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By Casey Bond
May 12, 2021
A student using a ladder going up to the month of September.
Mark Wang for Money

More than a year into the pandemic, you may have forgotten what it feels like to see your student loan payment leave your bank account each month.

We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's time to refresh your memory.

Most federal borrowers still have four-and-a-half months until their interest-free payment pause — a pandemic relief measure that's been in place since March 2020 — ends. But for borrowers who've been enjoying that break, October may come as a shock to their wallet. That's why you should start preparing now. Here’s what to do.

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1. Find out how much you owe

If you haven’t thought much about your student loan debt in the past year, it’s a good idea to take stock of your situation. Start by tracking down your loans so you understand how much you owe and to whom, recommended Rebecca Safier, a certified student loan counselor and student debt expert for Student Loan Hero.

If you aren’t sure where to start, you can request a copy of your credit report from each of the three major bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — via annualcreditreport.com. All your outstanding debts, including student loans, should be detailed on your reports. Next, make note of your current balances, interest rates and monthly payments. You can then use a student loan payment calculator to figure out how much you’ll be required to pay each month and how much interest you’ll pay overall.

2. Pay down debt more aggressively

Just because federal student loan payments are on pause doesn’t mean you have to stop making them.

“Since no interest is accruing right now, any payments you make could pay down your principal faster than they normally would,” Safier said. If you’re on solid financial footing right now, this could be the perfect opportunity to get ahead on your debt payoff.

“Of course, you need to weigh your student loan repayment goals with your other financial obligations,” Safier said. If you’re having trouble paying for living expenses or have high-interest debt, for instance, that should take priority over paying off your student loans ahead of schedule.

3. Bulk up your emergency fund

Since payments are suspended for another five months, now is a great time to build or reestablish an emergency fund, according to Kat Tretina, certified student loan counselor and finance writer. “You can dedicate the money that would normally go to your payments to your savings, giving you a cushion for when payments resume.”

If you continued making federal loan payments during the payment suspension, you can even get your payments refunded to you. If you lost your job, have an unexpected emergency or simply would feel better with money in the bank, you can contact your loan servicer and request a refund of all payments you've made since March 2020, Tretina said. “Your loan servicer will send you a lump sum refund, and you can use that money to boost your savings.”

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4. Sign up for an income-driven repayment plan

The federal government offers all borrowers repayment plans that will tie their monthly bills to how much they’re earning. They can be a lifeline if you can’t afford the monthly payments on a traditional repayment plan. So if your financial situation has changed since pre-pandemic, you could be eligible to lower your monthly payments under an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan. “With this plan, some borrowers' payments could be as low as $0,” said Travis Hornsby, founder and CEO of Student Loan Planner.

One thing to know about IDR plans is that they do require annual recertification of your income and family size, otherwise you risk seeing the amount you owe each month spike. If you’re currently enrolled in this plan, you won’t need to recertify before the end of the payment freeze but you should contact your student loan servicer to find out your updated recertification due date. The actual recertification process only takes about 10 minutes, but it's still smart not to put it off.

5. Apply for student loan deferment or forbearance

The downside to IDR plans is that they draw out the repayment period over 20 or 25 years. So even though your payments will be much lower, you’ll end up spending a ton more in interest over time.

If you know your financial struggles are temporary — or your payments under an IDR plan are still unaffordable — you can apply to have your payments paused once the current deferment period expires. “Consider your options for additional deferment or forbearance, and make a plan that covers you as you ease into making payments again,” said Leslie H. Tayne, a debt resolution attorney and managing director at Tayne Law Group, P.C.

If you’re experiencing financial hardship, you may qualify for student loan deferment, during which time the government doesn’t charge interest on certain loans. Alternatively, you can place your loans in forbearance for any reason for up to a year at a time and for any reason, but interest will continue to accrue on all loans.

“It's a good idea to contact your loan servicer as soon as possible if you think you'll need an additional loan deferment to find out how to apply,” Tayne said.

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6. Stay up-to-date on information

As the pandemic taught us all, things change. Sometimes rapidly. And considering that the Biden Administration has floated several proposals aimed at tackling the student loan debt crisis, it could pay to stay on top of the latest information.

Tayne recommends double checking your federal loan accounts and contact information to make sure you don’t miss any announcements or changes. She added that you should call and speak to your loan servicer if you're at all unsure about what your payments will look like come fall.

“Always keep notes on conversations and request confirmations in writing,” Tayne said.

More from Money:

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