Student Loan Payments: Everything You Will Ever Need to Know

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Once you finish school, the real world intrudes. It’s time to find a job and get serious about what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. Oh, and there’s a good chance you’ll have to take these weighty steps while figuring out what to do with your student loans.

Student loan payments can feel overwhelming, especially when you look at the raw numbers associated with four (or more) years’ worth of college debt.

There’s a lot to know about student loan payments: How to extend your grace period, how to make sure you get credit for extra payments, and when the best time is to consolidate your loans. As you get ready to begin repaying your student loans, here’s what you need to know.

Making your first student loan payment

The good news is that, in many cases, you have a brief period of time before you have to start repaying your student debt. Your grace period gives you time to figure out your finances and set up a student loan payment plan that works for you.

How long is your grace period?

The length of your grace period depends on the type of loan you have and your servicer. In general, federal student loans come with a six-month grace period, starting from your graduation or the date when you leave school or drop below half-time enrollment. Realize that interest accrues on unsubsidized loans during your grace period (but not on subsidized loans).

There are exceptions to the federal loan grace period. For example, PLUS loans enter repayment as soon as they are disbursed. As a result, you may need to defer your payments if you aren’t prepared to begin. Your loan servicer can provide you with information on deferring your PLUS loan payments.

Another exception is the Federal Perkins Loan. Even though that program is discontinued for the time being, you might still have a loan from earlier semesters. The school where you received the loan, or your current servicer, can help you determine your grace period.

Finally, if you have private loans, you need to check with your servicer to find out if there’s a grace period for those. Some private lenders, like Citizens Bank[d], offer a six-month grace period, while others expect you to begin paying as soon as you finish school. Still others require repayment while you attend school, so you might need to ask for a deferment if you want to wait until graduation.

Changing your grace period

There are situations that can impact the length of your federal student loan grace period. Here are three circumstances that can result in changes:

  1. Student loan consolidation. When you consolidate during your grace period, you give up the remainder of the time you have. In general, the first payment on your consolidated loans takes place about two months after the process is completed.
  2. Active duty military. When you choose to serve the country as a member of the military, your grace period extends throughout your entire service, as long as you are on active duty for more than 30 days. A full six-month grace period starts when you receive your discharge.
  3. Returning to school. If you re-enroll in school (including grad school) for at least half-time before the end of your grace period, you can suspend your payments. The grace period starts again, providing you with the full six months, once you leave school or your enrollment drops below half-time.

Once again, private lenders may have different programs and rules related to your grace period. Double-check the rules surrounding changes to your grace period with your servicer.

Find your student loan servicer

You can’t make a payment if you don’t know where to send the money. The federal government uses other institutions, called servicers, to manage your loan payments. In most cases, your loan servicer should contact you directly, letting you know when your first payment is due and how much you owe.

If you don’t have that information for your federal student loans, you can look it up by going to the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS). You will need a Federal Student Aid ID to make it happen. If you don’t have one, you can create one through the NSLDS.

Do you already know the name of your servicer, but aren’t sure how to contact them? Use this list, provided by the Department of Education, to find the contact information for your federal loan servicer.

student loan payment

Image credit: Federal Student Aid

If you have questions about setting up income-driven repayment, or need other information about managing your student loan payments, your loan servicer should be able to answer your questions.

For private student loans, you need to check through your mail or email correspondence to see who is servicing your loans. Try to keep information on your loan servicer in an easy-to-find place so you can access it quickly when needed.

Consolidating your student loans

Student loan payment often seems like too much because you may need to make more than one payment each month. Because of how student loans are disbursed, each year is considered a separate loan with a separate payment.

Depending on your situation, it’s possible to simplify matters through federal student loan consolidation. With this process, your loans are grouped together in a way that allows you to make only one payment each month. You can start the federal loan consolidation process by going to StudentLoans.gov.

Because you give up the remainder of your grace period, it can make sense to apply for consolidation toward the end of your six months. Carefully review your options and consider consulting with a financial professional to help you decide if consolidation is the right move.

It’s also possible to consolidate private student loans. Contact your servicer to find out how they manage the process.

Refinancing your student loans

Borrowers can consolidate private and federal student loans through refinancing. In some cases, this can lead to a lower interest rate and save you money overall.

If you have multiple private student loans from different lenders, refinancing using one lender can help you get on top of the payments. It’s often easier to keep track if you only need to make one payment and you only have one interest rate.

However, before you decide to refinance federal loans, you should consider the fact that you will lose access to income-driven repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). By refinancing federal student debt, you replace those smaller loans with a bigger private loan. Once that’s done, you lose some of the options that come with federal loans.

Weigh the benefits of a lower interest rate against the possibility that you might need income-driven repayment or PSLF later on. If you are worried about losing access to those options, then you’ll probably want to stick with federal loan consolidation.

Deciding to refinance or consolidate during your grace period can make a lot of sense, since it sets you up to have a repayment plan in place before your first payment is due. Use your grace period to research your options and decide what works best for you.

Set up your payment process

Now it’s time to set up your student loan payment process. If you still use checks, find out the payment address by contacting your servicer. However, chances are you probably want to make things easy by using automatic payments.

When you receive the information from your servicer, look for directions on setting up your account for online management. You should be able to receive your statement electronically and make payments on online. Many servicers allow you to pay through their websites, or set up autopay so the money is automatically deducted from your bank account each month.

Ask your servicer about programs that allow you to receive a discount on your APR when you sign up for autopay. While it might not be a huge savings, every little bit can help you pay less overall on your student loans.

If you decide to set up automatic payments through your bank or credit union, you will need information about your loan servicer, including the name and address, as well as your account number.

Once this information is in your financial institution’s system, you can go in once a month to pay your bill, or have your bank or credit union pay it automatically. When you use this method, understand that some financial institutions actually cut checks for the bills. Plan ahead and arrange to pay the bill five to seven days before it’s due so the check arrives on time.

How student loan payments are applied

Now that you’ve made your first student loan payment, it’s a good idea to understand how your payments are applied.

First of all, if you are in good standing, your payment goes first to the monthly interest and second toward paying down your principal. Say you have a monthly payment of $452. Your interest each month is $25. That $25 goes directly to your loan servicer, while the remaining $427 goes toward reducing your principal.

If you owe fees due to late or missed payments, those are often applied even before the interest. So if you fall behind on your debt, even less of your monthly payment will go toward principal reduction. Using the example above, if your late fees and previously accrued interest add up to $250, that will come out of your payment first. Your monthly interest is then taken out of the remaining $202, leaving only $177 to reduce your principal.

There’s an exception for income-driven repayment, however. If you are on one of those plans, the allocation favors interest before fees. However, you still have the fees taken before any amount is applied to your loan principal.

Whether your interest or fees come out first might not make a difference in the long-term if your monthly payment covers everything. If you have high enough fees to overwhelm your monthly payment, though, the fees coming out first means that you might not have enough left over for your interest. And that means the interest keeps adding up — and could be added to your loan total. Being able to take care of interest before handling fees can keep you from seeing your loan balance grow over time.

Extra payments

Student loan servicers automatically apply anything extra you put toward student loans to future payments. So, if decide you want to pay $100 extra each month, it’s not going to automatically reduce your principal.

In the example above, let’s say you decide to pay $552 each month instead of $452. Rather than reducing your principal, the extra hundred dollars is applied to the next payment. So next month, you only need to pay $352. If you keep paying that $552, the following month, it will look like you’ve reduced your monthly payment requirement to $252. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you’re out in front of your payments, but you’ll be paying future interest rather than just the principal.

Setting up an autopay with your servicer based on your minimum payment can also derail your efforts to pay off your loan faster. Say you have an autopay of $452 set up with your servicer. You decide to make extra payments, and set up a separate payment for an extra $100. But again, each extra payment you make goes toward a future payment, rather than directly reducing your principal.

Over time your autopay plan with the servicer is adjusted to reflect that you’ve made future payments. The servicer might decide to reduce what it takes out in autopay each month, effectively ruining your attempts to repay your student loans early.

You can save money on interest and pay off your loan faster by putting extra money toward your payment each month. However, when you do this, you need to do it right. The best way to ensure extra money goes toward actually reducing the principal on your debt is to contact your loan servicer and specify that your additional payment shouldn’t be used for future payments.

What happens when you miss a student loan payment?

Life happens. Sometimes you aren’t able to meet your debt obligation. Unfortunately, missing a student loan payment can result in a lower credit score, and your student loans can go into default if you fall too far behind.

Ending up in default not only impacts your credit score, but it can also reduce your access to federal programs like PSLF and FHA mortgage loans. Wage garnishment and tax return withholding are two other potential consequences of federal student loan default. Private lenders can also sue for wage garnishment.

How to avoid student loan default

If you end up in a situation where you can’t make your student loan payments, contact your federal loan servicer as quickly as possible to discuss these options:

  • Deferment, which allows you to delay making payments for up to three years. You can extend your deferment if needed. Your interest stops accruing on subsidized loans during deferment but continues accruing on unsubsidized loans.
  • Forbearance, which can be an option if you don’t qualify for deferment, allows you to put off making payments for up to 12 months. Interest accrues on all federal loans during forbearance.
  • Income-driven repayment (IDR) can help you reduce payment amounts so they are affordable. If you have a low income, IDR can provide you with a way to continue making payments without breaking your budget. Before contacting your servicer, check out our complete guide to IDR, so you are educated about which plan might work best for you. Our handy calculator can also help you identify a plan likely to fit your needs.

If you have private student loans, you should get in touch with your servicer right away to look into possible solutions. Some private lenders and servicers offer hardship relief and payment plans that can help you find a more manageable payment while you work on your financial situation.

What if you’re already in default?

If you’re already in default, it’s important to contact your servicer to work on a solution. You aren’t eligible for IDR  until your federal student loans are current, but your servicer can help you create a payment plan to catch up on your loan and regain good standing. When your loans are current, ask your servicer about IDR and other affordable payment options.

How to report a problem with your servicer

Complaints about student loan servicers are on the rise. Concerns about how payments are credited, and lack of information about federal programs and resources, are some of the issues.

If you feel like your servicer is treating you unfairly, file complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Department of Education. It’s also possible to contact a student loan ombudsman to help you resolve problems with servicers.

In the end, understanding the student loan payment process can help you be a better advocate for yourself and stay on top of the situation.

Interested in refinancing student loans?

Here are the top 6 lenders of 2018!
LenderVariable APREligible Degrees 
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1 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or possess a 10-year (non-conditional) Permanent Resident Card, reside in a state Earnest lends in, and satisfy our minimum eligibility criteria. You may find more information on loan eligibility here: https://www.earnest.com/eligibility. Not all applicants will be approved for a loan, and not all applicants will qualify for the lowest rate. Approval and interest rate depend on the review of a complete application.

Earnest fixed rate loan rates range from 3.89% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.87% APR (with Auto Pay). Variable rate loan rates range from 2.47% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.87% APR (with Auto Pay). For variable rate loans, although the interest rate will vary after you are approved, the interest rate will never exceed 8.95% for loan terms 10 years or less. For loan terms of 10 years to 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 9.95%. For loan terms over 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 11.95% (the maximum rates for these loans). Earnest variable interest rate loans are based on a publicly available index, the one month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Your rate will be calculated each month by adding a margin between 1.82% and 5.50% to the one month LIBOR. The rate will not increase more than once per month. Earnest rate ranges are current as of Month/Day/Year, and are subject to change based on market conditions and borrower eligibility.

Auto Pay discount: If you make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic, monthly deduction from a savings or checking account, your rate will be reduced by one quarter of one percent (0.25%) for so long as you continue to make automatic, electronic monthly payments. This benefit is suspended during periods of deferment and forbearance.

The information provided on this page is updated as of 08/21/18. Earnest reserves the right to change, pause, or terminate product offerings at any time without notice. Earnest loans are originated by Earnest Operations LLC. California Finance Lender License 6054788. NMLS # 1204917. Earnest Operations LLC is located at 302 2nd Street, Suite 401N, San Francisco, CA 94107. Terms and Conditions apply. Visit https://www.earnest.com/terms-of-service, email us at hello@earnest.com, or call 888-601-2801 for more information on ourstudent loan refinance product.

© 2018 Earnest LLC. All rights reserved. Earnest LLC and its subsidiaries, including Earnest Operations LLC, are not sponsored by or agencies of the United States of America.


2 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

  1. VARIABLE APR – APR is subject to increase after consummation. The variable interest rates are based on a Current Index, which is the 1-month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) (currency in US dollars), as published on The Wall Street Journal’s website. The variable interest rates and Annual Percentage Rate (APR) will increase or decrease when the 1-month LIBOR index changes.

3 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Student loan Refinance: Fixed rates from 3.899% APR to 8.179% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 2.570% APR to 6.980% APR (with AutoPay). Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at either 8.95% or 9.95% depending on term of loan. SoFi rate ranges are current as of September 14, 2018 and are subject to change without notice. See APR examples and terms. Lowest variable rate of 2.570% APR assumes the current index rate derived from the 1-month LIBOR of 2.08% plus 0.740% margin minus 0.25% AutoPay discount. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. If approved for a loan, the fixed or variable interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, and the term of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. *To check the rates and terms you qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit inquiry. Unlike hard credit inquiries, soft credit inquiries (or soft credit pulls) do not impact your credit score. Soft credit inquiries allow SoFi to show you what rates and terms SoFi can offer you up front. After seeing your rates, if you choose a product and continue your application, we will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit inquiry. Hard credit inquiries (or hard credit pulls) are required for SoFi to be able to issue you a loan. In addition to requiring your explicit permission, these credit pulls may impact your credit score.
  2. Terms and Conditions Apply. SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet SoFi’s underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. To qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. If approved, your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, years of experience, income and other factors. Rates and Terms are subject to change at anytime without notice and are subject to state restrictions. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. Licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp., NMLS # 1121636. (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org)

4 Important Disclosures for LendKey.

LendKey Disclosures

Refinancing via LendKey.com is only available for applicants with qualified private education loans from an eligible institution. Loans that were used for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not eligible for refinancing with a lender via LendKey.com. If you currently have any of these exam preparation loans, you should not include them in an application to refinance your student loans on this website. Applicants must be either U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents in an eligible state to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account and any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to accept a loan offer from a credit union lender. Lenders participating on LendKey.com reserve the right to modify or discontinue the products, terms, and benefits offered on this website at any time without notice. LendKey Technologies, Inc. is not affiliated with, nor does it endorse, any educational institution.


5 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

  1. Offered terms are subject to change. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900). The following table displays the estimated monthly payment, total interest, and Annual Percentage Rates (APR) for a $10,000 loan. The Annual Percentage Rate (APR) shown for each in-school loan product reflects the accruing interest, the effect of one-time capitalization of interest at the end of a deferment period, a 2% origination fee, and the applicable Repayment Plan. All loans are eligible for a 0.25% reduction in interest rate by agreeing to automatic payment withdrawals once in repayment, which is reflected in the interest rates and APRs displayed. Variable rates may increase after consummation. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 2.08% effective July 25, 2018.

6 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

  1. Education Refinance Loan Rate DisclosureVariable rate, based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of August 1, 2018, the one-month LIBOR rate is 2.07%. Variable interest rates range from 2.57%-8.17% (2.57%-8.17% APR) and will fluctuate over the term of the borrower’s loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a cosigner. Fixed interest rates range from 3.75%-8.69% (3.75%-8.69% APR) based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a cosigner. Lowest rates shown require application with a cosigner, are for eligible, creditworthy applicants with a graduate level degree, require a 5-year repayment term and include our Loyalty discount and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. The maximum variable rate on the Education Refinance Loan is the greater of 21.00% or Prime Rate plus 9.00%. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change. Please note: Due to federal regulations, Citizens Bank is required to provide every potential borrower with disclosure information before they apply for a private student loan. The borrower will be presented with an Application Disclosure and an Approval Disclosure within the application process before they accept the terms and conditions of their loan.
  2. Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer with the Education Refinance Loan. Borrowers should carefully review their current benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans and replace those with the benefits of the Education Refinance Loan. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/. We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision at http://www.citizensbank.com/EdRefinance, including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review.
  3. Citizens Bank Education Refinance Loan Eligibility: Eligible applicants may not be currently enrolled, must be in repayment of their existing student loan(s) and must make the minimum number of payments after leaving school. Primary borrowers must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or resident alien with a valid U.S. Social Security Number residing in the United States. Resident aliens must apply with a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. The co-signer (if applicable) must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident with a valid U.S. Social Security Number residing in the United States. For applicants who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer will be required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at anytime. Interest rate ranges subject to change. Education Refinance Loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/consumer credit agreement, verification of application information, certification of borrower’s student loan amount(s) and highest degree earned.
  4. Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.
  5. Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.
  6. Co-signer Release: Borrowers may apply for co-signer release after making 36 consecutive on-time payments of principal and interest. For the purpose of the application for co-signer release, on-time payments are defined as payments received within 15 days of the due date. Interest only payments do not qualify. The borrower must meet certain credit and eligibility guidelines when applying for the co-signer release. Borrowers must complete an application for release and provide income verification documents as part of the review. Borrowers who use deferment or forbearance will need to make 36 consecutive on-time payments after reentering repayment to qualify for release. The borrower applying for co-signer release must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. If an application for co-signer release is denied, the borrower may not reapply for co-signer release until at least one year from the date the application for co-signer release was received. Terms and conditions apply.
  7. Estimated average savings amount is based on 14,659 Education Refinance Loan customers who saved on loans between August 1, 2017 and July 31, 2018. The calculation is derived by averaging monthly savings across Education Refinance Loan customers whose payment amounts decreased after refinancing, calculated by taking the monthly payment prior to refinancing minus the monthly payment after refinancing. We excluded monthly savings from customers that exceeded $4,375 and were lower than $20 to minimize risk of data error skewing the savings amounts. Savings will vary based on interest rates, balances and remaining repayment term of loans to be refinanced. Borrower’s overall repayment amount may be higher than the loans they are refinancing even if monthly payments are lower.

2.57% – 6.98%3Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit SoFi
2.47% – 5.87%1Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit Earnest
2.47% – 8.03%4Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit Lendkey
2.80% – 6.22%2Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit Laurel Road
2.48% – 6.25%5Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit CommonBond
2.57% – 8.17%6Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit Citizens
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