I had a conversation with a young man in his early 20’s recently who had just started his first “real job” and was about 60 days from his student loans going out of deferral. He was panicking because there are a whole lot of options to repay student loans today that didn’t exist when I had student loans. (My son would like to add that they also didn’t have electricity or cars when I had student loans.)
Looking at the options in front of him, I could understand his dilemma. I had 2 options when I graduated – a straight 10 year term loan and a “graduated” payment plan that started with small payments and increased every 2 years to a level well above the standard monthly payment. Both of those options still exist today, but there are also many other choices. It is a very tough decision, and it can impact the next 10-20 years of cash flow. This is one of the biggest financial decisions a new graduate will make.
The young man I talked to had about $80,000 in student loan debt and had no idea what to do. So he came in and we talked through some options and did some number crunching. Here are a few of his options, along with some financial highlights:
- As a starting point, the fixed payment over 10 years would be about $925/month. A graduated payment for him would start at a more manageable $530 and eventually rise to $1,593/month. The flat payment costs $111,000 over 10 years while the graduated would require $119,000 over that 10 year window.
- He has the option to do extended term payments, either at a fixed payment or a graduated payment. By extending from 10 years to 25, his fixed payment drops to $555/month but the total payments over the life of the loan increases to $166,000. In the graduated plan, he starts at $453 and increases over time to $793, and the total payments are $180,000. Lesson learned: Extending the payments can help reduce cash outflow for those at the start of their careers, but the total cost of the loan rises substantially! If there’s any way to afford the higher payments by not extending, don’t extend. It’s a very expensive extension.
- A relatively new type of option is an income-based repayment (IBR) plan. These loans are popular because the payment is limited to 15% of the borrower’s “discretionary income.” Discretionary income is defined as the gap between adjusted gross income and 150% of the federal poverty guidelines. For this young man, his IBR payments based on his $50,000 salary would be $400-$900 over the 225 month term of his loan as his income rises. He would pay $155,000 in total, which is more than the 10 year loans but less than the extended term loans. Lesson learned: IBR is the “hot option” right now, but it isn’t always better than a straight standard term loan. Know your numbers and you may see a better option. This could be a much better option for borrowers who hope to grow their income over time than the extended payment plans.
- Another relatively new option is the “Pay as You Earn” repayment plan. It is similar to the IBR but with a few differences. It’s more difficult to qualify for PAYE than IBR but the payments are 10% of discretionary income rather than 15%. Looking at his numbers, his payments would start at $270 and eventually move to $825. After 20 years, he would have paid $121,000 and would have $66,000 forgiven at the end of his term. Lesson learned: This is a tough loan repayment plan to qualify for, but it eases the cash flow and makes the risk of default quite low. Of all the options, this one made the most sense for him. He can qualify for the lower initial payments and he can increase his payments as his income rises. He can also, with a low initial payment, add principal to each payment with the hopes of paying off the loans well in advance of the full term.
When looking at student loan repayment options, know that the world has changed. These options are available through the Department Of Education and there are other newer options out there like www.SoFi.com, where borrowers can refinance without a bank being involved through peer-to-peer lending. This can be a great way for borrowers to get out of high-interest student loans. What I learned during my conversation with him is that the right answer is going to be different for everyone. There is no single “best option.” Factors like current income, expected future income, cash flow constraints and other goals (buying a house or car) should be considered as well as things like affordability today, total interest paid over the loan’s life and total lifetime payments. It’s a complex web of options, but if you understand which factors are most important to you, the right repayment option should become clear once you start analyzing your real numbers. This post was originally published on the Financial Finesse column on Forbes.com.