Students who rely on loans to pay for college may give little thought to the financial burden they’ve taken on until after graduation. But borrowers will quickly need to devise a plan for how to pay back student loans as their grace period comes to a close and repayment begins.
“They’re thinking about graduating and looking for a job, and have kind of put off the idea of what they’re going to owe until they leave,” says Chris George, dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.
Most students with federal loans will have about six months after graduation before repayment must begin. If a student graduated in the spring, his or her repayment would begin in the fall.
Here are steps that experts advise student loan borrowers take to get started:
Some student loans provide a grace period after students graduate, leave college or drop below half-time enrollment before they must begin repayment. The length of time of the grace period for most federal student loans is six months.
This period allows graduates time to obtain employment and make a plan for repayment.
But not all student loans provide a grace period. PLUS loans do not offer students a grace period; repayment must begin when the loan is fully disbursed.
Loans that do provide a six-month grace period include direct subsidized loans, direct unsubsidized loans and all Stafford loans, according to the Department of Education.
Borrowers who consolidate their loans forfeit their remaining grace period, and students who go back to school before the end of their grace period and enroll at least half-time will receive their six-month grace period when they stop attending or drop below half-time status. Borrowers who are called to active duty in the military for more than 30 days before the end of their grace period receive the full six-month grace period when they return from duty.
“Some private lenders offer grace periods as well,” Abril Hunt, a training and outreach manager at ECMC Group, a student loan guarantor and financial literacy nonprofit, wrote in an email. “The length of the grace period will vary by lender and loan product, but it’s usually about six months. Be sure to check your loan agreement to see what (if any) grace period you have.”
If they are able, borrowers can make payments on their student loans while still in the grace period. Experts advise doing so, given that interest will accrue during the grace period for most federal student loans.
If a borrower’s loans have been building, a crucial first step is to know how much is owed. On the National Student Loan Data System , the Department of Education’s database, students can locate all their federal loans and find debt totals, including accumulated interest.
“Before I looked online, I wasn’t even sure how much my loans were, including interest,” says Meghan Mitnick, a teacher in New York City who had six-figure loan debt from two New York University degrees. “Even though it’s really scary, know exactly what you’re dealing with.”
Once borrowers have a good grasp of just how much is owed, they should then find out exactly who must be paid by contacting the correct student loan servicer .
“That’s the question we get often: Who am I supposed to be paying?” George says.
Whether a student took out federal or private loans, the loan servicer is the first point of contact for any questions and address updates, so don’t hesitate to reach out, recommends Erin Wolfe, associate director of financial aid at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.
“The best advice for any graduate is to remain proactive in loan repayment,” Wolfe wrote in an email. “If you have questions or concerns, contact the loan servicer without delay. Building a successful repayment strategy for student loan debt is essential for shaping the borrower’s financial future.”
The standard repayment plan for federal student loans is 10 years, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the right option for every student.
For example, some borrowers of federal student loans may be better off opting into income-based repayment or income-contingent repayment plans, which adjust monthly bills according to pay.
Hunt says the most important thing to remember about repayment plans is that they can be changed.
“Borrowers are not stuck in the same repayment plan forever,” Hunt wrote. “If they choose the wrong plan for their situation or have a sudden lifestyle change, they should contact their servicer to discuss options for delayed payment or how to change their repayment plan.”
Once borrowers determine a monthly obligation, they should keep track of other spending and bills. Budgeting websites like Mint.com have helped University of Pittsburgh graduate Shawn Norcross, a sales representative at Trex Co. who is in the process of repaying about $83,000 worth of student loans, he says.
“Budgeting is amazing, because whenever you can actually see it on a website or on your phone, you don’t want to go over; you don’t want to cheat,” says Norcross, who compares financial tracking to counting calories. “It almost turns into a game of sorts where you want to win.”
As students budget, they may find themselves forgoing activities or events to pay off their debt. For Norcross, his payments have taken precedence over major decisions as he plans to avoid default , he says.
“My student loans are affecting my life,” Norcross says. He says he wanted to move to Washington, D.C., after college, but couldn’t because of his financial situation. “My student loan payments are probably No. 1.” 
Prioritizing may also mean minimizing other forms of debt or, if possible, chipping away at student loans before tackling other types of debt.
“Student loans are one of the few debt obligations that are rarely forgiven in bankruptcy filings,” notes Michael Scott, associate provost for enrollment management at Texas Christian University . “In a worst-case scenario, you will be better off if you’ve reduced non-dischargeable debt first.”
Borrowers who are scrimping or sacrificing to make their monthly student loan payments may find it helpful to remind themselves what they’re paying for.
“I really value the education I got, and I got a good job, so it paid off,” Mitnick says.
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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