Student Debt: How to Lower the Interest Rate Without Refinancing Out of The Loan Forgiveness Program

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Almost a year ago, I wrote about refinancing and leaving IBR for good. We hadn’t refinanced up to that point because we were not sure if we had the frugal muscles and the mental and emotional strength to tackle my student debt, and we knew that refinancing would mean that we could never run back to the Loan Forgiveness Program if we ever hit a rough spot. Once you refinance, you are no longer eligible for the Loan Forgiveness Program. A pro of the Loan Forgiveness Program is the flexibility to revert back to a minimal payment of a small percentage of your income when times are tough. Meanwhile, you also having the choice to pay back the debt aggressively if you are able. If you refinance, well, it’s either you make those whopping payments (which in our case is $6,500 per month) or end up in mad doo-doo if you fail to do so.

After a year of paying back debt aggressively, it was obvious that we were BOTH in it for the long haul! We were ready and capable of getting these loans out of the way. So we said, “SCREW IBR, let’s refinance!” The worst part about IBR is the high interest percent rate of 6.8%, which meant that about half of our monthly payments were going towards interest alone! YUCK. This is the main reason why we wanted out.

We were very serious about the whole thing and even started researching refinance options. The list of lenders that we found included the following:

We got quotes from every lender and were about to pull the trigger, but we didn’t.

Why? By some stroke of luck, we went down the rabbit hole of purchasing our first property and held off on the refinancing of the loans until that was secured. However, once we had settled into our new home, Mr. Debtist’s start-up company went through some tough times and Mr. Debtist’s salary went down by 50%! At the time, this seemed like terrible news, but we were actually lucky in that we hadn’t refinanced yet and life had the opportunity to teach us a lesson: that maybe the flexibility of Loan Forgiveness Program was essential. With a loan this large, the flexibility of the Loan Forgiveness Program makes our journey much more comfortable! Shortly thereafter, I had my third stroke of luck. I spoke with Travis Hornsby of Student Loan Planner. If you have not already interviewed with him and you have a lot of student debt, I would just like to say that although his calls are pricey, they are WORTH it! You’ll soon see why!

In this interview, Travis informed me of a way to improve our aggressive loan repayment strategy. I learned that by being in IBR, we were missing out on an opportunity that another loan forgiveness program offered. Which is why it is important to know the differences between IBR, PAYE, and REPAYE! We learned that REPAYE helps our significantly by covering 50% of our interest every month! Just by switching to REPAYE, we were able to save over $7k in 8 months (find out here).

Since REPAYE covers 50% of  the interest, it is as if we refinanced to get a better interest rate. The interest that we have still yet to cover with our payments come out to be about 3.4% of the loans. I like to think of this as a way to get a lower interest rate while still keeping the flexibility of loan forgiveness. Even though Mr. Debtist’s job situation has  stabilized, we still never know what life may throw our way. Being able to fall back on those small payments give us a lot of peace of mind. Meanwhile, we are able to funnel even more money towards paying down principal!  It’s the best of both worlds.

I think that Travis saved us from making a decision that could put us in a bind during tough times, and he also helped facilitate our loan repayment journey. This is why I think it is so important to talk to someone who can really guide you find the most optimal path for your loan repayment journey, especially when you are talking about student loans this big. If you’ve been thinking about talking to someone but are not sure if it will even help, I bet you Travis is your guy. Schedule your consult with Student Loan Planner if you are feeling lost or simply looking for loan repayment alternatives.

In short, my advice is this. If your student debt is less than two times your salary, then maybe refinancing is a doable option. It won’t be easy, but it would be doable. However, tread with care. If your debt is more than two times your salary, highly consider sticking with Loan Forgiveness, even if you have plans to attack it aggressively. Only because life is a mess and would take any chance it has to throw you a curve ball. Ultimately, I truly believe that everyone can find a path that is in line with their lifestyle and life goals.

When we started, we were told that paying down our loans in ten years with our salaries was impossible. But deep down, I knew that we could do it and that it would be the best path for us. So we set a plan to pay it down in 9 years. Before we talked to Travis, I was hoping to escalate the plan even more and pay it back in less than 9 years. After we made the change to REPAYE, I now have hopes to get rid of it all in 7 years or less. We are implementing a number of side hustles and budgeting tactics that are speeding up progress! I can’t wait to see how much more we could do. Thanks for being here, supporting our journey, and following along. 

 

Finance: Why We Chose Standard Repayment Over Loan Forgiveness

We started our loan repayment journey under the IBR program, as advised by so many professionals. But I always knew in my heart that this was not the best path for me. Apart from the fact that IBR resulted in more money paid towards my loans overall, there was the issue of it extending twenty five years into our distant future. I am one who values freedom above many other things. When I was young, I hated when people told me to do things that did not line up with my values. My most hated explanations were “Just because” or “Because I said so”. Talk about lack of motivation. I despised myself when I was forced to do something, because authoritative figures claimed to have the upper hand. I remember thinking to myself, when I get older, I will have control over my own life. Today, I have that same fire feeding a resolve in me to stay free, from things financial or otherwise. I want freedom to do certain types of work. I want freedom from a tight work schedule. I want autonomy in my decisions. I want the freedom to travel whenever I want to. I want to have free time. All of this also requires to be financially free. Having graduated dental school at 26 years old, the IBR program would mean that we would have this burden hanging over our heads until we were past 50 years old. Psychologically, the burden was too much to bear. It was the psychology of the thing that really pushed me towards frugality, financial independence, and hopefully in the near(er) future, freedom.

When I graduated dental school and I finally started working, Mike and I were facing numerous large payments related to moving in together, creating a home for ourselves, getting married, and going on a honeymoon. And while I would not take back any of the decisions we made, we weren’t exactly saving much at the time. The great part is, we weren’t going into debt either. Whereas some people may take out loans for things such as weddings and honeymoons and moving, we definitely stayed within our means and I am proud of that fact.

But once the dust settled and we found peace in our space and identified our roles in everyday life, we stopped having something to spend money on, and we started to see that we were not bad savers after all. In fact, we were saving at such a quick pace, that we would have saved up for a down payment for a house in two months’ time! We started to talk about buying a home for ourselves, when our financial planner asked us a simple question. Do you realize that at this rate, you can pay down your student debt the standard way in less than ten years?

At first, I was aghast. I had spent months trying to convince USC financial advisers, and Mike, and even my financial planner, that there had to be a way to do this. Mike deemed my conclusions as too optimistic, and slightly delusional. He always said, the numbers just don’t work. But in my head, they did work. The numbers don’t lie.

I then went on to bombard our CFP with a million questions. Excited, I could not wait to tell Mike when he got home that night. I remember being so stoked. Initially, he did not believe me. It wasn’t until our financial planner created a spreadsheet that demonstrated our capability to conquer the loan in 9 years, that Mike started to change his view. We were going to be free from these chains fifteen years earlier than we thought!

But with it comes a cost. We will have to give up buying a house, for now. We have to continue a fairly frugal lifestyle, and have concrete intentionality with our money. We have to be able to psychologically see a majority of our paycheck going towards paying down the loans every month. We have to give up the social status symbols that our friends will be collecting under their belts. In exchange, we will have fifteen additional years of freedom. What say you?

I say Hell Yeah! Mike and I are simple people anyway, as can be seen in the rate at which we were saving. We could rationalize not buying a house, not buying a new car, and not getting the latest gadgets. I could not rationalize being tied down by my career choice until I’m past fifty. We decided that yes, we will choose standard repayment over loan forgiveness!

One caveat. We are still enlisted under the IBR program. Why? Under the standard repayment plan, we have to make minimum payments of $6500/month to be able to pay the debt in 9 years. Under IBR, the payments are closer to $400/month. If one of us loses a job, $6500/month is impossible on only one of our incomes. Especially so if I was the one to lose a job. Switching a hundred percent to standard repayment will make us vulnerable to the whims of whatever life may throw at us. The failure of Mike’s start-up company, the selling of the practice I work at, if we decide to have children, disability for either one of us, these are all things that can greatly impact our finances and if we commit to a standard repayment, it can heavily mess with our ability to pay the loans. And trust me, you do not want to default on student loans. However, under IBR, we are able to pay more than the $400/month without penalty, so we stick with IBR in case of a future emergency, but continue to make the larger payments.

Unfortunately, this does not allow us to refinance our loans. Once the loans are refinanced, we become ineligible for IBR. So although the IBR interest rate is a whopping 6.7%, our financial planner convinced us that the IBR buffer for not-so-awesome life moments is well worth the extra interest rate. Once the loans get paid down to a more manageable sum, then we can refinance, since a smaller loan will be much more manageable.

So therein lies our decision tree, our little story.