Q&A: Should you pay down debt with extra cash? It may not be the best plan during a pandemic

Dear Liz: I’m a teacher on an income-based repayment plan for my federal student loans. I don’t qualify for any loan forgiveness programs for teachers because I teach in an affluent area. Right now, interest and payments on federal education loans have been suspended because of the pandemic.

I’m trying to decide what to do when payments have to restart. Should I pay down a chunk of the loans from the money that accumulated in my savings from not having to make loan payments since April? Or pick back up where I left off with making near-double payments to get down the principal (slowly) and pay off loans in another five to six years? Or only make the minimum income-based payments while waiting to see if the new administration offers more comprehensive loan forgiveness for teachers? Thank you for any insights.

Answer: Although you may not qualify for loan forgiveness through programs meant to help underserved communities, you can still qualify for the federal public service loan forgiveness program. This program erases debt for schoolteachers and other public servants after they’ve made 120 qualifying payments toward their federal student loans.

You can learn more about this program at the U.S. Department of Education site. Follow the rules carefully because many people who thought they were on track to get forgiveness have discovered otherwise.

If you’re eligible, consider making only the minimum payments on your loans so that the maximum amount is forgiven. Even if you’re not eligible for forgiveness, though, you don’t necessarily want to rush to pay off this relatively low-rate, tax-deductible debt.

You should be on track with your retirement savings, have paid off all other, higher-rate debt and have a substantial emergency fund before you make extra payments on education debt (or a mortgage, for that matter). “Substantial” means having three to six months’ worth of expenses saved. If your job is anything less than rock solid, you may want to set aside even more.

Keep in mind that the money you send to your lenders is gone for good; you can’t get it back should you need it later.

Q&A: Push lenders for student loan help

Dear Liz: I saw your previous column about the federal student loan payments being suspended by the CARES Act until Sept. 30, with interest being waived. I reached out to my loan servicer about my loans and was told that while they are federal loans, they were made before 2010 and are not covered by the relief bill.

Answer: Your experience is an excellent example of why loan servicers have attracted so much criticism in recent years for misleading borrowers about their options.

You should have been told that although your Family Federal Education Loan (FFEL) program loans don’t qualify, you can consolidate your loans through the U.S. Department of Education’s direct loan program and the consolidation would qualify for relief. You can get more information at StudentAid.gov.

Q&A: What to do after coronavirus takes away your job

Dear Liz: I’m a single mom who just lost my job because of COVID-19. I have a mortgage, a car payment, credit card debt and a child who is headed to college in the fall. What do I do? I am very scared.

Answer: This is a very scary time. Your job now is to identify and use all the resources that may help you. You’ll need to be patient and persistent because millions of people are in the same boat.

Your first task could be among the hardest: applying for unemployment benefits. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, signed into law on March 27, expanded unemployment relief to include the self-employed (including contract and gig workers), people who work part time, and those whose hours were reduced because of the pandemic.

The act also adds $600 a week to the benefit amount that states offer, a supplement scheduled to last four months, and extends benefits for eligible workers until Dec. 31. In normal times, benefits end after 26 weeks.

The expanded benefits, plus an unprecedented number of job losses, have overwhelmed state unemployment offices. If possible, apply online with your state’s labor department rather than over the phone or in person. You’ll be sent important follow-up information; to avoid delays in starting your checks, carefully read that information and respond to any requests.

Unemployment benefits vary enormously by state. You may get enough to sustain you if you cut unnecessary expenses — or you may not. If you come up short, you have other options.

If your mortgage is federally backed — and most are — the CARES Act gives you a right to forbearance for up to 12 months. There’s also a moratorium on foreclosures and foreclosure-related evictions for these mortgages.

Forbearance means you don’t have to make payments, although interest will typically still accrue. Federally backed mortgages include loans owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and various federal agencies.

If you’re not sure whether your mortgage is federally backed, call your loan servicer — the company that takes your mortgage payments — and ask. Even if your loan is not federally backed, you may be eligible for some kind of relief. Explain your circumstances and ask what help is available.

Many other lenders, including credit card issuers, offer forbearance options as well. Some have information and application forms on their websites while others require you to call the customer service number to request help. Again, be prepared for long hold times.

You also can ask for more financial aid from your child’s college based on your changed circumstances. Check first to see if the financial aid office has an online form you can use or has outlined its preferred procedure for appealing a financial aid offer.

You may be tempted to put off asking for help, hoping that you will land another job before your household is on fumes. It would be more prudent, though, to assume you could be out of work for many months. Not only is unemployment skyrocketing, but a vaccine also could be a year or more away, indicating the economic disruptions likely will continue.

There’s one other part of the CARES Act that could help you: the “coronavirus hardship withdrawal.” The new law allows you to withdraw up to $100,000 from your 401(k) or IRA without penalty.
The withdrawal is taxed, but you can effectively spread the tax bill over three years. If you can repay the money within three years, you also can amend your tax returns and get a refund of those taxes.

Taking the money and not repaying it could have a devastating effect on your future retirement, but if you’ve run out of other options, a retirement plan withdrawal could help keep you afloat.

Q&A: How to figure out if your student loan qualifies for coronavirus relief

Dear Liz: I’m confused about what help is being offered to people with student loans. At first I heard interest was waived but payments had to be made. Then supposedly the stimulus package made payments optional. Is there something I have to do to get relief or is it automatic?

Answer: If your student loans are held by the federal government, relief should be automatic. You won’t have to make a payment until after Sept. 30, and interest will be waived during that time. In addition, federal collection efforts on defaulted student loans have been paused.

These provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act apply to federal student loans made through the direct loan program, including undergraduate, graduate and parent loans. You can log on to studentaid.gov to see if your loan qualifies.

If you have Perkins loans or Federal Family Education loans that don’t qualify, you can consolidate those loans into a direct consolidation loan, which would qualify. The provisions also don’t apply to private student loans, although your lender may offer other hardship options.

Q&A: Should you pay off student loans or save for retirement? Both, and here’s why

Dear Liz: What are your recommendations for a recent dental school graduate, now practicing in California, who has about $250,000 of dental school loans to pay off but who also knows the importance of starting to save for retirement?

Answer: If you’re the graduate, congratulations. Your debt load is obviously significant, but so is your earning potential. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median pay for dentists nationwide is more than $150,000 a year. The range in California is typically $154,712 to $202,602, according to Salary.com.

Ideally, you wouldn’t have borrowed more in total than you expected to earn your first year on the job. That would have made it possible to pay off the debt within 10 years without stinting on other goals. A more realistic plan now is to repay your loans over 20 years or so. That will lower your monthly payment to a more manageable level, although it will increase the total interest you pay. If you can’t afford to make the payments right now on a 20-year plan, investigate income-based repayment plans, such as Pay As You Earn (PAYE) or Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), for your federal student loans.

Like other graduates, you’d be wise to start saving for retirement now rather than waiting until your debt is gone. The longer you wait to start, the harder it is to catch up, and you’ll have missed all the tax breaks, company matches and tax-deferred compounding you could have earned.

Also be sure to buy long-term disability insurance, even though it may be expensive. Losing your livelihood would be catastrophic, since you would still owe the education debt, which typically can’t be erased in bankruptcy.

Q&A: Facing retirement with parent student loans? Transfer them to the kids

Dear Liz: I’m 60. Should I take a $50,000 distribution from my 401(k) to pay down my $146,000 parent Plus college loan and then try to refinance the balance with a private lender at a lower interest rate? I have $364,000 in my 401(k). I’m paying 8% interest on the parent Plus loan and planning to retire at age 66 years and 10 months, my full retirement age for Social Security.

Answer: Are you sure you can afford to retire?

You would still have a massive amount of education debt even after paying it down, plus a smaller nest egg. Unless you have a substantial amount of savings outside your 401(k) or another source of income besides Social Security, you could run a substantial risk of running short of money even if you can persuade a private lender to refinance your debt.

That may not be the best option, in any case. Federal loans have more consumer protections, including deferral and forbearance options and income-contingent repayment plans that could lower your payments.

Refinancing with a private lender might make the most sense if you can transfer this debt to the child or children who benefited from the education. Several private lenders offer this option if the kids have good credit and decent incomes.

In any case, you’d be smart to consult a fee-only financial planner who can review the specifics of your finances and offer advice.

Q&A: Student loan forgiveness fail

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from someone who had defaulted on federal student loans. You mentioned ways to get out of default and qualify for income-driven repayment plans that could reduce her monthly payments. Couldn’t she also qualify for student loan forgiveness?

Answer: There are programs that are supposed to allow federal student loan balances to be forgiven after 10 years of payments for people in public service jobs and after 20 or 25 years for other borrowers. It’s questionable how much anyone should count on getting this relief, however.

Last year was the first time borrowers qualified for forgiveness under the 10-year public service program, which was enacted under President George W. Bush in 2007. The Department of Education has denied the vast majority of applicants their expected relief. Nearly 40,000 people had applied by Dec. 31 and fewer than 300 people have been approved, according to the Washington Post.

Critics say the U.S. Department of Education has set much more rigid standards for approval than anything Congress envisioned when creating the program. Many applicants also relied on erroneous advice given by the private companies that service federal student loans.

It’s possible that lawsuits, or Congress, will force the Education Department to forgive more of the debt. But if this is what can happen to people who have given a decade of their lives to public service, one has to wonder how much relief other borrowers can expect to get.

Liz Weston, certified financial planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.Distributed by No More Red Inc.

Q&A: When student loan payments overwhelm, here’s a pathway out

Dear Liz: I went to college in 2004. I did it the American way with student loans. Well, my son had a bad seizure that put him on life support for three weeks. I had to quit college to take care of him. So now I’m in hock with no degree. He is on disability but that doesn’t cover much.

The federal government is now taking my tax refund. I used to get money back that helped him and me. So now what? I still don’t make enough and never will to pay back the loans.

Answer: Because these are federal student loans, you have some options to get out of default and get a payment plan you can afford. Otherwise, the government will continue taking your refunds until the debt is paid back. (The feds can even take a chunk of people’s Social Security checks, which are protected from other creditors.)

Since you can’t pay the debt in full, the fastest way out of default would be to make three full, on-time monthly payments and then consolidate the loans into a new Direct Consolidation Loan. (It’s important to know these terms, because the private companies that service federal loans don’t always give complete or accurate information.)

Once you have a Direct Consolidation Loan, you can qualify for an income-driven repayment plan. Your payments would be 10% of your discretionary income, defined as the difference between your total income and 150% of the poverty guideline for your family size and state of residence. Your payments can be reduced to zero if your income is low enough.

Another option is to “rehabilitate” your loan, which would require you to make nine monthly loan payments within 10 consecutive months. You can’t be more than 20 days late on any payment. Your new monthly payment will be 15% of your discretionary income as defined above. You also may request a lower amount.

You can find more information about getting out of federal student loan default at the Education Department’s student aid website StudentAid.ed.gov.

Q&A: Ask yourself these questions before using savings to pay off student debt

Dear Liz: I’m wondering whether I should use part of my emergency fund to pay off student loans. I currently have $15,000 in an emergency fund to cover three to six months of my living expenses and owe $18,000 in federal student loans. I’ve been feeling the itch to pay off a chunk of my student loans to reduce the years (and interest) I have to keep paying. I’d like to use $5,000 to $6,000 of my emergency fund to put toward the loan. For context, I’m already contributing 15% to my 401(k) and have no other debt.

Answer: First of all, well done. The fact that you have any emergency fund puts you ahead of the game, plus it’s great that you’re also saving for your retirement and avoiding credit card debt.

There are a few things to consider before using savings to pay down your loan. “Prepaying” a student loan is different from paying down credit cards. Reducing credit card debt typically frees up additional credit that you could use in an emergency. Paying down credit card debt also can help your credit scores by reducing your “credit utilization,” or the amount of your available revolving credit that you’re using. Extra money sent to a student loan lender, by contrast, can’t be clawed back if you should need it and doesn’t help your scores as much.

Federal student loan debt has other advantages. Interest rates tend to be low, and up to $2,500 of interest can be subtracted from your income even if you don’t itemize. That is a valuable “above the line” adjustment that can help you qualify for other tax breaks.

You shouldn’t hang on to debt just because of the tax savings, of course, since the value of the tax break usually is much less than the interest you pay. But most people have better things to do with their money than pay down low-rate, tax-deductible debt, especially if they have other types of debt, haven’t maxed out their retirement savings and don’t have an adequate emergency fund.

Which brings us back to your situation. You’ve checked all those other boxes. If your job situation is reasonably stable, then using a chunk of your savings to pay down debt can make sense — particularly if you have access to credit or other funds, such as help from friends or family, as a backup while you rebuild those savings.

Q&A: Why co-signing a loan, especially a student loan, can be a costly move

Dear Liz: I co-signed a student loan to help a 31-year-old woman complete her schooling to become a nurse. I know this was something I should not have done, but I just could not refuse her. I did not realize that because no payments had to be made until after the student’s graduation, the loan amount would double. I am looking into a life insurance policy on the student to protect my interest.

Is there any advice you can provide me other than paying off the loan? I know the student can complete a form to take me off this loan, but she will not qualify on her own.

Answer: She may not be able to take you off the loan now, but hopefully she can within a few years of graduation. Most private lenders will allow a co-signer to be removed from a student loan after a certain number of on-time monthly payments, typically 12 to 48. If she has good credit and a decent income, she also may be able to refinance this loan with another lender to get you off the note.

In the meantime, you’ll want to protect your credit, because a single missed payment can damage your credit scores. Contact the lender to find out what notice, if any, you’ll get if she falls behind on payments. Discuss with her the importance of making payments on time, every time, and ask her to contact you immediately if there’s any chance that won’t happen.

Just as many people don’t realize that they’re putting their good credit in the other person’s hands when they co-sign a loan, many also don’t realize what can happen if they take a lender up on its offer to defer payments until graduation.

The loan amount swelled because of something known as capitalization. Because payments aren’t being made, the unpaid interest is being added to the loan amount and dramatically increasing what the two of you owe.

If the loan were a subsidized federal loan, the government would pay the interest while the student was in school. With unsubsidized federal loans and private student loans like the one you signed, it’s smart to start making payments immediately to avoid capitalization and having to pay interest on interest.