It’s been a strange time for people with federal student loans.
The bills have been on pause for nearly three years, and we still don’t know exactly when they’ll resume.
President Joe Biden in August announced that he would be forgiving up to $20,000 for tens of millions of borrowers. Yet the policy was temporarily stopped in federal court, and people now won’t know if they’ll get the promised relief until the Supreme Court makes its final ruling on the plan. (The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments at the end of February.)
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In the meantime, there are still some smart financial moves borrowers can take, experts say.
1. Make the most of extra cash
With headlines warning of a possible recession and layoffs picking up, experts recommend that you try to put away the money you’d usually put toward your student debt each month.
Certain banks and online savings accounts have been upping their interest rates, and it’s worth looking around for the best deal available. You’ll just want to make sure any account you put your savings in is FDIC insured, meaning up to $250,000 of your deposit is protected from loss.
And while interest rates on federal student loans are at zero, it’s also a good time to make progress paying down more expensive debt, experts say. The average interest rate on credit cards is currently more than 19%.
2. Consider making payments anyway
If you have a healthy rainy day fund and no credit card debt, it may make sense to continue paying down your student loans even during the break, experts say.
That’s because months during the government’s payment pause still count as qualifying payments for those programs, and since they both result in forgiveness after a certain amount of time, any cash you throw at your loans during this period just reduces the amount you’ll eventually get excused.
3. Review your options for when payments resume
Even though there’s some uncertainty around the date that federal student loan bills will pick up again, you want to be prepared for whenever they do.
If you’re unemployed or dealing with another financial hardship, you might want to put in a request for an economic hardship or unemployment deferment. Those are the ideal ways to postpone your federal student loan payments, because interest doesn’t accrue.
If you don’t qualify for either, though, you can use a forbearance to continue suspending your bills. Just keep in mind that with forbearance, interest will rack up and your balance will be larger — possibly much larger — when you resume paying.
4. Check if refinancing makes sense now
Higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz had previously recommended that federal student loan borrowers refrain from refinancing their debt with a private lender while the Biden administration deliberated on how to move forward with forgiveness. Refinanced student loans wouldn’t qualify for the federal relief.
Now that borrowers know how much in loan cancellation is on the table — if the president’s policy survives the Supreme Court — borrowers may want to consider the option, Kantrowitz said. With the Federal Reserve expected to continue raising interest rates, he added, you’re more likely to pick up a lower rate with a lender today than down the road.
Still, Kantrowitz added, it’s probably a small pool of borrowers for whom refinancing is wise.
Your rate doesn’t matter if you lose your job, have sudden medical expenses, can’t afford your payments and find that defaulting is your only option.Betsy Mayottepresident of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors
Those include borrowers who don’t qualify for the Biden administration’s forgiveness — the plan excludes anyone who earns more than $125,000 as an individual or $250,000 as a family — and those who owe more on their student loans than the administration plans to cancel, he said. The latter borrowers may want to look at refinancing the portion of their debt over the relief amounts, he added.
Still, borrowers should first understand the federal protections they’re giving up by refinancing, warns Betsy Mayotte, president of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors.
For example, the U.S. Department of Education allows you to postpone your bills without interest accruing if you can prove economic hardship. The government also offers loan forgiveness programs for teachers and public servants.
“Your rate doesn’t matter if you lose your job, have sudden medical expenses, can’t afford your payments and find that defaulting is your only option,” said Mayotte in a previous interview about refinancing.