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Student Loan Debt: Choosing The Right Repayment Plan For Your Lifestyle

 Repaying student loans is more complicated than ever before. And given that no two borrowers share the exact same incomes, life goals and family situations, it can be difficult to determine which path is best.

Most borrowers of federal student loans are enrolled in a standard repayment plan with fixed monthly payments over 10 years. But there are different repayment options.

Borrowers’ lifestyles are one of the most important factors when it comes to deciding the best repayment options for them, according to Sarah Hamilton, Student Loan Supervisor with Take Charge America, a nonprofit financial education and counseling service.

“Your entry-level borrower might have low debt, but they also have low income versus somebody who went to school to become a doctor or a dentist, so it’s definitely in a borrower’s best interest to really take a look at all of their options and determine the best one that fits their needs at that time" said Hamilton. If life happens and things change, you can always elect a different program," Hamilton said.

Hamilton says it’s critical for borrowers to seek objective advice from a credible financial counseling agency before choosing repayment terms. 

Repayment options include:

Standard Repayment

If you took out federal loans, you’ll automatically be enrolled in the Standard plan, which requires fixed monthly payments over 10 years. If you can afford it, it’s your best option for paying down your loans and saving on interest.

Income-Based Repayment (IBR)

Monthly payments are determined by your income and family size, and are capped at 10-15 percent of a borrower’s discretionary income. It’s a good option if you’re struggling with Standard payments or have high debt relative to your income.

Pay As You Earn (PAYE) & Revised Pay As You Earn

These plans offer two of the lowest monthly payment amounts of all repayment options. Payments are set at 10 percent of discretionary income and may increase or decrease each year based on income, family size, tax filing status and state of residence. Balances are forgiven after 20 or 25 years. Both options require annual recertification, which can impact the monthly payment as well.

Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)

Monthly payments are calculated at 20 percent of your discretionary income or the payment amount on a 12-year fixed repayment plan — whichever is lower. It’s easier to qualify for this program since there’s no income eligibility requirement, but ICR payments may end up being higher than the Standard plan.

Direct Consolidation

These loans combine multiple federal loans and offer a fixed interest rate based on the weighted average of the interest rates of the loans you’re consolidating, which could save you money and simplify the repayment process. However, it will also extend the repayment terms.

Graduated Repayment

With this program, payments start lower and increase over time, and have a 10-year term. It’s a good option if you expect your salary to climb as you progress in your career. Though this plan isn’t usually the best option compared to income-driven programs, it might be the right fit for you — especially if you don’t want the hassle of reapplying for an income-driven plan yearly. You can also consolidate and extend the terms up to 30 years.

Extended Repayment

The term of this loan design is extended to 25 years, meaning monthly payments are lower. It’s an attractive option if you can’t afford the payments on the Standard plan — but you’ll pay more in interest over time.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

You may be eligible for this program if you work a full-time public service job with the government, military, public schools or 501(c)3 nonprofits. It can forgive any balances on federal loans after 120 qualifying payments.

Tom Maxedon is the host of KJZZ’s Weekend Edition on Saturday and Sunday from 6-10 a.m. and All Things Considered on Monday from 3-6 p.m.