How long does it take to pay off student loans?

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When you graduate or drop below half-time enrollment, it’s time to start repaying your student loans. It could take anywhere from 10 to 30 years to pay off your student loans, depending on the type of loan you have.

Even though the Standard Repayment Plan for federal loans says that you’ll complete payments in 10 years, it takes most borrowers twice as long to finish paying off their loans. EducationData.org found that it takes the average graduate 20 years to pay off these loans, while it could take more than 46 years for professional graduates to pay off their loans.

How long does it take to pay off student loans?

Most students who graduate with federal student loan debt are automatically enrolled in the Standard Repayment Plan, which lasts 10 years. But you can adjust your repayment plan based on your income and family size. The federal student loan repayment plans are:

  • Standard Repayment Plan: Fixed monthly amount for 10 years (or up to 30 years if you have a Direct Consolidation Loan).
  • Graduated Repayment Plan: Payments start out low and gradually increase over time, usually every two years, with repayment completed within 10 years (or up to 30 years if you have a Direct Consolidation Loan).
  • Extended Repayment Plan: Fixed or graduated payments with a final payoff within 25 years.
  • Extended Graduated Repayment Plan: For student loan balances of at least $30,000, payments start out low and increase gradually over a period of 25 years.
  • Income-Driven Repayment Plans: Payments are based on income and family size. After 20 or 25 years — depending on your plan — the remaining balance is forgiven.

Private student loan lenders operate on their own timetable. But for the most part, you can expect to repay your private student loans within five to 20 years unless you choose to refinance.

Understanding student loan debt

Higher education isn’t getting any more affordable, and if student loans aren’t properly managed, you could be stuck with debt for years down the road. This is because you’ll be charged interest on your loan balance every month, and if you don’t pay your balance in full, that interest will continue to accrue. The longer you take to pay off your balance, the larger your debt grows, which can impact things like renting an apartment, buying a home and getting approved for credit cards.

Understanding fully how your student loans work and what repayment options are available to you has the potential to both save you thousands of dollars and strengthen your credit score.

Tips for paying off student loans faster

Depending on how much you owe, your student loans are going to be around for a while. But there are some steps you can take to pay them off sooner than the projected completion date.

1. Pay more than the minimum amount

If you have the means, pay more than what you owe each month. The more money you put toward your principal balance, the less you’ll pay in total interest over the life of the loan and the faster you’ll pay off your loans. If you do choose to make more than the minimum payment, let your lender know that the money is an extra payment — otherwise it might be applied toward your next payment instead. You should also indicate which loan should get the extra payment, so you can target the loans with the highest interest rate or highest loan balance, depending on your goals.

2. Pay more than once per month

Making an extra payment in addition to your required payments can go a long way toward reducing the principal of your student loan, since you’ll accrue less interest between payments. A more significant percentage of that money can be applied to the principal as a result. If possible, try setting up payments for every two, three or four weeks instead of monthly — even small tweaks to your schedule can add up.

3. Create and maintain your budget

Your budget is a living, breathing document. It should stand as a guideline for how you handle your money, both what comes in and what goes out. Your student loan line item should include what you’ll pay every month. If your budget says that you’ll pay $300 when your minimum is $250, then you’ll pay a little extra with every payment.

If you come into any extra cash, like if you get a raise at work or you pay off your car, consider adding that new money to your student loan payments and making adjustments to your budget.

4. Consider an income-driven repayment plan

Income-driven repayment plans, available to federal student loan borrowers, base your monthly payment on your current income. After 20 or 25 years, the remaining balance is forgiven.

There are four types of income-driven repayment plans that you can apply for:

  • Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE Plan): Pay 10 percent of your discretionary income for 20 to 25 years for undergraduate or graduate school loans, respectively.
  • Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE Plan): Pay 10 percent of your discretionary income for 20 years.
  • Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR Plan): Pay 10 percent of your discretionary income for 20 years if you’re a new borrower (on or after July 1, 2014) or 15 percent of your discretionary income for 25 years if you’re not a new borrower.
  • Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR Plan): Pay 20 percent of your discretionary income (or what you would pay on a standard 12-year repayment plan) for 25 years.

What if I refinance my student loan?

Refinancing is when you take out an entirely new loan to replace all of your current loans. You’ll have new loan terms, a new interest rate and sometimes a new lender you make payments to every month.

You can refinance if you have federal loans, private student loans or a mix of both. Refinancing is a good idea if you can get a lower interest rate than what you’re paying now, which is usually achievable if you have stellar credit or if interest rates were exceptionally high when you took out your loans. If you have a mix of private and federal student loans, refinancing will combine them into one monthly payment. If you want to pay off your loan sooner to avoid paying more in interest over the life of the loan, refinancing can help.

Because you get new terms when you refinance, refinancing could alter the amount of time it will take to pay off your student loans. You could select shorter terms if you can handle the larger monthly payments, or you could extend your repayment timeline to lower your monthly bill.

If you have federal student loans, refinancing means that you’ll lose your federal protections, like deferment and forbearance in case you need to temporarily pause your payments. During COVID-19, the federal government has put a blanket pause on all federal student loans, giving borrowers the chance to prioritize other needs instead of making payments to avoid crushing their credit. Private student loan borrowers, including borrowers who refinance, don’t have the same luxury.

Refinancing might be a good option for some, but it’s not always the best option for everyone. Review all your options before going this route to make sure that it’s the right one for you. If you have all federal loans, you may want to consider consolidation instead.

Next steps

Student loans are a years-long investment, so it’s wise to be strategic about paying them off. Take the time to check out other repayment options to see which ones best fit your financial obligations. For instance, if you graduate school and immediately start a well-paying job, you may have the extra cash to chunk away at your loans with higher payments. But if you’re struggling to make ends meet, you may want to explore income-driven repayment plans until you can afford higher payments.

If you’re unsure how to move forward, a student loan calculator can help you find the best payoff plan for you.

Sign up for a Bankrate account to access calculators and other resources to help you make confident financial decisions.

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Written by
Hanneh Bareham
Student loans reporter
Hanneh Bareham specializes in everything related to student loans and helping you finance your next educational endeavor. She aims to help others reach their collegiate and financial goals through making student loans easier to understand.
Edited by
Student loans editor
Reviewed by
Nationally recognized student financial aid expert