Don't make this student loan mistake

Getting help managing your student loan debt is a good idea, but it shouldn't cost a thing. 

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Brett Greer, 42, and Selina Leonard, 24, have many differences but at least one thing in common: They both paid companies hundreds of dollars to get help managing their student loan debt.

The mistake? Both could have signed up for that help on their own for free through the federal government.

It’s an easy mistake to make — Greer and Leonard are two of 588 borrowers who say they have paid a company for help with student loans among a new survey of 6,363 people by NerdWallet and Student Debt Crisis, a nonprofit higher education advocacy group.

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Borrowers turn to these companies in part because the federal student loan system is confusing to navigate. Borrowers don’t take full advantage of federal student loan programs that could help ease their payments, and many borrowers don’t know who their federal loan servicer is, according to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report. Many debt relief companies aggressively advertise their services as a simpler alternative.

But even when borrowers try to take advantage of free federal student loan programs, it doesn’t always go smoothly. Leonard says she tried applying for an income-driven plan through her federal loan servicer. But when she called to follow up, her loan servicer told her it hadn’t received her application. Frustrated, she called a debt relief company to help her instead and ended up paying the company around $400.

Here are some red flags about debt relief companies and a rundown of free federal student loan programs that you can sign up for on your own:Greer says he paid more than $700 to a company that promised him loan forgiveness. The average borrower who pays such a company spends $613, according to the survey. For borrowers like Greer and Leonard, that can be a lot to shell out for something that’s free to do on your own. Greer is paying off more than $140,000 in student loan debt on his elementary school teacher’s salary, and Leonard is paying down more than $60,000 while making $11 an hour working at a veterinary hospital.

Red flags to look for

The best way to ensure you’re getting reputable student loan help for free is if you apply through the Federal Student Aid website or through your federal student loan servicer.

Here’s how to spot a company that’s not affiliated with the Department of Education:

  • Promises of immediate forgiveness: There’s no legitimate forgiveness program in which forgiveness is guaranteed — you have to meet the qualifications first — and the forgiveness is never immediate. Greer, for example, has to make 120 qualifying payments before he will get forgiveness through Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a federal program that he — and anyone working for the government or a nonprofit — is eligible for. If a company implies immediate forgiveness, it’s over-promising.
  • Upfront fees: It’s not illegal for a company to charge money to enroll you in free services. But it is illegal for debt relief companies to charge you before providing any services. Greer paid a company about $300 upfront — plus another $300 one month later — for help enrolling in Public Service Loan Forgiveness. He also paid several $39 monthly fees.
  • Advertisements for loan forgiveness or other debt relief options: Leonard says she heard about the debt relief company she used through her boyfriend’s mom, who saw an ad for the company on Facebook. If you hear about a student debt relief service on social media or Google, through a television or radio commercial, or through a notice in the mail, the company is likely going to charge you fees.
  • Requests to share personal information: Many debt relief companies ask borrowers to share their Federal Student Aid passwords and Social Security numbers. Doing this opens you up to the risk of a third-party company making decisions about your loans without your permission.

Free student loan options

Any borrower with federal student loans has access to federal student loan programs for free. Ask your loan servicer if you have questions about the following options:

  • Income-driven repayment plans: The plans cap your monthly payment at 10% to 20% of your income and forgive your remaining debt after 20 or 25 years. They cost more in interest compared with the standard plan, and you’ll have to pay income taxes on the forgiven loan amount.
  • Forgiveness programs: There are several federal loan forgiveness programs, but not every federal loan borrower qualifies for one. In addition to Public Service Loan Forgiveness, there are forgiveness programs for teachers working in certain schools, borrowers with federal Perkins loans and borrowers who attended a college that committed fraud, such as misrepresenting job placement rates.
  • Student loan consolidation: It’s a common myth that consolidating your federal loans lowers your monthly payments. It doesn’t. Combining multiple loans into one simply makes managing your loans easier. It’s also sometimes a necessary step for accessing certain repayment and forgiveness plans, depending on the type of federal loans you have.

Being armed with information

While Leonard says she’s “super jaded” about college and questions whether it was worth the price, Greer says he doesn’t regret borrowing student loans. They allowed him to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, which led to a job he loves.

“The part that I regret was not being more knowledgeable about what was happening to me and my debt as I was getting older,” he says.

Log on to the Federal Student Aid website to learn more about your loans and spare yourself that regret.

Have you had an experience with a student debt relief company? Tell us about it by emailing the writer.

Teddy Nykiel is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter:@teddynykiel.

The article Don’t Make This Student Loan Mistake originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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