What Increases Your Total Loan Balance?

By Rebecca Safier · March 19, 2024 · 9 minute read

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What Increases Your Total Loan Balance?

If you have student loans, you may sometimes see the total loan balance go up, thanks to such factors as your interest rate, your repayment term, or loan fees.

Whether your student loans are in a period of deferment or you’ve diligently been making payments every month, it can definitely be frustrating to see your balance increase instead of go down. Having student debt can be stressful enough without feeling as if it’s growing vs. being paid off.

For information and support in this situation, read on. You’ll learn more about this scenario, including:

•   Why can your student loan balance increase?

•   What factors contribute to a student loan balance increasing?

•   How can you reduce your loan total?

•   What repayment options could help?

Understanding Loan Balances

Here’s one of the basics of student loans: When you first take out a loan, your loan balance is the amount you borrowed. However, that loan balance can increase or decrease depending on your payments, interest charges, and fees.

Some factors that can affect your loan balance include:

•   Loan principal: This is the amount you originally borrowed. If you took out a $25,000 student loan to pay for school, your principal amount is $25,000.

•   Interest rate: Interest is the cost of borrowing money and can be part of what you owe on your student loan balance. Federal Direct loans for undergraduates currently have fixed interest rates of 5.50%, while Direct Unsubsidized Loans for graduate students have a fixed rate of 7.05%. Direct PLUS loans have a rate of 8.05%.

The rates on private student loans vary, but they may currently range from around 4% to 16%, depending on your credit, the lender you choose, and when you borrowed. Private student loan rates may be fixed or variable. If your rates are variable, meaning they fluctuate with market conditions, it can be extremely challenging to predict exactly how your loan balance will change over time.

•   Annual percentage rate (APR): You typically see this term attached to private student loans, rather than federal loans. It’s a more inclusive measure than interest rate alone, since it includes interest, fees, and other charges. This also is a way of gauging how much you will pay for your student loans.

•   Fees: Some loan fees that could impact your student loan balance include disbursement fees, origination fees, and late payment fees. These charges can contribute to your loan balance.

When you sign into your student loan account, your loan balance is the total amount you currently owe on your loan.

💡 Quick Tip: Get flexible terms and competitive rates when you refinance your student loan with SoFi.

Factors that Contribute to Increased Loan Balances

Whether you’re in a period of deferment or active repayment, you probably don’t expect your student loan balance to be increasing over time. Unfortunately, there are various factors that can cause your federal student loan balance to go up, including the following:

•   Interest charges: Most student loans come with a grace period, meaning you don’t have to make payments while you’re in school or for six months or so after you graduate. However, most loans, with the exception of Direct Subsidized Loans, start accruing interest right away from the date of disbursement. If you borrowed as a freshman in college and deferred payments the whole time you were in school, your loan balance could significantly increase after four and a half years of non-payment.

•   Loan fees: Student loan fees can also increase your balance. For instance:

◦   Federal student loans come with loan fees of 1.057% or 4.228%, depending on your loan type.

◦   Some private lenders charge such fees as origination fees.

◦   You might also rack up fees if you make late payments or get charged for non-sufficient funds in your bank account. Student loans that go into default can also incur a significant amount in collections fees.

•   Deferment and forbearance: You may postpone payments through deferment or forbearance if you go back to school, encounter financial hardship, or have another qualifying reason. Most loans accrue interest during this time, causing your loan balance to grow. The only exception is Direct Subsidized Loans, which don’t accrue interest during periods of deferment.

•   Interest capitalization: In some circumstances, interest charges capitalize, or get added onto, your principal balance. For example, interest can capitalize on federal student loans if you consolidate them with a Direct Consolidation Loan. Then, you’ll end up paying interest on top of interest, resulting in higher borrowing costs.

•   Repayment plan: If you stay on the standard 10-year plan, you should see your balance go down as you make payments. However, income-driven plans base your monthly payment on your income, not on what will pay your balance off within a certain timeframe. If your monthly payments are low, you could see your balance increase over time (this is known as negative amortization). Note that IDR plans eventually offer loan forgiveness if you still have a balance after 20 or 25 years.

•   Insufficient monthly payments: If you pay a lower amount than your required monthly payments, you’ll also see your balance increase. Plus, you could be subject to late fees, and your loan may go into delinquency and, eventually, default.

Strategies for Managing and Reducing Loan Balances

Student loans are a phase you’re going through, so try not to let them weigh too heavily on you. They are akin to having a mortgage or car loan; you will get out from under this kind of debt.

Now that you’ve learned what increases your total loan balance, consider these strategies for reducing it.

•   Pay on time: Making your monthly payments on time will help you avoid late fees and penalties.

•   Use autopay: By setting up automatic payments from your bank account, you’ll be less likely to miss a payment. Many lenders also offer a 0.25% rate discount for using autopay.

•   Stay on the standard plan, if possible: If you have federal student loans, sticking with the standard 10-year plan will help you pay off your balance in 10 years, assuming you don’t use deferment or forbearance during that time.

•   Make extra payments: Throwing extra payments toward your loan balance, whether on a one-off or monthly basis, can help you pay it down faster and save money on interest.

•   Pursue loan forgiveness: A loan forgiveness program like Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) or Teacher Loan Forgiveness can help discharge all or part of your student loan balance at once.

Here are some other strategies that may not reduce your federal student loan balance, but could help you manage it better:

•   Apply for income-driven repayment: IDR plans can reduce the money you pay toward student loans each month. Plus, the new SAVE Plan (which replaces the REPAYE Plan) comes with an interest subsidy, meaning the government will cover any unpaid interest charges from month to month.

Paying your federal loans on an IDR plan is also required to qualify for PSLF.

•   Consolidate your loans: Consolidating your loans with a Direct Consolidation Loan can simplify repayment, especially if you owe multiple loans with different due dates to different servicers. Watch out for interest capitalization, though.

•   Refinance your student loans: If you have good credit (or a creditworthy cosigner), you might consider refinancing student loans for a better interest rate and new repayment terms. Some potential advantages of refinancing student loans can include lowering your monthly payment, saving money over the life of the loan, and/or paying off your balance faster.

However, it’s important to note the following: Refinancing federal loans with private ones means you forfeit access to federal benefits and protections, including forgiveness programs. Also, if you refinance for an extended term, you may pay more interest over the life of the loan. For these reasons, refinancing student loans requires careful thought to decide if this is the right next step for you.

💡 Quick Tip: Federal parent PLUS loans might be a good candidate for refinancing to a lower rate.

Long-Term Financial Impact of Growing Loan Balances

A growing student loan balance is not only stressful, but it can also harm your overall financial health.

The amount of debt you owe, for example, makes up 30% of your FICO® credit score. Owing a sizable amount of debt can drag down your score, making it difficult to qualify for new loans or credit cards or get affordable rates. Plus, a high debt load increases your debt-to-income ratio (or DTI), which lenders prefer you to keep under 36%.

To avoid escalating balances, it’s important to develop a repayment plan for your student loans. Take a look at your budget, and review the various repayment plans available to you. Consider what steps you can take to manage your student loan balance and minimize its impact on your daily life as well.

Tips for Preventing Loan Balance Increases

To prevent your loan balance from increasing, make sure you understand the terms and conditions of your loans. If your loan accrues interest right away, consider making full or interest-only payments while you’re in school to prevent your balance from rising during your grace period.

Make a budget and check in with your finances often, so you can choose a repayment approach that works for you. If you haven’t borrowed yet, consider the full array of financing options to reduce your reliance on student loans.

For example, applying for grants and scholarships, accessing a federal Work-Study or other job, or choosing a school with lower tuition costs could help you keep student loan borrowing to a minimum.

Navigating Loan Repayment Options

If you borrowed one of the various types of federal student loans, you have a variety of repayment plans at your fingertips, which can prove helpful when eliminating your loans. These include:

•   Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) Plans, which adjust your monthly payments to a percentage of your discretionary income and eventually provide loan forgiveness

•   Standard Repayment Plan, which involves fixed payments over 10 years

•   Graduated Repayment Plan, which requires lower payments at first that increase over time

•   Extended Repayment Plan, which spans 25 years

You may also qualify for loan forgiveness or repayment assistance if you work in public service. (Postponing loans through deferment or forbearance is an option during financial hardship, though both can cause your loan balance to increase.)

Private student loans don’t come with as many repayment plan options, but your lender may be willing to modify payments if you’re struggling to make your monthly payments. Private loans also aren’t eligible for federal forgiveness, though some states and private organizations offer repayment assistance if you work in a certain field or area.

In addition, it can be valuable to get qualified, reputable credit counseling if you are struggling to pay private student loans. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides more information on this kind of credit counseling .)

Before picking a repayment plan, make sure you understand how it will impact your loan balance and overall costs. A longer plan can reduce your monthly payments, as noted above, but it tends to increase the amount of interest you pay over the loan’s term.

Recommended: Private Student Loan Guide

The Takeaway

Student loan debt, as many Americans know, can be stressful, and seeing your loan balance rise can add to this situation. Understanding what increases your student loan balance (such as your interest rate, loan fees, and repayment plan) can help you avoid paying more than you need to on your debt.

Everyone’s situation is unique, so consider your budget, financial goals, and any plans for loan forgiveness when choosing a repayment strategy that works for you. You may find that changing your federal loan repayment plan or refinancing your existing loans can help you better manage your student loan debt.

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.

Photo credit: iStock/:Olemedia

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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Non affiliation: SoFi isn’t affiliated with any of the companies highlighted in this article.

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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