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Q: I fell behind on my student loan payments, and I’m ready to get them back on schedule. Where do I start?

A: I’ll be honest: Restoring your loans to good standing won’t be a gentle, painless process.

For some borrowers, wanting to feel less stressed and anxious is the rationale for addressing their debt. For others, the catalyst is a big life change. Stanley Tate, a student loan attorney based in St. Louis, says his clients are often about to get married, buy a house, return to school or retire. Poor credit and unpaid loans are holding them back.

Here’s how to use the motivation you feel to take action on your loans right now:

Federal or private?

Repayment options and strategies differ dramatically depending on the type of student loans you have.

If you have federal loans, they’ll be listed in the government’s National Student Loan Data System. You’ll also see your servicer, the company that collects payments and helps you enroll in repayment programs.

Private loans, originated by banks, credit unions or state loan programs, should be listed on your credit report. Access it for free from each of the three credit bureaus once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com.

If you’ve missed one or two federal loan payments, your account is considered “delinquent.” You have 90 days to catch up before those missed payments are reported to the credit bureaus, which will negatively affect your credit.

Most federal loans don’t go into “default” until you’ve missed payments for nine months. That’s when the scary stuff starts to happen: The government can collect unpaid loan debt by taking money directly from your paycheck, tax refund and Social Security check.

Before you go into default, consider switching to an income-driven repayment plan. That will lower your bill to a more manageable amount.

Private student loans can go into default as soon as you miss a payment; the loan may be “charged off” and sent to a collection agency 120 days later. Late payments followed by a “charge-off” can badly damage your credit — and the debt must still be repaid. Both private and federal loans in default can incur late and collection fees.If the debt hasn’t been charged off yet, ask to reduce your payment temporarily in order to stay current.

Addressing default

You have two solid options for getting out of federal loan debt: rehabilitation and consolidation. The Education Department’s Default Resolution Group at (800) 621-3115 can provide details on the options.

Rehabilitation requires you to make nine income-based payments on a defaulted loan within 10 months. Afterward, you’ll still see late payments on your credit report, but the record of default will be removed. That could increase your credit score by about 25 points, says Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center. Consolidation can bring your loan out of default status within a few months, but the record of default will stay on your credit report.

Private lenders generally don’t offer specialized programs for getting out of default. They may send you offers to settle the debt, and if you ignore them, they may sue you to collect it.

If your private loan is in default, consider working with an attorney who understands student loan law. Search for a free or low-cost legal aid clinic on LawHelp.org.

Send your questions about postgrad life to askbrianna@nerdwallet.com.

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