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posted: 7/10/2011 6:00 AM

5 ways to take control of student loan bills now

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  • Graduates of the School of Theology celebrate during Emory University's commencement ceremony in May in Atlanta. School isn't over just yet for new college graduates. The next test is figuring out how to repay those student loans.

      Graduates of the School of Theology celebrate during Emory University's commencement ceremony in May in Atlanta. School isn't over just yet for new college graduates. The next test is figuring out how to repay those student loans.
    Associated Press

 
By Candice Choi
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- School isn't over yet for recent college graduates. Their next test is figuring out how to repay student loans.

It's easy to become complacent about student loans because the bills don't start arriving until after a six-month grace period following graduation. The catch is that interest continues to pile up, so borrowers should start making payments as soon as they're able.

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The reality is that many graduates are struggling just to find work in this job market. And those who land jobs may only be earning enough to cover living expenses.

Meanwhile, recent graduates may be staring down intimidating debt loads. Those who borrow to attend public colleges graduate with an average $20,000 in student loans, according to The College Board. For private school graduates, the average debt is about $26,100.

If you don't think you'll be able to cover the monthly bills when they start arriving in a few months, here are five options that can make payments more manageable.

Extend payments

The easiest way to reduce monthly bills is to pick a repayment plan that stretches over a longer period. Instead of repaying federal loans over the standard 10 years, for example, borrowers might choose to stretch payments over 25 years.

To see how this impacts your debt, consider how monthly payments are effected.

If you had $35,000 in federal loans, the standard repayment plan would require monthly payments of about $400. That's compared with $240 under an extended plan. But the short-term relief comes at a price.

Under the first scenario, the total amount you'd repay over the life of the loan would be $48,300. By comparison, the extra interest expenses under an extended plan would drive up the cost to $72,880. To see how different repayment plans would affect your debt, check out the U.S. Department of Education's calculator at http://tinyurl.com/3l8ok8t .

The repayment options for federal loans will vary depending on how much you owe. For example, borrowers need to have a balance of more than $30,000 to qualify for the maximum 25-year plan. And the options with private loans differ depending on the lender. At Sallie Mae, for example, the repayment plans typically range from seven to 12 years.

Keep in mind that if you switch to an extended repayment plan, you're not locked in. So make it a priority to switch back to a shorter plan as soon as you can afford the larger payment.

Consolidate loans

Before the government overhauled its student loan program last year, borrowers could get federal loans from two sources. They could get Direct Loans from the government or Federal Family Education Loans from private lenders such as banks.

New graduates who have both types of loans can opt to consolidate their debt so they get just one monthly bill.

In addition to streamlining repayment, a consolidated loan can reduce the monthly payment. That's because the repayment period starts afresh, meaning the remaining amount you owe is stretched over a longer period. The repayment period can also be as long as 30 years depending on the size of your debt. But don't forget that extending repayments will mean you're paying more in interest costs.

As for the interest rate, don't expect any discounts. The rate on the new loan will be the weighted average of the original loans, rounded to the nearest one-eighth of a percent. The formula is designed to maintain the underlying cost of your loans.

Graduate payments

If you're entering a field such as law or medicine where you expect your pay to rise relatively quickly, another option is a plan that increases payments over time. Under a graduated repayment plan for federal loans, payments start lower than they would under the standard plan. The payments then increase every two years, over a maximum repayment period of 10 years.

To ensure payments don't rise too dramatically, the highest monthly payment under the plan will be no more than three times the amount of the lowest payment.

There are also options to gradually increase monthly payments with private student loans. But they may not explicitly be called graduated repayment. For example, you might opt to make interest-only payments when you first start repaying the loans.

Defer payments

In certain circumstances, graduates can also choose to defer payments. This is an option for borrowers who are continuing on to graduate school, enlisting in the military, unemployed or earning below about $16,000 a year. Anyone on public assistance or who works in public service is also eligible.

If you don't qualify for deferment, you can still apply to postpone payments on federal loans under what's called "forbearance." This may be an option if you're dealing with medical issues or other circumstances that would impair your ability to make payments. Forbearance is decided on a case-by-case basis. You may be able to make interest-only payments during forbearance to keep the total amount you owe from ballooning.

Otherwise, a deferment or forbearance will also drive up your debt because interest continues to accrue. The exception is if you have a subsidized federal loan, which is when the government picks up the cost of interest while you're in school. The government will pick up the interest costs during deferment on such loans, but not during forbearance.

With private loans, it's up to the lender to decide whether to let borrowers postpone payments. And there's generally a lot less leeway. For example, Sallie Mae usually grants postponements in three-month increments. And unlike with federal loans, there's a $50 fee.

Income-based plan

One option for reducing monthly payments doesn't come with pricey consequences. With federal loans, strapped borrowers should check if they qualify for the Income-Based Repayment program. This program caps monthly payments at 15 percent of earnings above around $16,000; those who earn less may not have to make any monthly payments. Any debt remaining after 25 years is also forgiven.

Eligibility for the program is determined by weighing your debt level against your income. To figure out whether you qualify, check the calculator at www.ibrinfo.org .

There's no similar program with private student loans. But if you're struggling to make ends meet, it's worth calling your lender to discuss reworking the terms on your loan.

Don't expect any big breaks, but you may be able to get a reduced interest rate that makes your debt more manageable.

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