A general rule of debt repayment is that it’s never a bad idea to put extra money towards paying down your debt faster. More money means getting out of debt faster and less money spent on interest. This is true for credit cards, most student loans, car loans, etc.
However, this is actually not necessarily the case in the context of income-driven repayment in the setting of negative amortization (i.e. when calculated monthly payments are unable to cover the amount of accruing interest).
If you can’t dent the principal, then there’s no point rushing to put extra money toward your federal loans. But why?
How Much Will It Take to Make Real Progress?
The average medical resident has big loans and relatively low income. While some intentional living can certainly free up some extra money for debt payoff, it’s much harder to have enough extra to completely mitigate negative amortization, let alone begin actually making progress on paying those loans down.
For example, $200k at 6% accrues $12,000 interest a year. A single resident earning $60k in PAYE/REPAYE has a monthly payment of around $344/month, or $3,864 for the year. In order to break even, you’d need to spend over $8,000 extra. Not chump change, especially on a resident salary.
Leverage the extra money you can earmark for loans to earn some interest elsewhere. A tax-advantaged retirement account (at least get the company match from work if available) or a Roth IRA are great options. When the question is between investing vs. paying down loans, the real answer is yes.
But if you specifically want to put money toward those loans, put it somewhere safe for now that earns some interest and then use it toward your loans. Don’t rush; it’s a waste.
To understand why you should wait, you need to have an understanding of how interest works with federal student loans and how payments get applied.
How Federal Student Loan Interest Works
1. Loans grow with simple interest, and capitalization is only triggered by very specific events. Capitalization is when accrued interest is added to the principal, thus resulting in a bigger loan accruing more interest at a faster rate. The main triggers are loan consolidation, the end of the grace period, changing repayment plans, and if/when you lose your partial financial hardship while in the IBR or PAYE plans.
2. You can’t pay down the principal by making extra payments until you’ve paid off all the accrued interest for a specific loan.
What this means is that once you begin repayment, you should never be surprised by a capitalization event. Your interest will continue to accrue every single day but it will not be added on to the principal unless one of the above factors takes place. Because the principal does not change, the amount of interest accruing remains constant. No matter how big the number gets, the rate of interest accrual remains the same until a capitalization event occurs. Paying down a little extra interest itself now as opposed to later does not change the natural history or your loans or alter the amount needed to pay them down.
In the REPAYE program, half of any accrued interest that is not covered by your monthly payment is forgiven. Therefore, the lower your monthly payment, the lower your effective rate. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still set aside more money every month toward debt repayment, just that there is a real financial benefit to paying as little as possible directly to the servicer in the short term until you are able to dent the principal.
That Money is Still Spoken For
To reiterate, I am not suggesting that you take this extra money that you could otherwise put your loans and spend it toward lifestyle inflation.
That money should be in some kind of loan payoff slush fund, such as a CD or interest-bearing online savings account like Ally Bank.
Earning 1 or 2% risk-free in a savings account will make that money go further when you finally use it on your loans. A lot different? No, of course not. But it does help just a little bit to mitigate what can be relatively high federal loan rates. Sure, it can function as an emergency fund too, but you should give that account a name like “loan money.” It’s not for vacations.
When to Deploy
If you’ve been saving money on the side for loan payoff, there are several situations in which it’s time to pull the trigger and make a large lump sum payment.
- Right before a capitalization event, such as losing your partial financial hardship in IBR or PAYE.
- Right before a private refinance.
- When your income increases enough that you’re actually able to start making substantial progress on your loans, then you can jumpstart it with your slush fund.
Caveat: if you have not consolidated your loans and have some plus loans at a higher interest rate, one could conceivably put all extra funds into paying off that loan first. Given that an individual loan will be a smaller amount, it may be feasible to make progress on it. However, in general, I recommend most people consolidate for the reasons outlined in this post.
Maximizing the REPAYE Subsidy
One of the common REPAYE questions has been if I pay extra will it eat into my repaye subsidy and thus ultimately lose money? There has been some discussion, but the answer is supposed to be that you can. That said, I would almost never trust a servicer to ultimately apply these things correctly. As we’ve discussed above, there isn’t a great reason to do this on a routine basis. In most cases, you’d be better off leveraging that money elsewhere.
One thing to consider is that placing money into a traditional pre-tax retirement account like a pretax 401k/403b reduces your adjusted gross income (AGI), which reduces your payments by 10% of the contributed amount the following year, which in turn increases your amount of unpaid interest thus increasing your unpaid interest subsidy and ultimately lowering your effective rate. That’s a mouthful, but it means that the more you can lower your AGI, the less interest accrues on your loan.
That said, the income-lowering strategy is much more effective in reducing payments toward PSLF than in saving money on the accrued interest. For example, a $100 pre-tax contribution will lower payments the next year by $10 and would thus result in $5 of forgiven unpaid interest.
Lastly, if you are considering the possibility of PSLF
Never spend a dollar more than absolutely necessary directly on your loans until you are ready to permanently give up that plan. Any dollar extra you pay is a dollar wasted in the event of achieving loan forgiveness. Again, if you are nervous about the PSLF program, then you hedge your bets by being financially prudent in other ways, not by tilting at your loans.