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Buried In Student Loan Debt? Sis, Here's How You Take Your Life Back

Sonia 'The Student Loan Doctor' Lewis is the woman with the plan.

Finance

Let's face it. Many of us aren't strangers to student loan debt. Black students in particular are disproportionately impacted by it, with the average carrying the burden of $7,400 more than their white peers. And sis, it's not just those of us making an OK salary or even those of us living check to check who have to consider how to pay off student loans. Even "well-off" adults are borrowing more.

More Black women are also completing degrees, so there's the added aspect of more borrowing among us, especially when we come from majority-Black communities. Let's face it: The numbers support the fact that we will definitely do whatever it takes to finance our education and those of our children.

With that being said, nobody wants to be in debt. There's always that shadow of wage garnishment lurking and just the heavy mental burden of owing somebody that sits well with no one. (I know I'm not the only one with that nagging voice of a parent or grandparent in their head, saying, "Don't ever let people hold money over your head. You better pay your debts and keep your accounts in good standing!")

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If you're among the thousands of us who have student loan debt, and you're trying to figure out the best plan of action, we've got you covered. Sonia Lewis, CEO of The Student Loan Doctor, started a coaching and consumer advocacy service after dealing with her own experience with debt. "I was broke, so I actually was just trying to help myself when I initially started. When I was going through my own journey, I took a financial literacy course at church, and I realized that everyone did not have the common knowledge of what to do about their student loans," she said.

After taking care of her debt, she began helping others, and word of mouth led to the growth of clients. The Philly entrepreneur, who spent a decade working in higher education and knew the ins and outs of admissions and financial aid, now has a network that includes six coaches and three admins. Below she offers the real tea on how you can set a plan for saying goodbye to student loan debt and hello to financial freedom.

Scenario 1: You're a new graduate and dealing with student loan debt for the first time.

Lewis: First, log into the student aid or private lender's Website and verify whether the information is correct. Did you borrow this amount? For example, there could be a duplication of loans for a certain semester, or let's say someone took a semester off [and they find that] they've still been charged. So, it's good to verify the information.

The second thing would be to look into your repayment options. What's really cool about the StudentAid.gov site is that it's been revamped recently. You can literally plug in your information and [find out your options]. A person could [consider], 'I make this much,' 'I take care of this many people,' 'I'm eligible for forgiveness,' or 'I'm about to apply for this type of job.' When we talk through these scenarios [with clients] it relieves stress because when calls start, everybody's shaking and nervous because [the debt] can be a lot of money. So just walking through it and letting them see what's available helps. It's really cool when the person feels comfortable to click through themselves via a Zoom call [and figure out] what they want to do.

At that point you're not pressured to do anything. If you want to move forward you can, but some may say, 'Let's pause here. I need to lower my bills first.' Some are really honest and say, 'Hey I can't afford [to repay]. I need to get another job.' And then they'll figure out how to navigate that process. So it just depends. Some have home-buying goals, and you know, your loan must be in repayment if you owe over $50,000. Sometimes that goal might fast-track the process because maybe they need a preapproval for a house they want. So now we're having a conversation of what to say to the lender and what type of letter they need to furnish to the lender.

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Scenario 2: You've been out of school for years and the debt—plus interest—has been piling up.

We have [clients] who have six-figure debt and they're like, 'OK, I have never paid my loan, and I'm really scared.' Interest has accrued, they may have more responsibilities like a mortgage or a car note, and now, we have to work backwards. We ask, 'How much do you have available to make a payment?' Oftentimes that starts with a budget. We can talk about payment plans all day, but if a person says, 'Hey, I only have $300,' now we have to figure out what can work and fit at that amount.

That payment plan might not be what I advise them to do because they might be paying for 25 to 30 years [at that rate], but let's say they could've made a $500 payment and got rid of the debt in 10. If you're able to cut expenses or increase income, we definitely advise people to consider that.

That makes people feel a little more empowered because they have the money to do something and they know where they can begin in order to afford to pay off the debt.

Scenario 3: You've been offered a settlement.

For a federal loan, at that point, 9 times out of 10 the loan was sold to a third-party collector, [however], the collection agencies still have to report back to the federal government. With a private loan, if [the debt is] sold to collections, it's [usually sold to] a separate agency. If you receive a settlement offer, make sure that it's for the full amount because you don't want them to try and come back and sell the difference to another collection agency—federal government or not.

Second, consider that a settlement can really hurt your credit. For example, there are some people who may have a strategy where they default on the loan just to get a settlement because that's the only time the government will offer one. I don't recommend that. It's going to really damage your credit, and particularly if you're a millennial or younger, you may not want that damaging mark on your credit in case in the future you want to get jobs that require certain security clearances [or other requirements]. If you take that settlement, that's you committing to a default on the loan.

This happened to a good friend of mine. He [took a settlement on a student loan balance] for $50,000. His parents helped him pay it. Years later, he went to get a contract job with a tech security company. They were going to pay him $300,000 [annually], but they got to the last stage and had to withdraw the offer because [he could not get] the highest security clearance he needed because he defaulted on that federal loan. He was about to go from making $60,000 to six figures, in one day.

This is why we have to be careful about proposing settlements and really coaching clients through that because we don't know what fields they might want to enter into. A settlement is just something that can't be reversed.

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Scenario 4: You've defaulted on your loans. Now what?

They can either pay in full, settle (which we just discussed), or [agree to] a consolidation if they're eligible. A consolidation is the act of putting all your loans together and the interest is the average sum total of all of your loans. You'll have one payment, one new loan. Another option, which is what we really tell people to consider first, is to rehabilitate.

The default rehabilitation program allows you to make, in good standing, 9 out of 10 payments, and those payments allow you to have the collection agency see and determine what you can pay. Most times, especially during this pandemic, we've seen people get a $5 payment.

The thought might be 'Well, I want to pay more on my loan,' but we don't want to pay a collection agency more. We want to pay the minimum in which we agreed to, because, if you were to default or stop [paying according to] the agreement, all the money you paid, until your debt is returned to a lender, goes back into [covering] the collection fees.

So, people are quick to pay more but that money is a threshold that goes to the fees first. The fees get removed once you're out of rehabilitation [which is after the 9 consecutive on-time payments that were agreed upon]. So, you definitely want to stay on top of it.

Let's say you're enrolled in the program to pay $5 on the first of every month. Be sure you set an alarm to look into your account and make sure the amount was indeed taken out. Some collectors are slick, and in the agreement, it says it's your responsibility to [keep track] of your payments. You're thinking because you're on auto pay for $5, what's the worst that can happen? They'll take their money. No, sometimes they don't.

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