Advertiser Disclosure

College Students and Recent Grads, Featured, News

With the Fate of Public Service Loan Forgiveness Uncertain, Here are Tips for Confused Borrowers

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Source: iStock

More than half a million Americans are working toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), a program that eliminates federal student loan debt for people with jobs in the public sector. But the proposed 2018 White House budget reportedly calls for ending PSLF for future borrowers — and even current participants’ status could be in doubt, with a lawsuit claiming the government has reversed previous assurances given to certain borrowers that their employment qualifies.

Final decisions have not yet been made in either scenario. But even with this uncertainty, there are steps both current borrowers and interested potential future PSLF participants can take to make themselves as secure as possible.

First, a quick primer on PSLF: The program began in October 2007 under George W. Bush, and it wipes clean the remaining federal student debt for qualifying borrowers who have made 120 payments, or 10 years’ worth (more information is available at StudentAid.gov/publicservice). So the earliest any public service worker could receive loan forgiveness under PSLF is October 2017.

“The idea is to avoid making debt a disincentive to choosing public service,” explains Mark Kantrowitz, a student loan expert and publisher at college scholarship site Cappex.com. “Think about a public defender. They might make $40,000 a year, but they’ll incur $120,000 in debt for law school. That debt-to-income ratio is impossible, so PSLF makes that career path possible — and attracts people who might have otherwise taken high-paying private-sector jobs.”

Public Service Loan Forgiveness — on the chopping block?

At this time, the biggest threat to the future of PSLF is President Donald Trump’s 2018 White House education budget proposal. The budget proposal would eliminate PSLF — citing costs — and replace all current income-based repayment/forgiveness plans with a single income-driven system. While existing borrowers would be grandfathered into PSLF, any new students who take out their first federal loans on or after July 1, 2018, would not qualify. Still, all of this can happen only if Congress passes the budget — and it remains to be seen whether this section will pass as currently written in the proposal.

If you’re one of the more than 550,000 borrowers who is already working toward forgiveness — that is, you have already taken out at least one federal loan and/or you’ve completed school and are working in public service — the proposed cancellation of PSLF won’t affect you. Again, if the program is cut, it will impact only students who take out their first federal loans on or after July 1, 2018.

But even existing borrowers working toward PSLF can’t fully relax. As first reported by The New York Times, the Department of Education added a serious wrinkle by sending letters to people saying their employment was no longer eligible for PSLF, after the borrowers had confirmed with their loan servicer that they qualified. Four borrowers and the American Bar Association have filed a lawsuit against the department, and the case is currently in progress.

That may leave many workers questioning whether or not they will ultimately be eligible for loan forgiveness after all — even if they work in the nonprofit or public sector. MagnifyMoney has spoken to experts and reviewed the rules of the program to help.

How Can I Be Sure I Qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness?

Qualifying for PSLF depends on meeting several specific requirements, so the first step in determining your eligibility is to make sure your loans and employment check all the boxes.

1. Your student loan must qualify for forgiveness.

PSLF provides forgiveness only for federal Direct Loans:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans
  • Direct PLUS Loans—for parents and graduate or professional students
  • Direct Consolidation Loans

Note that loans made under other federal student loan programs may become eligible for PSLF if they’re consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan, but only payments toward that consolidated loan will count toward the 120-payment requirement. And, according to ED, parents who borrowed a Direct PLUS Loan “may qualify for forgiveness of the PLUS loan, if the parent borrower—not the student on whose behalf the loan was obtained—is employed by a public service organization.”

2. You must be enrolled in the right type of repayment plan.

You must be enrolled in one of the Direct Loan repayment plans, some of which are income-based. The umbrella term for these plans is income-driven repayment plans, which include the Pay As You Earn and Income-Based Repayment plans. While payments under other types of Direct Loan plans, like the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan, do qualify and count toward your 120 payments, you’ll want to switch to an income-driven plan as soon as possible — because if you stick with a standard 10-year repayment, you’ll have paid off your loan in full after 10 years with nothing left to be forgiven under PSLF. Check the official PSLF site for more details. And note that private loans, including bank loans that are “federally guaranteed,” do not qualify.

3. You must make 120 on-time payments while employed full time by an eligible employer.

If you drop to part-time work, those payments won’t qualify. You must also be employed full time in public service at the time you apply for loan forgiveness and at the time the remaining balance on your eligible loans is forgiven. After you make your 120th payment you’ll need to submit the forgiveness application, which the Department of Education says will be available in September 2017.

4. Your employer must count as a public service organization.

This is the big one, and the most complicated step of the process for some borrowers to figure out. While the Education Department does address types of employers that fit under the PSLF program, there are some gray areas. Broadly, the types of employers that qualify include governmental groups, not-for-profit tax-exempt organizations known as 501(c)(3)s, and private not-for-profits. That last category includes military; public safety, health, education, and library services; and more.

Pro tip: Certify that your employer is included in the program every year.

Each year and whenever you change employers, you should fill out and send an Employment Certification form to FedLoan Servicing. The form isn’t required to be submitted on an annual basis, but it’s highly recommended to fill it out annually so there are no unhappy surprises down the road. It also helps you keep track of progress toward your 120 payments and gives you a chance to find out whether there is any change to your eligibility status.

What if you fear your job’s eligibility is unclear?

The validity of that FedLoan Servicing certification form is at the center of the lawsuit against the Department of Education. Although it’s important to have your employer’s eligibility certified by the department, the Education Department has said the form isn’t necessarily binding and the eligibility of employers can possibly change. As The New York Times put it, the department’s position implies “that borrowers could not rely on the program’s administrator to say accurately whether they qualify for debt forgiveness. The thousands of approval letters that have been sent … are not binding and can be rescinded at any time, the [DOE] said.”

That puts existing borrowers in a tough spot, says Joseph Orsolini, CFP and president of College Aid Planners: “[PSLF] is sort of an all-or-nothing in that you can’t apply for the forgiveness until you’ve already done your 120 payments. So to have someone choose this career path and work for years only to be told, ‘never mind, you no longer qualify even though we said you did,’ it would be hard for them not to see that as reneging on a deal.”

That possibility is “terrifying” for Frances Harrell, 35, a preservation specialist who works for a nonprofit that supports small and medium-size libraries in caring for their collections. She completed a library graduate school program in 2013 and emerged with a total of about $125,000 in debt, including her undergraduate loans.

“Everyone I know is in public service, and we all saw the Times article [about the PSLF lawsuit] and flipped out,” says Harrell, who currently lives in Gainesville, Fla. “I felt like I had been dropped in a bucket of ice. We’re making life decisions based on this understanding, and it feels so precarious not to have any true confirmation that we’ll get the forgiveness in the end.”

Christopher Razo, 22, who this month will begin classes at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School, plans to take advantage of PSLF while working toward his dream of becoming a state attorney. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Razo)

Harrell has also dealt with confusion from loan servicers and other experts — and based on incorrect advice, she nearly consolidated her loans in a way that would have reset the clock on her years of payments.

Christopher Razo, 22, who this month will begin classes at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School, is relieved that he is enrolling before the 2018 uncertainty begins. Razo is one of Orsolini’s clients, and he plans to take advantage of PSLF while working toward his dream of becoming a state attorney.

“[PSLF] is complex as it is, so my initial thought was, ‘Wow, great timing for me that I’m starting in 2017,’” Razo says. “But I understand the program affects way more than just me. [PSLF] gives you comfort to pursue public-service goals without having to make your employment about the money. I’m optimistic that [lawmakers] will see the good in the program so it can continue.”

When in doubt: Follow the ‘3 phone call rule’

While borrowers may think their loan servicer has all of the answers, Harrell’s situation isn’t uncommon, says Orsolini. He recommends “the three phone call rule”: Call three times and ask the same question, documenting whom you spoke to and when.

“These programs are complicated — which is one of the issues that critics [of PSLF] bring up — and you don’t always get the right information,” Orsolini says. “Before you plan your whole life around the [first] answer you get, you have to double- and triple-check that it’s right.”

If you’re taking out your first qualifying loan on or after July 1, 2018, Orsolini says “there’s not much to do besides hurry up and wait” to see what happens with the White House budget as it relates to PSLF.

“The important thing to remember is that a proposal is just a proposal, and these don’t always see the light of day,” Orsolini adds. “It doesn’t do any good to be overly worried, but you’ll want to keep a close eye on the news.”

Other types of loan forgiveness, cancellation, or discharge:

PSLF isn’t the only option. But not all types of federal student loans offer the same forgiveness, cancellation, or discharge options. See the chart below and check out StudentEd.gov pages here and here for more details.

Still, borrowers should know Trump’s desire to streamline federal programs into a single option means some of these loan types and forgiveness plans could be changed or canceled as well.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Julianne Pepitone
Julianne Pepitone |

Julianne Pepitone is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Julianne here

Disclaimer
Advertiser Disclosure

Student Loan
earnest

Refinance with Earnest

Refinancing rates from 2.27% APR. Checking your rates won’t affect your credit score.

Advertiser Disclosure

News

How to Save on Back-to-School Shopping

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

iStock
Parents often revel in the calm and quiet that comes when kids head back to school, but they aren’t likely to enjoy the excess spending that also accompanies the back-to-school season. According to the National Retail Federation, parents will set a record in 2019, spending an average of $696.70 per household on children in elementary school through high school.

 

“It was interesting to see the across-the-board increases in spending levels,” said Mark Mathews, vice president for research development and industry analysis with the NRF. “Elevated levels of consumer sentiment, healthy household balance sheets, low inflation and recent wage gains all seem to be contributing to a confident consumer who is willing to spend money on back-to-school supplies.”

If you’re planning a trip to the store before classes start, there are a few ways to curb the spending and save some bucks.

Plan ahead

No parent should set foot out the door for back-to-school shopping without first taking stock of what they already have. Plenty of old supplies from previous years might still be usable, especially arts and crafts items like crayons, pencils and pens, as well as more expensive things like backpacks, lunch boxes and calculators.

Crossing a few items off your list is a good first step when it comes to saving, but learning how to budget is also important. It’s tempting to run down the back-to-school aisle and grab every colorful notebook and snazzy pencil case in sight, but it doesn’t make a lot of financial sense. Create a realistic budget based on the items you actually need, and try your best to stick to it. If possible, do most of your shopping online, since it’s easier to keep a running tally of how much you’re spending as you shop.

Be smart about sales

Although you’re bound to run into many back-to-school sales this time of year, you don’t need to buy 12 notebooks just because they’re cheaper right now. In fact, you shouldn’t assume the sales price is the best price at all, said consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. Instead, always comparison shop.

“Run a quick Google search online or on your phone to see if another store is selling the same or a similar item for less,” she said. “Most big box stores will price match, so you won’t even have to drive to another store to get the better deal.” For example, Target,Staples and Walmart all have price matching policies.

Clip coupons and shop discount stores

Coupons have definitely made a digital comeback, with countless apps and websites dedicated to listing all your options in one place. “Spending a few minutes looking for coupons can help you get a better discount,” Woroch said. “Use apps like CouponSherpa, for instance. Or, use the Honey browser tool, which automatically searches and applies relevant coupons to your online order.”

Many stores also offer discounts to valued customers who sign up for their rewards program, like Walgreens and CVS, while craft stores like Michaels regularly offer discounts. Don’t knock purchasing basics like paper and writing supplies from the Dollar Tree, either — you might be surprised by what you find, and those types of items are often the same quality wherever you buy them.

Tax advantage of tax-free holidays

On select dates throughout the year, different states offer state sales tax holidays, or days where you can purchase items without having to pay sales tax on them. You can find a full list of the 2019 state sales tax holidays here, but some upcoming ones include:

  • August 18-24: Connecticut, clothing and footwear
  • August 17-18: Massachusetts, specific items costing less than $2,500 per item

Split bulk purchases

You can usually save money by buying certain items — like construction paper, pens, pencils and folders — in bulk, but you can save even more by splitting those bulk items with other families. Not only is this a great way to share savings, Woroch said, but you can earn rewards faster by charging everything on your card and then having the families pay you back.

Redeem your rewards

If you have a cash back credit card, now’s the time to use it. “Most credit cards give you the best redemption value when you opt for statement credit or have the cash rewards deposited into your bank,” Woroch said. “You can set this money aside for back-to-school shopping.”

Alternatively, Woroch suggested checking to see if your particular card allows you to redeem points for gift cards to retailers where you plan to shop.

Use discounted gift cards

Besides redeeming credit card points for retailer gift cards, you can also scour the web for cheap gift cards online. Planning a trip to Target? Scan websites like Raise,Cardpool and CardCash first. These sites buy and sell unused gift cards at a discount, meaning you can save on purchases you were planning to make anyway.

Consider having your kids contribute

Depending on your child’s age, back-to-school shopping might be the perfect time to start having them contribute to their own goods, especially if they earn an allowance or have a job. Talking to your kids about money at a young age — whether about budgeting, saving or spending — will help them develop solid money habits that will pay off in the future.

Parents already seem to be catching on to this idea. “It was surprising to see how much of their own money kids are contributing towards the back-to-school bills,” Mathews said. “Teens and pre-teens will be spending $63 of their own money, which works out to $1.5 billion overall. This is significantly higher than the levels we saw a decade ago.”

Although the news about increased spending on back-to-school supplies may be alarming, these days there are more ways than ever to save. A little ingenuity, resourcefulness and research can go a long way.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Cheryl Lock
Cheryl Lock |

Cheryl Lock is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Cheryl at [email protected]

Advertiser Disclosure

News

Survey: Most Americans Have Raided Their Retirement Savings

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Successfully saving for retirement requires dedication and self-restraint, but more than half the country admits to robbing their future selves in order to satisfy today’s spending needs, according to a new survey by MagnifyMoney. While the economic pressures bearing down on workers today make their actions understandable, the hard truth is that many Americans are turning an already-difficult task that much harder by tapping into their retirement savings early.

Key Findings

  • Approximately 52% of respondents admit to tapping their retirement savings account early for a purpose other than retiring: 23% have done so to pay off debt, 17% for a down payment on a home, 11% for college tuition, 9% for medical expenses, and 3% for some other reason.
  • About 29% say there are some scenarios where it is a good idea to withdraw money early from a retirement savings account.
  • Around 60% of respondents do not know exactly how much they have saved for retirement. Just 40% know the exact amount, while 45% have a rough idea, and 15% have no clue.
  • Almost 25% are unhappy with their retirement savings. 47% are happy with the amount saved, and about 28% are neither happy nor unhappy.
  • Finally, 27% have never thought about how much money they’ll need in retirement.

Why are Americans tapping their retirement savings early?

The two main reasons respondents cited for withdrawing money from their retirement savings are as American as apple pie: home ownership and personal debt. According to the survey, 23% of those making an early withdrawal did so to help pay down non-medical debt, while 17% needed the money for a down payment on a home.

Although the housing market appears to be cooling off compared to just a few years ago, a down payment on a home still requires a significant chunk of change — experts recommend a down payment equaling 20% of the total mortgage to optimize your mortgage payments.

Personal debt, from credit cards to student loans, remains a fixture of everyday economic reality for millions of Americans. In other words, the stressors that cause workers to raid their retirement funds don’t look like they will decrease appreciably in the foreseeable future.

Which Americans are withdrawing money the most?

Breaking down the demographics, older savers are less likely to withdraw money from their retirement fund than younger savers. 54% of millennial savers say they’ve taken an early withdrawal from a retirement savings account, compared with 50% of Gen Xers and 43% of baby boomers. This stands to reason considering that many millennials have now entered the stage of life where they are getting mortgages, starting families and taking on bigger financial obligations while also being decades away from the traditional retirement age. Millennials are also more likely to say that raiding your retirement fund is justified under certain circumstances, as seen in the chart below:

Just one of many bad retirement savings habits

Tapping into retirement funds — whether an employer-sponsored 401(k) or a traditional IRA — before the appropriate age almost always comes with a financial penalty in the form of additional taxes and fees. What is more, you’re diminishing the principle that fuels the compound interest you need to meet your retirement savings goals.

Unfortunately the survey reveals early withdrawals are just one of the many bad habits Americans engage in when it comes to retirement savings. This list of less-than-ideal practices includes:

  • 35% of Americans are not currently saving for retirement. Of those who are, 37% started saving at age 30 or above, and 12% started saving when they were older than 40.
  • 60% of Americans do not know exactly how much they have saved for retirement. Just 40% know the exact amount, while 45% have a rough idea and 15% have no clue.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 Americans don’t contribute enough to their employer-sponsored retirement account to get the maximum company match. Maximizing a company match is one of  your best ways to maximize your retirement savings. Among those with an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan, just 17% of respondents contribute 10% or more of their take-home pay. Almost 5% contribute nothing at all, and nearly 6% are unclear about how much they contribute.

  • Approximately 42% of respondents have made the mistake of withdrawing their entire balance from an employer-sponsored retirement plan when changing jobs without rolling it over – and nearly 15% have done so more than once. A little more than 47% of millennials admit to this faux pas.

The most damning finding of all is that 27% of those surveyed have never thought about how much they’ll need in retirement. And while “ignorance is bliss” may hold true when it comes to some things in life, this expression should not apply to your retirement plans.

Methodology

MagnifyMoney by LendingTree commissioned Qualtrics to conduct an online survey of 1,029 Americans, with the sample base proportioned to represent the general population. The survey was fielded June 24-27, 2019.

Generations are defined as:

  • Millennials are ages 22-37
  • Generation Xers are ages 38-53
  • Baby boomers are ages 54-72

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

James Ellis
James Ellis |

James Ellis is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email James here