The average time a student takes to pay off student loans varies based on many factors, including their total loan amount, annual percentage rate (APR) and monthly payment. Although the standard repayment term for federal loans is 10 years, it can take students up to 30 years or longer to pay off student loans.

If you can afford to make extra payments on your student loans, you can pay them off faster and save a lot of money.

When will my student loans be paid off?

Students who graduate with federal student loan debt are automatically enrolled in the standard repayment plan, which lasts 10 years. You can change the repayment plan if you need more flexibility in your budget.

Federal repayment plans

These are the main differences between types of federal repayment plans:

Federal repayment plan Repayment term Type of payment
Standard repayment plan 10 years (10 to 30 years for Direct Consolidation Loans) Fixed
Graduate repayment plan 10 years (10 to 30 years for Direct Consolidation Loans) Graduated
Extended repayment plan Up to 25 years Fixed or graduated

The standard and graduate repayment plans come with the same repayment terms — 10 years for most loans and up to 30 years for direct consolidation loans. The key difference is that, unlike the standard repayment plan, the graduate repayment plan has graduated monthly payments — payments start out low and gradually increase every two years. Student loan borrowers can also choose an extended repayment plan that has a repayment term up to 25 years and has fixed or graduated monthly payments.

Income-driven repayment plans

Federal loans also come with access to five types of income-driven repayment plans you can apply for, depending on your loan type:

  • Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE Plan): Pay 10 percent of your discretionary income for 20 years, or 25 years if graduate school loans are included in the plan.
  • 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 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 FFEL Loans based on your income over a period of up to 10 years.
Income-driven repayment plan Repayment term Type of payment Qualification requirements
Saving on a Valuable Education Plan (SAVE Plan — formely referred to as the REPAYE Plan) 20 to 25 years Varies by income All Direct Loan borrowers with an eligible loan typeLoan must not be in good standing
Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE Plan) 20 years Varies by income 10% of your discretionary income must be lower than your monthly payment would be on a Standard Repayment Plan
Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR Plan) 20 to 25 years Varies by income 10% of your discretionary income must be lower than your monthly payment would be on a Standard Repayment PlanLoan must be in good standing
Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR Plan) 25 years Varies by income Borrowers with eligible federal loansLoan must be in good standing

Private student loan lenders have other repayment options. In general, you can expect to repay your private student loans within five to 20 years unless you choose to refinance.

When do you start paying back student loans?

Borrowers with federal student loans are required to make their first payment six months after they graduate, leave school or drop below half-time enrollment. If they can’t afford to make payments once repayment starts, they can apply for a deferment or forbearance or switch to a different repayment plan.

Most private lenders also provide a six-month grace period for borrowers, and some may extend this to nine or 12 months. Contact the lender to find out when your first payment is due. Many private lenders also offer a forbearance program.

What are some factors that could impact my student loan repayment?

While standard repayment puts you on track to pay off your student loans within 10 years, several scenarios could lengthen or shorten your student loan repayment.

Enrolling in deferment or forbearance

Deferment and forbearance periods allow you to temporarily stall your monthly student loan payments due to unemployment, financial hardship or enlistment. Both deferment and forbearance are offered to all federal student loan borrowers, and many private lenders also offer forbearance programs.

Enrolling in one of these programs will delay your final due date. If you take a three-year deferment, you’ll add three years to your original repayment term. It may also add the unpaid interest to your student loan balance, which will increase the total interest paid over the life of the loan.

Refinancing student loans

Refinancing is when you take out an entirely new private student loan to replace your current loans. You’ll have new loan terms, a new interest rate and often a new lender.

Because you get new terms when you refinance, refinancing could change the amount of time it takes to pay off your loans. You can select shorter terms if you can handle the larger monthly payments, or you can extend your repayment timeline to lower your monthly bill. Picking a longer term may also increase the total interest paid over the life of the loan.

Adjusting your payment schedule

You’re not beholden to making only one payment a month. If you make payments every three weeks or biweekly, you’ll shorten the time you spend paying your loans. For instance, making 26 half-payments over the course of the year amounts to 13 full payments, or one extra payment. Doing this for three years cuts out three months from your repayment timeline.

If you regularly miss payments or don’t make the full payment, you could lengthen your loan term. Missing payments also puts you at risk of late fees and negative marks on your credit score.

What steps can I take to pay back student loans faster?

Depending on how much you owe, you could need decades to pay off your student loans — but there are some steps you can take to pay them off sooner.

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 choose to make more than the minimum payment, let your lender know that the money is an extra payment or change your automatic payment option online. Otherwise, that money might be applied toward your next payment instead.

You should also indicate which exact loan should get the extra payment, so you can target the loans with the highest interest rate or lowest loan balance, depending on your goals.

2. Pay more than once per month

Making an extra payment in addition to the minimum can go a long way toward reducing the principal of your student loan, since you’ll accrue less interest between payments.

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. Refinance to a shorter term

When you refinance your student loans, you can shorten the repayment term. For example, if you currently have a 10-year term, you can refinance to a seven- or five-year term. If you have a good credit score, you might even be able to get a lower interest rate, saving you hundreds or even thousands in total interest.

Keep in mind that refinancing does have its drawbacks. Federal loans will be converted to private loans when you refinance, meaning you’ll no longer be able to sign up for income-driven repayment plans or loan forgiveness programs.

Next steps

Student loans are a long and pricey investment, so it’s wise to pay them off strategically. 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 high-paying job, you may have the extra cash to chip away at your loans with higher payments. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, 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.

Frequently asked questions

  • Lenders usually expect you to pay your loan based on your loan agreement. If you don’t make on-time payments, it can lead to late payments and severe harm to your credit. But if you’re experiencing financial difficulties, your lender may allow you to temporarily pause payments through forbearance or deferment.
  • Yes, making payments while you’re in school means less interest will grow on the loan, which may result in hundreds of dollars in savings. Plus, it can help you get rid of debt faster once you graduate.
  • Not paying your student loans and waiting on forgiveness is not a good strategy because it can lead to student loan default, which can hurt your credit score and make it harder to qualify for a mortgage or auto loan. A better strategy would be to research all your repayment options. For example, if you have a federal loan and are having trouble making payments, consider enrolling in an income-driven repayment plan.