How Long Does it Take to Pay Off Student Loans?August 25, 2022
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Aid Office, 43 million borrowers in the U.S. owed a total of $1.619 billion in federal student loans in the second quarter of 2022. Basically, if you’re wondering, “How long does it take to pay off student loans,” millions of others likely have the same question. And the answer is complicated.
While Standard Repayment Plans for federal student loans have 10-year terms, the amount of time it takes to repay your balances can vary based on the amount you borrow, the repayment plan you choose, and whether or not you refinance your loans.
Here’s what to know about the term lengths of different repayment plans, how specific actions could impact your timeline for repayment, and how to pay off your student loans faster.
Average Student Loan Payoff Timelines
Apart from Standard Repayment Plans, which generally have 10-year terms, several other repayment plans exist for federal student loans. However, the time it takes to pay off your loans can also vary depending on the amount borrowed, interest rates, your payment habits, and whether you’ve received federal or private loans.
Here’s a look at the total student loan debt by state, plus some stats on average repayment timelines:
- Approximately 43 million borrowers have federal student loans.
- Around 13% of borrowers have private student loans.
- Total average student loan debt per borrower is around $40,274.
- The average time to repay student loans is around 20 years.
Average Time to Repay Undergraduate Loans
Although Standard Repayment Plans have 10-year terms, many people take much longer than that to repay student loans. The average time it takes to repay student loans depends on what degree you obtained, mainly because of the amount borrowed. But it also depends on your income.
If your job is in your degree field, you may be earning the average income in the sector and be able to pay off your loans in the average amount of time. However, if you aren’t working in your degree field and your salary is lower than the average salary for that degree, it may take more time to pay off your loans.
- The average amount of student loan debt for a person who finished some college but did not obtain a degree is $10,000. The average amount of time it takes to repay the loans is just over 17 years.
- For a person who obtained an associate degree, the average amount of debt is $19,600, and, on average, it will take just over 18 years to pay off the loans.
- College graduates that earned a bachelor’s degree will repay an average of $29,900 in student loan debt and take approximately 19 years and 7 months to repay the loans.
Average Time to Repay Graduate Loans
Earning a graduate degree takes more time and, of course, more money. The average amount of student loan debt for graduate degrees is $66,000. However, certain degrees require much more than the average amount of loans and, therefore, more time to pay.
- Medical school – The average student loan debt for medical graduates in 2019 was $223,700. Because of the high salaries, doctors are able to earn after residency it can take an average of 13 years to repay the student loans.
- MBA – If you earn an MBA the average student loan debt is $52,600 and can take 22 years and 10 months to repay.
- Law degree – Obtaining a J.D. may cause you to rack up an average of $134,600 in student loans and it will take an average of 18 years to repay.
- Dentist – To become a dentist it will cost an average of $285,184 in student loans and may take 20-25 years to pay off the debt.
- Veterinarians – Attending veterinary school can cost an average of $183,014 in student loans. It may take veterinarians longer to repay their student loans than traditional medical colleagues because their average income is much lower at $93,830. It can take 20-25 years to repay the loans.
Federal student loan repayment terms
Several different types of federal student loan repayment plans exist, each with varying terms. Here’s a quick look at the different plans, terms, and who they’re best for, as well as some more insight into each type of plan.
|Repayment Plan||Maximum Term||Best for…|
|Standard Repayment||10 years (30 years for consolidation loans)||Borrowers who are comfortable with a 10-year repayment term and not seeking public student loan forgiveness (PSLF)|
|Graduated Repayment||10 years (30 years for consolidation loans)||Borrowers who want low payments to start and aren’t seeking PSLF|
|Extended Repayment||25 years||Eligible Direct Loan borrowers with over $30,000 in debt who aren’t seeking PSLF|
|Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE)||20 years (for undergraduate loans)
25 years (for graduate or professional loans)
|Eligible Direct Loan borrowers seeking PSLF|
|Pay As You Earn (PAYE)||20 years||Eligible Direct Loan borrowers with high debt who are seeking PSLF|
|Income-Based Repayment (IBR)||20 years (for those who borrowed on or after July 1, 2014)
25 years (for those who borrowed before that date)
|Eligible borrowers with high debt who are seeking PSLF|
|Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)||25 years||Eligible Direct Loan borrowers seeking PSLF|
|Income-Sensitive Repayment (ISR)||15 years||Federal Family Education Loan Program (FEEL) borrowers who aren’t seeking PSLF|
Source: Federal Student Aid
Standard loan repayment plans
These plans come with a 10-year repayment term (or 30 years for consolidation loans), though the length of time it actually takes to pay back your loan will vary based on your payment habits. Monthly payments will also vary depending on how much you borrow, though the minimum monthly payment with this plan is $50.
Graduated loan repayment plans
Similar to standard plans, graduated loan repayment plans also have 10-year terms or 30 years for consolidation loans. Minimum monthly payments start at just over interest-only payment amounts, and increase every two years over the loan’s term.
Extended loan repayment plans
To qualify for an extended repayment term of up to 25 years, you need over $30,000 in qualifying federal student loan debt. Monthly payments can be either graduated or fixed and due to the longer term, your monthly payments could be lower than they would with shorter-term plans.
Income-contingent repayment (ICR)
With an income-contingent repayment plan, borrowers pay up to 20% of their monthly discretionary income towards their student loans. Discretionary income is any money that remains after paying essential expenses like taxes or housing costs. Monthly payments for this repayment plan will change each year based on your income. The maximum term length is 25 years, after which any remaining loan balance is forgiven.
Income-based repayment (IBR)
To be eligible for income-based repayment, you’ll need a high level of debt. With these plans, borrowers pay up to 15% of their monthly discretionary income for a total of up to 25 years, depending on when loans are issued. The remaining loan is forgiven after 25 years. Monthly payments are recalculated every year to account for changes in your income.
Pay as you earn (PAYE)
Similar to IBR plans, you’ll need high debt relative to your income to qualify for a pay-as-you-earn plan. These plans require that borrowers pay 10% of their monthly discretionary income towards their student loans, and this amount won’t exceed the total monthly payment for a standard 10-year plan. Under PAYE, loans are eligible for forgiveness after 20 years.
Revised pay as you earn (REPAYE)
Revised pay-as-you-earn plans also require that you have high debt relative to your income. Borrowers will need to pay 10% of their monthly discretionary income toward their loans, and maximum repayment terms vary based on whether you borrowed money for an undergraduate or graduate education. Undergraduate loans have a max repayment term of 20 years, while graduate loans have a max term of 25 years.
Private student loan repayment
Private student loans have varying repayment terms, depending on the lender you choose to work with. Common repayment terms are 5, 10, or 15 years, and monthly payments will vary based on the amount you need to borrow.
What affects loan repayment term length?
Beyond the repayment terms for different plans, a few factors can also impact your student loan repayment timeline. Here’s a look at which actions could have the biggest impact.
Loan deferment and forbearance
Student loan deferment and forbearance could be options to consider if you encounter a financial hardship like job loss or a major health issue, or if you’re active-duty military. Pausing payments can help you get through a challenging financial time, but doing so will extend your repayment term.
And in the case of loan forbearance—apart from a COVID-related pause, with 0% interest rates for eligible loans—your loans will continue to accrue interest during your payment pause, and you could end up with a larger balance.
Student loan refinancing
If you opt for student loan refinancing, you could end up with a longer or shorter term depending on the loan you get. But be aware that you can only refinance your federal loans with a private lender. While refinancing could make sense if you find a private student loan with a significantly lower interest rate than your current federal loan, you’ll sacrifice borrower protections, like student loan forgiveness if you choose to refinance.
That said, it may make sense for your situation if doing so could help you save a lot in the long run. Learn more about how student loan refinancing works.
Student loan consolidation
When you consolidate student loans, the process works similarly to refinancing. You replace an existing loan, or typically, multiple loans, with one new loan. Consolidating your loans can make the repayment process simpler because you’ll only have one monthly payment to track instead of several. However, your repayment term will restart if you choose to consolidate.
Payment schedule adjustments
If you can afford it, making extra student loan payments could reduce your balances more quickly, and you’ll likely pay less in total interest. You could structure your extra payments in a couple of ways—you might choose to pay a higher amount toward principal each month, or you could opt to make payments every three weeks instead of once a month.
For instance, if you have a $30,000 student loan with a 4.53% interest rate, your total loan cost would be $37,362 if you made standard monthly payments of $211, and your loan balance would be paid off in 10 years. If you chose to increase your monthly payment amount to $411, you’d pay $34,074, and your loan would be paid off in six years instead of 10. Both of these examples assume you’ve made on-time payments each month. Skipping payments or paying late could result in a longer repayment period.
Delinquency and defaulted loans
If you can’t afford your monthly payments or you default on your loans, it can also impact your repayment timeline. According to recent Federal Reserve data, 12% of borrowers were behind on student loan payments in 2021. (Note that this percentage is lower than previous years, likely due to CARES Act provisions.) So if you’re struggling, you aren’t alone.
But unfortunately, there are consequences for not paying student loans, and one of those consequences is a longer repayment term.
When Do You Have to Start Paying Student Loans?
As a borrower, you can expect to start repaying their federal and private loans six months after graduation. You can apply for deferment or forbearance if they can’t afford their payments when they are supposed to start. Borrowers can use this grace period to start preparing for payments to start.
How can I pay off student loans faster?
If you want to pay off your student loans more quickly, there are several things you can do to achieve that goal. Here are some tips to pay off student loans faster:
Pay more than the minimum payment
Increasing your monthly payment amounts could help you pay off your loans faster. Besides paying off loans faster, you’ll also likely save on interest too. Just be sure you inform your lender that the extra money should go toward paying off the principal vs. paying the interest.
Get a second job
Getting a part-time job or side hustle to pay off student loans is another good option. If you choose this path, find a part-time role you’ll enjoy. Potential options include:
- Walking dogs in your spare time
- Selling unwanted items
- Babysitting children
- Becoming a rideshare driver
- Delivering food
Make extra payments
Similar to paying more than the minimum amount, making extra student loan payments will decrease your balances more quickly. Consider paying your loans biweekly or every three weeks instead of monthly. Doing so can be one of the best ways to pay off your loans faster.
Budget Your Spending
Budgeting can help you save more money, which you can then set aside for your student loans. For instance, you might consider budgeting for food, gas, and entertainment, and then using any extra money to make a higher monthly student loan payment.
Make student loan payments while you’re in school
While making student loan payments while you’re in school isn’t required, it can be a good idea. Typically, payments for both federal and private student loans are deferred until after graduation. But with certain types of loans, interest will accrue before you graduate. Paying down student loans while in school can be a great way to get a headstart on those balances.
Talk to your lender
Changing your federal loan repayment plan could be a good option if you’d like to pay off your loans more quickly. Talk with your loan servicer to determine which repayment plan options are available to you, and consider opting for one with a shorter term.
Refinance your student loans for a shorter term
If you’re paying high-interest rates on student loans and want to pay off your balances more quickly, consider refinancing to a shorter-term loan. While a shorter-term loan will likely come with higher monthly payments, you’ll also be able to pay off your debt more quickly. Shorter-term loans often have lower interest rates, which is one of the biggest benefits of refinancing student loans.
Refinance your student loans with ELFI
For those looking into student loan refinancing, ELFI offers competitive rates and flexible terms. There are also loan advisors on hand that can help you with choosing the right student loan refinancing term. Contact us today to get started.