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How to pay off six-figure student loan debt

9 options to lower your monthly repayments, the total interest cost — or both.

When you’ve graduated with over $100,0000 in debt, there are two main costs to consider: your monthly repayment and the total interest cost. If you have a high-paying career, try to prioritize paying off your loans fast.

If you’re living on a low income, pay attention to the monthly cost first to avoid defaulting. But you might not have to choose — there are several strategies that allow you to focus on both.

1. Start repayments right away

  • Lowers monthly repayments
  • Lowers total cost

One of the easiest ways to cut down on your loan cost is to start making repayments while you’re in school. If you can afford the full repayments, great. But even making interest-only repayments can make a dent in your total loan cost.

Why’s that? Your repayments might not start until six months after you graduate, but interest starts adding up as soon as your lender issues your funds on most student loans.

Then when your repayments begin, that interest capitalizes — or gets added to your loan balance. A higher loan balance means you’ll have higher monthly repayments and pay more in interest in the long run.

2. Apply for forgiveness or loan repayment assistance

  • Lowers monthly repayments
  • Lowers total cost

Planning on starting a career in public service? You might want to look into forgiveness and loan repayment assistance programs available to someone in your field — especially if you’re a lawyer, doctor, healthcare professional or teacher. These programs typically offer anywhere from $20,000 in repayment assistance to 100% forgiveness on your students loans in exchange for one to 10 years of working with underserved communities.

If you think you might be interested in forgiveness, start the process as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the longer you’ll be paying interest on a high balance.

3. Refinance for a lower rate and shorter term

  • Lowers monthly repayments
  • Lowers total cost

Thinking of taking a high-paying job? You might want to consider refinancing instead of forgiveness. Refinancing your loans with another lender allows you to qualify for lower rates and a different term. A lower rate alone lowers your total cost and monthly repayments. Shortening your term lowers your total cost, while stretching it out lowers your monthly cost.

It’s also a way to change your servicer if the company that handles your repayments is frustrating to work with.

Think twice before refinancing federal loans

You risk losing several benefits when you refinance a federal loan. This includes eligibility for some forgiveness programs, repayment plans based on your income and a wide range of deferment and forbearance opportunities. Consider whether you plan on taking advantage of these before you trade in your federal loan for a private one.

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0.94% to 12.99%
Not stated
Starting at $1,000
5 to 15 years
Rates start at 2.84% for residents of all 50 states.
Sallie Mae® Smart Option Student Loan for Undergraduates
1.87% to 11.97%
Not stated
Starting at $1,000
5 to 15 years
Choose from over 8 different options for undergraduates, law students and more.
SoFi Student Loans
1.89% to 11.98% with autopay
Starting at $5,000
5 to 15 years
Undergraduate financing with no late fees to US citizens with good credit.

Compare up to 4 providers

4. Sign up for income-driven repayments

  • Lowers monthly repayments

Got a high amount of federal student loan debt relative to your income? An income-driven repayment plan (IDR) can make your monthly repayments more affordable by basing the cost on your income rather than your loan balance. The government forgives whatever’s left after 20 or 25 years of repayments, depending on the IDR plan you sign up for.

Don’t go with an IDR plan unless you intend to see it through

An income-driven repayment plan might lower your monthly cost, but it can make your loans a lot more expensive if you don’t stick with it until the end of the term. That’s because all unpaid interest gets capitalized if you change plans, increasing your monthly repayments and your total loan cost. Some IDR plans might automatically kick you off if your monthly repayment is higher than what you’d pay on the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan.

5. Lengthen your loan term

  • Lowers monthly repayments

If you have federal loans, you have the option to change your repayment plan at any time through your servicer. Choosing a repayment plan with a longer term reduces your monthly cost — though it increases the total cost of your loan.

Think you’ll be able to afford higher repayments in the near future? Consider a graduated repayment plan that gives you lower repayments that increase over time. Some servicers for private student loans might be willing to extend your term, though most don’t offer graduated repayments.

6. Use the debt avalanche strategy

  • Lowers total loan cost

Got a mix of loans you’d rather not consolidate? Consider strategically applying any extra repayments toward the loans with the highest interest rates first. Since interest adds up over time, it’ll reduce your total loan cost while getting you out of debt faster.

But make sure the repayments go toward your principle instead of moving your loan into “paid ahead” status — servicers often have a special procedure for this.

7. Consider the debt snowball strategy

  • Lowers total loan cost

Another debt repayment strategy, the snowbell method has you prioritize paying off your smallest loans first. It might not save you as much as the debt avalanche strategy, but it’s more psychologically motivating — you get results a lot faster. Like the avalanche strategy, this could be a good choice if you have a mix of different types of loans that you don’t want to consolidate.

Debt avalanche vs. debt snowball methods: Which is right for you?

8. Cut back on expenses to focus on repayments

  • Lowers total loan cost

Even if you’ve consolidated your loans, you can still benefit from making higher or extra repayments toward your loan. Take a look at your budget and figure out how much you can afford to cut back on spending. See how much you can comfortably afford to spend on student loans and plan on paying that amount each month.

Not great with numbers? Consider using one of the best savings apps to help you decide where to cut back.

Don’t neglect your savings

While paying off student loans should be a main focus, don’t forget to put money toward an emergency fund. Most financial experts recommend having enough saved up to cover between three and six months of basic expenses. That way if the unexpected happens — say you lose your job or get into an accident — you don’t risk defaulting on your debt.

9. Take on a side gig and put the money toward your balance

  • Lowers total loan cost

If you don’t want to change your budget — or don’t have much wiggle room — consider taking on a side gig. It doesn’t have to take up a lot of your time — any extra repayments will help you get out of debt faster. Even if you don’t have the energy to take on a second job, putting extra money like a bonus or tax refund toward your loans can help.

Bottom line

When you’re stuck in six-figure debt, you have several options to help you pay off your loans faster, lower your monthly repayments — or both. Trying one or even a few of these methods can make your student loans more manageable so you can move on with your life after graduation.

Learn more about how it all works with our guide to student loan repayment programs.

Frequently asked questions

When do student loans get forgiven?

You could get loan forgiveness if you have federal loans and sign up for an income-driven repayment plan with a 25-year term. Otherwise, you still owe the full balance of your loans unless you apply for a separate forgiveness or loan repayment assistance program.

How long does it take to pay off $200,000 in student loans?

The time it takes to pay off your student loans depends on the term, not the amount you borrow. Student loans typically come with terms from five to 25 years, depending on the lender. However, unless you have an income higher than $200,000, you likely won’t be able to afford the repayments that come with a shorter term.

What happens to my student loan if I die?

Most student loans are canceled if you die — with the exception of some private lenders. They’re also typically canceled if you become permanently disabled. Learn more with our article on what happens to student loans when you die.

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