When you take on student loans at the financial aid office, no one really sits you down and explains the weight of the financial decision that you just made. Student loans can have disastrous effects on a person’s future and can potentially leave them in financial ruin. They can lead to crippling limitations that affect everything from where you live to where you work. And while we may joke about going to desperate lengths to evade payment, the consequences of defaulting on student loans are no laughing matter.
“There is no way around your student loan debt,” said financial literacy coach Deunka Alston. “It’s not something that just shows up on your credit report for seven years and goes away like any other account. You also risk losing your tax income checks and having your payments garnished.”
Of course, the best-case scenario is that you work out an arrangement with your student loan servicer before things go left. But, unfortunately, many are unaware of the damaging effects of unpaid student loan debt until they default on a loan.
“To default on a student loan just means to not pay them or to pay them late consecutively,” explained Alston, who is the founder and CEO of Express 2 Success, a financial coaching and credit repair agency. “After six months of being out of school, you will be held responsible for paying back your student loans.”
The consequences of defaulting are numerous and can be especially devastating to a person’s finances. The most crippling is garnishment of wages. A garnishment is a court order in which money can be seized from a third party, usually your employer, to satisfy a debt owed. Garnishments can be especially crippling because you have no control over how much money is deducted from your checks, which can sometimes leave you with a limited amount of money left for your basic living expenses.
“You really have to just go through the motions when a garnishment is issued,” Alston said. “The only way to stop a garnishment is to go through court. They won’t stop until a large portion is paid off, or in some cases, the whole thing is paid off.”
Although it can be particularly frustrating to have a large percentage of your check garnished, the best thing a person can do is work through it.
“Sometimes people quit once the garnishment starts to happen. I would definitely say keep working just to see if your lender will work with you,” the financial coach advised.
Depending on your student loan servicer, you may be able to arrange a payment plan after a period of garnishment, so it’s wise to reach out to see what can be arranged.
Beyond garnishment, unpaid loans can wreck your credit, making it difficult to find housing or buy a car. But even after you’ve made the mistake of defaulting, there are two key ways to dig yourself out of the hole and get back on the path of financial fidelity.
Step one: establish a payment plan
First, call your student loan servicer and seek to arrange a payment plan that you can afford. Many companies offer income-based repayment plans.
“The good thing about student loans is that they’re always willing to work with you,” Alston said. “We have people in our credit repair program paying as little as five dollars per month. It makes a huge difference because now on your credit report, it goes from reporting late every month to being paid on time every month. Yes, it’s only five dollars but it stops the delayed payment from hitting and it stops your credit score from taking that hard hit.”
Step two: build good credit
Establishing good credit is about creating a positive track record for yourself. So in addition to working on the loan, create some lines of credit.
“You have to build a positive history around this negative history that has already been built,” Alston said. “If you don’t already have lines of credit or maybe some secured credit cards, you’ll want to do that to build up a different type of history than the history already shown.”
Secured credit cards are a type of credit card that is backed by cash from the borrower. The cash serves as a form of security for the lender in the event that the cardholder can’t make payments.
Second-chance banks are also a good idea, Alston advised.
“Second chance banks will give you a chance to do things that your credit is stopping you from doing. Maybe you can get a car, but just at a higher interest rate. Be responsible, keep the things up that you’ve already done and in six months, you can refinance the loan. There are ways to climb out of debt.”
Above all, Alston urged those looking to rebuild their credit to view it as a lifestyle change as opposed to a temporary fix.
“I compare it to working out. People want a great figure, but many don’t want to work out or eat healthily. It’s the same with your loans. If you continue to engage in unhealthy habits like not paying your loans on time, you’ll continue to have bad credit.”