It might be a while before post-secondary education is free for any American accepted to a public college or university. New York has become the first state to offer residents a tuition-free, post-secondary education at community colleges and public colleges and universities, and California could be next. That doesn’t help those of us who have already graduated from college with massive student loan debt, but you can get out of student loan debt without paying it all or worrying about interest accruing. The earlier you take these steps the better.
1) Don’t get scammed by student loan “negotiators”
There are a ton of corporate scammers out there preying on recent college graduates struggling to repay their student loan debt. These companies offer nothing you can’t do yourself from the StudentLoans.gov website but charge a monthly fee for playing middle man between you and your student loan servicer(s).
You should be able to identify these scammers by their too-good-to-be-true offer, but if you ever call any other number besides (800) 557-7394 or (800) 557-7392, you’re likely dealing with a scammer. Keep in mind, though, that these companies already get a bad rep, so if you do end up being scammed, do not hesitate to demand a full refund.
2) Don’t take on new debt
This might sound impossible for an unemployed, college graduate, but it’s essential to improve your borrowing power during the six-month grace period you have before your first student loan payments are due.
What you can borrow depends on your debt-to-income ratio, which is probably pretty terrible for any recent college graduate looking for a job. But even if your income is low (or nonexistent), you can take steps to improve your financial situation by simply moving your debt around. The first step is prioritizing your non-student-loan debt.
Credit cards can be an asset if you use them correctly. If you’re struggling to find a job to improve your debt-to-income ratio by increasing your income, you must improve your debt-to-income ratio by reducing your debt. But how can you reduce your debt without income?
You should know which credit cards are costing you the most in interest. Some of these rates can be upwards of 30 percent, so check to see if there’s an opportunity to transfer your highest credit card balance to a credit card with a lower rate. You might pay a three percent fee on the balance transferred, but if that’s less than you’d pay in interest over the life of the introductory rate, better to pay that amount upfront during your six-month grace period.
The key is to never allow your credit card balance to grow. At the end of every month, your credit card balance should be less than it was when you graduated. That way, when the six-month grace period on your student loans expires, you can work with smaller (or nonexistent) credit card payments.
3) Consolidate your student loans under one servicer
If you are tired of paying multiple student loan servicers, consolidate your loans under one servicer. This will make your student loan payments one payment paid to one servicer. The important thing to keep in mind when consolidating, though, is when asked the question of whether you work for a nonprofit, answer “yes,” even if you don’t. This will assure that your loans are consolidated with a servicer who qualifies for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). So if you end up working for a nonprofit in the future, your loans already qualify for the program.
4) Apply for an income-based repayment plan
You can only pay what you have, so anyone with student loan debt should be on an income-based repayment plan, unless, of course, you make a ton of money. If that’s the case you should just pay off your student loans as quickly as possible to avoid paying interest.
While you must reapply for an income-based repayment plan annually, regardless of your change in adjusted gross income, it will result in the lowest qualifying payment you can make on your student loans.
If your income is low enough, you could end up paying $0 per month, but unless you intend to work for a nonprofit for 10 years and have the remaining balance of your student loans forgiven, interest will accrue at an astronomical rate.
5) Work for a nonprofit for 10 years, or start your own
Under the PSLF program, if you make 120 payments -- even of $0 -- while working at least 30 hours per week for a nonprofit organization, the remaining balance of your student loans after those 120 payments will be forgiven. It will disappear.
You don’t necessarily have to be paid by the nonprofit. If you volunteer for 30 hours per week with a nonprofit or multiple nonprofits, you just need an executive of that nonprofit to verify that you work 30 hours per week for them using this form.
You can even start a nonprofit and have a member of your board verify your work hours. I just found out all the work I did for a nonprofit I started to grow ice sports in my hometown qualifies me for the PSLF program, so if there’s a cause near and dear to your heart that isn’t being addressed by a nonprofit, start one. It’s as easy as raising some money and filing some corporate paperwork with the state to acquire tax exempt status. (Note: partisan political nonprofits and labor unions do not qualify.)
Don’t let student loan debt cripple your economic outlook. Take these steps as soon as possible to get out of student loan debt.
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