The delinquency forbearance

I have fortunately been able to make on-time repayments for my federal student loans every month since they went into repayment. So, I was only a little confused when I got a letter in the mail from my loan servicer telling me that a “delinquency forbearance” had been placed on my loans.

It turns out that it is standard practice to put a customer’s loans into forbearance when they request a change in repayment terms. When I called this morning to ask what the forbearance was all about I was told they do this in order to “keep the account current,” while the change is processed.

Here’s the problem with that. To a borrower, a forbearance might seem like an innocuous month off from paying your loans. Extra money in your pocket for a month is always good, and you changed your repayment presumably to get a lower rate so on the surface it seems like a good deal. It is, until you look up what it actually is and what happens during a forbearance period.

Not a deferment

There are two ways of delaying payment on student loans: deferment and forbearance. deferments are used to pause repayments for really specific reasons when it doesn’t make sense for you to be repaying your loans. For example, if you go back to school you can request a deferment on your existing loans. You can request one for up to three years if you are experiencing prolonged unemployment. One awesome part of deferments is that depending on your loan, the government might pay your interest for you. That means if you end up unemployed for three years after you graduate, you can stop payment on your loans and not worry about interest piling up and capitalizing.

A forbearance is much different.

With forbearance, you may be able to stop making payments or reduce your monthly payment for up to 12 months. Interest will continue to accrue on your subsidized and unsubsidized loans (including all PLUS loans). – studentaid.ed.gov

That last sentence is key, and according to the letter I got, not only does it accrue, but if you don’t pay it during the forbearance period, it capitalizes. Let’s say, like the average med student, you have $166,000 in student loan debt after you graduate (your principle) and you ask and are granted forbearance for a year right as your repayment begins. At 7.5% interest, your loan will earn $34.10 in interest every day during that period for a total of $12,446.50 for the year. And if you don’t pay it before the end of the year, it will capitalize – added to the $166,000 principle. So now your post-graduation debt is $178,446.50. This means once you go back into repayment, your payments might be higher than you planned.

Even if the forbearance period is shorter than a year, it could still be long enough to accrue enough interest to cancel out a monthly payment you already made. When a loan servicer signs its customers up for an automatic forbearance to “keep the account current” while they process repayment requests, they’re signing us up for a whole lot more than a month off of paying our loans.

On top of all that, the interest rate award for enrolling in autopay is suspended during forbearance, so you will be earning interest at a slightly-higher-than-normal rate. It’s like rubbing salt in the wound.

Borrower’s have rights

According to the Department of Education’s materials, the borrower must request a forbearance or deferral. The “automatic” in an automatic forbearance means the servicer is obligated to grant it if the borrow meets the requirements. And that’s the way it should be. If a borrower cannot make payments, these are good options, but that’s a decision the borrower needs to make. A loan servicer should never be able to impose a damaging financial decision on a borrower, and they certainly shouldn’t penalize those who are making good on their payments.

As for the servicer’s need to keep the account “current,” if stopping payment for a month is truly necessary in order to apply a new payment plan, it should be a deferment, not a forbearance. Having a variety of payment plans is valuable because it gives us options that can meet our current financial needs. Since other methods of adjusting loans aren’t available to federal student loans – refinancing, discharging, etc. – it’s vital that these options be useful and not harmful to borrowers. Penalizing borrowers with capitalized interest is no way to reinforce these as good options.

Here’s the thing. Student loans are the worst and the system is incredibly opaque. There’s no consumer choice in the matter: I’m stuck with the servicer ED assigned to me. I have no idea if my monthly payment is going back to the Department of Education, my university, or simply lining the coffers of the the servicing company executives. The autopay system is such a disaster that for the first nine months of repayment I went into my account every day to make sure my payment was scheduled, went through, and the next month’s was queued up properly. Sometimes I even double paid accidentally. In a system so thoroughly stacked against the borrower, we don’t need more opportunities to fail.

A journey to the UP

This post is about a trip we took to the UP from Northern Wisconsin.

Tips:

  1. Day passes for Michigan State Parks are good for unlimited parking in any park for 24 hours. We managed to see 3 in one trip: Gogebic, Porcupine Mountains, and Bond Falls.
  2. There are two campgrounds on the southwest side of Lake Gogebic, the state and the county park. If you have a tent, go to the state park.

The trip

In early October back we decided to visit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, also known as the UP (pronounced ‘yoop’). If you don’t know: Michigan is made up of two peninsulas and the two are connected by the Mackinac Bridge (or, “the bridge”). The upper peninsula is a little larger than Maryland and is about 30% of Michigan’s total size. It is said only trolls live below the bridge. At about 311 thousand residents the UP is technically large enough to become a state, and indeed statehood movements have been around about as long as Michigan has been a state. It even has a state fair – Michigan’s only. For what it’s worth, it would be the third state with representation in Congress with a population smaller than Washington, D.C.

Gogebic

Sun streaks through the trees on the Gogebic hiking trail.

Living in Vilas County we are just a short journey from the border with the UP. The nearest route into the UP is at Land O’ Lakes, WI, and the second is Presque Isle. On our way in from DC we passed through Escanaba but this time we headed north. Our first stop was Lake Gogebic, about an hour from here by way of Presque Isle.

We arrived about two hours before sunset and camped at Lake Gogebic State Park the first night. We decided to hike before we pitched the tent and, though it meant pitching it at sunset, meant we got to walk the short hiking trail at the park.

I woke up at sunrise over the opposite side of the lake. Gogebic is a massive body of water located in the heart of the almost-million acre Ottawa National forest and spans 14 miles north to south and 2.5 miles east to west. The water was still with that beautiful appearance of glass I love about lakes in the early morning. The Hungarians call this effect “tükörsima:” As smooth as the surface of a mirror. I really don’t know of a single word in English that captures that appearance.

Sunrise over Lake Gogebic

The Porkies

The next morning we planned to go home but instead packed up the tent and went north on Highway 64 to the Porcupine Mountains State Park, on the south shore of Lake Superior. We had just enough time to get there and hike along the Lake of the Clouds (the overlook hike was captured for Google Street View).

Greg and Danielle on the Lake of the Clouds hike.

Lake of the Clouds was amazing. A long lake situated between two ridges in the Porkies. As you walk along the north ridge, you follow the lakeshore from several hundred feet high. At some points you walk right along the cliff face and at others you are immersed in lush, old growth forest. The hike we did was about 2.5 miles out and back, but connected to other trails that could take you hundreds of miles deep into the heart of this impressive expanse of public land.

Bond Falls

We drove along the shore on the way back, opting for the slightly longer route along highway 45. For lunch we stopped in a cafe in Ontonagon before heading south to Paulding where we managed to sneak in a hike to Bond Falls before returning to Wisconsin. Unfortunately it was not dark enough to see the legendary light.

My aunt and uncle have a great story about a family vacation they took to the UP where everybody in the car was hungry and they were lost, trying to find their cabin. When they stopped to ask where the nearest McDonalds was, they were told “probably about 90 miles that way.” Depending on where they’re located the towns seem to be mining, shipping, or agriculture communities. But though the towns are few and far between comes a tremendous amount of public land. About a third of the peninsula is protected making it a dream destination for the particularly outdoorsy. With famous places like the Pictured Rocks, Sleeping Bear Dunes, and Sault Ste. Marie, places like Bond Falls, the Porkies or Gogebic might often go overlooked. If you have time to take the journey leisurely, though, little places like these are well worth the trip.

Leaflet and Stamen on the blog

I changed the tagline of my blog to “Nomad public servant, learning out loud” when we moved out of DC. In addition to writing about the different places we’ve visited, I also end up writing a lot of these posts from places other than where we live. So over Thanksgiving weekend I decided it was time I learned how to do some mapping work. The last time I tried to map something, it was about six years ago, in Google Maps, and I had no idea what I was doing.

I ended up with a giant, hand-crafted JSON file that got loaded to create markers for the map. It was also completely separate from any real data. It was just a big list of places and descriptions. While it looked cool, it also only loaded on Firefox (puzzlingly) and all other browsers got a blank beige placeholder.

I also tried to link location data to blog posts in WordPress once upon a time. I think if I did either of those again I’d probably do them differently, and it would probably look more like how I did it with this blog.

How it works

Each blog post has a loc field in the frontmatter. This post has loc: st-germain. Then I created an include to create a map placeholder and a Liquid filter that cross-references that value against a file at _data/locations.yml to get the latitude and longitude. The location data is added to the dataset on the div. It looks like this:

<div id="map" data-lat= data-lng=></div>

Then I have some really simple javascript that picks up the dataset and produces a map. There’s also a page showing all the locations as markers. For that piece I added a JSON dump of the _data/locations.yml into a script tag and load it with JSON.parse(document.getElementById('map-data').innerHTML);, then iterate over the values.

What I used

I used Jekyll’s data directory to keep the location data. I could probably geocode these values, too, and that would take the manual work out of figuring out where these places are, but I decided since there’s only a handful right now it was easier to look them up.

Leaflet powers the map itself based on OpenStreetMap data. It’s pretty straightforward to configure and comes with some smart defaults. I used Stamen’s Toner Lite tiles for the base layer. I wanted to go with the Terrain tiles but lack of international coverage mean I couldn’t map some of the places without some exta work. Regardless, it’s really great that Stamen offer these excellent tiles for free, and that Leaflet is open source. The only trick with loading the tiles was figuring out how to do it over HTTPS, after some googling, I ended up adding the tile layer like this:

var Toner = L.tileLayer('https://stamen-tiles-{s}.a.ssl.fastly.net/toner-lite/{z}/{x}/{y}.{
  ext}', {
    attribution: 'Map tiles by <a href="http://stamen.com">Stamen Design</a>,
   under <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0">CC BY 3.0</a>.
   Data by <a href="http://openstreetmap.org">OpenStreetMap</a>, under <a
   href="http://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright">ODbL</a>.',
    minZoom: 0,
    maxZoom: 20,
    ext: 'png'
});

Figuring things out from there was pretty easy thanks to Leaflet’s clear documentation. I also used underscore but not as much as planned and could probably rewrite the JS to work without the extra dependency.

What’s next?

I hope to keep finding things to map in the blog. Sometimes I write about places after we visit and there are a few places we visited this year that I haven’t written about yet. Hopefully I can do the writing and find a way to capture those locations on the main map. Maybe with a different color marker? Maybe with route lines leading from where the post was written to where the post is about? It was a lot of fun figuring this out and I’m excited to learn more about what leaflet can do.