Paying off student loans can take anywhere from 10 to 30 years, depending on the type of loan and repayment term you choose. Even though the Standard Repayment Plan for federal loans lasts 10 years, it takes most borrowers longer to finish paying off their balance.

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. But you can change the repayment plan if you need more flexibility in your budget.

The federal student loan repayment plans include:

  • Standard Repayment Plan: Fixed monthly amount for 10 years (or between 10 and 30 years if you have a Direct Consolidation Loan).
  • Graduated Repayment Plan: Payments start out low and gradually increase every two years, with repayment completed within 10 years (or between 10 and 30 years if you have a Direct Consolidation Loan).
  • Extended Repayment Plan: Fixed or graduated payments with a term of up to 25 years.

There are 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.

Private student loan lenders have their own 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.

Factors that could impact your student loan repayment

While standard repayment puts you on track to pay off your student loans within 10 years, there are several scenarios that 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.

But 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 even biweekly, you’ll shorten the amount of 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 over the span of three years cuts out three months from your repayment timeline.

On the other hand, if you regularly miss payments or don’t make the full payment, you could lengthen your loan term — while also putting you at risk of late fees and negative marks on your credit score.

How 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 do 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 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 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.

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