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Pandemic Pause in Student Loan Payments May End Soon. Here's How to Prepare

If you're like more than 37 million student loan borrowers, you probably haven't made a single payment to your education debt since March, when bills were put on hold due to the coronavirus crisis.

That break may stop at the end of the year, meaning it's time to figure out how you're going to make payments come January.

The Department of Education suspended student loan debt payments, paused accruing interest and stopped collections on defaulted federal loans in March as a part of the CARES Act. In August, President Donald Trump signed an executive action that extended the relief through December and said he may push it out to next year.

But it's far from clear that another extension will come from Trump, and the government has been unable to reach a deal on any further stimulus in the meantime. Now, student loan experts are telling borrowers to brace for the pause to lapse and payments to restart in 2021.

"Borrowers should sort of prepare for the worst and hope for the best," said Betsy Mayotte, president and founder of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors.

Check in with your debt now

Those with student loan debt should take inventory of their finances and reevaluate their payment plan as soon as they can, said certified financial planner Lauryn Williams, founder of financial firm Worth Winning in Dallas.

After nine months of skipping student loan payments, borrowers may be out of the habit or used to putting cash aside for other things, such as building up an emergency fund or paying down other debt.

"It's worth the investment of your time to make sure that you're clear on what your plan is going forward, so that you don't get caught off guard," said Williams, a member of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council.

Borrowers should log back into their accounts, look at their monthly bill and recalculate the total timeline for paying off their loans with tools available on the Department of Education site, said Mayotte.

For those who haven't been negatively financially impacted by the pandemic, it may be a good time to increase monthly amounts to pay off their loans faster.

"The name of the game is paying the least amount over time," she said.

Of course, many borrowers may have experienced unemployment or loss of income since March because of Covid-19. If that's the case, it's still important to check in with your student loan debt now, said Mayotte.

Experts are worried that the education loan system will be overwhelmed by the number of borrowers who have experienced hardship and will need to apply for relief, she said. That means that borrowers who know they won't be able to make the same or any monthly payments should apply for a different repayment plan or deferral as soon as possible.

Switch your repayment plan

Borrowers who need to lower or pause monthly payments have a few different options.

Those on a standard repayment plan can switch to an income-driven one, which will generally lower monthly payments by increasing the time it will take to pay off the loan in full, said Bridget Haile, head of borrower success at Summer, a company that helps borrowers simplify and save on student debt.

Going forward, borrowers can either recertify for an income-driven plan once a year as required or can switch back to a standard repayment plan if their situation changes, she said.

Those already on an income-driven repayment plan should make sure they've recertified before January, especially if their annual date was during the pause period. If you're already on an income-driven plan and still can't pay your monthly bill, recertifying or asking for a recalculation given your current situation can lead to a lower amount.

This is especially beneficial if you're working toward student loan forgiveness in any program, Haile said. That's because payments in income-driven plans can be as low as $0 and will still count toward the total months you need for forgiveness in 10, 20 or 25 years, depending on the program.

Apply for unemployment deferment

For borrowers who are out of work due to the pandemic, can't afford to make any payments and don't qualify for a $0 monthly bill on an income-driven plan, applying for an unemployment deferment on their student loans may be the best option.

Unemployment deferment will generally pause monthly payments for a total of 36 months, but borrowers will have to reapply every six months and show proof of unemployment benefits and that they're actively seeking work. Interest will also be paused but only for subsidized loans — it will continue to accrue for loans that are unsubsidized.

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Those who aren't unemployed and still cannot make monthly payments could apply for other forms of deferment.

To be sure, pausing or lowering monthly payments on student loans likely means you'll pay more over time, especially if interest is still growing. Before making changes, borrowers should be sure to think through both the short- and long-term implications of a different payment plan, said Elaine Griffin Rubin, senior contributor and communications specialist at Edvisors.

If you're not sure what you should do or have a question about your specific situation, it's best to contact your lender directly for help, said Griffin Rubin, adding that there's no penalty to making a change before payments resume.

"Just because you get set up doesn't mean you have to make payments right away," she said.

Don't hold out for another pause or debt forgiveness

Adding to confusion for many borrowers is an uncertain future for student loan debt. People are anxiously waiting to see if Trump will extend the pause and are weighing the possibility that President-elect Joe Biden will be able to forgive some student debt when he takes office.

Yet experts say borrowers shouldn't count on either. It's unclear that there will be a further pause on payments and interest in the short-term by Trump or through another stimulus bill from Congress.

"While we all want and hope for Congress to provide financial relief for borrowers that are struggling, we have to be mindful of the fact that we can't just hope and pray for Congress to pass anything in an environment that's more politically divided than we've ever seen," said Will Sealy, co-founder and CEO of Summer.  

And many other questions loom around forgiving student loan debt, such as if Biden could do it through an executive action and what the tax implications would be for borrowers.

In the meantime, the consequences of missing payments can be dire — borrowers may have to pay extra in fines, could eventually fall into default and see their credit score take a hit.

"Nothing is guaranteed until it's really there," said Griffin Rubin. "Don't hold out for some decision to be made."

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