Many people hit by the layoffs are still paying off student loans.

But thanks to loan deferment or forbearance due to unemployment, paying off the tens of thousands you spent on your college degree can be one less worry while you’re looking for a job, as long as you’re willing to do a little legwork first.

With unemployment deferment or forbearance, you can temporarily reduce or postpone payments on your student loans. If you have subsidized loans, like a Perkins Loan, the government pays the interest that accrues during the deferment.  If yours is an unsubsidized loan, you’ll either pay the interest as it accrues, or add it to your balance.

Although increasing the amount you owe may sound like a bad idea, deferring your student loans is not only a move to cut your expenses: It reduces your chances of defaulting on your loan, which would hurt your credit score.

“Deferments have no effect on a customer’s credit score, since he or she is considered in regular status during the deferment,” says Patricia Christel, a Sallie Mae spokeswoman (Stock Quote: SLM).

To be deemed eligible for deferment, you’ll have to be actively looking for, but unable to find, full-time work (considered at least 30 hours a week) “in any field or at any salary or responsibility level,” according to U.S. Department of Education guidelines.

Additionally, you have to be registered with an employment agency if there is one within 50 miles. School placement offices and temp agencies don’t count. And you can’t get unemployment deferment if you’ve already defaulted on your student loan.

For unemployment deferment (as opposed to deferment due to other hardships), you’ll have to reapply every six months, and you’re limited to 36 months of deferral, according to the Department of Education.  For an extension on your unemployment deferment, you may have to show that you’ve made at least six honest attempts to find a job in the past six months. 

“If a customer has exhausted deferment options or does not meet the criteria for deferment, then he or she can request forbearance,” says Christel. Forbearance allows you to change the terms of your loan. This could mean lowering monthly payments, instead of stopping them altogether.

Be aware that different lenders may have different rules.

For example, regardless of your income, if you’ve worked for several years since graduating, you’re unemployed and you have a student loan with Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC), you’re only eligible for a type of forbearance that lets you reduce your monthly payments to an amount decided on a case by case basis, according to Bank of America spokesman Jim Pierpoint.

“They’ll decide on the best payment schedule that would be available for the borrower,” says Pierpoint, “But they won't reduce it down to zero.”

To find out what rules apply to your loan, contact your lender directly.

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