Don't Stress Over Student Loans

If payments are taking a huge slice out of your salary, choose another repayment plan.

Among graduates of the class of 2012 who borrowed, the average debt is $29,400—not a crippling amount, but no easy lift, either. Many graduates have a mix of federal loans at a variety of interest rates (federal Direct Loans, the most widely available, carried a 3.86% rate for the 2013–14 school year), and some borrowers also have private loans with variable rates as high as 11%. You can pick a repayment plan that fits your finances; if your circumstances change, you can always change the plan. (See which best fits your budget with the Department of Education's Repayment Estimator.)

The most straightforward repayment plan for federal loans is the standard ten-year plan. Under this arrangement, you pay the same amount each month until your loan is repaid. But that can be challenging for graduates with a lot of debt or a low-paying job. Borrowers who have $30,000 or more in loans can opt for the extended-repayment plan, which lowers the monthly bill by lengthening the re­payment period to as long as 25 years. The graduated repayment plan requires lower payments at first and then raises them, usually every two years, for up to ten years, presumably as your income increases. (With the extended and graduated plans, you’ll pay more interest than with the standard repayment plan.)

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Former Staff Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance