Many students take out loans during their studies, only to realize it's not so easy to pay back that money after the fact. The U.S. Federal Reserve reports that the average monthly student loan payment is $393 (not including borrowers whose payments are in deferment). That's a lot of money to fork over on a regular basis, and it partly explains why such a large number of borrowers have already failed to keep up with their student loan payments. 

As of early 2019, there are 5.2 million borrowers in default on their federal student loans, according to our Student Loan Debt Statistics for 2019. And those same borrowers face a host of consequences as a result.

A hand reaching out from beneath a pile of crumpled-up balls of paper.

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The trouble with defaulting

Federal student loans are considered to be in default once a borrower goes 270 days without making a payment. But as soon as you reach default status, you face a host of unsavory repercussions. For one thing, your credit score is pretty much guaranteed to tank. That's a problem if you want to borrow money in the form of a personal loan, auto loan, or credit card. And, in some industries, poor credit can actually prevent you from getting a job. 

But credit score implications aside, defaulting on student loans can also result in a scenario where some of your wages are garnished. And needless to say, if you're already struggling financially, that'll only make your situation worse. As such, it pays to do everything in your power to avoid defaulting on your student loans -- because your finances can't afford that kind of hit. 

Avoiding default

The good thing about federal student loans is that they come with a number of borrower protections designed to help you avoid that dreaded default scenario. First, if you're spending a large chunk of your income on loan payments and can no longer afford to keep doing so, you can apply for an income-driven repayment plan. Under one of these plans, your monthly loan payments will be recalculated based on a reasonable percentage of your income -- and for the most part, that percentage is capped at 10%. 

Another thing you can do if you've fallen behind on your loans, or are at risk of falling behind, is to reach out to your loan servicer and see if it's possible to hit the pause button on your payments. You have two options in this regard -- forbearance and deferment. With the former, interest continues to accrue on your student loans during the period in which you're not making payments. With the latter, you don't accrue interest. To qualify for either option, however, you'll need to demonstrate a legitimate financial hardship, such as being unemployed. As such, you might have better luck getting on an income-driven repayment plan. 

Keep in mind that forbearance and deferment are only on the table if you haven’t defaulted on your debt. Once you reach default status, you lose these protections. 

It's unfortunate that more than 5 million federal loan borrowers have defaulted on their student debt, but you don't need to join their ranks. Do your best to manage your loans by staying on a tight budget, and pursue the above remedies if you start to fall behind on your payments. 

Remember, default doesn't kick in right away, so if you miss a loan payment or two, there's plenty of opportunity to recover before your finances truly take a long-term turn for the worse.