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The $1,000 Mistake Made by Responsible Borrowers

Paying extra towards your student loans is a great idea, but it is important that you are strategic about the loan you attack.

Written By: Michael P. Lux, Esq.

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Repaying student loans is a marathon. Smart borrowers know that the interest on the loan is the real enemy.

Payments towards interest do not lower the balance owed. Instead, interest payments are simply lender profits. For this reason, many responsible borrowers pay a little extra each month towards their loans.

These extra payments attack the principal balance, get the loan paid off much faster, and save a small fortune on interest spending. How extra payments are made can also make a huge difference in how much the borrower saves.

The Power of Paying Extra Towards Student Loans

The average student loan borrower has around $30,000 in student debt. To make the math easy, let’s assume that our borrower has three loans with a balance of $10,000 each. Interest rates can vary significantly from one borrower to the next, so our example borrower will have a low-interest loan at 3%, a medium-interest loan at 6%, and a high-interest loan of 10%.

If our borrower is on a ten-year repayment plan and pays the minimum for the life of the loan, the total spending will look like this:

LoanOriginal BalanceInterest RateMonthly PaymentTotal Spending
Loan A$10,0003%$96.56$11,587.29
Loan B$10,0006%$111.02$13,322.46
Loan C$10,00010%$132.15$15,858.09

One of the big issues with making the minimum payment is the massive spending on interest. In our example, our borrower will spend well over $10,000 on student loan interest. However, if our borrower is responsible, they will decide to pay a little extra on their debt to get it paid off faster.

Suppose our borrower pays an extra $50 each month for each loan:

LoanOriginal BalanceInterest RateMonthly PaymentTotal Spending
Loan A$10,0003%$146.56$10,977.98
Loan B$10,0006%$161.02$12,004.04
Loan C$10,00010%$182.15$13,423.33

By paying an extra $50 per month on each loan, our borrower can save a whopping $4,362.39 on student loan interest alone. Additionally, by making the extra payments, instead of living with the debt for ten years, our borrower has it eliminated more than three years earlier. For borrowers with larger debts or higher interest rates, the potential savings can be even larger.

Due to the potential savings, many borrowers wisely opt to pay a little extra each month. Unfortunately, this is where most responsible borrowers stop. If they got a little creative, that extra $150 per month could be used even more effectively.

Paying Extra Towards Your Student Loans the Smart Way

Rather than putting an extra $50 towards each loan, suppose our borrower used that extra $150 towards the highest interest rate loan. Once the highest interest rate loan was paid off, the money that normally would have been paid towards the high-interest loan gets applied to the medium-interest loan. This pattern continues until the debt is paid off in full. The repayment strategy is commonly called the debt avalanche method.

Here is how the total spending shakes out:

LoanOriginal BalanceInterest RateTotal SpendingTime to Payoff
Loan A$10,0003%$11,282.44~7 years
Loan B$10,0006%$12,184.59~5 years
Loan C$10,00010%$11,901.67~3.5 years

By shifting to this strategy, our borrower spends the same amount each month, as in the previous example. However, by focusing on the high-interest loan first, total interest spending for all three loans combined drops by over $1,000! The entire debt is also paid off slightly faster.

The advantages of this approach go beyond the massive interest savings. By paying off the high-interest rate loan in its entirety in just 3.5 years, our borrower is in much better financial shape than someone who just paid an extra $50 each month. If, after four years, our borrower tries to buy a home, they will have an easier time qualifying for a mortgage due to the improved debt-to-income ratio. This is because credit evaluations look at monthly minimum debt bills compared to monthly income. By eliminating a loan, borrowers improve their creditworthiness.

This approach also generates some flexibility for our borrower. Suppose after five years there is a huge recession, and our borrower loses their job. Because the high-interest loan will be paid off in full, the remaining minimum monthly payments are a total of $207.58. Had our borrower just paid $50 extra towards each loan, the required minimum monthly payment would still be the full $339.73.

Other Approaches to Attack the Debt

The Snowball Method – This approach is very similar to the avalanche method, except that borrowers target the loan with the lowest balance rather than the loan with the highest interest rate. Financial gurus like Dave Ramsey often advocate this method. The advantage is that borrowers get a few easy wins early in their repayment journey. The hope is that it provides ongoing motivation going forward. The problem is that it is not the most efficient way to eliminate debt because it does not minimize interest spending.

The Refinance Shortcut – Rather than dealing with high-interest loans at all, some borrowers can refinance their student loans with another company and lock in a lower interest rate. This approach can mean huge savings for borrowers who can qualify. Unfortunately, a solid credit score and income are a necessity. At present, some of the best refinance rates start at around 2.5%.

Bottom Line: Make Sure Your Money Goes as far as Possible

Paying extra to eliminate debt is the smart move, and it can result in some massive savings.

However, if you are going to do the responsible thing, go about it smartly with a coherent strategy. Paying extra is good; paying extra in a smart way is even better.

About the Author

Student loan expert Michael Lux is a licensed attorney and the founder of The Student Loan Sherpa. He has helped borrowers navigate life with student debt since 2013.

Insight from Michael has been featured in US News & World Report, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other online and print publications.

Michael is available for speaking engagements and to respond to press inquiries.

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