If you owe a ton of money on your student loans and to multiple lenders, the idea of consolidating them into one new loan can seem very tempting. You’ve probably seen ads from debt consolidation companies extolling the virtues of a debt consolidation loan. They usually focus on the fact that if you consolidate, you will have only one payment to make every month instead of the multiple ones you’re making now. And that payment will be “dramatically” be less than the total of the payments you’re now making.
This is all true but before you decide on a debt consolidation loan, there are some important things to consider.
When it comes to consolidating student loan debts there are basically two options. You could get a Direct Consolidation Loan from the federal government or from a private lender.
If you were to choose a Federal Direct Consolidation Loan, you could consolidate the following types of loans.
- Direct Subsidized Loans
- Direct Unsubsidized Loans
- Subsidized Federal Stafford Loans
- Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans
- Direct PLUS Loans
- PLUS loans from the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program
- Supplemental Loans for Students (SLS)
- Federal Perkins Loans
- Federal Nursing Loans
- Health Education Assistance Loans
In other words, you could consolidate just about every type of federal loan if, and here comes the big if, and that’s you need to have at the minimum one Direct Loan or FFEL Program loan that is in repayment or in a grace period. In addition, you must either make repayment arrangements with your loan servicer that are satisfactory to it or you will need agree to repay the loan under Income-Based Repayment, Pay As You Earn repayment or Income-Contingent Repayment.
Calculating your interest rate
Both the interest rate and the term are fixed with a Federal Direct Consolidation Loan. The way interest rates are calculated is based on the weighted average of the loans being consolidated rounded up to the nearest 1/8th of one percent. The best way to think of this is that your new interest rate will be higher than the loan with the lowest interest rate you’re now paying but lower than your loan with the highest interest rate.
Note: The government has a calculator you could use to determine exactly what your new interest rate would be.
The application process
If you decide on a Federal Direct Consolidation Loan, the application process is fairly simple. You go to StudentLoans.gov where you will find both paper and electronic applications. You can download the electronic application or download and print the paper version. You would then submit it by US mail. If you choose to file electronically, there are five steps as follows.
1. Choose Loans & Servicer
2. Repayment Plan Selection
3. Terms and Conditions
4. Borrower and Reference Information
5. Review and Sign
Once you’ve submitted your application electronically or by mailing the paper version, the consolidation service you selected will handle all the other actions necessary to consolidate your loans. It will also be your point of contact should you have any questions in the future regarding your consolidation application.
Repaying your Federal Direct Consolidation Loan
As noted above, you have three repayment options if you choose a Federal Direct Consolidation loan. They are Income-Based Repayment, Pay As You Earn repayment and Income-Contingent Repayment.
Private student consolidation loans
Given the fact that federal consolidation loans come with some pretty great features, why would you choose to refinance with a private lender? One way to determine whether this would make sense for you is to use this guideline: If your annual income is larger then the amount of student loan debt you have, you might take a look at private refinancing. You’ll also need to take into consideration other factors such as your credit history and other monthly expenses. However, comparing your income to your debt load is a good way to start.
More and more private lenders are entering the student loan consolidation market so that there are more and more options for refinancing. Be sure to keep in mind that once you consolidate your student loans with a private lender you will lose the benefits that come with a federal loan including loan deferment, repayment options, forbearance and loan cancellation. So before you take out a private debt consolidation loan, it’s important to ask yourself whether or not it’s worth it to give up those benefits just to get a lower interest rate.
Check out other options
Before you apply for either a Federal Direct or a private consolidation loan, do check out the other options available for handling your debts. For example, you could go to a credit-counseling agency for help. This is where you will be assigned a counselor that reviews all of your finances, helps you develop a budget and provides you with tips for better managing your money and your debts. There’s likely a credit-counseling agency near where you live. Just make sure it’s a nonprofit and offers its services either free or at very low cost. Also, if you choose this option do not let your counselor push you into a debt management program unless you totally understand it.
Snowballing your debts is another way to get student loans paid off without having to borrow money to do it. This is a technique developed by the financial guru Dave Thomas. The way it works is that you focus all of your efforts on paying off the student loan with the lowest balance. Once you’ve done this you will have more money available to pay off the loan with the second smallest balance and so on. This is called snowballing because as you pay off each loan you will gather momentum to pay off the next loan just like a snowball rolling downhill gathers momentum. If you choose to do this just make sure that while you’re paying off that first loan you continue to make at least the minimum payments on your other loans.
If you do decide that a private debt consolidation loan would make sense given your earnings and circumstances, be sure to shop around. There are, unfortunately, some debt consolidation companies that are basically scam artists. While they promise a consolidation loan, what they often do is push you into a debt consolidation program.