When the COVID-19 pandemic began and federal student loan payments were first paused, Lilly Stuecklen decided to put as much money as she could toward her private loans.
The now-27-year-old graduated with around $110,000 in student debt, about $66,000 of which were private loans. Before the pandemic, Stuecklen was on an income-driven repayment plan for her federal loans, and put $500 to $600 per month toward her private ones.
The federal pause, which began three years ago and is expected to continue for at least a few more months, allowed her to reassess her budget and throw everything at the private loans: She currently pays $1,000 every month toward those. At a certain point during the pandemic, when her job was on hiatus but still paying her, she picked up waitressing shifts and was able to pay as much as $3,000 towards her private loans each month. She currently works at a gym on the weekend in addition to her day job in TV production, and put COVID-19 stimulus checks, tax refunds, and any bonuses she received toward loan payments.
All of that—combined with the frugality and roommates required to affordably live in New York City—has helped her effectively cut her private loan balance in half since the start of the pandemic. But she’s worried that that progress will be stymied when federal payments resume. She plans to continue on an income-driven repayment plan for those loans, while still making the larger payments toward her private loans as best she can.
“This is a year I may have to move, and having to factor in rent and what those adjustments might be, that stresses me out,” Stuecklen says. “At this point, it is what it is.”
Resuming student loan payments could add ‘financial pain’
With federal student loan payments set to resume by the fall, millions of borrowers will have to figure out how to account for the monthly bill again in their budgets. A February survey from Credit Karma found that 56% of respondents with outstanding federal student loans say their financial stability depends on not making payments. At least for the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of federal borrowers were not making payments at all.
Since then, inflation has gotten worse, and many household budgets have been stretched even further. Layoffs have started affecting some highly-educated sectors, like tech. Add another payment of a few hundred dollars a month, and “people will probably be in for a little bit of pain,” says Jacob Channel, economist at Student Loan Hero.
“Most people are probably worried. It’s not a fun thing to think about,” Channel says. “You could have a double whammy situation where their cost of living went up and they’re out of a job.”
The $10,000 to $20,000 in forgiveness most federal borrowers qualify for under President Joe Biden’s widespread forgiveness plan would help many make the transition, experts say. But that plan is tied up in legal challenges at the U.S. Supreme Court. It is not clear that it will be implemented at all, depending on what the justices—six of whom are conservative—decide.
Stuecklen, at least, isn’t counting on forgiveness. She’d love the pause to be extended again so she can keep making higher payments toward her private debt without worrying about interest accruing on her federal loans.
Regardless of what happens with the forgiveness efforts or the payment pause, though, she’s still “hellbent” on having her private loans fully paid off by the time she’s 30, with just federal loans to worry about after that. She’s trying to make the best of the situation.
“You can think of it as, ‘I’m so behind, even this $1,000 ends up being a drop in the percentage bucket,'” she says. “But I’m still in my 20s in New York City. I’m not eating ramen every day. There’s ways to make it work.”
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