Should You Consolidate Your Student Loan Debt?

If keeping track of several student loans is giving you a headache, consolidation might cure it.

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By Abby Hayes

If you're making separate student loan payments on each of your five or 10 student loans, you may want to consider consolidating your loans. Student loan consolidation can help get rid of the headache caused by keeping all those payments straight.

But even though student loan consolidation streamlines your student loan repayment, it might not be the best option for you. Before applying for a consolidation loan with the Department of Education, you should know the advantages and disadvantages of student loan consolidation.

Advantages of Consolidation

Beside the single monthly payment, which is very convenient, a consolidation loan may provide additional student loan repayment plans. Most government-backed student loans offer at least a couple alternative repayment plans, but consolidated loans offer a variety of options, including income-based repayment plans.

With a standard repayment plan, a consolidation loan may lower your total student loan payment. This is often because a consolidation loan's standard repayment plan can set you up to repay your loans in 15 to 30 years --
instead of the 10-year standard repayment plan for individual loans.

Also, the overall interest rate of your student loans may be lower when you choose consolidation. When figuring the fixed interest rate for a consolidation loan, your lender will use the weighted average of your current loans' interest rates, rounded up to the neared 1/8 of a percent. This fixed interest rate may lower your overall student loan interest rate.

Many older nonconsolidated student loans operate on a variable interest rate, and the rate can change every year on July 1. A consolidation loan's fixed interest rate means you make a predictable payment, even if student loan rates change. And if you lock in a low interest rate before the rates jump up in a rising-interest environment, you'll have even more of an advantage.

Disadvantages of Consolidation

One of the biggest issues with student loan consolidation is it can actually cause you to pay more in the long run. This is especially true if you extend your repayment terms, which can easily tack on tens of thousands of dollars' worth of interest payments.

Also, if you happen to consolidate during times of falling interest rates, you may actually get locked into a higher interest compared to one you could secure down the road. Once you lock in that consolidation loan rate, there's not much you can do to change it -- even if interest rates are falling all around you.

A final consideration to make when deciding whether or not to consolidate: Do your individual loans have extra perks? For instance, some lenders will reduce your interest rate if you pay on time, and other loans -- particularly PLUS loans -- offer flexible repayment options you can't get with a consolidation loan.

Which is Right for You?

Last year, Congress passed the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act of 2013. The act requires that all new student loans will have a fixed interest rate for the life of the loan. The rates are still tied to the financial market, and they'll be determined in June each year. Loans taken out during the following award year (from July 1 to June 30) will have that year's fixed interest rate.

Therefore, interest rates can still vary, but you'll know before signing the promissory note on a student loan what its interest rate will be forever. This means for new student loans, the advantage of a consolidation loan stabilizing your interest rate is a moot point.

The bottom line: Sometimes consolidation loans are a good idea, but sometimes they aren't. If you're really struggling to make your student loan payments right now, a consolidation loan could save you in the short term but cost you more in the long term.

But what if you can afford your payments, are enjoying relatively low interest rates and just want the convenience of a consolidated loan? Well, you might be better off just setting up automatic payments for each of your 15 student loan accounts. It's a hassle, but it will likely save you money in the long run.

Abby Hayes is a freelance blogger and journalist who writes for personal finance blog The Dough Roller and contributes to Dough Roller's weekly newsletter.


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