Each week, we will answer a real question from readers on education costs and how to pay for college. If you have a question, feel free to send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: "How long should I expect to be paying off my student loans? How long does it normally take to be debt-free after college?" - Cynthia, Athens, Ga.
A: The standard repayment term on federal student loans is 10 years. However, borrowers can get an extended repayment plan of up to 30 years by consolidating their loans, depending on the loan balance: 12 years for balances of $7,500 to $10,000; 15 years for $10,000 to $20,000; 20 years for $20,000 to $40,000; 25 years for $40,000 to $60,000; and 30 years for $60,000 or more.
Borrowers in income-based repayment or graduated repayment plans have repayment terms of up to 25 years. Most students who consolidate their loans choose extended repayment instead of standard 10-year repayment because it reduces the size of the monthly payments. Of course, it means you will pay more in interest: Increasing the loan term on an unsubsidized Stafford loan from 10 years to 20 years cuts the monthly payment by a third but more than doubles the interest paid over the life of the loan.
The most common repayment term is 20 years.
Student loans do not have prepayment penalties, so many borrowers end up repaying their loans quicker than the nominal term of the repayment plan. When the remaining loan balance is less than a quarter of the original loan amount when there are two years left, it can be tempting to just pay off the debt. Adding an extra payment at the end of each year is also a good way to get ahead of the loan term.
Whether a borrower accelerates repayment of the debt depends on the amount borrowed and the borrower’s income. Doctors, for example, often end up repaying their loans in 7-10 years because they can devote more of their disposable income to repaying medical school debt. Most Bachelor’s degree recipients end up taking 16-18 years.
You should stick with the shortest repayment term you can afford. This will pay off your debt as quickly as possible and save you thousands of dollars in interest over the life of the loan. After all, do you really want to still be repaying your own student loans when your children enroll in college?
—Mark Kantrowitz is president of MK Consulting Inc. and publisher of theFinAid.org and FastWeb.com. He has testified before Congress about student aid on several occasions and is on the editorial board of the Council on Law in Higher Education.
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