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How to start paying student loans

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While the exact timeline depends on your lender, usually you’ll start paying your student loans six months after you graduate or drop below half-time enrollment. But if you’ve never had loans before, making those payments can take some getting used to. If you’re approaching graduation day, take stock of how much you owe, how long your grace period lasts and how you’ll need to adjust your monthly budget to accommodate payments.

When do you start paying back student loans?

Most federal student loans require borrowers to begin making payments six months after they graduate, drop below half-time enrollment or leave school. This period of time is called a grace period. Parents who took out PLUS loans don’t automatically have this grace period, though they can request one.

When it comes to private student loans, repayment options and plans vary. Most private student loans let you defer payments until you graduate, and many offer their own grace periods ranging from six to nine months. In some cases, private student loans offer payment plans that let you make interest-only payments or flat monthly payments during school, in which case you’ll make partial student loan payments as soon as the loan is disbursed.

How do I make my first student loan payment?

To make your first student loan payment, you’ll need to set up an account with your loan servicer or lender. You will receive a billing statement from your servicer before your first payment is due; this statement will let you know the payment amount and the due date, and it may include instructions on how to make the payment.

Most student loan servicers let borrowers make payments online, via a regular check or even over the phone. Many companies also let borrowers set up their student loans for automatic payments.

What if I don’t have a job yet?

If your student loan payments become due and you don’t have a job or any other sources of income, there are ways to apply for temporary relief.

Federal student loans come with deferment and forbearance programs that let borrowers skip monthly payments during times of hardship. You can read about temporary deferment and forbearance options for federal student loans on the Federal Student Aid website. You can also get relief by setting up your student loans for income-driven repayment. These plans base your monthly payment on your income, and payments can be as low as $0 for those who qualify.

If you have private student loans, you’ll need to speak with your individual lender. Private lenders may have their own deferment options for borrowers who are unemployed, though these are temporary solutions.

Strategies for starting student loan repayment

As you gear up to begin repaying your student loans, several steps can get you on the right path. Consider these strategies to get ahead of your monthly student loan bill.

Find out who your loan servicer is

Your loan servicer is the company you’ll make payments to. Generally speaking, you can find out who is servicing your loans by visiting your Federal Student Aid account dashboard (if you have federal loans) or checking your credit reports (if you have private loans).

Keep a record of all of your loan servicers — you may have several if you’ve taken out multiple loans. You’ll receive regular communication from your servicers about your loan repayment, and you’ll need to make payments to each one.

Know your total balance and monthly payment

Before starting repayment, confirm your total loan balance and monthly payment by logging into your Federal Student Aid account or the account you hold with your servicer. You can use a loan calculator to dig deeper into how different repayment timelines will affect your monthly payment and what happens if you make extra payments.

Create a budget

Look for ways to ensure that your monthly student loan payment fits in your budget without leaving you strapped to pay other bills. For example, see if you can cut back on discretionary spending in order to free up more cash for student loan payments.

Set up autopay

Consider setting up your student loans for automatic payments. Doing so can help you lock in any autopay discounts that may be available to you while helping you avoid missed or late payments.

Repayment options for student loans

Federal student loans will be put on a standard, 10-year repayment plan unless you tell your loan servicer otherwise. With that in mind, you should research other plans to make sure that you are set up with the best option for your needs. Many federal student loan repayment plans will let you repay your loans for up to 25 years, and you can secure a lower monthly payment if you repay over a longer timeline.

As you begin your student loan repayment, you may consider looking into:

  • Income-driven repayment plans: While income-driven repayment plans will extend your repayment period by 10 to 15 years, they’re a good option for lowering your monthly payments. With these plans, your payments will be set at a percentage of your discretionary income.
  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness: With PSLF, borrowers who work full time for eligible public service employers can pay down their loans on an income-driven repayment plan for 10 years before having their remaining balances forgiven.
  • Extended repayment plan: The extended repayment plan sets a repayment timeline of 25 years, with payments that can be fixed or graduated. Direct Loan borrowers must have at least $30,000 in Direct Loans to qualify.
  • Graduated repayment plan: Borrowers who expect regular salary increases may benefit from the graduated repayment plan, which starts student loan payments low and increases them gradually over time.

Both federal and private borrowers can also consider refinancing to get onto a different repayment track, though this is usually best only for private loans. Refinancing replaces your existing loans with a new one, and it’s one way to get a lower interest rate or different repayment period.

Ultimately, finding the right payment plan for your student loans will make getting on track with payments considerably easier. Research your repayment options early in the process and don’t settle until you find a plan that suits your needs and your budget.

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Written by
Holly D. Johnson
Author, Award-Winning Writer
Holly Johnson writes expert content on personal finance, credit cards, loyalty and insurance topics. In addition to writing for Bankrate and CreditCards.com, Johnson does ongoing work for clients that include CNN, Forbes Advisor, LendingTree, Time Magazine and more.
Edited by
Student loans editor