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Michelle Singletary: Student loan relief is extended until Jan. 31, 2022. Here’s what you need to know.

By Michelle Singletary Washington Post

The debt relief provided to federal student loan borrowers has been extended into next year, but the Department of Education says don’t expect another reprieve.

Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, federal student loan payments and interest were suspended to help folks struggling to make ends meet because of the pandemic.

Collection actions on defaulted loans were halted. So was negative credit reporting for eligible federal student loans, meaning the Education Department reported suspended payments to the major credit bureaus as if they were made on time.

The pandemic-related relief was scheduled to end on Sept. 30 but now the forbearance has been extended until Jan. 31, 2022.

Here’s what you need to know about the forbearance extension.

When will I have to start paying my student loans again?

If you were eligible, your payment pause should have started in March 2020. It was supposed to last just six months, but this latest extension means payments will restart in February 2022.

It’s important to remember that time frame. A study last month by Pew Charitable Trusts found 52% of borrowers affected by the pause were unsure when they would be required to resume payments.

Pew said its findings show that many borrowers will need assistance transitioning back to repayment.

As with the initial forbearance, collection actions on defaulted loans were halted.

How likely is it that there will be another extension?

The Education Department made a point of emphasizing this would be the last extension.

“This additional time and a definitive end date will allow borrowers to plan for the resumption of payments and reduce the risk of delinquency and defaults after restart,” the department said in a news release.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona also indicated it is a “final extension,” saying in a statement that the additional time will “ensure a smooth pathway back to repayment.”

The Biden administration was under pressure to extend the forbearance for federally held student loans, especially in light of the recent extension of the eviction moratorium for renters.

Many borrowers say they are still having trouble managing their bills as a result of the pandemic, according to the Pew study. Two-thirds of borrowers who took the survey this spring said it would be difficult to afford their student loan payments if the payment suspension ended the following month.

There is also concern that with the number of coronavirus cases increasing because of the delta variant, businesses will have to shut down or scale back, resulting in a rise in the number of people out of work.

In a June letter to President Biden, Democrats in the House and Senate argued that restarting payments may result in a wave of student loan defaults.

Following the announcement that the payment pause would be extended, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.; and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., issued a statement praising the administration.

“We’re pleased the Biden administration has heeded our call to extend the pause on federally-held student loan payments, providing an enormous relief to millions of borrowers facing a disastrous financial cliff,” the lawmakers said.

Was it a mistake to take advantage of the forbearance when I could have afforded to make my payments?

Many people need this break.

But many borrowers not affected financially by the pandemic kept making their loan payments – because, at 0% interest, all the money went directly to reducing the loan principal (once any interest that accrued before March 13, 2020, was paid). This was a smart money move.

Some people took the opportunity to catch up on some bills or concentrate on paying down high-interest credit card debt. And that’s fine. But it was a mistake to take the payment holiday if you could afford to make the payments and you didn’t have any other pressing financial issues.

If you haven’t been making payments and can afford to do so, now you have additional time to reduce your debt.

It’s not necessary for folks working toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness to continue making payments. Under the PSLF program, the remaining balance of a borrower’s debt is forgiven after 120 qualifying monthly payments.

If you qualify for PSLF, the suspension of loan payments won’t put you behind. It is as if you are making on-time monthly payments.

Is there anything I should do when repayments resume?

The Education Department said it will soon begin notifying borrowers about this final extension and will provide borrowers with resources and information about restarting their payments.

Your servicer should contact you before the forbearance is over to confirm when you need to start making payments again. If you don’t receive any communication, contact your servicer to make sure you know your due date.

A lot of people moved during the pandemic. You may have moved in with your parents or a family member, or relocated to save money.

It’s important that you contact your loan servicer and update your address. Don’t assume that because you haven’t been contacted you aren’t responsible for resuming your payments. You risk accumulating late fees and perhaps even defaulting on your loan if you fail to restart making your monthly payments.

It is your responsibility to pay your loans on time, even if the lender doesn’t know how to find you.

You should also update your contact information in your profile at studentaid.gov.

Keep in mind, if you had set up automatic payments, they may resume on your first due date when the forbearance period reaches an end.

What should I do if I can’t afford my payment once the pause is over?

If you haven’t already, ask your loan servicer about enrolling in an income-driven repayment, or IDR, plan. Depending on your income and family size, under an IDR, your payment might actually be zero.

You can get an estimate of your monthly payment under different IDR plans by going to studentaid.gov.

If you were already in a plan and your income or family size has changed, you can request that your payment be recalculated, which could reduce what you owe each month.I received an email from a company offering to help reduce my student loan debt. Is this legit?

Here are three signs of a debt scam, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

• You’re asked for an upfront fee to help you sign up for an income-driven payment plan.

• You’re promised quick debt forgiveness.

• You’re required to provide your Federal Student Aid identification, or FSA ID, which is the username and password you use to log on to Education Department student aid websites. Do not give this information to anyone.

Do not pay anyone to do something you can do yourself. Your loan servicer can walk you through the various repayment options. And if you feel you aren’t getting the assistance you need, file a complaint with the CFPB at consumerfinance.gov.

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