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10 Options if You Can’t Make Your Student Loan Payments

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In a Nutshell

If your student loans are coming due and you can’t afford the payments, don’t panic. This article explores 10 strategies to help: 1. Apply for an income-driven repayment plan. 2. Refinance your loans. 3. Seek financial counseling. 4. Increase your income and/or lower expenses. 5. Consolidate your loans. 6. Set up automatic payments. 7. Request student loan deferment. 8. Apply for student loan forbearance. 9. Negotiate with your lender. 10. File bankruptcy to erase student loans for good.

Written by the Upsolve TeamLegally reviewed by Attorney Andrea Wimmer
Updated September 6, 2023

You may struggle to keep up with your student loan payments for many reasons. Maybe your monthly payment is unaffordable. Maybe you have several loans and can’t keep track of them all. Maybe a medical issue or job loss is causing temporary hardship. We’ll address all these situations, plus a few more.

Monthly Payment Too High? Try These Strategies for Relief

There are many different federal student loan repayment plans. You will automatically be enrolled in the Standard Repayment Plan if you don’t choose otherwise. This is because it’s the shortest repayment plan — just 10 years. While this is the fastest and least expensive way to repay student loan debt in the long run, it also has the highest monthly payment amount. And for many student loan borrowers, the monthly payments are simply unaffordable. 

Here are a few things you can try if your monthly payment is too high:

  • Apply for an income-driven repayment plan (federal loans only)

  • Refinance your loans (federal and private loans)

  • Seek financial counseling (federal and private loans)

  • See if you can increase your income or decrease your expenses

Apply for an Income-Driven Repayment Plan

As the name suggests, income-driven repayment plans tie your monthly student loan payment to your income (and family size). The federal government offers four such plans:

Depending on which payment plan you choose, your monthly payment will be 10%–20% of your discretionary income, and your repayment term will be 20–25 years. Also, borrowers who use an income-driven plan qualify for student loan forgiveness on the remaining loan balance after making qualifying monthly payments for 20–25 years.

You can see all the details on or check out our Guide to Income-Driven Student Loan Repayment Plans.

The four income-driven repayment plans only apply to federal student loans. Private student loans don’t offer income-driven plans. If you’re enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (also known as PSLF), you are required to have an income-driven repayment plan. PSLF is for federal student loan borrowers employed in public service at a qualifying nonprofit or government agency. Under the PSLF program, borrowers who make 10 years of qualifying monthly payments will then have their remaining loan balance forgiven. 

Refinance Your Loans

Federal student loan borrowers often have lots of options for repaying their loans, but if you took out private student loans, you’ll likely have far fewer options. If the monthly payment for your private student loan is too high, you can consider refinancing your loans. If you refinance your loan, you may be able to get a lower monthly payment and maybe even a lower interest rate.

Federal student loan borrowers can also refinance their loans, but beware that doing so converts your federal loans into a private loan. This means the refinanced student debt is no longer eligible for income-driven repayment plans or other federal benefits like loan forgiveness.

Seek Financial Counseling

Since most people haven’t had to make student loan payments in a while, they’ve adjusted their monthly budgets accordingly. Bringing that expense back at a time when inflation is also high and prices for everyday items have risen may feel especially challenging if money is already tight. 

If this is the case, don’t be afraid to seek help. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling is a great place to find free or low-cost help. Financial counselors can help you with budgeting and other personal finance goals. The upside here is that credit and financial counselors don’t just help with student loans, they can help you budget to repay credit card debt and any other expenses you have so you can reach your financial goals. 

Financial counselors can help you regardless of which type of student loan you have, so this may be an especially good place to turn if your options are limited with private student loan debt.

Improve Your Financial Situation by Increasing Your Income and Lowering Your Expenses

If you go to a financial counselor, they’ll help you take an honest look at your personal finances. As many financial gurus will tell you, you have two ways to improve your financial life: increase your income or decrease your expenses. Both may be easier said than done, but they’re worth considering as you’re figuring out how to repay your student loan debt.

Can you figure out ways to make extra income? Get a second job or start a side hustle to bring in more money. Sell things you don't need. You could also rent out a room in your house or rent out your vehicle. 

Can you save money by lowering certain expenses? While some financial experts will tell you to pinch pennies to save on the little things, starting with the biggest expenses moves the needle more and faster. That means looking at two of most people’s largest expenses: housing and transportation.

If you live by yourself, consider getting a roommate to help decrease your living expenses. If you live somewhere with good public transportation, consider selling your car and using public transportation instead. If it’s an option, you could live with parents or relatives until you make enough money to afford to live on your own and pay back your student loans along with other expenses. With rents historically high, this could be a smart option for some student loan borrowers. 

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Can’t Keep Track of All Your Payments? Try These 2 Strategies

Keeping track of multiple bills in addition to your student loan payments can feel overwhelming. And missing any of these payments will be a negative mark on your credit report and may also come with late fees or other serious consequences. If keeping your finances organized isn’t your forte, try this:

  • Consolidate your loans

  • Put your payment on autopay

Consolidate Your Loans

Consolidating your loans can help you simplify your payments by combining multiple loans into a single, more manageable payment with one interest rate. Since most students take out several loans over the course of their college career, consolidating your loans into a new loan offers a streamlined solution to repayment. 

Many types of federal student loans qualify for a Direct Consolidation Loan. You learn more about the pros and cons of consolidating your loans in our Guide To Consolidating Federal Student Loans.

Set Up Autopay

You’ve probably heard this advice before! But if you haven’t signed up for autopay on your student loans, consider doing so. Not only does it help you avoid missing payment (and the negative consequences that come with it), it often comes with an added perk: a 0.25% reduction on your interest rate. That might not seem like much, but it adds up over time.

Experiencing Temporary Financial Hardship? Try These Strategies for Relief

It’s hard to plan for the unexpected, but it’s not uncommon for a medical emergency or changes in life circumstances to create a temporary period of financial hardship. If you’re used to making your monthly student loan payments on time, in full, you may not even know that you have some great options available when you hit a bump in the road.

Here are a few ideas to help you manage your student loans when life gets trying:

  • Request student loan deferment from your loan servicer

  • Request forbearance from your servicer

  • Negotiate with your lender

Request Student Loan Deferment

If you’re having trouble with your federal student loan payments, you can apply for deferment. During the deferment period, you don’t have to make payments on your federal student loan's principal (the original amount you took out). Plus, the government pays the interest on all subsidized loans in deferment. 

To apply for deferment, contact your loan holder and submit the required forms. If you’ve already defaulted on your student loans because you couldn’t make payments, the lender may not grant a deferment. However, some loan holders grant retroactive deferments. 

To qualify for deferment, you must meet at least one of the following eligibility requirements:

  • You’re attending school at least half-time.

  • You’re enrolled in an approved graduate fellowship program.

  • You’re enrolled in an approved rehabilitation program for the disabled.

  • You’re unemployed and seeking employment.

  • You’re suffering economic hardship.

  • You’re serving active duty in the military.

Most private lenders don’t offer deferment, but you can contact your lender or loan servicer to see what the options are for your particular loan.

If You Don’t Qualify for Deferment, Try Student Loan Forbearance

Forbearance is similar to deferment in that it allows you to stop or reduce your payments for a set period of time, but forbearance is easier to get than deferment. This is likely because when your loans are in forbearance, interest continues to accrue (and compound) and you, the borrower, are ultimately on the hook to repay it.

You can get a loan forbearance for up to one year at a time, and you’re eligible for forbearance even if your loan is already in default. To learn more, read our article Student Loan Deferment vs. Forbearance: What’s the Difference?

Negotiate With Your Lender

When you contact your loan servicer, explain your situation and ask them if you can work something out to repay the debt. Remember that you have some power here! Lenders only make money when you pay back what you owe. They typically lose money if they hire a collections agency to collect the debt.

You may be able to negotiate a lower monthly payment for a certain period or renegotiate other terms of your loan. If you get help from a financial counselor, they may be able to assist you in a successful negotiation. This strategy can work for private loans, but when it comes to federal loans (made by the U.S. Department of Education), you don’t usually need to negotiate because you’ll have several repayment options.

Just Can’t Get Ahead Financially? Here’s an Option You May Not Have Considered

If you’ve tried all these strategies but you still can’t make your student loan payments and find yourself drowning in debt, it may be time to consider filing bankruptcy to get a fresh financial start.

There’s a common misconception that it’s not possible to get rid of student loans in bankruptcy, but that’s untrue. In fact, it’s gotten easier to discharge federal student loan debt in bankruptcy in recent months. To do so, you must be able to prove that repaying your loan is causing undue hardship through a process called an adversary proceeding. Upsolve can help you file Chapter 7 bankruptcy for free, even if you have student loan debt. Use our free screener today to see if you qualify.

Written By:

The Upsolve Team

Upsolve is fortunate to have a remarkable team of bankruptcy attorneys, as well as finance and consumer rights professionals, as contributing writers to help us keep our content up to date, informative, and helpful to everyone.

Attorney Andrea Wimmer


Andrea practiced exclusively as a bankruptcy attorney in consumer Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases for more than 10 years before joining Upsolve, first as a contributing writer and editor and ultimately joining the team as Managing Editor. While in private practice, Andrea handled... read more about Attorney Andrea Wimmer

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