The years of stressing over exams and research papers might be over for college graduates, but there’s still some anxiety to deal with for the 70% who left school with student loan debt: How are you going pay it back?

The average 2016 college graduate owes $37,172 in student loans. Their six-month grace period is over, so it’s time to find an affordable plan that suits their income. The choices are plentiful, but so are the consequences if you make the wrong choice.

The most popular choice – often by default – is called the Standard Repayment Plan. That’s a 10-year program in which borrowers make 120 equal monthly payments. If you don’t enroll in any other plan, you default to the Standard Repayment Plan.

According to LendEDU, a marketplace for student loans, more than 11.2 million borrowers use the Standard Repayment Plan, making it by far the most popular choice (or default) among student borrowers. The second most-popular is the Income Based Repayment Plan, with 3.1 million borrowers.

The Standard Repayment Plan suits a lot of graduates, but if you don’t have a decent-paying job coming out of college, the monthly payments may be too high the first few years out of school. There are plenty of alternatives, but it takes a little research and planning to find the one right for you.

The first step is to create a monthly budget of income and expenses to help find out what you can afford. Subtract the expenses from your income and whatever is left is how much you have available to pay your loans.

It might be a lot if you’re among those receiving the average salary for 2016 graduates of $50,556. It might not be much – or even zero! – if you’re a teacher, whose average starting salary is just $34,891, or worse than that, haven’t found a job yet.

Whatever it is, take that figure and go to the Repayment Estimator at www.studentloans.gov. Fill out the questionnaire and the site will tell you which of the many repayment plans you qualify for and even give you a chart for the monthly payment for each plan.

If you don’t have the time to wander into the maze of choices available on the government site, you can click get student loan help for a small fee, an analysis of your options so you can make the right decision about which repayment program is best for you and your budget.

The federal government offers seven alternatives to the Standard Repayment Plan and divides them into two categories: income-driven repayment plans and basic repayment plans.

Income-Driven Repayment Program Options

If you choose an income-driven repayment plan, you could extend your loan term from 10 years to 20 or even 25 years. The income-driven repayment plans determine your monthly payment by a percentage of your income and size of your family. Your payments will be more manageable month-to-month, but you will end up paying more overall for the loan because of the added years.

There are five types of income-driven repayment plans. These plans best serve those who have a lot of student debt and not a lot of income coming out of college.

  • Pay as you earn
  • Revised pay as you earn
  • Income-based
  • Income-contingent
  • Income-sensitive

It is important to note that you must re-apply for income-driven repayment plans every year. Your payments could go up or down because of a change in income or family size. Income-driven repayment plans do offer loan forgiveness programs if you haven’t paid off your balance by the end of your term.

Go to the Department of Education’s website or contact your loan servicer to enroll in one of these repayment plans.

If you don’t qualify for an income-driven repayment plan, the other options are the Standard Repayment Plan as well as the Graduated and Extended Repayment Plans.

Standard, Graduated and Extended Repayment Plans

The Graduated Plan starts with low payments that increase over time, usually every two years. The increases that occur late in the plan are significant, almost triple what you pay at the start of the plan, so compare them closely.

For example, if you have a $37,000 loan at 4.7% interest, and $50,000 income, your payments would start at $219 per month and end at $658. Your total payment after 10 years will be $49,080, almost $2,500 more than the total payout in the Standard Repayment Plan.

The Extended Repayment Plan, as the name suggests, extends your term up to 25 years in fixed or graduated monthly payments. Beware the interest paid in this program. It will be substantial!

In the same loan situation—$37,000 borrowed, 4.7% interest and a $50,000 income—the payments will be $211 a month for 25 years.  Your total repayment is $63,257 or about 35% more than you would pay on the SRP.

In some cases, you could try online lenders such as SoFi, Collegeave or Earnest, and find a lower interest rate. However, you will need a steady job and a really good credit score to qualify for their lowest rates.

You also could choose to consolidate your federal education loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan. All of your loans will be bundled into one loan at a lower monthly payment with a term up to 30 years.

If you are truly overwhelmed, you could have your student debt forgiven by enrolling in an approved area of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The PSLF program requires that you serve five years as a teach or 10 years in public service. You must stay current on monthly payments throughout your time in the program to get loan forgiveness.

To qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, you must work for the government at some level (federal, state, local, tribal) or for a not-for-profit organization that is tax-exempt. This includes working as a teacher, police officer, firefighter or a health care employee at a nonprofit hospital.

To qualify for Teacher Loan Forgiveness, you must teach full-time for five years at a school that serves low-income families. There are other qualifications you must meet, but you could have up to $17,500 of student loan debt forgiven.


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