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What Happens If I Can’t Afford My Student Loan Payments?



Two readers asked unique questions about their student loan debt. One has private – the other has federal loans. So we consulted two experts to best answer both education loan conundrums.

What to do if you have private student loans

Question: I have a rather severe situation. I owe $61,000 in private student loans and another $30,000 in federal loans. I also have a child support obligation to the tune of $600 a month for my children who I haven’t seen in years.

But I only make $14.25 an hour. After all is said and done, I only bring home $850 a month net.

My problem is that the private student loan company wants their money, about $670 a month. I’ve tried speaking to them, and the best they offer is $100 a month for 6 months at most. I’ve used up all the forbearance allowed.

I barely scrape by as it is. A second job really isn’t an option, as my first job has such long and weird hours. What in the world can I do? I have no savings, no emergency fund, and at this time, little to no hope. Help me?

— Owen in Colorado

Steve Rhode, consumer debt expert, answers…

These are certainly trying times for you, Owen. The stress, pressure, and emotional toll must be immense. You’re probably feeling trapped, pulled, and hopeless. Those are all normal feelings in this type of situation.

On the private loans, you have a few options:

  1. You can make the contractual payment (which you clearly can’t afford)
  2. Send something, even if it’s not the minimum requirement (but that would be pointless)
  3. You can see if your loans can be discharged through bankruptcy (some private loans can be)
  4. OR you can strategically default

What is strategic default and why does it make sense?

Defaulting on your private loans has significant consequences. It will increase your balances. You may be threatened with – or actually experience – legal action. But at its core, this is just a math problem, and unless the private student loan lenders are willing to work with you, then the math makes no sense.

You will eventually default, so why not approach this with a plan and prepare for it? That would be the logical thing to do.

With the right people advising you, defaulting can often result in good conclusions – like settling the debt for less than you owe, reduced repayment plans, nearly zero-percent interest, and the elimination of collection pressure.

You’re currently feeling hopeless, but I see your situation as hopeful. A solution can be planned and executed. If you want to get someone to help you see through the fog and work with you to develop a plan of action to tackle this situation, I’d bsuggest contacting, they can help you find the right solution. A good expert will help you develop a plan that works for your situation, possibly consolidation, settlement, or bankruptcy.

One final thought on your situation. If you believe that your child support payments are too high, you should go back to court to see if you can lower your payments. In addition, if you’re already behind, you should look into relief options that could help including state child support compromise programs.

You’re certainly not alone with your federal student loan debt. Another reader wrote to us this week with just about the same amount of federal student loan debt as you, Owen. I consulted my friend and colleague, Howard Dvorkin, CPA for advice for them.

Find out what this other reader asked us and how Howard Dvorkin, CPA was able to help him.

–  Steve Rhode

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What to do when you can’t afford federal student loan payments

Question: I graduated from college last December and now have to start paying back my student loans. I got $29,000 in loans, but there’s no way I can make the monthly payments on my salary. (I just got a full-time job in May.)

I’ve heard there are programs that lower your payments, but I also hear there are a lot of scams out there. When I search for “how to reduce student loans,” I get lots of companies trying to sell me stuff, but very little objective information.

So are there really government programs? And if there are, why doesn’t the government ever mention it?

— Andres in California

Howard Dvorkin, CPA answers…

Yes, Andres, the government wants to help you pay off your $29,000 student loan bill. No, the government doesn’t tell you much about these programs.

Federal loan relief information is often hidden

Using your search terms, it took until the middle of the second page of search results to find this explanation from the U.S. Department of Education.

In fact, the federal government does a downright awful job publicizing these programs to the very people who need them most – and that’s not just my opinion. It’s also the government’s own opinion of how they’re doing themselves.

Back in August 2015, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a damning report on student loans. It’s title: Education Could Do More to Help Ensure Borrowers Are Aware of Repayment and Forgiveness Options.

Sure, the report says, “these plans provide eligible borrowers with lower payments based on income and set timelines for the forgiveness of any remaining loan balances.” However, “many eligible borrowers do not participate.” Why? Simple. They don’t know about them.

“As a result, borrowers who could benefit from the plans may miss the chance to lower their payments and reduce the risk of defaulting on their loans,” the report concludes.

The GAO even suggests the federal government offer “streamlined processes for learning about” these programs, with “enhanced communications targeted to borrowers most likely to benefit from these plans.”

The buried truth: You could get your student loan payments reduced to $0

Aside from how bad the government is at promoting these programs, they can really provide immense relief for borrowers in your situation. The government created a series of programs known as income-driven repayment plans. These three programs help borrowers match their student loan payments to their income and family size. So, the lower your income and larger your family, the less you’re required to pay.

The three programs differ based on the percentage of income you end up devoting to your student loan payments. The income used to calculate this is your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), which is the same income you report on your annual tax returns.

  • Income-contingent repayment usually sets payments at 20% of AGI
  • Income-based repayment sets payments at 15%
  • Pay as You Earn sets payments are 10% or less

The specific amount you end up paying depends on how you compare to the federal poverty line in your state. If your annual income is 150% of the poverty line in your state, you end up paying the percentages listed above. But if you’re below your state’s poverty line, then you can end up paying nothing. Your payments are set at $0 until your income improves enough that the government believes you can start making payments.

This isn’t deferment, where your payments are paused. Your required payment amount is $0. It’s counted as if you’re making payments each month because you met the payment requirement (which is nothing). This is important if you’re trying to qualify for a program like Public Service Loan Forgiveness. That program requires you to make 120 payments to qualify for forgiveness. These $0 payments would count towards that total.

This relief will last until your situation improves

The government will keep an eye on your salary to make sure they can get paid as soon as you have the means to do so. To qualify for these programs, you will be required to certify your income and family size. Each year, you’re required to recertify again.

Since you have a full-time job, Andres, you’ll need to see how your annual income compares to the federal poverty line in your state. Instead of hunting that information down yourself and trying to take those calculations to your loan servicer, you can simply work with a company that specializes in federal student loan relief. can connect you with those services.

Good luck, and I hope this information helps you. can help you find the right solution to get out of student loan debt.

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