Tackling Student Debt: Exploring Refinance Options

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

As you all know, we’re in the midst of refinancing my gigantic student loan! We started at $575,000 and in one year, reduced the total to under $500,000. I have shared why we decided to refinance, and what the hold-up has been since then. Now it’s actually time to bite the bullet. There are many companies to choose from, and what is necessarily best one person isn’t the best for another. Therefore, there is no one formula or equation that would allow me to tell you the refinancing agency you should go with. My advice is to do what we did — shop around!

Figuring out which refinancing company is best for you is easy. You can visit a number of them online and get a quote. Here are some decisions you’ll have to make.

  • Fixed interest rate vs variable interest rate: I like the stability of a fixed interest rate, even though variable interest rates give you a lower rate initially. Unfortunately, you may find that low rate changing as time goes on, a surprise I am not willing to chance.
  • Number of years for repayment: You can also choose the number of years you want to take paying down the loan. They may offer you anywhere from 5 to 20 years. If you are refinancing out of IBR like I am, the smartest choice will be to choose the least number of years as you can comfortably pay… except for one exception. If they offer you a lower rate at 10 years instead of 5 years, then I would take the 10 year option at the lower rate, and simply pay it down more aggressively, so that you still finish in five years. It’s a way to take advantage of a lower interest rate!
  • The amount of your loan you will refinance: I put this here because sometimes you simply can not refinance your loans in its entirety. For example, some of the companies that we looked into max out at $300,000. Some are even career-dependent or level-of-education-dependent, and cap at lower numbers such as $150,000. This caveat specifically applies to us, because my loan is so huge! In fact, I have not found any lenders to date that would refinance more than $500,000 of student debt, which is why it was so important for us to pay down my debt until it was under $500,000.

Now that you’ve made some decisions, it’s time to make the big decision: Which lender? I would recommend going to each of the following websites below to see what they can do for your specific case. A pre-application will at least give you a rough ballpark estimate of what they can do for you. Below, you will find some affiliate links to each of the companies we explored.

Things to note:

  • Once you refinance out of IBR, you cannot re-enter IBR again. I’ve spoken of this before, but please make sure that you are able to pay the required monthly payments under the newly refinanced loan. I would like for you to consider any possible complications that may occur over the repayment timeline. If you or your spouse experience disability, will you still be able to pay? If you have a lifestyle change, such as an addition to your family, or move to a different city because of your job, would it still be doable? The last thing you want to do is refinance and get yourself stuck with a payment that you won’t be able to make. Off course, no one ever knows what the future holds, but try to ensure you have a fallback plan in place.
  • Pre-application rates have expiration dates. You can fill out a pre-application form, but do know that they have an expiration date. The quoted interest rates may change if you wait too long to go through with the refinancing process. Rates are always changing. Do not be surprised if you re-apply after your first application has expired, only to find a higher rate than before. If there is a rate you really like because it is very low, I would say move quickly, or risk losing it. Of the same token, don’t start gathering rates until you are absolutely sure you are ready to re-finance.
  • Soft credit pulls do not affect your credit score. Some pre-applications may request making a soft pull on your credit report. These will not affect your credit score, however, if they request making a hard pull, then that will have some effect. Therefore, you want to avoid hard credit pulls unless you are 100% sure that you will be going with a particular company. I have discussed how credit scores work once before.
  • Do not add your spouse as a cosigner unless you are willing to tie them down to your debt for life. Consider this gruesome inquiry: What happens to your student loans in case you pass away? A conversation I implore everyone to have. If your spouse co-signs with you on that refinanced loan, if you happen to pass, then your spouse is still on the hook to continue paying back that debt. If, perchance your spouse does not co-sign, should you pass away, that debt is erased. Off course, you must read the fine print of the contract they send you to confirm this, but that is something to consider. You may receive a lower rate with a co-signer, but is that worth it? Maybe for some whose loans don’t approach half a million dollars, but for us, I don’t think so.

Finances: Why We Are Refinancing and Leaving IBR Behind, For Good!

Before we head off to Portland, OR, we wanted to share with you guys some very exciting news! We are finally pulling the plug on student loan forgiveness, completely! We are in the process of refinancing our student loans, and leaving IBR behind, for good!

Related Posts:

Why haven’t we refinanced sooner, you ask? Well, there is a clause in the student loan forgiveness program IBR that states that once we refinance our loans, we will no longer be eligible for the student loan forgiveness program in the future. Meaning, if something happened, like one of us lost our jobs, we would still need to continue to make the $6,500/month payment from now until forever (or at least until we are free from the loans). If we stuck with IBR and one of us lost our jobs, we could revert back to paying the minimum payment under IBR (which is calculated as a small percentage of your income), until we could dig ourselves out of the rut. You can see why refinancing can be a tricky thing. A life event that changes our financial situation could immediately cause us to get in trouble with the IRS if we cannot maintain that $6,500/month payment. In other words, we were giant wussy pants and scared of what could happen. We were not quite ready to leave the safety of IBR when we decided to pay down our loans a year ago.

However, under the IBR program, my student loan with Great Lakes is charged an interest of a whopping 6.7%! By refinancing, we could lower that down to about 5.5%. It doesn’t seem like much, but on a loan this huge, it makes a big difference. To give readers an idea, for a 10 year refinance at 5.5%, our monthly payment would decrease from $6,500 to $5,300! Or, put another way, if we continued the course of paying $6,500/month, then we will be done with our loans in 7.5 years! I don’t know about you, but both perspectives are extremely exciting and extremely enticing.

I have spoken about us paying down $84,000 towards my student debt of $550k+ in the past year. Initially, we didn’t know at the start of our journey whether we would be able to make the large monthly payments. We wanted to try it out, but were afraid that we would not be able to support the lifestyle we want and still have enough for the loan amount. What we found was that we were able to alter our lifestyle in order to make our payments, and our lives have much improved from it. After one year, we are extremely confident that this is the path we want to take, and that we can do this! We are no longer afraid of the what-ifs and are ready to take a leap of faith (in ourselves) and just turn our backs on student loan forgiveness for good!

So what happens if some life event occurs that dramatically impacts our finances? We haven’t forgotten about the possibility of one of us losing a job, or a natural disaster happening, or a family emergency occurring, although cross our fingers, legs, toes and arms that none of these ever come to fruition. But we HAVE thought through a series of possibilities that could help us in such scenarios.

  1. Have an emergency fund. Over the past year, we have built up an emergency fund that could support us for 2.5 months if one of us loses a job, or for a little under 2 months if both of us lost our jobs. We will continue to add to this emergency fund and over time, it should be a very big safety net for us (or it could help us pay down loans faster towards the end!)
  2. Make use of the lower monthly payments. There are TWO ways we could make use of the lower monthly payments. The first is to pay the $5,300 per month minimum payment, and stash the difference ($1,200) in the emergency fund every month. Although a viable plan, that isn’t the path we are going to take. The other is to continue paying $6,500 a month since we can support that payment, and plan to be done in over 7 years. Because we would be paying extra $$ a month, we would be paid ahead. Meaning, if something were to happen, we would have accounted for future payments already, and would likely have a buffer of time before we are back to our originally determined schedule.
  3. Rely on the loan’s forbearance policy. Loan companies want to get paid. If someone really cannot make payments, then the loan’s forbearance policy will temporarily allow non-payment for a set number of months. The interest will still accrue, but it is a back-up!

Luckily for us, our jobs are very flexible and we don’t really see ourselves without work for long periods of time, but you never know what the future may hold, and sometimes life gets out of control. So, yes, it IS still wildly scary for us to be doing this! Too risky for some. But I believe in our abilities and focus and determination. And we want to inspire other people to feel like they could be freed too.

How about you? Feel like this is too crazy a venture, or would you be willing to try too?

Finances: How YNAB Helped Us Pay $84,000 Towards Student Loans in One Year!

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

Looking back on it, it seems absolutely nuts that we have been able to pay $84,000 towards our student loans in the last year. Prior to getting our finances in order, you could say that I was not one who was highly motivated in monitoring my spending. Or rather, I may have been highly motivated, but not entirely good at it. Honestly, I did not know where to start.

I was never afraid of budgets. Some people are. They are afraid that it would be too limiting, or depriving, to set financial constraints on their having fun in life. I get it. YOLO, right? But honestly, that’s just the rub. YOLO. You only get one life, and I don’t want mine consistently anchored down by debt. I want to be free. So it was not the budgeting that scared me, but the lack thereof. In fact, I was always in search of ways to budget. However, I had no idea how to do it efficiently.

We used to implement that all-too-familiar way of assessing our spending by guessing, eye-balling, rounding up and down (depending on our mood), or sometimes, ignoring all-together. Additionally, much of our analysis was performed retroactively. As in, “Oops, I spent too much on groceries last month! Roughly $100 too much.” The estimates, off course, were always too low, and the recognition harbored a bit too late, after the spending was already a done deal. Yikes!

Enter YNAB. YNAB is kind of like that high-school teacher that slaps your wrist and sets a vagabond teen straight. The acronym stands for “You Need a Budget“, and is better than an angel on your shoulder keeping your finances in check. It is a very easy system that is based on the age-old envelope system of budgeting. It used to be that, without computers and programs such as YNAB, people would use envelopes to budget their money. Each envelope would stand for a category. For example: “Groceries”, “Rent”, House Maintenance”, “Savings”, etc. With each incoming paycheck, a person would split the cash in between envelopes, allocating a certain amount towards those categories for the upcoming month(s). One can never accidentally overdraw from an envelope, because once the money runs out, that’s it! In order to overspend in a category such as “Dining Out” for example, one would need to proactively choose to take out money from another envelope, thus consciously deciding to decrease spending elsewhere.

With the invention of things such as credit cards, this becomes an obsolete practice, but I think it is one that is very useful. Instead of retroactively analyzing our spending, we should be proactively planning for our financial futures. In YNAB, you can create categories of your choosing that would be equivalent to those envelopes. You can be as precise or as general as you would like. We prefer to be more general, because it makes categorizing easier. Our categories are separated into “Needs”, “Financial Goals”, and “Wants”. A few examples include:

Needs – Rent, Auto Insurance, Utilities, Cell Phone, Groceries

Financial Goals – Student Loans, House Savings

Wants – Activities/Hobbies, Travel, Mike’s Fun Money, Sam’s Fun Money, Dining Out

So as paychecks roll in, we are proactively placing budgeted money into each category. Every dollar we earn is accounted for, down to the last penny. The goal is to budget appropriately, so that none of the categories need adjusting during the month. Metaphorically, you don’t want to borrow from any of the other envelopes. It did take us a while to get a feel for how much we spend in each category, but that’s the fantastic thing about YNAB. It summarizes previous spending in the months prior really well. Over time, we were able to know exactly what number we would need to budget in each category to be absolutely prepared.

A word on those summaries. This is a wonderful way to get a picture of how much of your spending is going towards your “Needs”, your “Wants”, and your “Financial Goals”. For us, because of our student loans, 50% of our income goes straight towards hitting our “financial goals”. We try to keep “wants” to a low 10% of our income, travel included, which is why travel hacking is so important for us. Also, there are graphs to show you how much your net worth is rising, as well as comparisons of “Income VS Expenses”, if those are motivating at all for you.

All of this can technically be done on an Excel sheet, but it would take a lot of time and effort. What I love about YNAB is that it can link to your bank accounts and automatically record every transaction, whether that’s money going in or money coming out. The only thing left to do is to categorize each transaction. Also, YNAB will remember which transactions fall under which category. For example, we frequently shop at Mother’s Market and Whole Foods for our groceries. I no longer have to categorize those things, since YNAB will automatically do that for me, thus making my job easier.

Off course, YNAB comes with a fee, which luckily for us, is waived by our financial planner. The cost to use YNAB is $89.99 annually, which seems like a lot, but when I look at the number we paid towards student debt ($84,000), I don’t feel bad at all! I think that fee is totally justified, plus it makes the whole budgeting process easier and much more motivating than if I had to go through all of our bank accounts and credit cards and physically input each and every transaction, create analytical comparisons and graphs and pie charts, and let our financial situation take up all of my free time.

If you are someone who wants to know where their money is going, wants to plan for the future, or is already doing both but wants a simpler process, try out YNAB. I hear too frequently the saying, “I don’t know where my money goes!” It’d be nice if we never have to say that ever again. Plus, once you know where it goes, you have the power to redirect it, kind of like we have!

Finance: Why I Consider the Loan Forgiveness Program as a Risky Chance

When you graduate with a loan as large as I have ($550,000 in debt!), it is easy to view student loan forgiveness programs as the superheroes of our lives. There are many different loan forgiveness options that you must choose from, but once you’ve chosen one, you are given the choice of paying a sliver of your income every month, with the promise that at the end of your program, the remaining (accruing) balance will be wiped forever from your life! It’s an ultimate quick fix to a problematic giant standing in the way of your financial independence. The small monthly payments are on autopay and the looming terror is out of sight, out of mind, for the next twenty or twenty five years. So why the skepticism?

Twenty five years is an extremely long time. I know, because I have barely passed my twenty five year mark. I also know that because after I add on twenty five years, I’d be over fifty. To be honest with you, I don’t want to keep this lifestyle up until I’m fifty. A lot can happen in twenty five years. The immediate assumption is that no matter what happens in the future, we will be grand-fathered in this loan forgiveness program.  But although it’s an immediate assumption, it doesn’t mean it’s logical or true. Because nowhere in the fine print does it say that. But our brains are wired to make up stuff that will put us at ease. And so, some like to reason that this must be true, and I know I can’t convince them otherwise. Because, what do I know?

Well, here is what I know.

  • I know that there are people out there who chose a ten year loan forgiveness program. Only to be told after their ten years that they do not or no longer qualify. Some haughty know-it-all will likely say, “Well, that’s THEIR fault for not knowing their own program!” But as we all know, they don’t make programs easy to know. The fine print just keeps getting smaller AND longer.
  • I know that my sister took a five year contract with a charter school in a city far away from her family and friends with the promise of getting $40,000 forgiven from her student debt after the five years. However, you cannot apply for the forgiveness until you’ve completed all five years. Last year, the amount forgiven changed. It went down to $17,000. Still a good amount, but not the promised $40,000. Her five years ends in June. So in June, she would have given up five years of her life living in this far away city to only get back less than half of what she thought she was going to get back. Which is depressing to think about, since she turned down multiple amazing opportunities with higher pay for this program.
  • I know that in the ONE year that I have been out of dental school, there has already been talk of the loan forgiveness program being extended to THIRTY years. An additional five years of minimum payments, a continually accruing debt, and a higher percentage of your loan that you have to pay in taxes at the end of it all. More, more, more.

Therefore, you are right in saying that I just don’t know. I don’t know the future one year from now, so I sure as heck don’t know the future twenty five years from now. I don’t know who will be in the government, who will be controlling our laws, how the program will change, if the program will still apply to me, and if the program will even exist. And with a loan this large, I will not leave this up to chance.

What I do know is that I CAN tackle this giant, so I WILL. I will not let him rule over me, stop me in my path, instill any fears or doubts.

Will you tackle him, too?

 

Finance: The First Year of Paying Down $550,000 in Student Loans, An Update

Hi guys! So it has been about a year since our search for a future home turned into a commitment to pay down my massive student debt instead. I figured I would give you an update as to what paying down $550,000 at 6.7% interest looks like.

We arrived at our decision to tackle the loans aggressively in April of 2017 (our decision tree, here). The most important thing to note with a loan this large is that committing to it means REALLY committing to it. It wouldn’t be advantageous to choose to pay down the debt, and then fall back to IBR midway. From a numbers perspective, you would just lose unnecessary money that way. If you choose the loan forgiveness route, then the goal is to pay AS LITTLE MONTHLY PAYMENTS AS POSSIBLE, so that a huge chunk gets written off. If you choose the standard repayment option, then the goal is to pay AS MUCH MONEY AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. So, with a steely grip on the reality that we did not want the debt to dictate and shape our lives for twenty five years, we went head first.

Here are the numbers.

To be completely honest with you, $550,000 is a ballpark estimate. The real number is a principle amount of $538,933.50 and an accrued interest of $35,101. Meaning the total was actually $574,034.50. YIKES!

So what did we do? We decided that we will essentially live off of one income, and use the other income towards loans. We figure, out parents raised us on a single person’s income, so this can’t be that difficult especially since we don’t even have kids yet. The verdict: We were right! It was surprisingly easy. Which makes me wonder, where were we spending all that money before hand?! I don’t even want to know….

With that being said, we have been successful at making our minimum payments of $6500 per month! YAY! We were even able to add a little extra every so often due to diligent saving habits (See The Ever Growing List of Things I’ve Given Up In The Name of Frugality!). But that does not take us as far on the path of financial freedom as we would like. It took us a few months to completely pay off the interest that had accrued, but it must be remembered that the loan is at 6.7% interest. So that means that interest continues to accrue over all this time. So what does that look like? Well, once the accrued interest was paid off, approximately half of the $6,500 was going towards the interest accruing per month. Which means that the loan is only getting paid down at a rate of about $3,000 per month. And that, my friends, is how lovely interest works! Womp, womp.

So, $55,367.22 was paid towards interest. Only $28,632.78 went towards paying down the principle amount. When my husband first looked at the little pie chart graph that I had on the corner of my computer screen summarizing our progress, he said, “Well, THAT’s depressing!” For someone who is only looking at that, it CAN seem pretty depressing. However, I know better. This. Is. Amazing.

The accrued interest is already out of the way, which tells me that next year is going to look a LOT better. I can already see a higher proportion of the monthly payments being applied to our principle. It started out as slightly less than half of our payment being applied to the principle. However, as of early this year, slightly more than half is being applied to principle. I know it’s hard to look at this as any way other than a linear projection, but it really, truly is an exponential one, albeit with a slow start.

The amazing part is that we have survived our first year and our lives have actually been much improved. Choosing this journey has nudged us to be proactive with our life, not only with our financial decisions, but also with our lifestyle choices. We are experiencing less stress than when we felt helpless and unable to address the student loans. We are experiencing more happiness than when we were trying to buy our way to a meaningful life. I work less than I did last year, and love myself more. We are healthier and have better relationships. And it all started with us learning how to get our finances in order and in our efforts to remove money from our life equation.

I am very happy with this decision and I am excited to see what the next year of payments will bring.

PS: I am excited that we will hit the $400,000’s during me and Mike’s birthday months in June/July!

Also, for the curious, I have never, not once, felt regret in funneling extra money towards my student loans. I have felt buyer’s remorse. I’ve regretted going out to eat. I have regretted going to events that required spending money. I have regretted buying gifts that I know will end up in a landfill some day. But I have never regretted letting go of money in exchange for a little slice of freedom. I’m just saying.

Finance: When NOT to consolidate student loans

There was a day last year when Mike, two co-workers, and I all took the day off of work, just because. I remember it vividly. It was a Tuesday and the weather was sunny, and somewhere in the low eighties. Mike and his co-workers came over to our place to work one of his motorcycles. The goal was to change the engine, but I think the boys really just wanted to take it apart and put it back together like a box of legos. Such are the interests of engineers who design electric cars all day. I did my own thing, cooking and writing, and biking, etc. The usual. Once in a while, I popped my head in the garage to watch them tinker, to observe the progress. There were times where they struggled, muscling their way into making pieces fit. Other times, they laughed, at some overlooked rookie mistake of theirs. Most of the time they were either marveling at the mechanics of it all, or otherwise criticizing some faulty housing of electric wires. I guess inefficiencies of mechanical parts are laughable, to some. Overall, they did good. The bike ran, after twelve hours of work, sweat, and metaphorical tears.

At the end of the day, we ate a much deserved dinner of Mediterranean food. As we were talking about who knows what, the topic of student loans came up. It was actually brought up by one of Mike’s co-workers who happened to be dating a pharmacist. He was the one who inspired me to write the previous blog post, and it is because of stories like these that I am determined to share whatever little knowledge I have of finances with the rest of the world.

His girlfriend was pursuing an alternative loan forgiveness program to pay her student loans from pharmacy school. As part of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, she has been working for the past two years at a VA hospital in LA county. The program states that after ten years of service at a government or not-for-profit organization, the loans will be wiped, TAX FREE (compared to the IBR, PAYE and REPAYE options which considers forgiven amounts as part of your income and is therefore taxed). She has been working here for a few years and was warned against consolidating her loans by her co-workers. Why?

She had some co-workers who have been working at the hospital for a few years. The hospital started to convince them to consolidate their loans. They said consolidating multiple loans into one will be more convenient and easier to track. Some of them went ahead and did just that, after listening to the hospital’s advice. Unfortunately, there is a clause that states that after consolidation of student loans, previous payments do not count towards the loan repayment program. In other words, despite having worked for 2 out of the required 10 years, after consolidation of the loans, the previous 2 years no longer counted towards the 10 year loan repayment. The consolidated loan is now considered a completely different loan, and in order to have that loan forgiven, they will have to work for an additional ten years. It was a story enough to make one cry. Imagine working your way towards freedom, only to have that freedom taken away and prolonged. The past two years of hard work went towards nothing. The worst part? They were advised to do this! Off course, it is not the hospital’s responsibility to be aware of the clauses associated with every loan program, so we can’t entirely blame the hospital. I just wish there was a positive end result from the decision to consolidate, which there wasn’t. All for “convenience” of having one lump sum, instead of keeping track of a few different loans.

Moral of the story: Do not consolidate your loans if you have already started a Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. If you would like to consolidate your loans, please do this right out of school, prior to working for your not-for-profit or government organization. My heart seriously goes out to those who have discovered this clause the difficult way. I am just glad that our friend’s girlfriend learned of it before she herself was convinced to do the same.

In line with all other aspects of this blog, freedom supersedes convenience in my book, always. Freedom to call your own schedule. Freedom to take the day off with your friends whenever you want. Freedom to enjoy hobbies, learn new things, and work on motorcycles. Even if it means avoiding the conveniences. 

Finance: Student Loan Forgiveness Options: IBR VS PAYE VS REPAYE

I remember the days leading up to graduating dental school. I had an incurable case of senioritis, and I was ready to go. I had reached all my requirements with a few months to spare. It was just a matter of time. It wasn’t school itself that was on my mind. All I could think about at that point was the student debt that I knew I had to face once I got out.

I recall that every student at USC’s dental program was required to take an exit course that went over student loan repayment options. They called it a course to make it sound official, but it was literally a one hour power-point presentation in a small classroom with mostly empty seats. I remember sitting towards the front of the classroom, with a notepad and pen, and furiously scribbling notes throughout the entire thing. Meanwhile, classmates grumbled about what a waste of time this was. Some tardily strolled in, halfway through the presentation, just so they can sign the sign out sheets. Those that did come on time sat, and politely listened, but without a pen in hand, sitting back casually until the presenter announced the end. At that time, I thought that I was the only one who did not understand this stuff. It seemed like either everyone either had rich parents, or had a plan. I remember kicking myself for not studying this before, since my classmates appeared bored at best, presumably because they already knew the ins and outs of their loan repayment plans. There was only one other classmate, a boy, who was taking notes with me. I remember him vividly, though we never talked before, because he asked tons of questions that I was too afraid to ask. I also remember him because after the class, the speaker offered to do additional mini-lectures if we had questions. He was the only other person I saw pursue this topic as avidly as I in the upcoming weeks before graduation. I would come in for a one-on-one meeting with the financial advisor, and after I walked out, he would walk in. Or vice versa. We had meetings with the malpractice representative twice, and for disability insurance once more, after the required one. We were the only two students in the classroom during these meetings. He and I sat next to each other at the front of the room, taking notes and writing down numbers and calculations. I must have seen him on 7 different days outside of the required exit course. I never spoke to him, not once. I don’t even remember his name, although we were in the same class. I wish I did so I can hit him up and ask how his path to repayment is going. Meanwhile, I thought everyone else had it all figured out. But I was wrong.

I was so obsessed (afraid? aware?) of the student debt’s debilitating ability to control my life that I even had Mike sit in on some of the meetings. This was around the time we had talked about getting married, and I realized that now my decisions will start to affect someone that I cared about. I wanted him to a) know what he was getting into because once you’re married, you share EVERYTHING and b) not be extremely affected by the loan I was bringing in. I felt a lot of guilt, and it was the first time in my life that I realized that my misguided financial choices will impact a loved one’s lifestyle for a long period of time. I knew I had to get out. I went through projections and extrapolations and Excel sheets with counselors. Then I scheduled an appointment with Mike in order to go over the same spreadsheets and Excel sheets again (because they won’t allow you to take a copy of the real numbers home…). We are numbers people, and I had to have him see the numbers. I remember coming home to late night discussions about our “game plan”. I remember feeling trapped, and slightly depressed, that I could not find a short term solution for this. I got out of dental school and picked up just about every possible side hustle I could muster while waiting for my license in the mail. Before I even started work, I reached out to a CFP because I felt that I needed help. I didn’t know the ins and outs of finances as well as I would hope, and I wanted to make sure that we were doing everything correctly. The one thing I did know was that the only thing on our side was time. The sooner I addressed my financial problems, the less of a burden they will be in the future. I wanted to cut off all compounding problems (read as interests), nip them in the bud persay, before the weeds could grow thorns.

Throughout this entire process, all anyone would say (when I was bold enough to ask them about their repayment plan) was that they were going with the student loan repayment route. In parrot-like manner, almost. Surely, when the exit course was being taught at USC, it was implied that the student loan repayment plan is the way to go. It was the YOLOs of all YOLOs. You only pay a small percentage of your paycheck, for 20-25 years, and then your loan is forgiven after that. Have fun now, enjoy life while you are young, and worry about the debt later. I always felt in my heart that that could not have been the best option. But everyone I talked to at the beginning of our journey said that my loan was too large to realistically pay down the debt in a standard way, unless I was some baller G who landed a five star practice that I owned for myself. I mean, I understand why. A standard repayment required a $6000 check being sent to My Great Lakes, every month for 10 years. That is 120 consecutive payments of $6000. It’s a huge pill to swallow. Mike didn’t believe we could do it given the numbers. Even my financial planner, who first looked at our finances in September, said that it can’t be done according to our current financial situation. (Eventually, we did get to a point where it could be done, but I will save that for a future post). So at the beginning of our journey, everyone we consulted with said we had to choose between the following three student loan repayment options: IBR, PAYE, or REPAYE.

I chose one and then entered the real world, where I learned, that most people who graduated from college did not even have an exit course and have absolutely no idea what they are doing with their student loans. I have talked to numerous professionals, and there has been many instances where they asked a question regarding a fundamental aspect of their loan program because they just didn’t have the answer. I have dentists who have been out 3, 5, 10 years, asking me questions about loans. I am no expert at this stuff, just to clarify, but I did study it for a fair amount of time. I have been thinking about writing this post for a while, but it wasn’t until Mike’s co-worker was talking to Mike one day and said, “You know what Sam should write about on her blog? All the Student Loan Forgiveness options and their clauses. Because no one seems to understand this shit.” His girlfriend is a pharmacist working for the past two years under a Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, and she says her colleagues have made some major mistakes that have screwed their financial plan significantly. More on that at a later post as well. The take away message here is that, maybe no one actually knew what they were doing as the graduating days neared us. I sure didn’t. I was so unsure about my options that I felt the need to hire a financial planner just to get things straight. Maybe no one still knows. And when it was outwardly voiced that there is a need for this post, then that’s what motivated me to sit down and write it. Additionally, I will walk you through our decision tree, to give you some insight as to why one of these was the option we chose. Please understand that our decision tree does not necessarily predict your own decision tree. It is only meant to show the thought process through which we reached a final decision.

When we went through the student loan exit course, there were numerous slides on that PowerPoint that, in my opinion, were haphazardly organized. As a visual person, here is the best way I could organize this information. There are three options currently, IBR, PAYE, and REPAYE. The following are the differences between the three programs.

IBR VS PAYE VS REPAYE

  IBR PAYE REPAYE
Eligible Loans -All federal Family Education Loan Program, Stafford and Grad Plus Loans

-All FFELP and direct loan consolidation loans that do not contain parent PLUS Loans

-All Stafford loans or Grad Plus Loans disbursed on or after October 1, 2011.
-Consolidation loans made on or after October 1, 2011, unless they contain a direct loan or FFEL loan made before October 1, 2007, or a Parent PLUS loan.

-Direct loan borrowers without loans prior to October 1, 2007 who also had a disbursement made on or after October 1, 2011.

-Any Stafford/Grad Plus Loan

-Any direct consolidation loan that does not contain Parent PLUS loan.

Eligibility -Payments under a 10 year term must be higher than what they would be under IBR. -Payments under a 10-year term must be higher than what they would be under REPAYE. -No payment amount limit.
Monthly Payment 15% of discretionary income. The maximum is what you’d pay under a 10 year loan. 10% of discretionary income. 10% of discretionary income.
Married Borrowers -If filing joint tax returns, both spouses’ incomes and eligible debt is considered.

-If filing separate tax returns, only the applicant’s income and eligible debt is considered.

– If filing joint tax returns, both spouses’ incomes and eligible debt is considered.

-If filing separate tax returns, only the applicant’s income and eligible debt is considered.

– Both spouses’ income and federal student loan debt, if applicable, is considered regardless of filing status.

-Exception for victims of domestic violence or if borrower is separated from spouse.

Interest Capitalization When calculated, payment is equal to or greater than what it would be under the 10 year term and/or when the borrower leaves IBR. When calculated, payment is equal to or greater than what it would be under the 10 year term and/or when the borrower leaves PAYE. As there is no maximum payment, interest will only be capitalized once they leave REPAYE.
Forgiveness Any remaining balance after 25 years of eligible payments is forgiven and taxed as income. Only payments made on or after July 1, 2009 are eligible. Any remaining balance after 20 years of eligible payments is forgiven and taxed as income. Only payments made on or after July 1, 2009 are eligible. Borrowers with undergrad loans only will receive forgiveness after 20 years of eligible payments. Those with graduate loans will receive forgiveness after 25 years of eligible payments. Forgiven amount will be taxed as income.

THE SIMILARITIES

The following are requirements that apply to all three loan forgiveness options:

  • Discretionary income is adjusted gross income minus 150% of state poverty level for the borrower’s family size.
  • Loans cannot be in default.
  • Minimum monthly payments can be as low as $0 per month. For example, if you are currently not working due to disability or maternity leave, you pay a percentage of your income, which is $0.
  • If payment does not satisfy monthly accrued interest, the Department of Education pays the remained for most subsidized Stafford loans for up to 3 years. For REPAYE only, the agency also will pay 50% of unpaid interest on unsubsidized loans.
  • Like IBR/REPAYE, payments under REPAYE count toward public service loan forgiveness. If your loan is under FFEL program, you need to consolidate in order to get REPAYE.

INSIGHTS

  • No Parent PLUS Loans: First thing is first. You’ve got to figure out which student loans you’ve taken out. Once you have that figured out, you can decide which loan repayment programs you qualify for. It is important to note that none of these loan forgiveness programs allow Parent PLUS loans. If you are going to consolidate your loans, you have to make sure that none of the loans that were consolidated are part of a Parent PLUS loan, otherwise, you immediately disqualify yourself from the loan forgiveness programs.
  • October 1, 2011 is the cut off for PAYE. If you have taken out loans prior to this date, you will not qualify for PAYE.
  • Payments under a 10-year term must be higher than what they would be under IBR. But does it makes sense to do IBR? This is important if your loan amount is quite small. For example, if you have a loan of $150,000 (let’s say because you worked your butt off to minimize the student loan total) and you make $135,000/year as a dentist, a 10 year repayment plan will have you paying $1718.52/month at a 6.7% interest rate for 10 years. Compare that to IBR where you pay $1687.50/month at the same interest rate for 25 years. Technically, in this example, you will still qualify for IBR, because your 10-year term payments are still higher than IBR payments. But is it worth it? To me, it would make sense to just stick with standard repayment and get rid of the debt in 10 years, rather than prolonging it for 25 years, especially since you pay about the same monthly payment. The shortened debt time will decrease the total money you end up paying, because it decreases the amount you pay in interest. Plus, you will no longer have the debt hanging over your head. Compare that to a dentist who makes the same amount of money per year, but who has a loan debt of $550,000. Now the month difference is $6500/month vs $1687.50/month. IBR works well if you have a huge loan and cannot make the atrocious monthly payment fit with your ideal lifestyle. For smaller loan amounts, it may be best to just stick with standard repayment.
  • Smaller monthly payments: A good thing or a bad thing? When looking at these programs with a short term mindset, it is easy to think that smaller monthly payments are better than larger monthly payments. However, may I point out that small monthly payments for a large loan may not be enough to pay down the interest at all. For example, with a loan of $550,000, the interest that accrues each month at 6.7% interest rate is about $3,200/month. However, as from the previous example, 15% of a $135,000 yearly gross income is $1687. So every month, you are only paying half of the accruing interest, which means that interest will continually add to your loan total. Over twenty five years, you are increasing your total amount under the IBR program. Because of this, your total loan amount at the end of 25 years will be over $1 million dollars. But that’s alright, because it will all be wiped in the end anyways, right? (PS: In order to equal the accruing interest rate, without even touching the principal balance ever, you would need to be making more than $300,000 / year. Yikes.)
  • Consider your spouse’s income. It is important to note that under REPAYE, your spouse’s income counts as part of the discretionary income. Depending on your spouse’s income, this can increase your monthly loan payments, which will actually increase the amount you pay long term.
  • Forgiven amounts are taxed. This is a crucial part of the clause for the loan forgiveness programs. Those who miss this will be shocked at the end of the 25 years. I actually have met colleagues who have been graduated 3 and 5 years who are not aware of this rule. When I told them that the forgiven amounts will be taxed, their jaws dropped. Why? Because none of them knew. This single rule is what made me question whether loan forgiveness was worth it. As mentioned before, under IBR, with a loan as large as $550k, after twenty five years of payment from a dentist with $135,000 income, you would end up with over one million dollars in debt. I think my number was closer to $1,200,000. This was calculated with the assumption that I would be increasing my salary to more than $135,000 as I increased my experience. Either way, at year 25, the loans will be forgiven, and the total amount forgiven will be considered income that you made that year, and will be taxed similarly. So at the end of 25 years, I was expected to pay north of $350,000, in one lump sum, on top of taxes of the income I made on that year. Unless you have a plan to be swimming in some serious dough in twenty five years, I would say it would be advisable to save up for that $350,000 over 25 years. So that’s an additional $1,166 every month you have to save. But what bothered me most was the total amount of money you would pay after loan forgiveness. It turns out, with the taxed income, you would pay more money than the standard repayment. Standard repayment will lead to a total of $720,000 going towards loans, whereas IBR will lead to a grand total of $856,250. Plus, you would have a loan hanging over your head for 25 years, instead of only 10 years (less than half the amount of time). The time may not seem such a big deal, but that is a very large psychological strain to put on yourself for a very long amount of time. Let’s say you were ahead of your class and graduated dental school at 25. This loan would be with you until you’re 50 years old. That’s a really long time.
  • There is no clause stating that you are guaranteed to be grandfathered in the loan forgiveness program. While I would love to believe that we will all be one hundred percent grandfathered into these programs, we must not be in denial, and agree to the fact that there is no such clause that guarantees this to be the case. This program may be subject to future changes with changes in government. 25 years is a very long time, and the government changes can occur in a short time span within those 25 years. For example, what if a law passes that changes the loan forgiveness program from being 25 years to 30 years? What if you were so far in, that all you’ve done the last twenty years was increase your loan to a point of no return? You would then have to go through with the additional five years, thus increasing your loan total even more, which then increases the final amount you’ve paid for your education. Or what if the programs are abolished completely? Perhaps you would get some help, perhaps you would be grandfathered in, but perhaps they do nothing to help you, leaving you with over a million dollars’ worth of debt in your forties that you must now pay off. People may say, that’s crazy, they can’t do that to us! Unfortunately, until I see a statement saying otherwise, I will continue to believe that anything can happen. That may just be me, being overly cautious. Or realistic, whichever.

APPLICATION: OUR DECISION TREE

So which program did we choose? As I stated before, initially, we were told that this was the way to go, so we decided to choose one category to fall under. Unfortunately, we immediately had to eliminate PAYE because I had student loans that were disbursed before October of 2011, which were my undergraduate loans. So we were down to either IBR or REPAYE. Both will take 25 years before the student loans were forgiven. It may seem as if REPAYE would be the best option, because it only requires 10% of discretionary income to be paid, whereas IBR requires 15% of discretionary income to be paid. However, we chose IBR over REPAYE because of the married borrowers section of the chart. IBR allows Mike and me to file separately, which means Mike’s income is not calculated in that 15%. Whereas REPAYE will calculate Mike’s income into the 10% owed every year, regardless of our filing status. This fact alone makes a huge difference in how much we end up paying. Without giving away the actual numbers, the example below will demonstrate this point. Under IBR, a combined income of $200,000 will yield a $2,500 check per month being written towards student loans, whereas a single income of $100,000 will yield a $1,250 check per month towards student loans. One may argue that it is better to pay down a higher portion of the loans so that at the end of the 25 years, the amount left over that you will be taxed on is less. However, if you choose to do the loan forgiveness program, it will actually benefit you most if you pay the least amount possible. Your total payment will be less in the long run. Notice how filing together will require $2,500 per month to be paid towards your loans, which is still not enough to cover the accruing interest. So even with the increased amount you are paying, the loan total will still be increasing. The numbers ended up showing that it would be better to pay taxes on a slightly larger number, than it is to pay twice as much every month without ever even touching principle. Off course, this is of the assumption that your spouse and you make the same income for work. In order to check what works best for your situation, I would recommend running your own numbers, using your loan amounts and your incomes.

I would like to reiterate that I am no expert. I can’t tell you which plan is better for you, and it is highly likely that I don’t know all the ins and outs of all three plans. But this is what I’ve learned so far, and our method of thinking. If there are ever any doubts, just run projections and calculations and excel sheets, and go with the numbers. The numbers won’t lie. I hope this has been helpful to some, and I hope more people realize the importance of thinking about this early on in their careers after reading this post. If you ever need someone to walk you through it, may I recommend a CFP? I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors, and more future insightful posts on finance to come!