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Compare fixed- vs. variable-rate student loans
Consider your budget and monthly payments before you decide.
Lenders often offer fixed and variable interest rates on private student loans and refinancing. Simply put, fixed rates stay the same, while variable rates can increase or decrease over time. Fixed rates are generally more reliable. But variable rates can spell extra savings if market rates are low — which is usually the case during an economic downturn.
Fixed vs. variable rates at a glance
|Fixed rate||Variable rate|
|How it works||Pay the same rate over the life of your loan||Pay a rate that changes over the life of your loan based on the lending market, usually every one or three months|
|Monthly repayments||Stays the same||Changes depending on your current interest rate|
|Can I predict my loan’s total cost?||Yes||No|
|How does it compare to federal rates?||Usually higher||It can be lower if you have excellent credit and federal interest rates are low|
|Best for …||Predictable monthly repayments with minimal risk||Finding extra-low rates when the economy is in a downswing and you’re opting for a shorter term|
How fixed-rate student loans work
Fixed-rate student loans are relatively straightforward: When you apply for your loan, you qualify for one interest rate that stays the same throughout the life of your loan. You make the same fixed repayments each month and can easily calculate how much you’ll pay in interest over time.
- Your rate will never increase
- Monthly payments stay the same
- Interest rates may be higher at the start of repayment
- You may miss out on savings if variable rates drop below your fixed rate
How variable-rate student loans work
Variable-rate student loans come with two types of interest rate: a margin rate and benchmark rate. The margin rate is a low, fixed interest rate, that your lender gives you based on your creditworthiness. Each month, your lender calculates your interest by adding your margin rate to a benchmark rate.
A benchmark rate is an interest rate that increases and decreases over time, which outside financial institutions decide based on the lending market. Common benchmark rates are the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Prime Rate, which is based on the fed rate, and the LIBOR rate, which is based on the international lending market.
Generally, variable rates are higher when the economy is strong and lower during a downturn. And most lenders cap their variable rates at around 18% to protect borrowers from ultra-high benchmark rates.
- Your rate may start out lower than fixed rates
- If interest rates fall, then you can save more overall
- Monthly payment amounts can change erratically, making it harder for you to budget
- If market interest rates increase over time, you may be paying more overall than if your rate was fixed
Let’s take a look at an example …
Say you’re looking at a private student loan that advertises variable rates ranging from 1.3% to 10.88%. That rate is actually made up of a margin rate, which ranges from 1.12% to 10.70%, which the lender adds to the One-Month LIBOR rate.
In this scenario, the one-month LIBOR rate is 0.18 — but it changes every month. You’ll pay anywhere between 1.3% and 10.88% during the first month. Between June 2019 and June 2020, the LIBOR rate got as high as 2.4% and as low as just over 0.16%.
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Which type of interest rates do different student loans come with?
Your choice of interest rates will depend on your specific loan — federal student loans, private student loans or refinancing your current student debt. Here’s what you might see with the typical loan options.
Federal student loans come with fixed interest rates only, so you don’t have to worry about choosing when you’re filling out the FAFSA. Variable rates on private student loans can sometimes be lower than federal rates, but they don’t always stay low.
Federal rates are the same for everyone and Congress sets them each year. Generally, federal loans are the safest, least expensive type of student debt you can take on.
Private student loans
Private student loans typically come with a choice of fixed or variable interest rates, though some loans offer one option only. Fixed rates are generally higher than what you’d get with federal student loans, though variable rates can sometimes offer a better deal if the WSJ Prime or LIBOR rates are low.
The main difference between private and federal interest rates is that private lenders look at your — or your cosigner’s — personal finances to determine your rate. Typically, you’ll need a credit score over 760 and a debt-to-income ratio under 20% to qualify for the lowest private rate.
Student loan refinancing
Like private student loans, loans for refinancing student debt tend to come with a choice of fixed or variable interest rates. And like with private student loans, these rates are based on your personal finances, rather than set by an institution.
However, refinancing rates are typically lower than private student loan rates. If you have a credit score over 760, a six-figure job and few other debts, you might even be able to qualify for a lower rate than you have on a federal loan before the economic downturn. And if you’re in a high-paying profession like medicine or law, you might be able to qualify for additional deals.
Which type of rate should I choose?
Which rate is right for you depends on your preferences — and the state of the economy.
You might want a fixed rate if …
- You want predictable repayments. Fixed rates stay the same for the length of your loan term.
- You think rates will increase. If the economy is booming with no sign of downturn, variable rates will likely be high and stay high.
- You need lower monthly repayments. A long term can lower your monthly cost, but increase the chance a variable rate will skyrocket.
You might want a variable rate if …
- Rates are low — and you think they’ll stay that way. Benchmark rates are typically lower during a recession and during the recovery period.
- Your loan is short term. Shorter loan terms mean there’s less time for rates to fluctuate and less risk of paying a higher rate.
- You can qualify for a low margin rate. Even if market rates increase, there’s a chance you still won’t pay more than a fixed rate.
Variable rates are generally riskier than fixed rates and certainly aren’t for everyone. But you might pay less in overall interest if you play your cards right: Stick to a shorter term, and pay attention to what the experts say about the interest rate market.
For even more details to the ins and outs of federal loans, private loans, refinancing and more – read our comprehensive guide to student loans.
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