The party is almost over for the Class of 2015.
College students who graduated during the spring or summer will have to start repaying their college loans soon. The grace period for nearly all federal student loans for graduate students and undergraduates is six months.
With one out of four borrowers struggling to repay their student loans or already in default, here are seven things young college grads can do now to avoid joining their ranks:
1. Figure out what you owe. You can locate all your federal loans with their outstanding balances by heading to the National Student Loan Data System, which serves as the centralized database for all federal college loans.
2. Consider your options. The biggest decision you'll face is picking a payment plan. Make a poor choice, and you could end up paying tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary costs. Choosing the right plan won't be so daunting if you use the federal Repayment Estimator.
This tool will calculate what your monthly payments would be, along with the total lifetime cost of various repayment options. To generate the most accurate numbers, you should log into the estimator with your Federal Student Aid IDnumber and password. That allows the estimator to automatically use your actual loans.
3. Evaluate the fastest repayment method. The most popular student repayment option is the Standard Repayment Plan, which now has more than 11 million borrowers enrolled. When you leave school, you're automatically enrolled in this plan but can opt out.
This plan will stretch your payments out over 10 years. Each monthly payment of a federal Direct Loan will represent roughly 1 percent of the loan. Someone who borrowed $20,000, for example, would pay about $200 a month over the next decade. Choosing this option should be the least costly repayment method.
4. Check out income-based repayments. The federal government also offersincome-based repayment options for students who could be at risk of struggling with their payments. Grads who are unemployed or underemployed could end up having to make zero payments until their financial situation improves.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that 51 percent of all Direct Loan borrowers could benefit from this repayment plan, but fewer than 20 percent were enrolled.
The income-based plan with the best terms for new grads is called Pay As You Earn. It will lower a person's monthly payments and can also result in loan forgiveness if the loan hasn't been repaid in 20 years. With PAYE, borrowers don't have to devote more than 10 percent of their discretionary income to repaying federal student loans.
Keep in mind that whenever you make lower payments or extend your repayment period, you will likely pay more in interest over time -- sometimes significantly more.
5. Think twice before postponing payments. While grads should start paying down their student loans, lots of borrowers decide to kick that can down the road. Many borrowers hear through their loan servicers that they can simply delay paying their federal student loans for months or even years, and so they do. It can take just a phone call to suspend a loan. But delaying will only make the ultimate bill worse. If you're going to postpone the payments, you should have an excellent reason to do so.
6. Don't rely exclusively on your loan servicer. The U.S. Department of Education recommends that borrowers contact their loan servicers when evaluating their loan options, but you can't assume you'll get the answers you need. These outside loan servicers manage borrowers' accounts on behalf of the federal government. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has heard many borrowers complain that they never heard about all their options from the servicers. And that's even when they have asked about them directly.
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