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The pause on payments, which has been in effect since March, was set to expire on January 31. That has given more than 20 million borrowers a break from making student loan payments, all while interest has remained at 0%.
The suspension of payments, known as forbearance, has provided much-needed relief for those torn between staying current on their student loans or paying other bills. But for those who can afford to, it's also provided an opportunity to stash away savings or make student loan payments anyway -- without the interest adding up.
Tips to pay off credit cards and other debt during COVID-19 pandemic
That's because the forbearance automatically applies to anyone with federally held student loans, and won't increase your payments during the pause period.
"The student loan forbearance is an opportunity for people to make progress in those areas without derailing the rest of their budget," said Bruce McClary, senior vice president of communications for the National Federation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). "It's also a good time to apply additional money toward paying off high-interest credit cards or signature loans."
Here's how you can make the most of your finances while student loan payments are on pause.
Pay down your credit card debt
Tackling credit card debt should be top priority. Credit cards typically carry high-interest rates and can keep you from making the most of your money for things like building an emergency fund and saving for retirement.
The average credit card interest rate is 14.65%, according to data from the Federal Reserve.
Couple high-interest rates with making minimum payments and you could be paying off your credit card for years.
Take this time to pay way more than the minimum on your card balances. Doing this will help you tackle your debt faster and free up credit for other expenses you may need later down the line.
It can also help boost your credit score.
Build up your emergency savings
It's never a bad idea to start an emergency fund. Why? As we've all seen in the last year, life can be unpredictable. So it's always good to be prepared.
Emergency savings can come in handy during unexpected events, such as a car wreck or loss of a job. It can also serve as a financial cushion when making a transition during uncertain times.
With monthly student loan payments on pause, you can redirect the amount you would've paid toward your loans to a savings account to build up your emergency fund.
Mark Kantrowitz, a student loan expert, recommends doing this first before deciding whether to continue making student loan repayments during the forbearance period.
"Aside from covering unanticipated expenses for car repair or home maintenance, it provides you with money to cover living expenses during a period of unemployment," he said.
Try to save at least three to six months' worth of living expenses.
Save for retirement
Saving for retirement while paying off debt can be challenging. But with student loans on pause, you can use this time to boost your retirement savings.
If your employer offers a 401(k) match, start by maximizing your contributions to get the full match. For example, if your company matches contributions up to 6% of your salary, you should contribute at least 6% to your 401(k) to take full advantage.
"That's free money, which is hard to beat," said Kantrowitz.
You can also automate your savings to make regular contributions to your retirement account and stash away extra cash you may have after paying off other bills.
Consider making payments on your student loans anyway
The missed payments aren't being forgiven. Your loan total will remain the same, so keeping them in forbearance will extend the repayment period. If you can still afford to make payments now, your loan will be paid off sooner.
"If you are in a good place with the rest of your financial goals and obligations, you can make quite a bit of progress toward paying off your student loans while interest is not accruing," said McClary.
There are exceptions though. For those enrolled in programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) or income-driven repayment plans, you should refrain from making extra payments on your loans while they're in forbearance. That's because additional payments can reduce the amount of forgiveness that you'll eventually receive.
"It might make sense to focus on growing your retirement and investing accounts instead," said Travis Hornsby, founder and CEO of Student Loan Planner.
But that's not all.
Robert Farrington, founder of The College Investor, a personal finance and investing website for Millennials, recommends that borrowers on income-driven repayment plans be sure to re-certify their income by September to ensure new payments reflect how much they currently make.
"This is especially important for individuals who may have significantly reduced income due to the pandemic. If you don't re-certify based on your current income, you may have a loan payment much larger than you can afford," he said.
On the other hand, borrowers in programs such as PSLF should make sure they are certifying their employment to get credit for eligible work during the entire forbearance period.
Prepare for payments to resume
Student loan forbearance won't last forever, and when it ends, you should be prepared to resume payments.
"Don't lose sight of the date when your payment will be due," said McClary. "Set reminders and make sure that it is always on your radar."
As for borrowers who may not be in a position to start paying back their loans for reasons such as prolonged financial hardship, they should explore affordable repayment options a few months before the forbearance ends.
McClary says organizations like the NFCC provide student loan repayment counseling to help borrowers understand which affordable repayment options best fit their circumstances and how to navigate the application process.
The bottom line
Whether you're looking to save for retirement, setting aside money for financial emergencies or simply chipping away at high-interest debts, making the most of the student loan payment pause can help you toward those financial goals.
"Use this period to grow emergency savings, pay down other debt, establish regular contributions to retirement and shore up your overall finances, said Hornsby. "Think about the forbearance for student loans as an opportunity to patch the holes in your roof financially so that the next time there's a financial storm, you're well prepared for it."