It seems that voters and politicians are at last paying some attention to the issue of student loan debt. It's about time. But while the folks in D.C. hash it all out, here are a few pointers for dealing with your own loans:
1. Remember, Student Loan Debt Is Not A Moral Failing.
One of the consequences of not having a public debate on loans for so long is that we've had a tendency to think of student loan debts as somehow embarrassing—as if you went on a credit card-backed drinking binge instead of years of late-night papers and science lecture halls. For a country that swears up and down that education is the key to economic progress, this is ridiculous. You have loans because you needed them. Now let's talk about getting rid of them...
2. Should You Consolidate?
Under the constantly changing regulations from the U.S. Department of Education, people who have federally-backed student loans (which are most student loans these days) can choose to consolidate all of their little loans into one Direct Consolidation Loan.* This makes the bill paying easier, but it isn't necessarily your best bet. The question you should start with is, can I afford to make my payments under my current plans? If not, a Consolidation Loan almost always offers longer payment periods (up to 30 years) and more flexible payment plans. Sounds good, but these generally mean you pay more over time, and can eliminate some of the forgiveness options or other benefits you might have had with individual loans. Check the Federal Student Aid Office's consolidation page for more information;
3. Pay Attention To Rates!
When you first took out your loans, you probably had no real choices when it came to the interest rates. U.S. Government Loans almost always have lower rates, but those are adjusted each year, and there is plenty of variety within the same program. By way of an example, click on this chart of federal student interest rates to see where things stand for new student loans in 2015-2016 academic year:
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Unless you were lucky enough to get a subsidized loan, those interest rates began compounding while you were in school. Once you've graduated, you might have some options for bringing them down. Check the rates on your current loans and note whether they are fixed rates or variable rates. Federal Consolidation Loans will average your interest rates from these loans, giving greater weight to the larger loans. Use the Department of Education's calculator to figure out what the Consolidated rate would be and ask yourself, am I better off now? In the long term?
4. Use Your Options
Most federal student loan programs, including federal consolidated loans, carry with them some great benefits that too many loan holders still don't know about. Do you work full-time for a government organization or nonprofit? Under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, you could have the remainder of your debt forgiven after ten years of regular monthly payments. And that works even if you choose an Income Based Repayment (IBR) Plan (or the closely related Pay As You Earn Plan, Income-Sensitive Plan and Income-Contingent Plans) that sets your payments at a percentage of your income.
Even if you can't put in ten years at a public service job, one of the repayment plans can cap how long (how many payments) you have to pay before your loan is then forgiven. Right now these limits are at 20 or 25 years. Which plan you qualify for depends on your loans and when you borrowed them, but the Federal Student Aid Office offers you this nifty chart for a quick view of what's out there;
5. Use Your New Private Options
If your loans are older, especially if you were forced to take out private loans in the years before 2007, you may find that some of these programs don't apply to you. Recent regulatory changes have been opening up options for you outside the federal programs. A new host of private lenders are offering refinancing at better interest rates than some of the old federal loan monsters. Evaluate them carefully for 1. loan origination fees; 2. variable rate terms that could send your interest rates skyrocketing; and 3. availability of deferral, forbearance or other options. This will take a little applied mathematics, but you could save yourself significant money with refinancing;
6. Time Heals All Wounds
For most students, the impulse is to get the loans repaid as quickly as possible. It's a good impulse and a financially sound plan. But it may not be realistic depending on your income and your loan size. If you are looking at a mountain of student loan debt and feeling defeated, make sure you have the right loan repayment plan in place and remember that your own circumstances will just keep changing, and so will the loan repayment programs. Find that balance between sacrificing for the future and making something great out of the present—after all, that's what your education has qualified you to do.
*Parent PLUS loans can not be consolidated and do not offer special repayment terms. Perkins loans can be included in repayment plans after they have been consolidated with another direct loan.