Paying back student loans can feel daunting, and the first time you get your monthly bill, the number may be shocking. But there are ways to lower your payments on federal loans.

Last October, more than 915,000 Hoosiers began paying back their student loans for the first time in three years.

They owe a combined $29.5 billion in student loans, according to federal data from September. President Joe Biden’s plans to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for many borrowers was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer.

Still, the federal government has announced a range of initiatives to lower student loan payments — including a new income-based repayment plan. People in certain careers or fields also may be eligible for loan forgiveness.

Here’s what to know about how to get help on your student loans:

How do I pay back my student loans?

Bill Wozniak, vice president of communications and student services for INvestEd Indiana, a nonprofit organization that helps Hoosiers navigate paying for college, said that many people are paying too much per month for their student loans.

“We meet students like this all the time,” Wozniak said. “The student says, ‘I’m suffocating. I don’t have a job, and here’s my federal student loan bill or payment.’ And we look at their repayment plan and realize they’re not in the ideal repayment plan for their situation.”

The Saving on Valuable Education (SAVE) plan aims to help students lower their monthly payments by capping payments at 10% of discretionary income, or the amount left over after paying for essentials like rent. Students make payments for 20 years and the remainder is forgiven.

It’s the newest of several income-driven repayment plans from the federal government.

While most borrowers will see their monthly payments decrease under SAVE, some may not have to pay anything at all. Single adults making less than $32,800 a year qualify for a payment of $0 a month — as do families of four making up to $67,500 a year.

While technically those borrowers are paying nothing right now, that “payment” still counts towards the life of the loan — making those people eligible for eventual forgiveness.

As of January, nearly 7 million Americans are enrolled in SAVE, according to the Department of Education. Additional SAVE plan benefits will go into effect this July, including lowering monthly payments even further and shortening the term for loan forgiveness from 20 years to 10 years. 

To apply for SAVE or another income-driven repayment plan, visit the Federal Student Aid website.

Can I get my student loans forgiven?

The Biden Administration also recently announced a plan to forgive student debt for some longtime borrowers.

People who enrolled in SAVE, have made 10 years of loan payments and originally borrowed less than $12,000 to attend college will have the remainder of their federal debts forgiven starting in February.

Even if you’re not eligible for forgiveness under the SAVE plan, you may be able to have your loans forgiven through another government program.

Students pursuing careers in government and in some nonprofit sectors are eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Generally, borrowers have to make at least the equivalent of 10 years of payments on federal student loans before the remainder of debt is forgiven.

Not sure if you’re eligible? You can find more information about who can enroll in the loan forgiveness program and how to apply for the program here. 

While some public school employees may be eligible for that program, there also are loans that specifically forgive student debt for teachers.

Teachers who work for at least five years at a qualified low-income school could be eligible for up to $17,500 in federal student loan forgiveness. To find out if your school is eligible, check the online directory, which the federal government publishes annually. If you believe you may be eligible, you’ll need to submit an application to your loan servicer after five years of teaching.

Finally, Indiana healthcare professionals who commit to at least two years of service in certain parts of the state that have a critical need for doctors, nurses and health care workers can have up to $20,000 in loans canceled. If you commit to four years, you can receive up to $40,000 in loan forgiveness.

Find out more about which areas of Indiana are designated as health care professional shortage areas through this map.

What if I have private student loans?

Private student loans aren’t eligible for the same income-based repayment plans as federal loans.

But there are still ways to lower your monthly payments and save money in interest. Some private student loans have interest rates that are as high as 15%. Refinancing your student loans can often both lower monthly payments and save thousands of dollars in the long term.

Wozniak said INvestEd routinely helps families refinance their private loans so their interest rates drop from the mid-teens to around 7% to 8%.

INvestEd can refinance loans for eligible borrowers who have at least $5,000 in student loans and a FICO credit score of at least 670.

If you aren’t eligible to refinance your loans at a lower rate and are unable to make payments due to an emergency, Wozniak recommends speaking directly with your loan servicer to ask for forbearance, or a temporary suspension of payments.

While servicers aren’t legally obligated to grant it, Wozniak said the pauses can be granted on a case-by-case basis.

“The most important thing is to communicate quickly so they know that you’re having a tough time and give them an option to help you out of it,” he said.

Where to go for more information

For free help with your student loans, call 317-715-9007 or email outreach@investedindiana.org to be connected with a representative. You can also submit an email form on INvestEd’s website.

You can learn more about income-based repayment plans like SAVE on the Federal Student Aid website. You can also model which repayment strategy works best for you with Federal Student Aid’s loan simulator.

Claire Rafford covers higher ed for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus.