How to Choose the Best Student Loan Repayment Plan for You
Paying off student loans is stressful, but there is a silver lining: Federal student loans have a lot of flexibility when it comes to paying them back. In fact, the Federal Student Aid office offers eight different repayment plan options. With all these choices, how can you select your best student loan repayment plan?
Here are four steps you can take to figure out which student loan repayment plan is best for you.
- 1. Learn about the different student loan repayment plans
- 2. Determine how much you can pay each month
- 3. Use a student loan calculator to estimate interest costs
- 4. Change your plan or refinance if your circumstances change
- Plus: Final thoughts on finding your best student loan repayment plan
- Plus: FAQs: Student loan repayment
Your first step in choosing your best repayment plan for your student loans is learning about your options.
Federal student loans come with eight different plans. Not every loan type qualifies for every plan, but you can follow the links to learn about each plan and its eligibility requirements in full detail.
- Standard repayment: This plan spans 10 years. You’ll have the same fixed payments every month.
- Graduated repayment: This plan also gives you 10 years to pay off your debt, but with one key difference: Your monthly payments will start out small and increase regularly, generally every two years.
- Extended repayment: This plan lowers your monthly payments and extends your repayment term to up to 25 years. You can choose fixed payments, which stay the same every month, or graduated payments, which increase over time.
- Income-driven repayment (IDR): IDR plans cap your monthly payments at 10% to 20% of your discretionary income. They include:
Most of the income-driven plans end in loan forgiveness if you haven’t paid off your balance after 20 or 25 years.
If you don’t request an alternative plan, you’ll make payments on your federal loans under the standard 10-year repayment plan. But for some borrowers, the standard plan is too burdensome. For others, though, this approach is not aggressive enough for paying off debt.
Private student loans don’t qualify for these plans
Note that private student loans are different. They probably won’t come with flexible student loan repayment options, and they don’t qualify for federal plans such as IDR. Each lender sets its requirements, with most letting you choose a term between five and 20 years when you initially borrow, so you’ll want to shop around for private student loans before borrowing.
But if you already borrowed and are struggling to keep up with payments, you’ll need to speak with your lender to see if you can choose a new term or postpone payments through forbearance.
Refinancing student loans could be another option if you’re looking to restructure your debt. Since private lenders determine their student loan repayment options, you’ll need to call your lender or servicer to learn what’s available to you.
After learning about the different student loan repayment plans, it’s time to take a close look at your budget. Use a spreadsheet or download an expense-tracking app to get a clear picture of your monthly cash flow.
Based on your income and expenses, figure out how much you can afford to pay toward your student loans each month. Then, use a tool like the Federal Student Aid Loan Simulator to calculate your payments on different plans.
If you need to lower your payments…
If your student loan payments under the standard repayment plan are dragging down your budget, apply for a different plan. Each has its own eligibility requirements, so factors such as your income, loan type, date of loan disbursement and total debt might narrow down your options.
When considering changing your repayment plan, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I expect my income to rise over time? If so, you might opt for the graduated repayment plan. With this option, your payments will start low and gradually rise, but you’ll still pay off your debt in 10 years.
- Do I need long-term relief? If so, opt for the extended repayment plan or an IDR plan, both of which lengthen your repayment term to 20 or 25 years. IDR plans are usually a better option, since they could end in loan forgiveness.
- Am I working toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)? If you’re working toward PSLF, you’ll need to put your loans on an IDR plan to qualify.
- Do I have parent PLUS loans? If you’re a parent borrower, your only available IDR plan is Income-Contingent Repayment, and you’ll have to consolidate your loan first.
- Do I need to pause my student loan payments altogether as a result of losing my job or returning to school? If this is the case, consider student loan deferment or forbearance to avoid default.
The right plan will match your circumstances and make your monthly payments more manageable. But keep in mind that if you lower your monthly payments, you’ll likely pay more in interest in the long run.
Again, if you have private student loans and need relief, you’ll need to speak with your loan servicer. It might offer temporary forbearance in the case of economic hardship.
If you can pay more each month…
After taking a close look at your budget, you might reach the opposite conclusion: You can pay more each month and get out of debt even faster. If that’s the case, you can set up extra payments without penalty.
You can set up recurring or one-time extra payments to pay off your debt faster. However, you might need to instruct your loan servicer to apply your extra payments to your balance rather than save them for future bills.
Once you’ve compared your budget with the various student loan repayment plans, do the math to see what each plan would look like for you. Not sure where to start? Student loan calculators can take the guesswork out of the process.
For example, let’s say you owe $30,000 in loans with a 5.70% rate. On the 10-year standard plan, you can expect to pay $329 a month for 10 years. Over the life of your loans, you’ll pay about $9,427 in interest.
But if you can pay just $50 more a month, you’ll save about $1,700 in overall interest and get out of debt a year and eight months ahead of schedule. If you can ramp up your payments to $500 a month, you’ll save over $4,000 in interest and get out of debt about four years early.
By revealing your total savings, these calculators can motivate you to pay off your loans faster.
4. Change your plan or refinance if your circumstances change
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to repaying student loans. The plan you choose might be different from someone else’s. Plus, your approach as a new grad might look different than it does in your 30s or 40s.
If your bills are overwhelming, an IDR plan could be exactly what you need to lower your monthly payments and avoid default. But if you start making more money with a high-paying job or a side hustle, you could ramp up your student loan payments to get out of debt faster.
Once your finances are in good shape, you could even refinance your loans under new terms. When you refinance, you turn over one or more of your student loans to a new, private lender. You could refinance one loan or combine multiple ones. Ideally, you’ll get a lower interest rate when you do so.
Plus, you could choose new terms, perhaps lowering your monthly payments or accelerating your payoff date. If you go from a 10-year plan to a five-year one, for instance, you’ll be out of debt much faster. Just make sure to do the math so you understand exactly what your new terms will mean for your budget.
For example, let’s say you refinanced a 10-year, $30,000 loan at 5.70% interest. Your new plan has a five-year term at 4.50% interest. In this case, your monthly payments would increase by $230, but you’d get out of debt five years early and save $5,870 on interest.
Typically, the best candidates for student loan refinancing have a steady income and strong credit score. Keep in mind, though, that if you refinance your federal student loans, you’ll lose out on federal student loan repayment options, such as IDR plans and forgiveness programs.
If you’re confused about the different student loan repayment plans available, you’re not alone. There are a lot of options, and each has its pros and cons.
Careful research and a bit of patience can pay off, whether you land big savings from a new repayment plan or free up more of your money each month. Explore your student loan repayment options if you need some financial relief or want to pay off your debt faster.