When you’re just out school and you’re on the hunt for your first job, tackling thousands of dollars in student loan debt probably isn’t realistic for your budget. If you can’t handle the payments, taking a deferment gets you off the hook but it’s only a temporary solution.

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Once you’re finally earning some real money, you can begin to tackle the debt so it’s not such a black cloud hanging over your head. If you took out multiple loans, consolidating them is a good way to save money and relieve some of the stress of trying to pay them down. If you’re not sure what your student loan repayment options are once your deferment ends, here’s a rundown of what you need to do to get things back on track.

Assess the damage

As long as you’re in deferment, you’re not expected to make any payments towards your loans but depending on the type of loans involved, you could see your balance grow. If you took out unsubsidized federal loans or PLUS loans, the interest meter keeps running the whole time you’re in deferment. Students who are able to defer their private loans will also see the interest continue to add up.

If you were in deferment over a long period of time, you may cringe at the thought of checking your latest loan statement but that’s the first step in developing a sound repayment strategy. You have to be clear on exactly how much you owe and what kind of interest rate you’re actually paying, no matter how ugly the final number may be.

Apply for a Direct Consolidation loan

If you took out several federal loans, a Direct Consolidation loan allows you to combine all of them into one so you only have a single monthly payment to worry about. Borrowers can also use the federal consolidation program to convert variable loans to a fixed rate or extend the length of their repayment term. Generally, you can consolidate if you took out Direct loans, Stafford loans, Perkins loans, PLUS loans and Health Education Assistance loans. You can’t, however, lump in your private loans.

Consolidating federal loans is fairly straightforward. The entire process takes place online and there’s no fee involved to apply. Once the new loan is disbursed, you’ll have to start making payments within 60 days.

While there are definitely some advantages to combining your federal loans, there are some potential downsides to keep in mind. If you opt to extend the repayment period, for example, you might get a lower payment but you’re going to end up paying more in interest over the life of the loan. There’s also the possibility of losing certain borrower benefits, such as interest rate discounts or principal rebates, if you decide to consolidate.

Scope out a better deal on private loans

Consolidating your private loans offers the same kinds of benefits as far as combining your payments or switching to a fixed rate, but the process works a little differently. Unlike with federal loans, there’s no single entity that’s responsible for consolidating privately-funded loans. That means you’ll have to do some homework before pulling the trigger.

There are a number of lenders that specialize in private loan consolidation, including Wells Fargo, Chase and Charter One Bank. A quick Internet search should yield even more results and sifting through them all can be overwhelming since they each have different criteria for consolidation. For instance, some lenders only offer consolidation for graduate loans, while others require you to have a minimum amount of private loans.

When you’re comparing private loan consolidation options, there are several things to keep in mind, starting with the interest rate. Generally, private lenders will let you choose between a fixed or variable rate. The advantage of a fixed rate is that you never have to worry about it going up but you could end up paying more in interest over the life of the loan.

The next thing you want to consider is what fees are involved. Some lenders may charge an origination fee for funding the loan, a prepayment penalty if you knock it out ahead of schedule or a processing fee for paying by credit card.

Once you’ve settled on a lender, you’ll have to complete the application process. Unlike federal loans, your income and credit history are taken into account when determining whether you qualify. If you’ve got a low credit score or you haven’t been working that long, you may need to bring a co-signer on board to close the deal. You also need to make sure you’re up-to-date on your payments before you apply.

Choose your repayment terms wisely

When you’re weighing your student loan repayment options, it’s important to run the numbers before you commit to a payoff plan. For instance, if you’re not making tons of cash yet, income-based repayment might be appealing if you’re consolidating federal loans. Your payments are limited to 15 percent of your discretionary income and you have up to 20 years to wipe out the balance. That’s twice as long as you’d get compared to the standard repayment plan but it also means more interest you’re paying overall.

If you’re consolidating private loans, the total amount you’ll pay depends on the loan term and whether you choose a fixed or variable rate. Let’s say you owe $45,000 and you consolidate to a fixed rate of 4.99 percent with a 15-year term. Once you add in the interest, your total repayment amount would be just over $64,000. If you opted for a variable rate, you could end up paying more than that or much less, depending on how the index the rate is tied to fluctuates. It all comes down to how comfortable you feel taking the risk.

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