Outstanding student loan debt in the United States has tripled over the last decade, surpassing both auto and credit card debt to take second place behind housing debt as the most common type of household debt.1 Today, more than 44 million Americans collectively owe more than $1.4 trillion in student debt.2 Here are some strategies to pay it off.
Look to your employer for help
The first place to look for help is your employer. While only about 4% of employers offer student debt assistance as an employee benefit, it's predicted that more employers will offer this benefit in the future to attract and retain talent.
Many employers are targeting a student debt assistance benefit of $100 per month.3 That doesn't sound like much, but it adds up. For example, an employee with $31,000 in student loans who is paying them off over 10 years at a 6% interest rate would save about $3,000 in interest and get out of debt two and a half years faster.
Understand all your repayment options
Unfortunately, your student loans aren't going away. But you might be able to choose a repayment option that works best for you. The repayment options available to you will depend on whether you have federal or private student loans. Generally, the federal government offers a broader array of repayment options than private lenders. The following payment options are for federal student loans. (If you have private loans, check with your lender to see which options are available.)
Standard plan: You pay a certain amount each month over a 10-year term. If your interest rate is fixed, you'll pay a fixed amount each month; if your interest rate is variable, your monthly payment will change from year to year (but it will be the same each month for the 12 months that a certain interest rate is in effect).
Extended plan: You extend the time you have to pay the loan, typically anywhere from 15 to 30 years. Your monthly payment is lower than it would be under a standard plan, but you'll pay more interest over the life of the loan because the repayment period is longer.
You have $31,000 in student loans with a 6% fixed interest rate. Under a standard plan, your monthly payment would be $344, and your total payment over the term of the loan would be $41,300, of which $10,300 (25%) is interest. Under an extended plan, if the term were increased to 20 years, your monthly payment would be $222, but your total payment over the term of the loan would be $53,302, of which $22,302 (42%) is interest.
Graduated plan: Payments start out low in the early years of the loan, then increase in the later years of the loan. With some graduated repayment plans, the initial lower payment includes both principal and interest, while under other plans the initial lower payment includes interest only.
Income-driven repayment plan: Your monthly payment is based on your income and family size. The federal government offers four income-driven repayment plans for federal student loans only:
- Pay As You Earn (PAYE)
- Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE)
- Income-Based Repayment (IBR)
- Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)
You aren't automatically eligible for these plans; you need to fill out an application (and reapply each year). Depending on the plan, your monthly payment is set between 10% and 20% of your discretionary income, and any remaining loan balance is forgiven at the end of the repayment period (generally 20 or 25 years depending on the plan, but 10 years for borrowers in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program). For more information on the nuances of these plans or to apply for an income-driven plan, visit the federal student aid website at studentaid.ed.gov.
Can you refinance?
Yes, but only with a new private loan. (There is a federal consolidation loan, but that is different.) The main reason for trying to refinance your federal and/or private student loans into a new private loan is to obtain a lower interest rate. You'll need to shop around to see what's available.
If you refinance, your old loans will go away and you will be bound by the terms and conditions of your new private loan. If you had federal student loans, this means you will lose any income-driven repayment options.
Watch out for repayment scams
Beware of scammers contacting you to say that a special federal loan assistance program can permanently reduce your monthly payments and is available for an initial fee or ongoing monthly payments. There is no fee to apply for any federal repayment plan.
1 New York Federal Reserve, Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, February 2018
2 CFPB, Innovation Highlights: Emerging Student Loan Repayment Assistance Programs, August 2017
3 Society for Human Resource Management, October 2, 2017