If you have multiple student loans, all with different loan balances, interest rates, and lenders, it can feel overwhelming to manage. Should you pay just your minimum monthly payments, or should you pay extra when you can? Which loan should you pay off first? How do you prioritize?
Here are some general rules to consider.
Private Student Loans Before Federal
On the whole, federal student loans have a lot more repayment options and many more consumer protections compared to private loans. Federal loans have discharges available due to death or disability; there is a right to cure federal student loan default; and federal loans typically have flexible repayment options, including income-driven repayment. Private student loans typically don’t have these options or protections. So even if the interest rates on your federal student loans are relatively high, it still might make more sense to pay off your private loans first. You never know what could happen in the future, or when you might need those federal student loan protections.
High-Interest Loans Before Low-Interest
That said, interest rates do, of course, matter. Let’s take three student loans, each at $20,000, with two of them at a 3% interest rate and one of them at an 8% interest rate. Let’s say they are on a 10-year repayment term. If you pay off the high-interest loan in five years instead of 10, you could save approximately $4,000 in total interest payments. If you then re-allocate extra payments towards the remaining two loans once the higher-interest loan is paid off, you would save even more money in total. So knocking out those high-interest loans as soon as possible can have a very real, measurable benefit.
Small Balance Loans Before Large Balances
Another approach is to target your lowest balance loans for targeted payoff, and then move on up to the next-lowest balance. This can free up extra cash, since once you eliminate one of your student loans, there’s no longer a monthly payment associated with it. You can then use that extra money towards your next-lowest balance loan, thus creating a kind of snowball effect. You may also derive some psychological satisfaction from paying off one of your loans quickly (however small it is), which can provide you with the motivation to keep on going. That type of psychological boost is not something to ignore.
Refinance Your Private Student Loans
Lowering your interest rates can make a big difference, and refinancing can help you do that. For example, let’s take a $37,000 loan, the average undergraduate student loan debt for 2016. At an interest rate of 7%, you’ll pay nearly $14,000 in interest over 10 years, and your monthly payment would be approximately $430/month. But at an interest rate of 4%, you’ll pay $8,000 in interest over the same period, and your monthly payments would be approximately $375/month. That’s a huge savings, both in terms of the monthly payment and the total amount paid over time.
However, while refinancing high-interest private student loans can be very beneficial (as long as the new loan terms are at least good as the original terms), refinancing federal loans is far more risky, since you’d be forever walking away from the consumer protections and programmatic benefits of the federal student loan system by effectively converting your federal loan into a private loan. So be careful.
Maximize Options for Federal Student Loans
Is paying off your federal student loans the smartest financial decision? Sometimes, but not always. If you are eligible for profession-based loan forgiveness programs like Perkins loan cancellation or Public Service Loan Forgiveness, you could save a substantial amount of money by not paying off your loans in full. Alternatively, you could make your loan repayment more effective or efficient by changing your repayment approach – such as by getting on a different repayment plan (there are about a dozen different federal student loan repayment options), or by consolidating some or all of your federal loans through the federal Direct consolidation program. This of course is a case-by-case analysis, and everyone’s situation is different. Before deciding how to approach your federal student loan repayment, figure out what your options are, and determine which programs could impact your decisions.