WASHINGTON — I made a promise to myself early in my career. If my job ever became so unbearable that I got stomach cramps at just the thought of walking into the office, it was time to quit.

But what if staying in your crummy job is the only way to have tens of thousands of dollars in student debt forgiven?

This is the issue vexing a reader, who asked me during a recent online discussion: Should I stay or should I go?

“I’m a federal employee with five years left to loan forgiveness,” the person wrote. “I work in a toxic office and have been trying for several years to find a job in a different agency. I was recently offered a two-year term position that would be in a new practice area with supervisory responsibility and a fairly significant pay raise. But I would lose the ‘golden handcuffs’ of virtually guaranteed employment and risk losing six-figure loan forgiveness if I don’t find a permanent position during the two years. Is it worth it?”

I’d like to first address the loan-forgiveness program this reader is talking about. Under the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, the remaining balance of a borrower’s debt is forgiven after 120 qualifying monthly payments.

Only federal Direct Loans are eligible for PSLF. You have to be paying off the debt under a certain type of income-driven repayment plan while working full time for a qualifying employer.

Borrowers often believe the forgiveness is based on the type of job they do, but to qualify for the program, it’s all about the employer. For PSLF eligibility, you must work (or volunteer) in public service for one of the following:

– A government organization (federal, state, local or tribal).

– A not-for-profit that is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization as determined by the IRS. (Other not-for-profit organizations that don’t have the 501(c)(3) exempt status may still count toward qualification forgiveness. This would include certain types of public-service jobs in law enforcement, military service and education.)

– AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps.

To get the full details of what employers and student loans qualify for PSLF, go to studentaid.ed.gov.

The program can provide a great amount of financial relief. Instead of 20 or 30 years of monthly loan payments, you can shed the debt in 10 years. And, the forgiven amount is not taxable.

There has been quite a bit of controversy about PSLF. Many borrowers found out after making what they thought were qualifying payments that in fact they weren’t on track to get rid of their debt. They didn’t work for the right kind of employer, they didn’t have a Direct Loan, or they weren’t in an income-based repayment plan.

So many public-sector workers were upset to learn that they didn’t qualify – often because of bad advice from their loan servicer – that Congress stepped in last year to provide a temporary fix that allows borrowers, under certain circumstances, to still qualify for forgiveness. Except even this effort has been fraught with problems.

Given all this, if you manage to run the gantlet of rules to actually qualify for the PSLF program, it’s understandably a tough decision to give up the relief because you hate your job.

PSLF was created to encourage people to enter public-service-related jobs. The promise of debt forgiveness is a powerful incentive for many to stay in jobs they dislike or that have low pay. But 10 years is a long time. Priorities change. Life happens.

This is why I encourage people to have a backup plan when they’re counting on PSFL. If you’re in a horrible job situation, it may well be worth giving up the loan forgiveness. Here’s why.

– Your mental health should come first. If you have options – and this reader does – take the exit. Don’t continue to work at a place that makes you miserable.

– Sure, the job is temporary, but two years is ample time to look for the next employment jump.

– Because PSLF requires you to be in an income-based plan, this means the monthly loan payment should be affordable. Since the new job pays more, this borrower can make extra payments to aggressively get rid of the debt.

When there is free money on the table, it’s hard to walk away. But look at it this way: This was your debt to repay in the first place. The loan forgiveness was a bonus. Yes, you give up valuable debt relief, but you get to leave behind a toxic work environment – and that’s a fair exchange.

Michelle Singletary can be contacted at c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071, or [email protected]


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