The COVID-19 crisis has already forced millions of Americans out of their jobs, and while unemployment benefits can help, many people are struggling to pay their bills without their regular paychecks.
Thankfully, there's all sorts of relief available courtesy of the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, which was recently signed into law. Included in the $2 trillion aid package is a one-time $1,200 stimulus payment for Americans whose incomes fall below a certain threshold, along with a $500 payment per eligible child.
But there’s another provision of this new legislation intended to help those concerned about how they’re going to continue repaying their education loans during this crisis. That’s because, thanks to the CARES Act, federal student loan borrowers are entitled to relief in the form of forbearance.
What is forbearance?
If you're not familiar with the term, forbearance is just a fancy word for stopping payments on your loan. And under the CARES Act, you can now do so without penalty until Sept. 30. During this time, interest will not accrue on your debt, nor will nonpayment get reported as negative activity on your credit record. Furthermore, this temporary pause on your payments will happen automatically; you don't need to apply for forbearance. Plus, there's no fee involved (anyone who emails you a link for submitting a filing fee is trying to scam you).
That said, just because you have the option to pause your student loans temporarily doesn't mean it's the best choice for you. In fact, you may want to continue making payments on your debt if you can afford to do so.
Who shouldn’t go into forbearance?
If you've lost your income or seen it decline due to COVID-19, not paying your student debt for a number of months will likely provide some welcome relief. But not everyone is out of work due to the crisis. In fact, some people are still receiving their full paychecks because they’ve made the switch to working remotely. If that's the situation you're in, and you have a healthy emergency fund -- one with enough money to pay for three to six months of essential living expenses -- it could actually make sense to keep paying your loans despite the fact that you're off the hook.
The reason? Right now, federal student loans are not accruing interest. If you keep making payments, your money will be applied to your loan's principal, which means your balance will go down more substantially with each payment you make. Normally, each monthly payment you make on a loan is divvied up between principal and interest, but with interest waived, you have an opportunity to shed your debt faster by knocking out more principal -- which will, in turn, result in less interest over time.
Now, if you've retained your paycheck but don't have a solid level of emergency savings, you should stick your spare cash in the bank before you put it toward your student debt. But if you're good on cash reserves, paying those loans now gives you a chance to knock them out sooner and save money on interest in the long run.
How to opt out of forbearance
If you intend to keep paying your student loans while they're eligible for forbearance, contact your loan servicer and say so -- you won't be denied that option. Either you can manually make your payments, or if you're signed up for automatic payments, you can authorize your loan servicer to keep that setup as-is. You can also put your loans into forbearance if your financial circumstances change between now and late September -- say, you have a job now, but you lose it a month or two down the line.
The fact that federal student loan borrowers are getting relief on the repayment front is a good thing. But if you're in a decent spot financially, you may be able to use that leeway as an opportunity to shed your debt more quickly and pay less interest over the life of your loan.