There are two types of student loans — federal student loans and private loans. The time it takes to repay your loans depends on the type of loan as well as the loan repayment plan you have. This article explains the average time it takes to pay off student loans and what options you have to refinance or get a loan deferment or forbearance. We’ll also offer tips for how to pay off your student loans more quickly and get out of debt.
Roughly one-third of all American students must take out at least some student loans to pay for college. As of September 2021, Americans owed almost $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. In 2020, the average borrower owed almost $40,000 in student loan debt.
Carrying a lot of loan debt is a stressful way to start your career. So it makes sense that when people take out student loans, the first thing they want to know is how much time it will take to pay them off. The answer depends on many factors, including the type of loan. This article explains the average time it takes to pay off student loans and what options you have to refinance or get a loan deferment or forbearance. We’ll also offer tips for how to pay off your student loans more quickly and get out of debt.
Timetable for Student Loan Repayment
There are two types of student loans — federal student loans and private loans. The time it takes to repay your loans depends on what types you have.
Federal Student Loan Repayment Timetable
The federal government funds and sets the loan terms for federal student loans. These loans are available to students who are enrolled in colleges or universities that participate in federal student financial aid programs. Unlike privately funded loans, federal loans have fixed interest rates, income-based repayment options, loan forgiveness plans, and deferment options. Finally, most federal loan borrowers aren’t subject to credit checks.
To apply for a federal student loan, you must submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Submitting a FAFSA is often the first step for students applying to college or graduate school.
It generally takes 10 to 30 years to repay federal student loans. The exact timeline depends mostly on the loan type and repayment term. Students who graduate (and those who quit school) with federal student loan debt are automatically enrolled in the Standard Repayment Plan, which has a 10-year repayment term. You can change your repayment plan if you need to. While the Standard Repayment Plan is a 10-year term, most borrowers take much longer to repay the debt.
Private Student Loan Repayment Timetable
Private student loans are loans you take out with a private lender. Private lenders have their own repayment options. Private student loans tend to carry higher interest rates than federal loans, and the rates aren’t fixed like federal loans. Also, your credit history matters when applying for a private student loan. If you have excellent credit, it’s possible to get a better interest rate with a private loan than with a federal loan. Unlike federal student loan programs, private student loans don’t offer loan forgiveness programs.
Unless you refinance your debt along the way, you can expect to repay a private student loan in five to 20 years.
Available Federal Student Loan Repayment Plans
Federal student loans offer three repayment plans that aren’t income-driven:
The Standard Repayment Plan has a 10-year term and a fixed monthly payment amount. If you have a Direct Consolidation loan, the term may be from 10-30 years.
The Graduated Repayment Plan has a 10-year repayment term (or 10-30 years if you have a Direct Consolidation Loan). Unlike the Standard Repayment Plan, monthly payments in the Graduated Planstart out low and gradually increase over time, usually every two years. This can be an advantage if you’re not making much money right after you graduate, but you plan to make more as you build your career.
The Extended Repayment Plan has a 25-year term and your payments may be fixed or graduated.
Income-Driven Repayment Plans
Depending on the loan type, you can also apply for one of the five types of income-driven repayment plans:
Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE Plan): Pay 10% of your discretionary income for 20 years for borrowers with undergraduate loans and 25 years for borrowers with graduate student school loans.
Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE Plan): Pay 10% of your discretionary income for 20 years.
Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR Plan): Pay 10% of your discretionary income for 20 years if you’re a new borrower (on or after July 1, 2014) or 15% of your discretionary income for 25 years if you’re not a new borrower.
Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR Plan): Pay 20% of your discretionary income for 25 years or what you would pay on a 12-year repayment plan adjusted to your income.
Income-Sensitive Repayment Plan (ISR Plan): Make payments on Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) Loans based on your income over 10 years.
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When Do Student Loan Payments Begin?
If you have a federal student loan, you’ll be required to begin making monthly payments six months after you graduate, drop below half-time enrollment, or quit school. If you can’t make your student loan payments, you can apply for a deferment or forbearance program. You may also be able to switch to a different repayment plan.
Private student loan lenders also give borrowers a six-month grace period they either graduate, drop below half-time enrollment, or quit school. Some private student loans will extend the grace period for student loan payments to nine or 12 months. Remember, though, that interest will continue to accrue during this time.
Some private lenders offer forbearance programs. You should contact your specific lender to find out when your payments will begin and what repayment options you have.
How To Repay Student Loan Debt Quicker
Student loan borrowers often take much longer than the standard 10-year repayment schedule to fully pay off their student loans. You can shorten the amount of time it takes to repay your student loan debt by taking the following steps.
Pay More Than the Minimum Monthly Payment
First, if you can afford it, pay more than the minimum monthly payment. The more you pay toward principal, the less you'll pay in interest over the life of the loan, and the less time it'll take to pay off the loan. Make sure to instruct the lender to apply any extra payment you make to the loan's principal balance. Otherwise, the lender might apply it toward your next scheduled payment.
Make More Than One Payment per Month
Making an extra payment in addition to the minimum payment means you accrue less interest between payments. Again, this lowers the total interest you’ll pay over the life of the loan and decreases the time it’ll take to pay off the loan. You could also set up half-payments (1/2 of the minimum monthly payment amount) for every two weeks (bi-weekly) instead of monthly. That will create 26 half-payments — or 13 full payments — for the year.
Create a Budget
Paying down your student loan balance as quickly as possible is a wise financial goal. Adjust your budget to pay a little more than your minimum monthly payment. This can result in significant savings in interest accrual and repayment terms. And if you get a raise or a financial windfall such as an income tax refund, put some of that money toward your student loan repayment.
Refinance Your Student Loan to a Shorter Term
Consider refinancing to a shorter loan term if you can make higher monthly payments. If you have good credit, you may get a lower interest rate, saving you lots of money in interest over time. But remember, refinancing a federal student loan converts it to a private loan. This means you’ll no longer be eligible for income-driven repayment plans or loan forgiveness programs that federal loans offer.
To refinance your student loan, contact your loan servicer. A loan servicer acts as a middleman between you and your lender. Loan servicers can help you change your repayment plan, apply for student loan forgiveness, and pause your loan payments.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education offers a public service loan forgiveness program, which provides loan forgiveness for borrowers working full time in public service.
Things That Can Influence the Student Loan Repayment Period
Refinancing your student loan or entering a deferment or forbearance program can affect how long it takes to repay your loan.
Refinancing with new loan terms (and often with a new lender) can change how much time it takes to pay off student loan debt. If you refinance your loan to get a shorter term, it typically increases your monthly payments. So you’ll pay off the loan faster, but your monthly payments will be higher. If you refinance to lower your monthly payments, you’ll generally increase your loan term, and it will take longer to pay off the loan. This can also increase the total interest you’ll pay over the life of the loan.
Deferment or forbearance programs allow borrowers to pause payments if they’re unemployed, suffering from health issues, serving in the military, or having financial difficulties. These programs will extend the loan's final due date. They may also add accrued but unpaid interest to the loan balance, which will increase the total interest paid over the life of the loan.
Federal student loans have a Standard Repayment Plan with a 10-year repayment term, but many borrowers take much longer to repay student loans. Most borrowers take 10 to 30 years to repay a federal student loan. The timing for repayment depends primarily on the loan type and repayment terms. Private student loan borrowers usually take from five to 20 years to repay their loans.
Three federal loan repayment plans are available for loans repayments that aren’t income-driven. Borrowers can also apply for one of five income-driven repayment plans.
If you can't afford to make payments when they become mandatory, you may be able to apply for deferment or forbearance programs. Private lenders don’t offer loan forgiveness, but some have forbearance programs.
Finally, you can reduce the time it takes to pay off your student loan debt by making extra payments on the principal and by reducing your loan to a shorter term.