More than a quarter (26%) of all American adults have student-loan debt. Many of those people (28%) never finished earning a degree. Among young people who did recently complete their degree, more than two-thirds (70%) have loans to repay, averaging an estimated $37,000 per borrower, according to an analysis of government data by Edvisors.
Student-loan debt has become so burdensome that more than 4 out of 10 federal student-loan holders either aren’t current on their payments or have stopped making them altogether, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Those who have stopped making payments risk having their wages garnished or tax refunds withheld by Uncle Sam. Among those making payments on time, the burden of carrying debt is leading many to put off getting married, having children, and buying homes.
Options for payment relief include loan consolidation and refinancing. Here are the pros, cons, and some next steps to further explore each option.
Student-loan borrowers with multiple federal loans are eligible to consolidate them into one loan. (Private loans can’t be consolidated into a federal loan, but may be refinanced as a single private loan, as described later in this article.) There is no fee for consolidating, nor do you have to go through underwriting to qualify. You can even include a loan that’s in default in the consolidation as long as you have a new repayment agreement with your loan servicer.
The new fixed-interest rate will be a weighted average of the loans being consolidated. To estimate what your new interest rate and monthly payment may be, gather information about your federal loans and then enter them in an online calculator.
It used to be that federal loans came with a variable interest rate. Consolidating offered the benefit of switching to a fixed and possibly lower rate. However, now that federal loans are all fixed-rate loans, the primary benefit to consolidation is the simplicity of having just one loan to track and make payments on.
While you’re unlikely to gain interest-rate relief by consolidating your loans via the federal program, your monthly payment may well be lower. That’s because consolidating will reset your payoff clock. In fact, you may have the option of extending what was originally a 10-year loan all the way out to 30 years.
That will lower your monthly payment, but it’ll also cost more in total interest by the time the new loan is paid off. However, there are no pre-payment penalties. So, a consolidation loan with a longer payoff timeline may give you the breathing room you need in your monthly budget right now, while giving you the flexibility to make accelerated payments when your financial condition improves.
Here’s one more factor to consider. By turning multiple federal government loans into one consolidated federal government loan, you will continue to have access to several programs unique to the federal student-loan program, such as alternate (income-based) repayment, loan forgiveness, and deferment or forbearance plans. Such plans may be beneficial should you lose your job, suffer an economic hardship, or decide to go back to school. In fact, consolidation may even help you qualify for some of these plans since they are based on your loan balance, which would become higher when you consolidate several loans into one.
You can learn more about loan consolidation and apply at the U.S. Department of Education’s web site.
Another option is to refinance your debt with a private (non-government) loan. You can turn government loans, private loans, or a combination of both, into a single private loan. There are three key factors to consider.
First, whereas many government loans are not based on your financial condition, private loans are. So, whether you qualify — and if so, at what rate — is determined in large part by your income, employment history, how much other debt you have, your credit score, and more. If you have especially high interest rates on your current loans and an especially strong credit score, you may be able to get a lower refinancing rate than the rate you’d get with a federal consolidation loan.
Second, if you turn a federal loan into a private loan, you’ll lose access to the government’s alternate repayment, loan forgiveness, and deferment or forbearance plans. This is the biggest downside to using a private lender.
Third, with a private loan, you will be offered your choice of a fixed- or variable-interest rate. While the variable rate may look appealing, that may end up costing you more over the course of a long-term loan since today’s extremely low rates could easily rise in the future. Also, refinancing your student debt with a private loan may require a loan “origination” fee, so be sure to ask about that and any other fees.
To further explore refinancing your student loans, contact two or three private lenders to find out more about their terms.
Whether you’re considering loan consolidation or refinancing, weigh your options carefully. Once you choose either one, there’s no going back.