The Truth About Interest Costs When You’re on an Income-Driven Repayment Plan

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income-driven repayment plans

The lower payments often offered by income-driven repayment (IDR) plans can be a huge boon to federal student loan borrowers.

These programs cap your monthly loan payments at a small percentage of your income. The plans can make your payments manageable, but they can increase the total amount of interest charges you pay.

Understanding how student loan interest works on IDR plans is key to deciding if you should enroll in any of the programs and in choosing a plan. Here are five facts about IDR interest costs you must know before signing up.

1. Income-driven repayment plans don’t affect your interest rate

An income-driven repayment plan won’t change your student loan interest rate. Switching to an IDR plan can lower the amount you’re required to pay each month while it extends your repayment period.

However, this move won’t affect your interest rates. Interest will be assessed and charged in the same way it was before you enrolled in the plan.

2. You might pay more in total interest on an IDR plan

Even though your interest rate won’t change on an IDR plan, you can wind up paying more in total interest charges over the life of the loan.

That’s because the lower monthly payments on an IDR plan won’t reduce your balance as quickly as a standard repayment plan. You’ll be charged interest on a balance that’s higher than it would be if you followed the traditional 10-year repayment schedule.

Take, for example, this comparison of interest costs on $25,000 in federal student loans. Assuming interest rates of 4.5% and an income of $30,000, the monthly payment on an Income-Based Repayment (IBR) Plan is $149 — that’s $110 less than the $259 payment on a Standard Repayment Plan.

In the first year of signing up, here’s a look at the interest costs, which are included in the monthly payments.

Standard Repayment Plan
Income-Based Repayment Plan
Monthly payments Monthly interest Loan balance Monthly interest
Loan balance
1 $94 $24,835 $94 $24,945
2 $93 $24,669 $94 $24,889
3 $93 $24,502 $93 $24,834
4 $92 $24,335 $93 $24,778
5 $91 $24,167 $93 $24,722
6 $91 $23,999 $93 $24,665
7 $90 $23,829 $92 $24,609
8 $89 $23,660 $92 $24,552
9 $89 $23,489 $92 $24,495
10 $88 $23,318 $92 $24,438
11 $87 $23,147 $92 $24,381
12 $87 $22,974 $91 $24,323
Total paid $1,084 $2,026 $1,111 $677

By the end of the first year of being enrolled in an IBR plan, a borrower will have a balance that’s $1,349 higher than on a standard plan and will pay $27 more in interest.

This effect also will compound for each year the borrower is enrolled in IBR. By staying on this plan, the borrower will pay $3,811 more in interest over the life of these loans.

3. Monthly payments don’t always cover interest charges

A standard repayment plan for federal student loans will get you out of debt within 10 years. Monthly payments are set to cover both interest charges and repayment of the principal within that time.

An income-driven repayment plan, on the other hand, is designed to have affordable monthly payments based on your current income. It typically won’t help you save on interest costs or get out of debt faster.

In fact, many IDR participants will have monthly payments that are less than what they owe on interest alone. Low payments that result in unpaid interest is called negative amortization.

Say you qualified for a $50 monthly payment under an IDR, for example, but your student loan results in $80 of interest charges per month. That leaves $30 of unpaid interest each month that can accrue and be capitalized, or added to, your student loan balance.

4. Unpaid interest will be added to your balance

Unpaid interest charges will accrue and eventually be added to your student loan balance. This capitalized interest will become part of a new, higher balance that will increase the amount on which you’re charged interest.

Certain actions can trigger a capitalization of unpaid interest on an IDR plan. Each income-driven repayment plan has its own rules and limits on when and how this unpaid interest is capitalized.

Income-driven repayment plan When will unpaid interest be capitalized? How much interest can capitalize?
Pay As You Earn (PAYE) If you no longer qualify for reduced payments under PAYE or leave the plan 10% of your initial debt balance when you enrolled in the plan
Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) If you fail to recertify your income or leave the plan No limit
Income-Based Repayment (IBR) If you no longer qualify for reduced payments or leave the plan No limit
Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) Annually Annual capitalized interest is limited to 10% of initial debt balance upon enrollment

5. Some IDRs help cover unpaid interest

Some federal student loans and IDR plans will help you cover the costs of negative amortization.

If you have subsidized loans, for instance, your student loan interest subsidy might apply to any interest not covered by your monthly IDR payments. On the REPAYE, PAYE, and IBR plans, the U.S. government will pay this leftover interest for the first three years of enrollment.

The REPAYE plan also offers its own interest benefit, which pays 50% of monthly unpaid interest on nonsubsidized loans. This benefit also is applied to subsidized loans when the 100% subsidy expires after three years.

Which IDR plan is most beneficial will largely depend on your debt and financial situation. Our online calculators can help you preview what your payments and interest might look like after enrolling in an IDR plan.

Ultimately, you need to understand the potential costs of an IDR plan and compare your options to make the best decision possible.

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Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.