New college graduates may not have been counting the months that have passed since those heady commencement ceremonies. But if they borrowed to finance their education, a bill is coming due. 

Many student loans have a six-month grace period to give new graduates time to get a job and organize their lives before they must start repaying their loans. So for spring graduates, monthly billing statements typically begin arriving in November. (The grace period for Perkins loans, is nine months, so those borrowers have a bit more time.)

Now is a good time for borrowers to take stock of their loans. “They need to make sure they know what they owe and who their servicer is,” said Abby Shafroth, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center.

The servicer is the company that sends out statements, collects payments and otherwise manages the loans. Borrowers of federal student loans can visit the Department of Education’s student loan website to see a list of their loans and the servicer.

The federal website doesn’t list private student loans, made by banks and lenders other than the federal government. If you don’t have the original documents for private loans, call your college financial aid office for help, said Diane Cheng, research director at the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit group.

Make sure, Cheng said, that your student loan servicers have your current address and contact information so you don’t miss any bills. Students sometimes use their college e-mails on loan applications, she said, but those can expire after graduation.

Federal borrowers can also use the Education Department’s student loan estimator, which will help calculate their total monthly payments.

If they don’t choose another option, borrowers are automatically enrolled in the standard 10-year repayment plan.

If this is too onerous for borrowers, they can request a temporary postponement of payments or apply for longer-term help via alternative plans with lower monthly payments. Known as “income-driven” repayment plans, in government lingo, the alternative plans factor in borrowers’ income and expenses when setting monthly payments.

The repayment plans have slightly different criteria, but all can significantly lower the borrower’s monthly payments — in some cases, to zero.

“There should be no federal loan borrowers in default,” said Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis, a group that advocates for borrowers. The repayment options can be confusing, however, so borrowers may need to take some time for research. “You are going to have to do some homework on your own,” she said. In addition to repayment information on the Education Department’s website, Student Debt Crisis offers free help on its website.

The catch with alternative payment plans is that you may pay more over time. So borrowers should re-evaluate if their income rises and they can afford to pay more, said Will Sealy, co-founder and chief executive of Summer, a startup that aims to work with colleges and employers to help borrowers manage their student loans.

If you are having trouble making payments, Cheng said, don’t ignore communications from your servicer. Even though it may feel awkward to talk about it, she said, it’s better to discuss alternatives rather than risk a default.

 

Ann Carrns writes for the New York Times.