How long you’ll be paying off your student loans depends on the payment plan that you choose or have chosen, but the standard repayment plan for federal student loans is 10 years.
Of course, you’re free to pay ahead on federal student loans such as Direct Loans and Stafford Loans without penalty, so you can significantly reduce that time if you have the available cash flow.
There is also a 10-year standard repayment plan available when you consolidate any of your federal loans into a direct consolidation loan. You also can extend the repayment period for a direct consolidation loan up to 30 years.
By opting for the standard 10-year repayment plan, you are giving yourself the highest monthly payment, but you’re also paying off your debt with the least amount of interest. Using a standard repayment plan is the fast track for paying down your debt. And if you can afford it, it’s certainly a great way to go. Paying ahead on your debt when you have extra cash will shorten your repayment time even further (make sure that when you pay extra, you specify that it is meant to be applied to the principal).
Other Repayment Options
Several repayment plans that take into consideration a borrower’s income are also available. These plans include graduated plans, income-based plans, income-contingent plans, income-sensitive plans and pay as you earn plans.
Under the graduated plan, your monthly payments begin low and increase every two years and your repayment plan lasts up to 10 years.
With the income-based repayment plan, your monthly payment amount may increase or decrease each year based on your income and family size, and your payments are made over a period of 25 years. To qualify for an income-based repayment plan, you must show a partial financial hardship.
With the pay as you earn plan, your monthly payments are also based on income and family size, and you pay off your student loans over a period of 20 years. According to StudentAid.gov, this plan usually gives borrowers the lowest monthly payment amount of any repayment plan based on income.
If you’d like a repayment plan that gives you a break based on your income on your Direct Loans, another plan to look at is an income-contingent plan. This plan allows you to make payments for up to 25 years.
The income-sensitive repayment plan is available to low-income borrowers who have Federal Family Education Loans to repay. Direct Loans cannot be repaid through this payment plan, which lasts for up to 10 years.
Whichever plan you choose, it’s important to make sure you continue to make your student loan payments on time and as agreed. Your payment history is the most important factor in your credit scores. Keep in mind that, should you fall into significant financial hardship over the years and must file for bankruptcy protection, it is possible to have some or all of your student loan balances discharged in some limited cases. Of course, bankruptcy in and of itself can devastate your finances for many years, so it’s certainly not an option to be considered lightly, especially if it relates solely to your student loan debt.
If you want to see how your student loans are affecting your credit, you can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com. You’ll also see an overview of what factors are influencing your scores, along with a personalized plan to improve your scores.
This article has been updated. It was originally published July 10, 2014.