Contributed by: Melissa Parkins, CFP®
The average 2016 college graduate will have just over $37,000 in student loan debt upon completing their undergraduate degree. If it is a graduate degree they have just earned, the average debt is almost $60,000. When it comes to more specialized degrees such as a master’s degrees, law degrees, or medical degrees, the number dramatically increases (up to $250,000!). These numbers are up 6% from last year. Clearly the questions about student loan debt are not going away. This is a complex topic to understand, and it has big impact on people’s financial situations. Loans are taking longer to pay off and thus more interest is being paid, making them more and more expensive to have. That’s why it is important to understand student loans and know your potential options so you can create an efficient plan for paying them off.
Determine Your Goal
For most, your goal is going to be to minimize the cost of your student loans and pay them off as quickly as possible. However, some may have a goal to maximize federal loan forgiveness if they will qualify. Others may have a goal to free up current cash flow and thus need to find a way to lower monthly payments. Whatever your overall goal is for your student loans, you will need to first get yourself organized, and then create a plan to help get you there.
Make a Student Loan Inventory
Whether you are planning on making changes to your loans or not, it is important to first build an inventory of all of your student loans to keep yourself organized. Your inventory should include information on each individual loan like your current balance, monthly payment, interest rate, remaining term, loan servicer, if it’s private or federal, and if federal, what type of loan and what repayment plan you’ve selected.
For your federal loans, you can utilize the National Student Loan Data System to get all of the necessary information. You will need to create a login if you don’t already have one. Once you are logged in, you can access information regarding all of your federal loans.
For private loans, there is not one single resource that you can use to collect information like the NSLDS for federal loans. Instead, you will need to contact each of your private lenders to obtain the details of your loan and/or request a copy of the Promissory NOTE: If you are unsure who all your lenders are or you just want to double check that you have accounted for all of your loans, you can actually use your credit report to find out. If you didn’t already know, you can download a copy of your credit report from annualcreditreport.com at no cost once a year with each of the 3 credit bureaus. All of your student loans – federal and private – will show up on your credit report. You can then compare the loans from your credit report to the loans on your NSLDS inventory to determine what private loans are currently outstanding.
Know Your Options
You know your goal and you have an inventory of all your student loans with the important details. Now you need to consider what changes to make in order to most efficiently meet your goal.
Federal loans have many different repayment plans that you can choose from, including a few that are based on your current income level. The repayment plans that you are eligible for depend on what type of federal loan you have and when it was taken out. You can switch between repayment plans whenever you want, but you should thoroughly review your situation before doing so because it is not the most straight-forward process and changing plans can impact your loans in some instances. Depending on your goal, however, switching repayment plans may be in your best interest.
Consolidating federal loans will give you a single monthly payment and access to additional repayment plans in some instances. The interest rate on a new consolidation loan is a weighted average of the loans that were consolidated (your interest rate is not lowered). At consolidation, you can select a new term or length of the loan, as well as a new repayment plan option. Consolidating helps to simplify your federal loans and your payments, and it is also a way to restructure your federal loans to be more suited for your personal situation.
Refinancing is something you have probably heard about. It can be a great way to restructure your current loans in a way that is more efficient and better suited to your current financial picture. In many cases, you can get a lower interest rate which can help save significant dollars over the term of your loan. The rate you are approved for is based on your credit score, so the better your credit score, the better interest rate you will qualify for. You can refinance both private and federal loans, but before refinancing federal loans, you need to understand that you are giving up some benefits of federal loans (such as flexible repayment plans, loan forgiveness, and sometimes forbearance protection). Before refinancing, do you research, and look at multiple lenders to compare and find the best deal for your personal situation.
Student loans are very complex. It makes sense to work with a financial planner to help you sort through your options -- we are here to help! Contact us anytime if you would like us to take a look at your personal situation. Also, Join Kali Hassinger and me next week, Thursday, for our webinar “Taking Control of Your Student Loans.” We will be providing more in depth information on types of student loans and their certain characteristics, a few resources to help you organize your loans, and some options that could help you handle your loans more efficiently. We will also be walking you through a case study to show what this all looks like in real life and how getting yourself organized and considering different options could help you pay off your loans quicker and more efficiently!
Melissa Parkins, CFP® is an Associate Financial Planner at Center for Financial Planning, Inc.
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