How Is Income-Based Repayment Calculated?

By Maureen Shelly · October 24, 2023 · 6 minute read

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How Is Income-Based Repayment Calculated?

Editor's Note: For the latest developments regarding federal student loan debt repayment, check out our student debt guide.

After graduation and your six-month federal student loan grace period, it’ll be time to start paying your dues. If you are on the Standard Repayment Plan, you’ll pay at least $50 a month for 10 years. But there are other ways to pay back your student loans: through income-driven repayment plans.

Not all of these plans have the same repayment strategy, and not all federal loans qualify for income-driven repayment. We’ll help you find the one that aligns with your financial situation before you commit.

How Does Income-Driven Repayment Work?

The U.S. Department of Education offers four income-driven repayment (IDR) plans for holders of federal student loans:

•   Income-Based Repayment (IBR)

•   Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)

•   Pay As You Earn (PAYE) Plan

•   Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) Plan

For most IDR plans, your monthly payment is calculated as a portion of your discretionary income. The Department of Education defines discretionary income as your adjusted gross income in excess of a protected amount.

Discretionary income under the SAVE Plan, for example, is any adjusted gross income you have above 225% of the federal poverty guideline appropriate to your family size. You’ll have a $0 monthly payment under the SAVE Plan if your annual income doesn’t exceed the protected amount of $32,805 for a single borrower and $67,500 for a family of four in 2023.

If you don’t qualify for a $0 monthly payment on the SAVE Plan, your monthly payment beginning in July 2024 will be set at 5% of discretionary income for undergraduate loans, 10% for graduate loans, and a weighted average if you have both.

On the IBR plan, your monthly payment is typically set at 10% to 15% of your discretionary income above 150% of the federal poverty guideline appropriate to your family size. But unlike the SAVE Plan, a borrower’s monthly payment on the IBR plan will never be more than what you would have paid through the Standard Repayment Plan.

IDR Loan Forgiveness

All federal IDR plans can end with your remaining loan balance being forgiven after 20 or 25 years, but some borrowers may receive forgiveness sooner under the SAVE Plan. Beginning in July 2024, federal student loan borrowers with original principal balances of less than $12,000 can have their remaining loan balance forgiven after 10 years of monthly qualifying payments on the SAVE Plan.

For more details on federal IDR debt relief benefits, check out our Guide to Student Loan Forgiveness.

Your personal circumstances and goals may dictate which student loan repayment plan is right for you. You can estimate how much your monthly payments will be through the federal Loan Simulator calculator.

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The Difference Between Income-Driven Repayment Plans

Deciding which IDR plan is right for you (and that you may qualify for) depends on your financial situation and your loan type(s). Here’s what they all mean:

•   IBR (Income-Based Repayment). This plan is based on your income and family size. The potential IBR payment must be less than what you would pay under the Standard Repayment Plan to qualify. Any remaining balance is forgiven after 20 or 25 years.

•   ICR (Income-Contingent Repayment). Under this plan, your monthly payment is adjusted based on your income (sometimes set at 20% of your discretionary income above 100% of the federal poverty guideline appropriate to your family size). It might not lower your payments as much as other plans, but it’s the only IDR plan that allows Parent PLUS Loans. Any remaining balance is forgiven after 25 years.

•   PAYE (Pay As You Earn). With this plan, you’ll never pay more than the fixed Standard Repayment Plan amount. Payments are typically set at 10% of your discretionary income above 150% of the federal poverty guideline appropriate to your family size. Any remaining balance after 20 years of payments is forgiven.

•   SAVE (Saving on a Valuable Education). This IDR plan replaced the former REPAYE Plan. Anyone with qualifying student loans can enroll into the SAVE Plan. However, you could end up paying more per month under this plan than the Standard Repayment Plan. You’ll have a $0 monthly payment under the SAVE Plan if your annual income falls below 225% of the federal poverty guideline appropriate to your family size.

Alternatives to Income-Driven Repayment Plans

The 2023 debt ceiling bill officially ended the three-year Covid-19 forbearance, requiring federal student loan interest accrual to resume on Sept. 1, 2023, and payments to resume in October 2023.

Aside from the Standard Repayment Plan, there are a few options to consider instead of IDR:

Consolidation

If you have federal student loans, you can get a Direct Consolidation Loan. This will move all your eligible federal student loans into one monthly payment. Your new interest rate is the weighted average of all your loans, rounded up to the nearest eighth of a percent.

This can be helpful if you have many smaller loans that each have a minimum monthly payment. It typically won’t lower your monthly payment, however, but it can make it manageable and easier to keep track of. Only federal loans are eligible for a Direct Consolidation Loan.

Refinancing

Refinancing is similar to consolidation. You get one loan to replace all of your other loans, but it’s a new loan with a new interest rate from a private lender or bank. Your credit report and other personal financial factors are considered to see if you’re a responsible borrower. If you previously had a co-borrower, such as a parent, you can look into refinancing without a cosigner.

Many lenders allow you to refinance all of your student loans, not just federal student loans. So if you have a mix of private student loans and federal student loans, refinancing will create one new loan with one payment to replace them.

If you qualify for a lower interest rate and a shorter term, it could reduce the amount of money paid in interest over the life of the loan. You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term. You can explore different scenarios with our Student Loan Refinance Calculator.

You may ask, “Should I refinance my federal student loans?” Refinancing federal student loans with a private lender forfeits your access to Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), Teacher Loan Forgiveness, and federal IDR plans. You can weigh the pros and cons when determining whether student loan refinancing is right for you.


💡 Quick Tip: Refinancing could be a great choice for working graduates who have higher-interest graduate PLUS loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and/or private loans.

How Do You Calculate Income for an Income-Driven Plan?

The Department of Education considers three different components when calculating a borrower’s income. While this may seem needlessly complicated, it actually benefits borrowers:

Annual Income

Any income that’s taxable counts toward the Education Department’s calculation. That means regular wages, plus interest and dividends from savings and investments, unemployment benefits, etc. On the flip side, any income that isn’t taxed doesn’t count: gifts and inheritances, cash rebates from retailers, child support payments, and so on.

Spouse’s Income

If you and your spouse file a joint tax return, then their income must also be factored in. If you file separately, only your income counts.

Family Size

Your family size is the number of people who live with you and receive more than half their support from you. This includes children but also dependent adults, such as an older parent.

The Takeaway

There are four income-driven repayment plans for federal student loan holders, including IBR, ICR, PAYE, and SAVE. No new PAYE enrollments will occur after July 1, 2024, although current PAYE enrollees can remain on the plan after that date.

Looking to lower your monthly student loan payment? Refinancing may be one way to do it — by extending your loan term, getting a lower interest rate than what you currently have, or both. (Please note that refinancing federal loans makes them ineligible for federal forgiveness and protections. Also, lengthening your loan term may mean paying more in interest over the life of the loan.) SoFi student loan refinancing offers flexible terms that fit your budget.


With SoFi, refinancing is fast, easy, and all online. We offer competitive fixed and variable rates.


SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. Please note that once you refinance federal student loans you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans or extended repayment plans.


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