On July 31st the U.S. House of Representatives approved a measure that links interest rates for federal student loans to the yield on 10-year Treasury notes. This is a welcome turnabout for current undergraduates who will now pay 3.86 percent annually instead of the 6.8 percent that would have prevailed otherwise. That said, rates for future borrowers will fluctuate with the market and financial experts agree that rates will climb, likely up to the 8.25 percent cap set by Congress.
Whether recent graduate or new student, the reality and the prospect of thousands of dollars of debt is daunting. Keeping track of all the loans needed to finance an education and determining which to pay off first only adds to the anxiety. Whereas some former students are saddled with one or two loans and some have consolidated their loans, Student Loan Hero reports that its average user has incurred close to $60,000 in debt from eight sources that are serviced by several federal and private entities. Students with government-backed loans have easy access to account details through the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS). But for borrowers who prefer a different approach or hold debt from non-government sources, free programs that help manage the payoff process are also available.
Track and Manage.
We found two free resources, Student Loan Hero and Tuition.io (beta), that let borrowers track and manage their loans. Federal and private loans can be added to users' profiles and bank accounts can be synced to give the programs access to payment due dates and to keep information current. Both services include a dashboard that displays all users' loans in one place and lets them see the potential effect of different payment choices, such as paying an extra $50 a month or making only minimum payments. Users can also view their lifetime payment totals and lifetime interest payments, and access informative guides about loans and loan repayment options.
A third program, Ready For Zero, helps users manage all types of debt, not just student loans. As with the other two sites, users enter a raft of information that feeds a dashboard which helps track and manage loans. Ready For Zero differentiates itself with an accompanying app and $5 a month subscription service that lets users link their bank accounts and make loan payments directly from the dashboard.
For former students who haven't found work or are earning just enough to get by, income-based repayment options for most federal student loans are available. Monthly payments are based on income and family size, adjusted yearly, and calculated for a 25-year repayment schedule; outstanding balances after that period may be forgiven.
Debtors with higher incomes face a different challenge -- figuring out the most effective way to repay loans. A very basic and effective tool for solving this dilemma is Unbury.me. A simple calculator, it shows the difference between using the "avalanche" and "snowball" methods for paying off loans. The avalanche method calls for paying off the highest interest rate loans first, with minimum payments made on all loans and leftover funds allocated to paying down the principal of the loan with the highest rate.
By contrast, snowballers pay off loans with the lowest balances first. This method may result in slightly more interest being paid over the long term; checking with Unbury.me can help determine actual outlays. Even if the snowball method proves more costly, the psychological boost of fully paying off a loan and crossing it off the list may provide the motivation to keep plugging away.
Loan-tracking services aside, the blogs and guides available from Student Loan Hero and Tuition.io are excellent resources for anyone interested in learning how to lower monthly payments, consolidate loans, and manage debt. Studentaid.ed.gov is another resource with lots of useful information; one chart shows the circumstances under which a federal student loan may be forgiven, cancelled, or discharged. Some are morbid, such as death, but debt can also be forgiven if the career path involves teaching or public service.