Navigating student loan debt and repayment options can be challenging for graduates. Many borrowers benefit from consulting a financial planner or loan servicer to explore options like income-driven repayment plans, deferment and loan forgiveness programs.
Some borrowers can also reduce their payoff time by prepaying loans, which will save interest under most plans.
Calculate Your Payments
Ideally, your loan payments should only represent a small percentage of your salary after graduation. You can make it easier to manage this burden by borrowing less than your certified cost of attendance, and using scholarships, savings, and other interest-free sources of financing to cover the remaining balance.
After graduation, you can choose from a variety of repayment plans. Standard plans typically have a fixed monthly payment for 10 years. Graduated and income-driven repayment options have monthly payments that start lower, then increase every two years. These options can be best if you’re struggling to meet your current payments.
To further reduce the size of your payments, you can make extra payments each month or apply for a deferment or forbearance period (if you qualify). Many lenders also offer auto-pay options, which can help you avoid late fees and keep your credit score on track. You can also consider refinancing your loans if you have improved your credit and income since you took them out.
Set Up Auto Pay
After years of automatic forbearance, repayment begins again for federal borrowers next fall. For those that qualify, an income-driven repayment plan could lower their payments based on their income and extend the loan term for 20 or 25 years.
Other options include consolidating loans into a single payment, which can potentially lower the overall interest rate and help borrowers stay on track by not missing a monthly bill. And those that are making good money and have extra cash in their budget can consider ramping up student loan payments with a debt snowball or avalanche method, which can save them even more on interest.
Finally, borrowers can enroll in auto pay, which automatically withdraws your payment from a bank account designated by you. Many servicers offer user-friendly online portals and mobile apps that let borrowers set up auto pay on their own. It’s also a great way to lock in any available autopay discounts. But remember, if something changes and your withdrawal date no longer works, you’ll need to notify your lender ahead of time to cancel the feature.
Make Extra Payments
Paying off student loans more quickly saves interest and can help you reach other financial goals sooner, like saving for a home. But it’s important to carefully consider whether and how to make extra payments. And if you do, to be sure your servicer applies the money correctly. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) receives thousands of complaints each year about loan servicers that fail to apply borrowers’ extra payments as instructed.
The CFPB recommends using a tool like the Education Department’s Loan Simulator to calculate your payment on different repayment plans before making a change. For example, if your standard repayment plan is too expensive for you, consider a graduated or extended payment plan. Under these plans, your minimum payments start low and increase every two years. But they may end up costing you more in the long run, because a lot of your payments will go toward servicing interest. A better option is an income-driven repayment plan, which reduces your monthly payments and ends with loan forgiveness after 20 or 25 years.
Look for Forgiveness Programs
Forgiveness programs erase part or all of your student loan debt. These programs have unique requirements and approval standards, but they can be a valuable tool for borrowers.
If you’re not sure whether you qualify for student loan forgiveness, check with your lender or servicer. You may also want to consider refinancing your loans or consolidation, which can change your repayment terms. It can be a good idea to consult with a professional financial counselor for money management services.
Other repayment options include standard, graduated and extended repayment plans, which have fixed or gradual payments for up to 10 years. You can also choose an income-driven repayment plan, which lowers your monthly payments and extends your term to 20 or 25 years. These plans offer the possibility of loan forgiveness at the end of your repayment period, though you might have to pay taxes on any forgiven amount. Many colleges and employers also help their alums with loan forgiveness, so be sure to check with your alma mater or employer to see what’s available.