More than 3 million college students will bask in the pride and relief of earning their diplomas this year. However, once the newly minted graduates peel off their caps and gowns and bid goodbye to the last of the party stragglers, the real life hangover begins in earnest. Part of this hangover is the current shaky job market, although the good news is that unemployment for young people with college degrees is one-third that of those with only a high school diploma. The real crux of the morning-after affliction is the heavy burden of repaying student loans. And what a burden it is. Student loans are one of the most toxic debts, and they require extreme consumer caution and responsibility.
In the midst of all the youthful hubbub of starting school and looking no further ahead than the upcoming weekend on the town (or the vague notion of graduation down the road), many young people don’t consider the implications — or the fine print — of taking out student loans. Unlike other types of debt, student loans are particularly hard to wriggle out of. Homeowners who can’t make their payments can foreclose; credit card debts can be relieved in bankruptcy. But scrapping a student loan is next to impossible, especially when a collection agency becomes involved.
As tuition rises, many people borrow heavily to pay their bills and the interest piles up fast. Short-term relief may come in the form of deferments (postponing repayment due to going back to school, unemployment, or working in certain fields), but the interest will still accrue. Applying for forbearance (negotiating reduced or suspended payments due to financial hardship) is another short-term relief option, but again the interest accrues and the monkey’s choke hold on the backs of borrowers continues to tighten.
Horror stories abound, including the family practitioner highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article whose original $250,000 student loan has ballooned to $555,000. Loan deferrals, relentlessly compounding interest rates, and a single $53,870 fee when her loan was turned over to a collection agency now keep her awake at night. Her damaged credit has prevented her from buying a home or a new car, and she foresees paying on this loan for the rest of her life. In another frightening case, a laid-off factory worker faces $120 garnishments of her $300 unemployment check to pay the student loan she took out for her also-unemployed son.
If you are in trouble:
- Contact your lender to negotiate manageable monthly payments.
- Consider a rehabilitation agreement, which could help your credit report.
- Apply for income-based repayment, which caps the amount of your income you pay toward student loans.
To avoid trouble:
- Minimize the amount you need to borrow. It’s not “free” money.
- Read the fine print. Then read it again.
- Don’t hide. Notify your student loan servicers every time you change your home address, telephone number, or e-mail address.
- When you possibly can, pay more than the minimum on your student loans every month, as there is no penalty for early payment on either federal or private loans through Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest student loan lender. This will also pay down your loan faster.
- Know what you owe so you have a clear view of your existing debt.
No hair-of-the dog remedy will ease the effects of this kind of hangover, but channeling the results of that hard-earned education into smart financial management will ultimately clear the way for a brighter future and disengage that nasty monkey from your back.