Student loan payments, interest and collections have been on hold for two years.
First put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pause has been extended seven times by two presidential administrations. It was pushed back again this week by the Biden administration from a May 1 deadline to Aug. 31, the Associated Press reports.
During the pause, 1.4 million Michigan borrowers have benefited from a break in paying back their collective $50 billion in debt.
Some, taking advantage of the frozen interest rates, paid off their loans quicker. While others, also making the most of 0% interest, decided to forgo making payments and focus on other financial benchmarks.
Here’s how two years with suspended federal student loan payments helped six Michiganders:
Daniel Hogan, 40, Lansing
April 2021 was the first month in 16 years that Daniel Hogan didn’t make a student loan payment.
Hogan had been chipping away at his $28,000 debt since graduating from Grand Valley State University in 2005.
When the federal government suspended student loan collections due to the pandemic, Hogan was getting close to the finish line with $3,000 remaining. Without interest collecting, the 40-year-old continued putting money toward the debt.
“I just kept making my payments and when I could, I would throw extra money at it,” he said. “Over the course of the pandemic, it kept getting lower quicker because of not paying interest and just going straight to the principal.”
Hogan made his last payment in March 2021.
“It felt amazing,” he said. “I’ve been doing that for 16 years. Coming out of school with thirty grand in debt was pretty crazy.”
Hogan celebrated by buying himself a guitar and learning how to play the instrument.
Related: Student debt looms over Michiganders as two-year pause nears May 1 deadline
Mary Kruk, 26, State College, Pennsylvania
Mary Kruk, originally from Macomb Township but currently attending Penn State, graduated from the University of Michigan five years ago owing about $15,000.
As a PhD candidate, Kruk’s federal student loan payments have already been paused while she’s in school.
But before the federal government halted payments two years ago, the 26-year-old was putting a little money toward her debt each month. She’s now redirecting those dollars to a high yield savings account.
“I started putting the money I would normally put towards my loans in that account,” she said. “I figured I might as well make money on interest while payments are paused.”
With interest rates frozen and rumors the Biden administration is considering canceling some loans, Kruk figured there was no harm in waiting.
“I would be the person that made like a huge lump sum payment and then the next day he announces that they were canceled,” she said. “So, I decided to hold off until I absolutely know it’s not going to happen.”
The Biden administration has not introduced any official policies to cancel student loans, but recently extended the pause.
Kruk, who expects to graduate from Penn State within the next year, plans to wait out repaying her student loans until payments officially restart.
Related: 51% of Michiganders struggling with monthly bills as inflation swells, survey finds
LaKeisha Blackwell, 49, Taylor
In the 28 years since LaKeisha Blackwell graduated from Michigan State University, interest has nearly tripled her student loan debt from about $36,000 to $100,000.
Blackwell, who studied criminal justice and got a master’s degree in counseling, has spent decades trying to get her loans erased through the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. But she’s struggled to successfully navigate the program that has reportedly only forgiven loans for 5% of applicants.
The payment pause has been a relief for Blackwell, whose bill hasn’t gotten any bigger, but it doesn’t solve her student debt crisis.
“It definitely saves thousands on interest, but it’s not helping to relieve any of the debt I have,” she said.
Blackwell believes restarting payments won’t account for all the challenges people have faced during pandemic like lost jobs, shattered livelihoods and medical bills.
“Starting this payment back is just another thing to set back people who are just trying to get back to a more normal way of living that we’ve lost grip of over the past two years,” she said.
Related: ‘We just want a break:’ Michiganders struggle to survive inflation
Logan Flowers, 25, Grand Rapids
Logan Flowers graduated from the University of Detroit Mercy sitting in his bedroom in April 2020.
After completing his undergraduate degree and then a one-year master’s thesis architecture program, Flowers had accumulated nearly $80,000 in student debt—a total that sparks intense anxiety in the 25-year-old.
The pause on federal student loans was a big relief for Flowers who graduated into a pandemic-era recession and landed a job in June 2021.
“It was a huge weight off my shoulders, and I’m sure all students who have loans, because I can afford other things. I can buy groceries, I can pay for my apartment, I can buy Starbucks every other week, and stuff like that,” he said.
For the past two years, Flowers has also been “forking out” $300 a month on private student loans. He says the pause on his federal student loans has helped him chip away at the privately held debt.
“The pauses have been extremely impactful on my overall mental state but also financially as well,” he said.
Duane Breijak, 37, Lansing
After Duane Breijak finished his undergraduate and graduate degree social work programs, he was staring at $120,000 in student debt.
A University of Michigan grad, Breijak finished school and jumped into the workforce in 2012. After paying off private loans, which tend to have higher interest rates, Breijak’s balance is still a “sad, sad figure” around $100,000.
“I’ve been in the field for about 10 years now, and really there’s not a dent taken out of my student loans at this point,” he said.
The pause in student loan payments allowed Breijek to focus on other financial goals.
“For a lot of folks, this is an opportunity to start thinking about building equity for yourself, whether that’s paying off other bills or investing in things like buying a house,” he said.
Breijak, in his role as the executive director of the National Association of Social Workers Michigan Chapter, has also spent the past two years advocating for permanent policies that will address high student debt particularly for social workers.
Related: Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti have some of nation’s highest student debt to earnings ratios, study finds
Adam Mensinger, 34, Berrien County
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit two years ago, Adam Mensinger had about $5,000 to pay down on his student loan balance.
A Michigan State University graduate, Mensinger had been steadily chipping away at his $41,000 debt since finishing school in 2011. But as the pandemic started to creep into Michigan, Mensinger was in the process of changing careers.
“Right when the pandemic hit, that’s when I was applying for other jobs and interviews and literally everything dried up. Every place that I interviewed for and I put in an application for reached out to say that they weren’t hiring,” he said.
At the time, unemployment was peaking at 22.7% in Michigan.
Mensinger stopped paying down his student loans until he carved out a new career at Meijer in May 2020. He said the pause on payments gave him the “breathing space” to find a new job and put any extra money toward his student loans.
With $1,200 remaining, Mensinger plans to make his last payment this month.
“I’ll just wipe it all out,” he said.
More on MLive:
Federal government just wiped out $2 billion in student loans, do you qualify?
Data shows the state economy is recovering, but Michiganders don’t feel it in their wallets
Student loan update: 100,000 newly eligible to cancel debt under federal forgiveness program
Pandemic aid buoyed millions of Michiganders for two years. What’s left?