase back to it's pre-Covid level. Right now, the interest rate is set at 0%. Starting October 1, 2021, the rate will revert to the original loan rate.
Second, borrowers will be required to make monthly payments on their federal student loans. These payments have been paused since March 13, 2020.
Note: Many analysts have been worrying that some borrowers may end up in default when student loans unpause. If you have Federal loans, you need to check your loan status and payment due. Don't let it default!
How Will Student Loan Forgiveness Be Impacted?
The $0 payments made during the coronavirus forbearance period count towards Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) and Income Driven Repayment (IDR) forgiveness.
If you made payments during the forbearance, request a refund immediately. You are legally entitled to a full refund of all payments made from March 13, 2020 to September 30, 2021.
Don’t delay on requesting a refund. This is something to take care of as soon as possible.
Tips To Prepare For When Student Loan Payments Resume
The thought of having to fit a hefty student loan payment into a budget that's likely already strained can feel scary. But don't stress. Below, we cover 5 tips to help make the transition a smooth one.
Prepare Your Budget
With eight to nine months of no payments, your checking account may be shocked when loan repayment resumes. Unless you’ve gone onto an Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plan, your new payment will be the same as your payment from February 2020.
Between now and the end of the year, visit your loan servicer’s website to check your payment. Then build the new payment back into your budget.
Update Your Contact Info With Your Loan Servicer
Anyone who has moved or changed phone numbers or email addresses should update their information with their loan servicer. Your loan servicer will help you handle any repayment hiccups that may come your way.
An easy solution to this is to make sure you have setup your online account so you can view your loan status, information, and even make payments.
Read Mail From Your Loan Servicer
Loan servicers may send you important information about where your loan stands and things to keep in mind when student loans unpause. Be careful not to accidentally toss any communication from your servicer. Read the letters and take action as needed.
Again, if you have your loan portal setup online, you can also opt for e-Statements and can view everything online.
Turn Off AutoPay If Needed
If you’ve used set up automatic transfers to your 401(k) or other accounts to capture savings from the paused payments, be sure to turn those off in January. You don’t want to accidentally overdraft once payments resume.
Consider Enrolling In An Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) Plan
People who lost income during the first nine months of the pandemic may find that the old payment doesn’t fit in the new budget. In that case, you may want to enroll in an Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plan before the year’s end.
Enrolling in an IDR plan will not prematurely restart your loan payments. But it’s important to enroll before your first payment comes out. To enroll in your IDR plan of choice, visit StudentAid.gov/idr. Click on “Apply Now,” to start the application.
How To Begin Making Payments
Starting in October 2021, you’ll need to start making student loan payments again. Anyone enrolled in auto-debit programs will see the payment auto-drafted from their bank account. Loan servicers will automatically restart auto-debits in January.
Anyone who is worried about auto-debit causing overdrafts should call their loan servicer immediately. You will need to unenroll from AutoPay, and make a plan to send manual payments instead.
Borrowers who made manual payments must start sending checks or making transfers through the loan servicers website. If you need more information about making manual payments, contact your loan servicer.
Recertifying Income When Student Loans Unpause
If you’re on an IDR plan, you’ll eventually need to re-certify your income. Income re-certification dates have been pushed to some time in 2021. Your loan servicer(s) should send you information about your re-certification date.
Should I Pay Off My Loans In A Lump Sum?
While many people have struggled over the last several months, some have managed to increase their savings and income. If you have enough money to pay off your loans, you may want to get rid of them now. You can schedule a payment to pay off the loans in full to start 2021 on the right foot.
If you don’t have enough money to pay off your loans in a lump sum, it may be advisable to wait on extra payments. The economy is still shaky and it could be risky to deplete savings to get rid of debt that has a manageable interest rate. Consider waiting until you can pay off the debt in full before tacking on big extra payments.
Thoughts on Forgiveness: If you do think that there is a possibility of loan forgiveness, you may want to wait a few months into Biden's presidency before paying off your loans. Never hurts to wait and see (except for a few extra months of interest).
As long as your contact and banking information is up to date with your servicer and you've made necessary changes to your automatic transfers, the unfreezing of student loan payments shouldn't cause you too much grief.
If you’ve lost income or struggled over the last several months, IDR plans can keep your payments manageable. Or if your financial situation is strong, you may want to shop around with student loan refinancing lenders to see if one could offer you a lower interest rate.
There was virtually no benefit to refinancing federal loans during the 0% forbearance period. But with payments resuming, it could once again be a strategy worth considering.
Regardless of your personal situation, it's important to make your plan today so that you're prepared for student loan repayment tomorrow.
Robert Farrington is America’s Millennial Money Expert® and America’s Student Loan Debt Expert™, and the founder of The College Investor, a personal finance site dedicated to helping millennials escape student loan debt to start investing and building wealth for the future. You can learn more about him on the About Page, or on his personal site RobertFarrington.com.
He regularly writes about investing, student loan debt, and general personal finance topics geared towards anyone wanting to earn more, get out of debt, and start building wealth for the future.
He has been quoted in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox, ABC, NBC, and more. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes.