Student loans — private or federal — are a common part of the equation for many students’ college payment plans.

But, just because student loans are common doesn’t mean they’re easy to navigate. From filling out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) to paying back your student loans after graduation, there are a lot of steps, a lot of numbers and a lot of choices to make that can affect your financial future. Here are a few key things fellow students wish they’d understood before they borrowed student loans.

1. Don’t Borrow More Than You Need

Rosemarie Bennett commuted to Montclair State University. Because she lived at home, paid in-state tuition and had help from her parents, she actually didn’t need much in the way of student loans. Still, she borrowed thousands of dollars because she didn’t fully understand what a student loan was. She thought it was free money instead of borrowed money and didn’t consider how she would repay it. “Now 10 years later, I’m close to paying most of it back,” she says, but she wishes she wouldn’t have taken out this much money to begin with. So before you accept the federal loans in your award letter or apply for private student loans, take a close look at your expenses and only borrow what you need.

2. Mind the Details, No Matter How Small

Amanda Rae has tried to be diligent about repaying her private student loans since leaving Kent State University in 2013, but she has had a few small slip ups. At least, they were small in her mind. To her student loan provider, a missed payment is a missed payment, no matter how small or how quickly it’s fixed. One time, Rae was a few days late on her payment, but didn’t think much about it. Her student loan provider wound up calling her cosigner before her payment was in, which caused some personal drama for Rae. She advises everyone taking out student loans to know what’s due and when exactly it’s due. If you’re going to be late or can’t make a payment, call the bank to discuss your options well before the due date.

3. Know the Requirements for Loan Forgiveness

There are some programs unique to federal student loans that will forgive your student loan balance after you make a certain number of payments. One of these forgiveness programs is the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Through this program, you may be able to get your student loans forgiven if you work full-time for the government at any level or for certain not-for-profit organizations, and make 120 qualifying payments during your time of employment. “I wish I knew how the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program actually worked,” Pat Williams, a West Chester University graduate, admits since he served in the military, which is a qualifying form of public service. However, when he borrowed federal student loans, he signed up for an Extended Repayment Plan, which previously wasn’t eligible for PSLF, so he inadvertently disqualified his student loans for forgiveness. Now, it is possible for borrowers who opted for an Extended Repayment Plan to qualify for PSLF. Still, if you’re planning on taking advantage of loan forgiveness, research all the terms and recent changes so you remain eligible.

4. Apply for Loan Forgiveness and Deferment

Aside from his loan type, Williams also missed out on student loan forgiveness because he thought “if I just didn’t pay my loans that they’d be forgiven.” Unfortunately, that’s not the case. While student loan forgiveness, deferment and forbearance are valuable features of federal student loans, you do need to specifically apply for them and meet certain requirements to qualify. The same goes for private student loan deferment and forbearance programs, and requirements vary by lender. Williams never applied, even though he may have been eligible for assistance as he spent time on active military duty. Instead, he skipped payments for eight straight years. It wasn’t until his wife noticed a stack of unopened mail that turned out to be years’ worth of bills that he even knew there was a problem. His loans accrued enough interest and penalties to grow from an initial loan of $26,000 to $35,000.

5. Beware of Predatory Consolidation Services

Alyssa Saunders Molfese attempted to consolidate her private student loans and signed up for a service that seemed like an amazing deal at the time. Now, she realizes the deal was too good to be true. While there are credible student loan consolidation services, Saunders Molfese didn’t research the company she used and wound up paying an extra $1,000 in fees to this company that guaranteed to save her money. That $1,000 was in addition to the money she owed for her private student loans. Fortunately, she was eventually able to get out of the contract with the predatory consolidation company. Still, she wishes she could have put that $1,000 toward her student loan repayment instead.

6. Factor in Future Salary and Job Search When Borrowing

April Kozlowski Palomino borrowed to attend San Antonio College and assumed she’d get a high-paying job right out of college, so she planned to repay her student loans accordingly. That didn’t turn out to be the case. “I thought it’d be so much easier to get a job when I graduated, but I didn’t find work for a few years, which made repaying my loans hard,” she says. Palomino wound up defaulting because she fell behind on her payments.

As you consider borrowing, research the salaries available in your field so you know what you can afford to pay back. Be sure you have a back up plan, like some savings, if a job search takes longer than anticipated. If your financial situation after graduation isn’t quite what you thought and your payments aren’t manageable, you can consider changing your repayment plan on federal loans or talking to your lender to see what options are available for private loans.  

7. Understand the Consequences of Default

If students aren’t able to repay their loans, they could go into default, which carries additional consequences. Williams defaulted on his student loans, which impacted his credit, and he wasn’t able to get approved for any credit cards for years. Because he owed money to the government on his federal student loans, the government was able to garnish his federal tax refunds to recoup what he owed. Defaulting on private or federal loans can also lead to wage garnishments.

Due to her extended unemployment, Kozlowski Palomino went into default on her student loans. She had just started working as a nurse when she defaulted. She’d missed so many payments that she wasn’t able to catch up even with a job, and her career was impacted. “I didn’t realize they would place a hold on your license, keeping you from being able to work in your profession, when you fell into default,” she said. This isn’t just an issue for nurses or professions that require licensing. In general, employers are able to look at your credit and may use that information to make personnel or hiring decisions. If you default on your federal or private student loans, it not only affects your credit, but it can also impact your paychecks and your career.

These students’ missteps with their student loans may seem scary, but these are important reminders that it’s easy to get off track when borrowing for college if you don’t fully understand what you’re signing up for.

Discover Student Loans is a private student loan provider. We believe in responsible borrowing and encourage students to maximize scholarships, grants and other free financial aid before taking private loans. For students who need to borrow, we advise them to compare federal and private student loans to find the loans that best fit their needs.

FAFSA is a registered service mark of the US Department of Education.