A difficult decision about student loan repayment

by Karen on January 24, 2009

Once we became credit card debt free, we had an extra $200 a month available. We decided to put some of that money toward retirement savings every month, so we only have $100 left to work into the budget.

Yesterday, Tony and I looked at our budget, and talked about where we’d like to put the money.

We have a huge amount of student loan debt (about $60,000 all told). My plan has always been to pay off credit card debt first, and then move on to my private student loans. Private loans account for about 1/3 of our student loan debt, but they carry about a 7% average interest rate. We also have about $40,000 in federal student loans with a much lower interest rate (about 4%).

When I think about all of that debt, I feel so overwhelmed. To make it easier on myself, I’m focusing on one loan at a time — for now the private loans (about $22,600).

I plugged some numbers into a loan repayment calculator to figure out some scenarios. The numbers are disappointing.

  • If we continue paying our current amount ($200 a month), it will take us 10 years to pay off my private loans.
  • If we put the extra $100 toward student loan debt (my original plan), it will be 8 years before the private loans are paid off.
  • Even if we could come up with $500 a month to put toward the private loans alone (while continuing to pay the minimum payment on federal loans), it would take about 4 and a half years to pay off just the private loans. Then we’d still have to pay off $40,000 in federal loans.

“Don’t worry,” people tell me. “Your income will go up.”

The problem is, it probably won’t. Right now I work full time, and Tony makes the equivalent of a part-time salary teaching. Sometime after he graduates, we want to have children. At that point, our roles will switch. He’ll bring in a full time salary, while I work part time (hopefully from home). So we’re looking at quite a while before we see a significant increase in our income.

Tony and I had a long talk about our short- and long-term goals. As much as I want to be debt free (and believe me, I really want to be debt free), at this point in our lives with our limited income and the economy a wreck, my gut is telling me that saving is more important.

Once we’re settled somewhere that we know we want to stay long term — and we have an emergency fund in place — our focus will shift. At that point, we’ll be able to put everything we have into debt. But for now, I want to have as much money stashed as possible.

So we made the decision to continue making minimum payments on student loans for the next year and a half while we beef up our savings. After that, we’ll reassess our financial situation. Hopefully we’ll have enough in savings that we can hold off on saving and shift our focus to debt.

I’m disappointed that we can’t do both, but I’m also confident in our decision. When I look at the difference an extra $100 a month will make in our savings, I feel calm and reassured. I don’t feel that same calm when I see the minor change in our debt that would result from paying an extra $100 a month on it for the next 18 months.

I also don’t regret putting $100 toward retirement every month. If we don’t plan for our future, no one else will. Putting $100 away for retirement every month makes me feel incredibly empowered.

The important thing is that we’re doing what works for us. The best part? Liquid savings is, well, liquid. If we change our minds, we can always pull that money out of savings and put it toward student loans.

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