Student Loan Payments Cripple More Borrowers

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"We don't travel like we used to, we don't do as many extra things that we used to," she said. "The extra money just isn't there anymore because now it's going toward school loans."

She's afraid she's going to have to extend working past retirement to make sure the loans get paid down.

"I'll never retire at this rate," she said. "I figure I'll just keep working. I've considered getting another job to help pay down just student loans, and I have a full-time job."

"This is a crisis situation," said Dave Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, an organization that lists non-profit credit counselors who specialize in debt management and financial education. "The average amount of money that a recent graduate has in student loans after a 4-year degree approaches $70,000. It's at an all-time high."

Jones says paying that back, even with low interest rates, may be a daunting task.

"They are not dischargeable in bankruptcy so they cannot be wiped out," he said. There are, however, a few things that people with federal loans can do to perhaps lower their payments.

"If a person has multiple student loans, consolidation can be a real godsend for them," said Jones. Some candidates can have a loan re-aged and given a new loan with a new payment schedule to get some relief. He says considering talking to a credit counselor to learn about the options is best because each individual case is different.

The AICCCA Web site lists other non-profit credit counseling agencies by state, and some even offer online or phone counseling sessions, making it easier to get free -- and trusted -- financial advice.

Borrowers with federal loans can also go to www.studentloans.gov to find other options to either defer or bring down their payments.

Click here to find a non-profit credit counselor near you

Private loans, like those serviced by some banks or Sallie Mae, are a little trickier to deal with. Interest rates for private loans depend on the student or co-signer's credit history and other factors, including today's interest rates.

"We work with our customers experiencing financial difficulty to find ways to help them remain successful," said Patricia Christel of Sallie Mae. "This can involve switching to a different payment plan and a review of their financial situation to see whether they could be eligible for a temporary period of lower or no payments."

Taking a break from payments via deferment or switching to a longer payment schedule could result in paying much more in the long run in interest.

"It doesn't make any sense when people don't care what the car costs, they only care what the payment is," said Jones about many of the options borrowers have to lower their monthly payments. "But so many people are desperate they will do whatever they can do."

"Bottom line is that we want to hear from our customers and work with them to find a way for them to be successful," said Christel. "Nobody wins — not the customer, not future students who depend on student loans for access to college, not the school and not the lender — if someone defaults."

Christel recommends that whenever possible students pay interest while they are still in school, sign up for automatic payments that can sometimes qualify borrowers for a reduction in interest rates or paying a little extra whenever you can. Still, for many, paying a little extra just isn't possible in today's economic environment.

"It's ridiculous and it's disheartening because the jobs are not there," said Yeates. "I think when they put these programs out there to promote education, they also need to look at what happening in the environment...give them a tool to get to the light at the end of the tunnel. And don't let that light be a train."

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