Sometimes people ask me what’s the biggest mistake I made when I was paying off my student loans. I tell them, “I didn’t refinance my student loans.”
Honestly, I didn’t even know I could refinance my student loans. Companies like SoFi, CommonBond and Earnest were barely around when I graduated from college and refinancing wasn’t as widespread as it is today.
Now, SoFi has ads during the Super Bowl. Even so, many of my friends aren’t aware that it’s an option, even though it could save them thousands of dollars.
Even so, many of my friends aren’t aware that it’s an option, even though it could save them thousands of dollars. Refinancing can save you thousands of dollars, especially if you have high-interest rate loans. Generally, if you’re paying more than 4-5% on your student loans, then you should see what your refinancing options are.
What Does Refinancing Mean?
When you refinance your loan, you’re selling the rights to your loan usually to a new company in exchange for a lower interest rate or lower monthly payments. Most of the time, people refinance so they can save money by paying less interest overall.
Not sure if you’ll benefit from refinancing? Check out this calculator from Student Loan Hero that will show you if you’ll save money on refinancing – and how much.
For example, if you have a balance of $35,000 on a 10-year term (with 10 years left) at an interest rate of 6.8%, you’ll save more than $3,000 total if you refinance with today’s rates. If you think that’s a small difference, consider this: you could go to Europe on $3,000, pay for a major repair on your car or start a new business. The money you save by refinancing could speed up a lot of things you want to do.
If you think that’s a small difference, consider this: you could go to Europe on $3,000, pay for a major repair on your car or start a new business. The money you save by refinancing could speed up a lot of things you want to do.
Am I Eligible?
Unfortunately, refinancing your student loans is tricky. Student loans are an unsecured loan, which means there’s no physical collateral behind them, unlike a mortgage or car loan. If you have a car loan and stop making payments, the bank can repossess your car and recoup their investment. But if you stop making payments on your student loans, no one can take away your degree.
That’s why companies that offer student loan refinancing have to be very careful about who they accept as customers. They can’t afford to have people default on their loans.
They’re usually looking for two things:
- High income
- High credit score
You can’t change your income overnight, but you can change your credit score pretty quickly. Your credit score is a numerical grade that tells a lender how reliable you are. It’s how they determine if you’re good enough to lend money to. It doesn’t matter if you have an amazing job or a BMW; if you don’t have a great credit score, you’re not getting a loan.
For the most part, you need a credit score between 650-700 to qualify for a loan. Credit scores range between 300 and 850. The closer you are to the 800-club, the more likely you are to qualify for a student loan refinance and get the best interest rate.
Not sure what your credit score is? You can find it for free through sites like Credit Karma. I check my score using my Mint app and through my Capital One bank account. Check to see if your bank will give you a free look at your credit score. Each credit score is weighted differently, so don’t be surprised if you see a slight difference in your scores when checking different sites.
What If I Have a Low Credit Score?
If you have a low credit score and want to refinance your student loans, don’t worry! Hope is not lost. You can raise your credit score in just a few months and be ready to refinance.
First, get a copy of your credit report. A credit report shows every credit account you’ve ever had and all the gory details, like if you’ve paid on time, if you’ve used too much of your balance or if you’ve opened too many accounts in the last six months. All that information goes into your credit score, which I’ll explain further down.
You can check your credit report for free at AnnualCreditReport.com, which is the only place to get free access to your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. It will show any negative marks you have, which could explain a low credit score. I recommend checking your credit report every four months.
Once, I checked my credit report and found a medical bill that had been sent to collections. I called my doctor’s office, telling them I had never gotten the bill (I had just moved across the country) and that I would pay it in full if they would take it out of collections. It was a scary moment – seeing that red flag. Thankfully, just a couple phone calls later and it was removed from my report. Phew! But the experience taught me how important it is to check your credit report often, especially if you’re applying for a loan or refinance.
A credit score can not only get you a great deal on a loan, it can also help you find an apartment or get a job. Yep, some jobs will take a look at your credit score before they hire you, especially if you’re going to be responsible for handling large sums of money. Having a bad score can disqualify you, even if they don’t tell you why. Your landlord will also usually check your credit score before approving your application. If you don’t have a good enough score, you’ll be denied or have to get a cosigner.
How Can I Increase My Credit Score?
Increasing your credit score is fairly simple. That’s because your score is determined by the following factors:
- Payment history (aka paying on time): 35%
- If you pay on time, every month, your score will increase. Companies want to see you’re reliable and can handle making payments. I like to set up autopay so I never forget to pay. You can also use reminders in your phone’s calendar to double check that your payment went through. Mint also has a bill pay feature that notifies you when your bill is due. You don’t even have to pay all of your balance – just paying on time is enough!
- Amount owed: 30%
- The amount you owe affects a third of your score. But it’s not about the total amount you owe, it’s how much of your available credit do you utilize. For example, if you have a credit card with a $5,000 credit limit and you have a current balance of $4,000, you’re utilizing 80% of the balance. That’s way too high. Credit bureaus like to see an overall utilization of 35% or less. This figure mostly only pertains to credit cards, so if you have any cards, check the balance to make sure you’re not using too much of it at one time.
- Length of credit history: 15%
- The longer your credit history is, the higher your score will be. A long credit history looks good to credit bureaus and lenders because it gives them a better sense of what kind of customer you’ll be. You can’t really do anything about this part, except to always keep your oldest accounts around if possible. If you have a credit card you opened 10 years ago, use it once a month to keep it current. Closing your oldest accounts will drag down your average age and hurt your score.
- Credit mix: 10%
- Credit bureaus like to see that consumers have a mix of credit on their history, including credit cards, mortgages and other types of loans. However, you should never open a loan just so you’ll get a different type of credit reported. Opening new loans to improve your score is a terrible idea. Just ignore this part.
- New credit: 10%
- If you have any recent inquiries, they’ll account for 10% of your credit score. Every time you apply for a new account, it sends a hard inquiry to your credit report where it will affect your score for the next year. Opening a lot of cards (or trying to) is an easy way to get denied. If you’re trying to increase your score, don’t open any new cards unless you don’t have a card at all. When I get denied for a credit card, it’s usually because I have too many recent inquiries.
What Are the Risks of Refinancing?
Because the federal government doesn’t refinance student loans, you have to go through a private company if you refinance. When you refinance federal student loans, you lose all the protections that come with them, including deferment, forbearance and the slew of income-based plans that you can fall back on.
Deferment and forbearance options might be available with your new loan, but it’s something you have to ask for when you’re considering a refinance. For example, SoFi offers to suspend your student loan payments for three months while they enroll you in a “career strategy” program to help you find a new job. However, you can qualify for up to 12 months of forbearance if you have federal loans. The interest will still accrue, but you won’t have to worry about payments.
This is just one example of what you’re giving up if you refinance. Worried about losing your job and not being able to make your payments? Consider this: at most, it takes 2.5 months to find a new gig. If you’re in an entry-level gig, it takes even less time. So the odds of you needing more than three month’s worth of forbearance is unlikely. Plus, if you have a fully-stocked emergency fund, you’ll be in an even better position.
Another benefit to federal loans is that they have so many repayment options you can use if you’re having trouble with your monthly bill. Most refinancing companies don’t have those generous types of repayment plans. Again, you can ask about this when you’re looking to refinance.
One huge disadvantage to refinancing is losing access to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which is the federal program that forgives your student loan balance after 10 years of payments. It only applies to those working in the public sector, including government and non-profit jobs. If you think you’re going to be eligible for this program, then hold off on refinancing.
What to Know Before You Refinance
When you’re comparing the interest rates for refinance offers, you’ll see two figures: variable APR and fixed APR. What does that mean? A variable APR is an interest rate that fluctuates as the market changes. If you sign up for a variable-rate loan, your interest rate will fluctuate within a certain range.
Usually, the starting APR for a variable-rate loan is lower than a fixed-rate loan, which attracts lots of people. However, you have to be prepared to make higher payments if the market changes over time. Find out what your maximum payment could be before you decide on a variable-rate loan and if you’re not comfortable with it, then choose a fixed-rate loan instead.
A fixed-rate loan is one where the interest stays the same over the life of the loan. No matter what happens in the economy, your interest rate will stay the same.
Another thing that I found surprising was that you can apply for a student loan refinance in less than 10 minutes! I know the reason most of you avoid refinancing is because you think it’s a long and complicated process, but it really isn’t. The questions are simple, like what’s your income and how much do you have in student loans. You’ll quickly find out if you’re approved and for how much.
A rep from a refinance lender also told me recently that his company is willing to take on borrowers earning at least $24,000. I was shocked! Most of the time, you hear that refinance is only for high-income customers. But that’s not true.
The Best Student Loan Refinance Companies
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My Favorite Picks
I recently spoke with a representative from LendKey, which is a company that helps match student loan refinance applicants with banks and credit unions. He told me that they frequently approve borrowers with low income, sometimes as low as $24,000.
Most people assume that you need a high salary in order to qualify for refinancing, but LendKey is different. If you’re worried that you don’t make enough to refinance, try applying to LendKey.
SoFi is one of the most popular student loan refinancing companies – and for good reason. They have amazing benefits for customers, like job placement and wealth management services.
However, I have heard that it’s hard to get accepted unless you have a high income, so don’t get discouraged if you apply and are rejected.
Other Student Loan Refinance Companies
- Savings of $137 a month
- Credit score needed: 680
- Fixed APR range: 3.74% – 8.24%
- Average savings: $21,810
- Credit score needed: 660
- Fxied APR range: 3.20% – 6.39%
Should You Refinance?
Refinancing is a personal decision. I can’t recommend that everyone refinance their student loans, because the protections of federal loans are impossible to match.
But if you’re paying a lot in interest, have a steady job and a high salary, then refinancing is probably a safe option. Anyone with a variable income or who’s relied on income-based repayment should stick to their current loans, even if it means paying more in interest overall. It’s not worth defaulting just to save a few bucks.
Refinancing isn’t free. Some companies charge origination fees, which is the fee you pay to the new lender for processing the loan, while others will also charge you money if you repay your loan ahead of time. Before you refinance, compare all the fees and interest rates to find the best option. Each refinancing company is different, so make sure to compare all your options thoroughly before you sign up.
What If I Get Denied?
If you get denied, the company should usually provide a reason why. If it’s your credit score, then you know what you have to work on. If it’s your income, then you might consider trying to find another job.
However, one trick that works for some people is to not refinance all their student loans at once. For example, if you have $70,000 in loans and earn $50,000 a year, you might not be able to refinance all $70,000. Instead, try refinancing a smaller chunk, like $25,000. Pick the loans with the highest interest rate and refinance those, since you’ll see the biggest savings. When your income increases, you can try refinancing the rest of your loans.
It doesn’t hurt to apply to more than one. Some people even end up refinancing their loans multiple times to get the best interest rate.