While federal student loan borrowers have the benefit of zero required payments and zero interest charges on their student loans through Dec. 31, 2022, private student loans are not eligible for COVID-19 federal relief. When it comes to payment assistance, private student loan borrowers are in the hands of their lenders.
However, borrowers still have options for managing their private student loans if the coronavirus has led to a reduction in income.
Are private student loan borrowers eligible for COVID-19 relief?
Because private student loans are owned by private lenders and not the federal government, they are not eligible for federal relief measures like the payment pause and interest waiver currently in place.
The one exception is privately owned Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) in default status, which are now included in the administrative forbearance. Borrowers with these loans are not required to make payments through Dec. 31, 2022, and interest charges and collections activities are on pause during that time.
Some private lenders have offered their own COVID-19 hardship options. However, most of these have expired as the economy starts to bounce back.
Strategies for making private student loan payments without coronavirus forbearance
There are a few ways in which private borrowers can make their private loans more manageable even without COVID-19-related assistance.
Refinancing your private loans can help you reduce how much you pay each month by allowing you to secure a lower interest rate, extend your repayment term or both. However, refinancing your private loans only makes sense if your credit score or income has improved since you first took out your loans; otherwise, you won’t be able to get the best terms or interest rates.
If your current lender can’t offer you better rates than the ones you already have, consider refinancing with another company.
Pause federal student loan payments
If you have both private and federal student loans, you can take advantage of COVID-19 administrative forbearance and stop making payments on your federal loans. You can then reallocate the money you would be putting toward your federal loans and instead make payments on your private loans.
“Pay off higher-interest debt and don’t worry about the federal loans right now,” says Stuart Siegel, financial aid specialist and founder of FAFSAssist. “It’s more important that a borrower not go into delinquency — or worse, default on their loans — as this can be devastating to a credit rating.”
Ask about payment assistance
Even before the pandemic, most private lenders already offered relief in the form of forbearance, deferment or interest-only payments to those experiencing financial hardship. However, lenders can’t help you out if they don’t know you need assistance in the first place.
“The worst thing that you can do is to not communicate your payment difficulties to your loan provider,” says Kathryn Knight Randolph, associate content editor for Fastweb and Finaid.org. “Rather than quietly falling behind on payments, pick up the phone and talk to a representative.”
Falling behind on payments can not only put a dent in your credit score, but also limit your access to loans and other credit products in the future. That’s why it’s best to contact your lender and explore your options if you think that you’ll have difficulty making payments.
Talk to your employer
Something good that came out of the pandemic is that many companies are bending over backward to keep their employees happy amid a competitive job market. Part of this is wooing employees with generous fringe benefits, including student loan repayment assistance.
Although this isn’t offered at every company, you can always ask your HR department if this is something that’s available to you. This kind of assistance may come with some strings attached — for instance, you may have to stay with the company for a specific period of time — but it’s an option worth exploring to make things easier on your pocket.
Restructure your budget
If you’re facing financial hardship due to loss of employment or a reduction of income, it may be time to take a harder look at the way you spend money to ensure that you can still make minimum payments on your student loans.
“Revisit your monthly budget by sitting down with a partner or accountability person and looking at what’s coming in versus what’s going out,” says Derek Brainard, national director of Financial Education at AccessLex Institute.
Once you have this down, Brainard suggests finding ways to improve your cash flow. You can do this by dropping subscription services that you rarely use and cutting back on takeout. You can also revise old contracts, such as your internet and cellphone plan, to see if you can switch to a cheaper option.
If you need help tracking your earning and spending, you may want to try a budgeting app. Making these small changes to your monthly spending may seem insignificant, but they can help you avoid defaulting on your loans.