You’ve finally started to make some extra money. Wisely, you decide to put it toward your student loan payments so you can get out of debt as soon as possible. Yet even with larger payments — far more than the minimum, it feels like your balance isn’t decreasing.
That’s because when you make large payments, lenders are required to put your payment toward any outstanding fees first, then interest and then your principal. Not only that, but if you’re stuck with a bunch of loans, your payment could be spread thin and divided among all your loans.
That’s what happened to me when I started making payments over a thousand dollars. I was paying more than the minimum, but it hardly seemed to matter. A good chunk of it went to interest first, but then the rest was spread evenly among my loans. I knew if I really wanted to make progress and actually see it, I’d have to focus on specific loans.
If you want to jump-start your student loan repayment, here’s how you can make sure that your payments are applied properly so you can make the maximum impact on them.
1. Divide and conquer
The first step is to come up with a plan to help you divide and conquer. Start by creating two lists: one with your federal loans and one with your private loans. Then write down every single loan balance and its interest rate under the corresponding column.
Come up with a plan of attack. Will you use the ever-popular debt snowball method? This focuses on paying off the smallest balance first while paying the minimum on the rest. Or will you use the avalanche method to focus on high-interest debt first? Given the amount of interest my graduate school loans accrued each month, I used the avalanche method.
You can test the impact of both of these strategies using a student loan prepayment calculator.
The divide-and-conquer strategy works because it lets you focus specifically on obliterating one loan at a time, rather than just making a dent in your total loan balance.
2. Talk to your lender
Every lender is different, but if you make a payment that’s more than the minimum without specifying where your money should go, your lender will decide how it’s divided.
To ensure your extra payments are going directly to your principal — and to the loan you want — you need to talk to your lender.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has created a sample letter to help you get started. You can use the following template to send a message to your lender via snail mail or email:
I am writing to provide you with instructions on how to apply payments when I send an amount greater than the minimum amount due. Please apply payments as follows:
After applying the minimum amount due for each loan, any additional amount should be applied to the loan that is accruing the highest interest rate.
If there are multiple loans with the same interest rate, please apply the additional amount to the loan with the lowest outstanding principal balance.
If any additional amount above the minimum amount due ends up paying off an individual loan, please then apply any remaining part of my payment to the loan with the next highest interest rate.
It is possible that I may find an option to refinance my loans to a lower rate with another lender. If this lender or any third party makes payments to my account on my behalf, you should use the instructions outlined above.
Retain these instructions. Please apply these instructions to all future overpayments. Please confirm that these payments will be processed as specified or please provide an explanation as to why you are unable to follow these instructions.
When you make extra student loan payments, it’s critical to remember that lenders are required to pay interest first, and that interest accrues daily. So if you pay an extra $250 on your loans, the full $250 might not be subtracted from the balance.
3. Confirm extra payments are applied correctly
Nelnet was my loan servicer, and I could easily choose which group of loans my payments went to. Using Nelnet, I could go to the site and click an arrow to show all the details of every loan I had. I could then direct a payment toward the loan I wanted to pay.
Since I was using the avalanche method, I focused on getting rid of my highest interest loan first; it had an interest rate of 7.90%. I directed extra money to that loan. Interest was still growing on my other loans; I just chose to pay the minimum on those loans and focus extra payments on one specific loan.
Because I paid so much extra, you can see that Nelnet moved my due date to March 2016, which at the time was about eight months down the road. While I could have technically not paid anything until then, I planned to get rid of my student loans as quickly as possible, so I continued to make monthly payments.
You can also choose “Do Not Advance the Due Date” if you’re paying double or more on your loans with Nelnet. If you feel like the advanced due date might throw you off your repayment plan, I recommend choosing this option so you’re reminded to continue with monthly payments.
Be aware that if you choose to pay extra but then stop making payments because of the advanced due date, you could be doing more harm than good. During that time, you’ll still accrue interest.
For example, even though my bill due date was March 2016, if I neglected to make payments until then, I would have racked up at least $1,000 in interest from the time I made this extra payment until that date. So don’t let the advanced due date confuse you or convince you to stop making payments.
For other lenders, be sure to check that your payments are applied correctly. If it’s not clear on the website, use the above template to contact your lender immediately to make sure your extra payments are going toward the principal of your highest interest loan or lowest balance, depending on what repayment method you choose.
Also, if you send a check in the mail, be sure to include “Apply to Principal” on the memo line to ensure that you’re putting a dent in your loans.
What about refinancing?
You’ll notice in the sample letter to the lender above that there’s a paragraph about refinancing. How exactly does refinancing help you to pay your loans?
You might want to consider refinancing your student loans if you can get a lower interest rate with a different lender, that way you’d be spending less money overall and could potentially get out of debt faster. To get started with refinancing, you’ll first want to compare refinancing lenders to find loan terms that work for you. Be sure to weigh the pros and cons before you refinance, especially if you’re considering refinancing federal student loans.
Make sure you’re paying the principal
If you’re like me and you want to get out of debt as soon as you can, making extra payments is one way to go. But if you use this method, make sure your extra money is hitting the principal and working in alignment with your strategy so you can actually see some progress.
The key is to talk to your lender and set up specific instructions for all your payments going forward.
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