I gave a talk to young journalism students last night, followed by a breakout session. I'm sure I was full of folksy, useless advice about working hard and keeping your nose clean and always calling mother on Sunday. But once piece of advice that I will now repeat, because they seemed so surprised too hear it, was financial: do not default on your student loans.
The temptation to just kind of forget to pay your student loans back when you're a freshly minted student is high, particularly in a job market like this one. Do not give in. This is phenomenally stupid. Defaulting on your student loans will put a gigantic black mark on your credit record that will not go away for seven long years. If you are a freshly minted senior, that means that missing a payment now will drop off your credit report just in time for your thirtieth birthday.
That means you'll have a hard time getting a cell phone: no iPhone for you once Mom takes you off the family plan. You'll have a hard time getting a credit card. You will have a hard time buying a car, particularly if the tight credit market persists. Don't even think about a house. You may even have a hard time renting, since landlords check your credit, and so do some employers. Any of those loans you do manage to get will cost you a lot more: trashing your credit score can mean an interest rate of 16% on a 5 year auto loan, instead of 6% for someone with top-notch credit. You can't afford much car at a 16% interest rate.
Nor can you default, trash your credit, go bankrupt, and recover in time for your 30th birthday. Lenders, and Congressmen, foresaw that this strategy might become attractive. So you cannot discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy. That's right--if you don't pay, they'll eventually garnish your social security checks.
There is no reason you need default. If you can't pay, call your lender. They don't want to take you to court or garnish your paychecks, so they will work with you. Not necessarily on terms you'll like--they'll lower your payment, or let you skip it altogether, but the interest charges will pile up. On the other hand, as we just discussed, the interest (and penalties!) will eventually be added to the bill that you cannot get out of paying. Much better to do it voluntarily and avoid a nasty mark on your credit report.