Dear Millennials: Here's How To Get Student Loan Forgiveness, And How It Works

Drowning in debt? Nerdwallet has some advice.

NerdWallet is an A Plus content partner providing general news, commentary and coverage about personal finance from around the Web. Its content is produced independently of A Plus. Today we're featuring an AskBrianna column, where millennial financial expert Brianna McGurran answers your questions.

This week's question:

I've heard the magical term "student loan forgiveness," and I've even had a company say it'll help me apply. How does it work?

It sounds like a 20-something's confession: Forgive me, U.S. Department of Education, for I have borrowed too much money.

The government's student loan forgiveness programs are free to sign up for, and they can relieve some of the stress of a towering student loan balance. You'll have to meet a few specific criteria to qualify: Work at a nonprofit for 10 years, for instance, or pay back your loans on a 20- or 25-year income-driven repayment plan.

There are some trade-offs, though. Income-driven plans free up your cash flow every month, but you'll pay more in interest over time. You'll also pay taxes on the forgiven loan amount in most cases. And private student loans don't qualify. So if you're looking for help with those, ask your lender about other ways to lower your bill.

It's not hard to apply for income-driven repayment plans or Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs, but some borrowers don't know they exist — or where to start. More and more companies have taken advantage of this confusion. They come up in Google searches, appear in Facebook ads and make calls, offering to get you on track for loan forgiveness for a fee. Don't fall for it. You can do it yourself, for free.

Here's how to get your federal student loans forgiven — legitimately — so you can join the ranks of the mercifully loan-free.

Path to forgiveness No. 1: Work in public service

Choosing to work in the public interest isn't just a nice thing to do. It will also cut down on the amount of loans you have to repay.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness is one of the most generous forgiveness programs available. Full-time nonprofit or government employees can have their remaining loan balance forgiven after they make 120 on-time monthly payments — 10 years' worth when made back-to-back. Keep your bills affordable by choosing an income-driven repayment plan while you work toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Perhaps the best part? You won't be taxed on that forgiven balance.

Your 120 payments don't have to be consecutive, so you can bounce from nonprofit to for-profit work and get credit just for the periods of public service work you do. Public Service Loan Forgiveness started in 2007, as part of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, so the first borrowers to benefit will get forgiveness in October 2017.

Teachers and Perkins loan borrowers who work in public service careers also have forgiveness options. Teacher Loan Forgiveness will cancel up to $17,500 in certain federal loans if you work for five years or more in an eligible school. The amount you're forgiven depends on the subject you teach.

Borrowers with Perkins loans, which go to students with particularly high financial need, can have up to 100% of their Perkins loans canceled if they work in qualifying jobs. Apply for loan cancellation, which typically happens in increments over five years, directly through the college you borrowed Perkins loans to attend.

Path to forgiveness No. 2: Choose income-driven repayment

Loan forgiveness is an added bonus to the four income-driven repayment plans the government offers, which limit your monthly loan bills to a percentage of your income. They are:

Income-based repayment and Pay As You Earn require you to show you can't afford your bill on the 10-year standard repayment plan. But anyone with federal direct loans can sign up for Revised Pay As You Earn, which went into effect in December 2015 and is known as REPAYE.

You'll pay 10% of your income for 20 years on the plan (25 if you have graduate school loans), and then the remainder will be forgiven. But — yikes — according to current IRS rules, you'll be charged income tax on the amount forgiven.

Each plan has pretty different requirements. See how much you'd pay on each using the government's Repayment Estimator tool. Apply (for free — sick of hearing me say that yet?), and check "I want my loan holder to place me on the plan with the lowest monthly payment" so you're sure you're on the right one.

You can pay $0 if you don't have any income, and those months count toward your 20- or 25-year repayment term, at the end of which you'll have your balance forgiven. Periods of deferment (in certain circumstances) or forbearance, which are options for postponing your loan payments altogether, don't count as part of that time frame.

PSA: Don’t pay to sign up for student loan forgiveness

I've gotten a lot of questions recently from readers about companies that have contacted them, offering to sign them up for loan forgiveness for a fee. My response is always: Don't do it.

These companies often don't make it clear that they're actually applying for income-driven repayment or consolidation on your behalf, which you now know isn't very hard to do. (Consolidation is necessary to convert certain federal loans into a direct consolidation loan, which makes them eligible for repayment on income-driven plans or forgiveness through Public Service Loan Forgiveness.)

There are a few warning signs that the company you're dealing with doesn't have your best interests in mind. A big one is if it refers to "Obama student loan forgiveness," which doesn't exist. Many state attorneys general have sued companies they say have misled consumers, and theConsumer Financial Protection Bureau is on the case, too.

You're too smart to use a service that will actually charge you money to lower your loan payments. An upfront or monthly fee that increases your bill is costing you money you could put toward your loans (or any of the million bills you pay) instead.

If forgiveness is an option for you, go forth and apply on your own — and don't hesitate to contact your student loan servicer or Federal Student Aid for help.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

Cover photo: Rob Stothard / Getty