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If you miss a student loan payment, you’re not alone: More than 3 million borrowers were at least one month behind, or “delinquent,” on their federal Direct Loans as of December 2018, according to Federal Student Aid.

Though delinquency is common, that doesn’t mean you’re not penalized for it. Credit damage and late fees are the main consequences of missed payments — but if you fail to catch up, wage and tax refund garnishment can arrive once your loans enter default.

Don’t wait to take action once you’ve fallen behind. Here’s what happens if you miss a student loan payment, as well as the best ways to avoid future late payments.

Consequences of missing student loan payments

If your federal student loan payments are past due, here’s what you can expect to happen and when:

  • After 30 days. Your servicer can begin charging you up to 6% of your missed payment amount as a late fee. For example, every time you skip a $300 payment, you could be hit with an $18 fee.
  • After 90 days. Your servicer usually will report your late payments to the credit bureaus. Late payments will stay on your credit report for seven years. This can lower a credit score by as much as 100 points — making it harder for you to open a credit card, rent an apartment or even get a cell phone plan.
  • After 270 days. Your federal student loans will enter default. This triggers potential new penalties, like collection costs, wage garnishment and tax refund seizure.

Private loans have many of the same consequences for missed payments, but they’re not standardized like federal loans. For example, a lender’s late fee could be a percentage of your payment or a flat fee, like $25.

Private lenders may report late payments after 30 days, and default happens sooner for private loans — often after 120 days — further damaging your credit. And while private lenders can’t take your tax refunds to collect on defaulted student loans, they can sue you to gain additional collection power, including garnishing your wages.

Late payments will stay on your credit report for seven years.

» MORE: How to get student loans out of default

How to avoid late student loan payments

Missing one student loan payment isn’t disastrous, but you’ll want to pay the past-due amount before the consequences ramp up. The best way to get back on track will depend on why you fell behind in the first place:

Best option: Enroll in autopay with your servicer or lender.

Autopay means the amount you owe will be automatically deducted from your checking account every month. You’ll never have to worry about paying late again, though you should keep an eye on your account balance to avoid potential overdraft penalties.

Best option: Confirm your contact info.

You’re responsible for paying your student loans on time — even if you never received a bill with a due date. If this happens, make sure your student loan servicer has up-to-date contact information for you.

Not sure who your servicer is? Log in to your StudentLoans.gov account to find out. For private loans, reach out to your lender for assistance.

Best option: Pause repayment with deferment or forbearance.

Student loan deferment is the better option, as the government pays the interest on certain federal student loans during your break. You can qualify for deferment only in specific instances, though, like if you’re receiving unemployment benefits or other state or federal assistance.

If you don’t qualify for deferment, you can likely receive student loan forbearance. Forbearance also lets you pause payments, but you have to pay all the interest. Because those costs can add up, it’s best to use forbearance only when you need a quick break.

» MORE: Deferment vs. forbearance: Which is right for your student loans?

Best option: Sign up for income-driven repayment.

Income-driven repayment plans cap federal student loan payments at 10% to 20% of your discretionary income. Payments can be as small as $0, and these plans forgive any remaining balance on your loans after 20 to 25 years of payments.

Income-driven plans are rare among private lenders. But some offer other payment plans that let you pay less, like making interest-only payments for a period of time. Contact your lender to ask what options are available.

Contact your lender or servicer once you’ve identified the best solution. If this was your first time missing payments, ask to waive any late fees. They may give you a break, especially if you have a plan to avoid additional late student loan payments.

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