Refinancing Student Loans vs Income Driven Repayment Plans

By Melissa Brock · December 08, 2022 · 8 minute read

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Refinancing Student Loans vs Income Driven Repayment Plans

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

If you’re having trouble making your student loan payments or just want to know if you can make a change to your payments, it’s worth looking into the options, such as refinancing student loans or an income-driven repayment plan.

Student loan refinancing is available for both private and federal student loans, while income-driven repayment plans are an option only for federal student loans. Proposed changes to income-driven repayment would lower monthly payments and curtail interest accrual, making the plans a better deal for borrowers. Here’s what to know about both options as well as the pros and cons of each.

What Is Student Loan Refinancing?

When you refinance a student loan, a private lender pays off your student loans and gives you a new loan with new terms. For example, the interest rate and/or the loan term may change. You can’t refinance loans through the federal government, however. You can only refinance federal student loans (or private student loans) through a private lender.

If you’re a graduate with high-interest Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Graduate PLUS loans, and/or private loans, a refinance can change how quickly you pay off your loans and/or the amount you pay each month.

Recommended: How Do Student Loans Work? Guide to Student Loans

Pros of Student Loan Refinancing

When considering refinancing your student loans, there are several benefits. You can:

•   Lower your monthly payments: Lowering your monthly payment means you can save money or spend more in other areas of your life instead of putting that cash toward paying student loans. (Depending on the length of the loan term, however, you may end up paying more in total interest.)

•   Get a lower interest rate than your federal student loan interest rates: This can result in paying less interest over the life of the loan (as long as you don’t extend your loan to a longer term). A student loan refinance calculator can show you the interest rate you qualify for.

•   Decrease your debt-to-income ratio (DTI): Your DTI compares your debt payments to your income. So if you lower your monthly payments, you could be lowering your DTI ratio — and a lower DTI can help when applying for a mortgage or other type of loan.

•   Remove a cosigner. Many borrowers who took out undergraduate loans did so with a parent or other cosigner. Refinancing without a cosigner allows you to regain some financial independence and privacy, provided you have a strong credit history.

Recommended: What’s the Average Student Loan Interest Rate?

Cons of Student Loan Refinancing

That said, refinancing federal loans can have some drawbacks as well. They include:

•   No longer being able to take advantage of federal forbearance: When you refinance your student loans through a private lender, you no longer qualify for federal student loan forbearance, such as the Covid-19-related payment holiday. However, it’s worth noting that some private lenders offer their own benefits and protections after you refinance.

•   No longer being able to tap into income-driven repayment plans, forgiveness programs, or other federal benefits: Refinancing federal student loans means replacing them with private loans — and forfeiting the protections and programs that come with them.

•   Possibly seeing your credit score get dinged: Your lender may do a hard credit history inquiry (or pull), which can affect your credit score.

For a deeper dive into the topic, check out our Student Loan Refinancing Guide.

What Are Income Driven Repayment Plans?

Put simply, income-driven repayment plans are plans that base your monthly payment amount on what you can afford to pay. Under the Standard Repayment Plan, you’ll pay fixed monthly payments of at least $50 per month for up to 10 years. On the other hand, an income-driven repayment plan considers your income and family size and allows you to pay accordingly based on those factors — for longer than 10 years and with smaller loan payments. Income-driven repayment plans are based on a percentage of your discretionary income.

You can only use an income-driven repayment plan for federal student loans. If you qualify, you could take advantage of four types of income-driven repayment plans:

•   Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE Plan): You typically pay 10% of your discretionary income over the course of 20 years (for loans for undergraduate study) or 25 years (for loans for graduate or professional school).

•   Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE Plan): You typically pay 10% of your discretionary income but not more than the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan amount over the course of 20 years.

•   Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR Plan): As a new borrower, you typically pay 10% of your discretionary but never more than the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan amount over the course of 20 years. If you’re not a new borrower, you’ll pay 15% of your discretionary income but never more than the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan amount over the course of 25 years.

•   Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR Plan): As a new borrower, you typically pay the lesser of the two: 20% of your discretionary income or a fixed payment over the course of 12 years, adjusted according to your income over the course of 25 years.

In August 2022, President Biden proposed changes to some income-driven repayment programs as part of his forgiveness plan. Payments for undergraduate borrowers would be reduced to 5% of discretionary income, and the loan term would be extended to 20 years (10 years for original loan balances less than $12,000). For more details, check out our Guide to Student Loan Forgiveness.

How do you know which option fits your needs? Your loan servicer can give you a rundown of the program that may fit your circumstances. You must apply for an income-driven repayment plan through a free application from the U.S. Department of Education.

Note: Every income-driven plan payment counts toward the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). So if you qualify for this program, you may want to choose the plan that offers you the smallest payment.

Recommended: How Is Income-Based Repayment Calculated?

Pros of Income Driven Repayment Plans

The benefits of income-driven repayment plans include the following:

•   Affordable student loan payments: If you can’t make your loan payments under the Standard Repayment Plan, an income-driven repayment plan allows you to make a lower monthly loan payment.

•   Potential for forgiveness: Making payments through an income-driven repayment plan and working through loan forgiveness under the PSLF program means you may qualify for forgiveness of your remaining loan balance after you’ve made 10 years of qualifying payments instead of 20 or 25 years.

•   Won’t affect your credit score: This may be one question you’re wondering, whether income-based repayment affects your credit score? The answer is: no. Since you’re not changing your total loan balance or opening another credit account, lenders have no reason to check your credit score.

Cons of Income Driven Repayment Plans

Now, let’s take a look at the potential downsides to income-driven repayment plans:

•   Payment could change later: The Department of Education asks you to recertify your annual income and family size for payment, which is recalculated every 12 months. If your income changes, your payments would also change.

•   Balance may increase: If your monthly payment ends up being lower than the interest accrued, the remaining interest could be added to your overall loan balance. However, new regulations would suspend excess interest accrual when monthly payments do not cover all accruing interest.

•   There are many eligibility factors: Your eligibility could be affected by several things, including when your loans were disbursed, your marital status, year-to-year changing income, and more.

Refinancing vs Income Driven Repayment Plans

Here are the factors related to refinancing and income-driven repayment plans in a side-by-side comparison.


Income-Driven Repayment Plan

Lowers your monthly payments Possibly Possibly
Changes your loan term Possibly Yes
Increases your balance Possibly Possibly
Is eventually forgiven if you still haven’t paid off your loan after the repayment term No Yes
Requires an application Yes Yes
Requires yearly repayment calculations No Yes

Choosing What Is Right for You

When you’re considering whether to refinance or choose an income-driven repayment plan, it’s important to take into account the interest you’ll be paying over time. It could be that you will pay more interest because you lengthened your loan term. If that’s the case, just make sure you are comfortable with this before making any changes. Many people who refinance their student loans do so because they want to decrease the amount of interest they pay over time — and many want to pay off their loans sooner.

That said, if you’re wondering whether you should refinance your federal student loans, you’ll also want to make sure you are comfortable forfeiting your access to federal student loan benefits and protections.

Refinancing Student Loans With SoFi

Refinancing your student loans with SoFi means getting a competitive interest rate. You can choose between a fixed or variable rate — and you won’t pay origination fees or prepayment penalties.

Find out if you pre-qualify to refinance your student loans with SoFi in just a few minutes.


Is income-contingent repayment a good idea?

Right now, the federal government has put a hold on federal student loan repayment. However, once the payment pause expires, it might be a good idea for the right situation, particularly if you have a low income or are unemployed. Having trouble making your student loan payments and already “using up” options for unemployment deferment or economic hardship could make income-contingent repayment worth it.

You may defer payments if you receive public assistance, serve in the Peace Corps, make less than minimum wage or fit into the poverty guidelines. If you can’t find employment at all, you may defer payments for up to three years.

What are the disadvantages of income based repayment?

The biggest disadvantage of income-based repayment is that you stretch out your loan term from the standard repayment plan of 10 years to longer — up to 25 years. This means that more interest will accrue on your loans and you could end up paying more on your loan before your loan term ends.

Does income based repayment get forgiven?

Yes! Making payments through an income-driven repayment plan as well as working toward forgiveness through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program means that after 10 years of qualifying payments, you could get any remaining loan balance forgiven, instead of after 20 or 25 years.

Photo credit: iStock/m-imagephotography

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Student Loan Refinancing
If you are a federal student loan borrower you should take time now to prepare for your payments to restart, including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. (You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.) 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, such as the SAVE Plan, or extended repayment plans.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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