Considering the over trillion-dollar student debt-load carried by millions of graduates in the U.S., it’s not exactly a surprise that many are exploring options for what their repayment journey will look like. For those looking for a lower monthly payment, a common option is income-driven student loan repayment.
For some students, an income-driven repayment plan, could be the best available choice. For example, this may be the correct course of action for those planning on having their loans forgiven through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
Other times, this might not be the best or most affordable option over the long run, even for those looking for a lower overall monthly payment. That’s because lowering your payments often means extending your repayment timeline, which could mean paying more interest over the life of the loan.
It can be hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison of the two common options (a student loan income-driven repayment plan via the federal government and a student loan refinance from a private lender). That’s simply because what a borrower might pay on an income-driven repayment plan varies from person to person. However, it is still possible to make an informed decision about which makes more sense for your financial and personal situation and money goals.
The first step is gaining a thorough understanding of both common options. Then, you can make an informed decision about which is a better fit to your life and goals. Below, we’ll look at some pros and cons of both.
Income-Driven Student Loan Repayment
To understand income-driven repayment plans, it helps to first wrap your head around a standard repayment plan. Most people who take out a federal student loan or loans are opted into a repayment plan parsed out over 10 years. But standard repayment might not be the best option for everybody, because those carrying high debt balances may have a sky-high monthly payment.
The federal government also offers four income-driven repayment (IDR) plans, which are need-based options where monthly payments correspond to your income. Depending on your income, and by stretching these payments out over as many as 20 or 25 years, monthly payments could be quite minimal compared to the standard 10-year repayment plan.
You may have already caught onto this, but a student loan income-driven repayment plan is only offered on federal student loans. Federal loans typically offer more flexibility in repayment than private loans, which are procured from a bank, credit union, or other lender.
If you are looking for some respite from your monthly payments on private loans, you’ll have to speak with each lender to see whether they can work with you. (That, or you can consider refinancing, which we’ll discuss below.)
While choosing one of these plans may help to lower monthly payments, they generally will not lessen how much you pay over time. Spreading your loan out over 20 or 25 years could actually increase how much you pay in interest.
Why does this happen? Because with a low monthly payment, the borrower might not be chipping away at much of the loan’s principal, on top of which interest payments are calculated. Even worse, if payments are too low they might not even cover the entire interest charge for the month, which means that interest is added to the balance of the loan (is capitalized).
Because your monthly payment amount is contingent on your income, your income and corresponding payments will be reassessed each year. This means that your monthly payments will likely fluctuate over time.
Loans on an income-driven repayment plans are often forgiven at the end of the 20 or 25-year repayment period. But, under the income-driven repayment plans, any amount that is forgiven will be taxed as ordinary income in the year that the loan is forgiven. For many graduates, this is a harsh realization in the year that the loans are forgiven, especially if the loan has grown in size over time due to capitalized interest.
Any person considering one of these plans in order to have their loans forgiven will want to seriously consider the implications of a hefty tax bill. You should consider how you will be prepared to pay this bill. Will you save extra each month for taxes, in addition to your monthly student loan payment? These are all questions that you may want to research on your own, and potentially discuss with your loan servicer or a financial advisor.
Refinancing Student Loans
People with a student loan or multiple loans, especially loans with higher rates of interest, could consider refinancing instead. With refinancing, the new lender will pay off a borrower’s old loans with a new one.
Depending on the lender, this can be done with both federal or private loans. Generally, the bank or lender evaluates a potential borrower’s financial situation to see if they qualify for a better interest rate. At this point, the potential borrower can also look at options for lengthening or shortening the repayment timeline. This is typically called “changing the terms” of your loan.
Let’s talk about what it means to change the terms of a student loan. In an ideal world, you’re either keeping the same term (or even shortening the term), and when combined with a (hopefully) better rate of interest, you’ll likely save some money on interest. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. You could also extend the length of the loan, remove cosigners, change from a variable rate to a fixed rate, and so on.
Why might one extend the life of their loan via refinancing? Usually, a borrower would do this to get lower monthly payments than they have on a standard, 10-year repayment plan. To be clear, this could cost a borrower more over time even if the loan is refinanced to a lower rate. That said, for some borrowers it still may be a better option than switching to an income-driven repayment plan.
Of course, you’ll want to do a side-by-side comparison of both options, although that’s not a particularly easy task considering that you can’t really predict how much you’ll pay on an income-driven repayment plan over the duration of a student loan, because it varies depending on your income each year.
And with a 20-year fixed-payment refinanced loan, you’re actually paying off the entire balance of the loan. This means you won’t have any part of the loans forgiven, which saves you from a potentially high tax bill .
Something else to consider: When you do a 20-year refinance that allows you to pay extra toward your loans without penalty, you can pay your student loans back faster than the 20-year period. For example, you could potentially pay a 20-year loan back in 10 years by making extra payments, all while keeping the flexibility of the resulting lower monthly payment.
Every lender has their own criteria for determining whether someone qualifies for particular types of loan and at what rates, but it’s usually based on credit score and history and your income (and may include other factors).
When is refinancing not a good idea? Basically, if you are ever planning to use one of the federal loan repayment or forgiveness options, like Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Because refinancing is the process of paying off loans with a private loan, refinancing federal loans with a private lender means you won’t have access to these federal repayment programs anymore.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to make an informed decision about which of the two options is best for you and your financial situation. Good luck in your journey and in paying back your student loans!
The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
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.
This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice about bankruptcy.