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Whether you’ve been out of school for a while or you’re just starting to enter student loan repayment, there’s an important piece of advice every borrower needs to hear: Don’t ignore your student loan debt.

Yes, those payments can be intimidating or unaffordable, but the only way to conquer the financial obstacle of student loan debt is to charge at it head-on. Falling behind on loan payments will hurt your credit score and can damage your ability to buy a house or car, rent an apartment or set up utilities. (You can see how your student loans are impacting your credit scores for free on Credit.com.) Because borrowers can very rarely get rid of student loan debt, the only option is to figure out a way to pay — or live with a lifetime of financial consequences.

Your best strategy for getting your loans to good standing depends on how far behind you are. Here are some options for tackling your student loan debt and protecting your credit from further damage.

Catch Up

No matter your situation, if you’re worried you can’t make your loan payments or have already missed some, you should contact your student loan servicer to see if there’s a way to adjust your payment plan or get some extra time to get the money in. The sooner you establish communication with your servicer, the faster you’re likely to reach a resolution.

If you’ve missed only a payment or two, see if you can rearrange your budget and bring your accounts current. Andrew Josuweit, CEO of Student Loan Hero, a site with tools for student loan borrowers, said increasing your income should be a priority if you want to make your debt more manageable. That’s not always easy to do, Josuweit acknowledged, but if you can take on a side job, ask for a raise or get a job with a higher salary, it’s often the fastest way to get out of debt and save money.

“There’s a lot of alternative ways for people to tackle their student loans, but you have to be willing to make those sacrifices,” Josuweit said. For example, he moved from New York to Austin to save on cost of living and taxes — Texas has no state income tax. He said that improving his income and taking other cost-cutting measures have helped him better manage his roughly $89,000 in private and federal student loan debt.

Ask to Change Your Repayment Plan

There are many repayment options for federal student loan borrowers, and some private student loans can be adjusted, as well. The only way to know your options is to ask.

Terrence Banks, a credit and student loan counselor at Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions, said it’s crucial to communicate with your servicer to see if forbearance, deferment or another payment plan can be arranged. Nothing will make the debt go away, but make an effort to find out what options your lender will give you. Banks said even private loan servicers are becoming easier to work with, though federal loan repayment is still much more flexible.

“A lot of times people just throw their hands up,” he said. “It’s best to address it, even if it seems more painful, you will find out the process is not as horrendous as [you think].”

Your options vary based on the kind of loans you have and your specific circumstances. If, for instance, you believe you qualify to defer your loan payments, you still have to apply and allow time for your lender to process your application. In the meantime, you want to try and make payments so you do not become delinquent.

You can also look into income-based repayment, a longer loan term, a graduated loan repayment schedule or interest-only payments. Many of these are short-term solutions to allow you to get a handle on your debt or so you don’t fall behind during a time of hardship. You want to avoid defaulting on your student loans (which is expensive and very bad for your credit) and make a plan to pay them down as soon as you’re able.

Get Out of Default

If you default on your student loans, meaning you’ve missed nine consecutive payments, they’ll be sent to a debt collector. You’ll incur collection fees and could have your wages garnished, but if you have federal student loans, there’s a way out.

The federal student loan default rehabilitation program allows you to make nine consecutive on-time payments to bring your account current and remove the default from your credit report. Once your loan is rehabilitated, you once again have access to benefits like repayment plan options or student loan forgiveness.

Josuweit understands the fallout of missing loan payments from experience. He graduated in 2009 with 16 loans spread across three loan servicers, and he says he lost track of two loans somewhere along the way. He wasn’t getting notices about his loans (he was living abroad for a while), so he eventually defaulted on them. Earlier this year, he finished rehabilitating those loans.

Default can be confusing because you go from working with a student loan servicer to a debt collection agency. Josuweit remembers being skeptical of reaching out to a debt collector and said many borrowers he interacts with have the same reaction.

“You should do your due diligence to makes sure it’s the right company,” Josuweit said. “A lot of people ignore the debt collector because you don’t trust them or you’re in denial, but they’re the only people who can help you. Inquire about the federal default rehabilitation program.”

You can also get out of default with a federal consolidation loan. You’re usually required to make three consecutive, voluntary, on-time payments before getting a consolidation loan, according to the Department of Education’s website.

Dealing with student loan debt overwhelms a lot of people, but there are many resources out there to help with it, and they’re easy to research online. The biggest hurdle can be getting started and applying for the help you need.

“A lot of people get frustrated and upset, and I get it. I was there,” Josuweit said. He stressed the importance of staying positive, even when things are difficult. “The reality is the faster you kind of make a game plan … and get on some sort of program, the faster you can move forward.”

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