Let me give you some advice from someone who has experience at both ends - had student loan issues myself and parents ran financial aid department at local university.
Quick story of my student loan. I graduated in debt and could not pay at first due to having kids way too early. I deferred. Schools will have rules for deference. There are also federal guidelines - lets not get specific on this though since these change every year it seems.
So basically there is an initial deferment period in which any student can request for the repayments to be deferred and it is granted. Then there is an extended deferment. Here someone has to OK it. This is really rather arbitrary and up to the school/lender. My school decided to not extend mine after I filled out a mound of paperwork and showed that even without paying I had basically $200 a month for the family to live off past housing/fixed expenses.
Eventually they had to cave, because I had no money so they gave me an extended deferment. After the 5 years I started paying. Since my school had a very complex way to pay, I decided to give them 6 months at a time. You would think they would love that right? (On the check it was clearly stated what months I was paying for to show that I was not prepaying the loan off)
Well I was in collections 4 months later. Their billing messed up, set me up for prepayment. They then played dumb and acted like I didn't but I had a picture of the check and their bank's stamp on the back... They couldn't get my loan out of collections - even though they messed up. This is probably some lower level employee trying to cover their mistake. So this office tells creditors to leave me alone but I also CANNOT pay my loan because the credit collection agency has slapped a 5k fee on the 7k loan. So my loan spent 5 years (kid you not) like this. It was interest free since the employee stopped the loan processing.
Point being is that if you don't pay the lender will either put your loan into deferment automatically or go after you. MOST (not all) schools will opt for deferment, which I believe is 2 years at most places. Then after that you have the optional deferment. So if you keep not paying they might throw you into that bucket.
However if you stop paying and you never communicate with them the chances of you getting the optional deferment are almost none - unless school doesn't know where you live. Basically if you don't respond to their mail/emails you get swept into their credit collection process. So just filling out the deferment stuff when you get it - even if they deny it - could buy you up to 10 years - kid you not.
Now once you go into the collection process... anything is game. As long as you don't need a home/car loan you can play this game. What the collection agency does depends on size of loan and the rules. If you are at a "major" university the rules are usually more lax, but if you are at the smaller schools, especially the advertised trade/online schools boom - better watch out. Wages will be garnished very soon. Expect to go to court, might have to hire an attorney because some corrupt lenders start smacking on fees - think of the 5k mine smacked on me.
So the moral of the story is you will pay it off. If you act nice, fill out paperwork, talk to school, and so on you can probably push this off quite a few years. But you are still paying and you will pay interest on everything. So factor in that to the equation. I had a 2.3% loan but they are much higher now.
Defaulting isn't always a bad thing. If you don't have the money then you don't have it. And using credit cards to help is not the thing to do. But you need to try to work with the school so you don't incur penalties/fees and so that your job doesn't have creditors calling them.
My story ended year 4 that my loan was in collection. A higher up was reviewing my case and called me. Told her the story and emailed her a picture of their cashed check. She was completely embarrassed when she was trying to work out a plan for me and I am like - how about I come down tomorrow with the 7k. But even though lender admitted fault this took 20+ calls to agencies to clear up my credit so I could buy a house.
So your goal should be:
- defer the loan as long as possible
- no penalties/fees
- make sure moneywise the interest you are paying on it is the least costly of your options
- my personal suggestion - if you get a deferment try to save up at least 6 months of payments before you start paying