When it’s time to start repaying your federal student loans, your options can be confusing. It’s not as simple as sending your loan servicer a universally fixed payment or paying whatever you think you can afford. How much you owe each month can vary dramatically depending on how you choose to repay your loans.
The government currently offers eight repayment plans that let you knock out your student loans in as little as 10 years or as many as 30 years. Five of the options take into account how much money you make. Income-driven repayment plans are geared toward making the process affordable for everyone, but each is slightly different.
Choosing the right plan depends on many factors, such as the types of student loans you have, when you took them out, and how much you are making. You can switch plans anytime over the life of your student loans as your circumstances and income change.
Income-driven repayment plans may lower your monthly payment, which can be a lifesaver. But keep in mind that if you lower your monthly payment you might be done by extending the length of the loan. If that is the case, you’re also likely to pay more overall, because the interest adds up over a longer period.
Here’s a roadmap to understanding income-driven repayment and which plan is right for you.
What is an income-driven repayment plan?
An income-driven repayment plan makes your monthly student loan payments affordable by tying them to how much money you earn. These types of student loan repayment plans allow you to take more time repaying your loans than most plans that aren’t tied to your income. Most of them forgive the remainder of your student loans as long as you make the required payments for 20 to 25 years (but keep in mind you may have to pay taxes on the forgiven amount).
Your monthly payment under each plan will change each year depending on your situation. Four of the income-driven plans calculate your monthly student loan payment based on your discretionary income , which is defined as the difference between your annual income and either 100% or 150% of the poverty line .
Your monthly payment is recalculated every year based on your current income, family size, and in one case, the amount of your student loans. (There’s also an income-sensitive repayment plan which bases your payment on gross annual income.) You can figure out how much you’d pay under each plan on the Department of Education’s website .
Types of Income Driven Repayment Plans
Here are five income-based repayment plans that you can choose from:
Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE)
● Your monthly payment is generally 10% of your discretionary income and is recalculated each year.
● Any remaining student loan balance will be forgiven in 20 or 25 years.
● This applies to Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans, Direct PLUS Loans to students, and Direct Consolidation Loans, that don’t include Direct PLUS Loans (Direct or FFEL) taken out by parents.
Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE)
● Your monthly payment is generally up to 10% of your discretionary income, but never more that the 10 year Standard Repayment Plan amount, and is recalculated each year.
● Any remaining student loan balance will be forgiven in 20 years.
● This applies to Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans, Direct PLUS Loans to students and Direct Consolidation Loans that don’t include Direct PLUS Loans (Direct or FFEL) taken out by parents.
Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR)
● Your monthly payment is generally 10% or 15% of your discretionary income, depending on when you became a borrower, but never more that the 10 year Standard Repayment Plan amount. The amount is recalculated each year.
● Any remaining student loan balance will be forgiven in 20 or 25 years.
● This applies to Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans, all PLUS Loans to students, Subsidized and Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans, and Consolidation Loans (Direct or FFEL) that don’t include Direct PLUS Loans take out by parents.
Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR)
● Your monthly payment is whichever is less: 20% of discretionary income or the amount you would pay if you spread your payment evenly over 12 years, adjusted based on income and is recalculated each year.
● Any remaining student loan balance will be forgiven in 25 years.
● This applies to Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans, Direct PLUS Loans to students, and Direct Consolidation Loans.
● This is the only income-based repayment option for parents who took out Direct PLUS loans. They can access this plan by consolidating them into a Direct Consolidation Loan.
Income-Sensitive Repayment Plan
● Your monthly payment is based on your annual income, with the formula varying depending on your lender.
● You have 10 years to repay the loan.
● This applies to Subsidized and Unsubsidized Stafford Loans, FFEL PLUS Loans, and FFEL Consolidation Loans
How to Qualify for Income-driven Repayment
You’re not eligible for an income-driven repayment plan if you’ve defaulted on your student loan. (If you’re in that situation, there are options for getting out of default.
Anyone who has taken out eligible federal student loans can opt in to the REPAYE and ICR plans. To be eligible for the PAYE plan there are additional requirements to qualify. First, you need to be a ‘new borrower’ as of Oct. 1, 2007 and have received a loan disbursement on or after Oct. 1, 2011 You are considered a new borrower if you had no outstanding balance on a Direct Loan or FFEL Program loan on or after Oct. 1, 2007.
In addition, you can only qualify for the PAYE and IBR plans if your monthly payment is lower than what you would pay under the Standard Repayment Plan, which spreads your balance over 10 years. That means you’re generally eligible if your student loan balance represents a major chunk of your annual income or exceeds it.
What student loan repayment options exist besides income-driven repayment?
If you work in public service, you qualify for an even better deal: Public Service Loan Forgiveness . Under the program, you need to make 120 qualifying monthly payments under an income-driven repayment plan, working for a qualified employer and your remaining balance is eligible to be forgiven.
The payments don’t have to be consecutive, but if they are, you could be free of your student loans in 10 years. Some eligible employers include various levels of government, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, even an organization that provides certain public services, such as law enforcement, public interest legal services, the military, public health, and more.
If you’re not in public service and an income-driven repayment isn’t right for you, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with impossibly high payments. One option is to choose the Extended Repayment Plan, which lets you spread your student loans over 25 years and pay a fixed or graduated amount each month.
A second option to consider if you’re having trouble paying your student loans because of a temporary situation (say you went back to school or can’t find a job), is applying for deferment or forbearance . These are short-term solutions may reduce your student loan payments for a limited time.
Another option is consolidating your student loans. Consolidation may give you more time to repay your student loans or lower your interest rate.
A Direct Consolidation Loan from the federal government can also give you access to income-driven repayment programs that you might not have otherwise qualified for based on the student loan you had. (Keep in mind that consolidating your student loans may force you to give up credits you’ve earned toward loan forgiveness.)
Another potential way to save money is student loan refinancing. A private lender maye help consolidating both federal and private student loans to provide a new interest rate based on your credit and current finances. That could substantially reduce the interest you pay on your student loans, but it disqualifies you from federal student loan benefits, such as income-driven repayment and public service forgiveness plans.
Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.