How to Pay Off Student Loans

One thing you never learned in school: how to pay for it. In part two of Real Simple’s get-out-of-debt series, educate yourself on the best ways to reduce, or eliminate, college debt.

  • Vera Gibbons

The most expensive college in the United States—Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York—charges $44,220 a year for tuition. And that doesn’t include fees and room and board, which can cost an additional $14,000. Even more disturbing is that the annual cost of a college education has risen by 130 percent in the past 20 years, according to the College Board. As a result, Americans have racked up about $1 trillion in education debt from both federal and private student and parent loans.

“People are borrowing twice as much as they were a decade ago because grants and scholarships are not keeping up with the escalating costs of college,” says Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb.com, free online financial-aid resources. To wit: Graduates of the class of 2011 have an average of $27,200 in debt, up from about $17,600 in 2001.

If you’re on a tight budget, it may be difficult to steer any additional cash toward education debt. But you should try to pay it off as early as possible; otherwise it might stick around for a decade or more, which could prevent you from saving enough for retirement. Here are five steps to paying off any lingering loans of your own—and to helping your children settle theirs down the road.

5 Smart Debt-Reduction Strategies

1. Pay off variable private loans first. If you or your recent grad has this type of loan—which makes up 15 percent of total U.S. education debt—this may seem like an odd move. After all, the interest rates on variable private loans (given by banks and credit unions) are currently lower than the fixed rates on federally backed and private loans. But historically this situation is unusual, and if the economy improves, interest hikes are probable in the near future. “Rates could climb 5 to 6 percent over the next four years, making your monthly burden unmanageable,” says Kantrowitz. That’s why it’s wise to unload these balances as soon as possible. If you can, pay twice the required amount until you have eliminated this debt and make only the minimum monthly contribution toward your fixed-rate federal loans, since those rates cannot increase.

2. Choose the right federal-student-loan repayment plan. When it comes to Stafford, Perkins, PLUS, and Direct Consolidation loans—which make up 85 percent of education debt—there are five repayment options. They range from the standard plan, which requires a minimum payment of $50 every month for up to 10 years, to the new, income-based plan that caps your monthly payments at a “reasonable percentage” of your income (determined by the federal government)and forgives any debt remaining after 25 years. So which schedule is best for you?

“People often make the mistake of going with the option that has the smallest monthly payment, which causes them to pay thousands more in interest over the loan’s life span,” says Lauren Asher, the president of the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit that works to make college more affordable. Aim to put 10 percent of your gross (that is, pretax) income toward your education debt. Go to studentaid.ed.gov to calculate which repayment plan fits your budget.