Cut the cost of private student loans

Pink piggy bank in mortarboard

If you're struggling to keep up with the payments, you've got to act before you default.

Private loans not only charge higher interest rates than government-funded college debt, they carry far more onerous terms, especially if you fall behind with your monthly check.

You'll ruin your credit and add thousands of dollars in penalties and fees to your debt.

Here's how to avoid that:

Option 1. Ask to pay just the interest. If you're in a temporary bind --haven't found a job, lost your job, got hurt and can't work -- most private lenders will let you do this for at least a few months.

Option 2. Extend the term of the loan. If you signed up for a 10-year loan, your lender might be willing to stretch out your repayment schedule to 15, 20 or 25 years. You'll pay a lot more interest in the long run, but it's worth it if it saves you from default.

Option 3. Consolidate your debt into a cheaper loan. Sallie Mae, for example, offers adjustable-rate consolidation loans that charge as little as the prime rate minus 0.5 percentage points and as much as the prime rate plus 6.5 percentage points, depending on your credit history. You'll find a list of lenders and their terms at finaid.org.

Option 4. Refinance your college debt with a home equity line of credit. You'll probably pay a little less than you would for a consolidation loan. Don't own a home? Ask your parents.

Filing for bankruptcy is not a way to reduce your college debt. Bankruptcy judges are not allowed to write down student loans unless you're seriously disabled.