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How to Find the Right 529 Savings Plan for You

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

It is never too early to think about saving for college, and a 529 savings plan can help you do just that.

No other savings or investment account offers the tax breaks that a 529 college savings plan offers, which means that every dollar you contribute can cover a greater share of college costs. That’s especially helpful considering the average net price of a private nonprofit university came in at $26,740 for the 2017-18 school year, and the cost of college is on the rise.

But with almost every state offering a 529 savings plan, and with many offering more than one, it can be challenging to figure out which plan is right for you.

If you’re already well-versed in this savings tool, you can see our roundup of the best options here:

The truth is that contributing to a 529 savings plan isn’t always the right move. You may be better off using a different college savings account or even focusing on other financial responsibilities first.

This guide will help you sort through all of that. You’ll learn what a 529 college savings plan is, how it works, how to choose the right plan for you and alternatives you should consider.

What is a 529 college savings plan and how does it work?

A 529 college savings plan is an investment account that offers a number of tax breaks when the money is used for qualified education expenses:

  • Contributions are made after taxes, though there are a number of states that allow either a deduction or a credit for state income tax purposes.
  • Your money grows tax-free while it is in the account.
  • Money can be withdrawn tax-free for qualified education expenses, which typically includes tuition at any eligible school from elementary onward, as well as fees, books and room and board at an eligible higher education institution. If you withdraw the money for any other type of expense, the earnings will be taxed and subject to a 10% penalty.

529 savings plans offer a preselected set of mutual funds and your account balance will rise and fall based on your contributions and the performance of your chosen investments. Most 529 savings plans also offer age-based investments that provide an all-in-one portfolio and automatically become more conservative as your child approaches college.

529 savings plans are administered by states, with every state except for Wyoming offering at least one plan. However, you do not have to use your home state’s plan, and in some cases, you may be better off going elsewhere.

Regardless of which 529 savings plan you choose, you can withdraw the money tax-free for expenses incurred at any eligible school in any state, and even for certain international schools.

Anyone can open a 529 savings plan and name anyone else, including himself, as the beneficiary. You can also change the beneficiary later on, as long as the new beneficiary is related to the old beneficiary.

In short, 529 savings plans allow you to save and invest for future education expenses in a tax-advantaged way.

Prepaid tuition plans vs. savings plans

In addition to 529 savings plans, some states also offer prepaid tuition plans that may be advantageous in certain situations.

Prepaid tuition plans allow you to buy units that each typically cover 1% of one year’s worth of college tuition at a public, in-state university. This essentially allows you to lock in the current cost of college, protecting you against the risk that tuition costs will continue to rise.

“The huge part of a prepaid tuition plan is that it’s guaranteed,” said Angie Furubotten-LaRosee, fee-only CFP and founder of Avea Financial Planning. “With a traditional 529 plan you have to worry about market fluctuations, and with these you don’t.”

There are downsides, though. The biggest of which is that while you can usually get your money back if your child wants to go to a private college or go out of state, the return is typically much smaller than what you would get from attending an in-state public school.

This is in contrast to a 529 savings plan, which allows you to use the money you’ve earned at any eligible institution.

“Prepaid plans are ideal for parents who have a good idea of where their child will attend college and who are willing to give up investment flexibility to lock in those costs,” said Kathleen Boyd, CFP and wealth adviser at Navigoe. “However, if you’re uncertain about your child’s future college plans, then a 529 savings plan may be the ideal option.”

Benefits of a 529 savings plan

1. Tax breaks

The tax breaks are the main advantage of 529 savings plans over other savings and investments accounts.

The growth and the ability to withdraw the money all tax-free for qualified education expenses mean that every dollar you contribute can multiply faster and cover a greater portion of your education expenses.

And if you live in one of the states that offers a state income tax break for contributions, you can potentially afford to make a bigger contribution without affecting your monthly budget, allowing you to get an even bigger head start.

“If you are in a state that offers good benefits, and some states even offer matching funds, it really is the right choice at that point because you aren’t going to get those benefits from any other option,” said Nannette Kamien, CFP and principal of Inspiration Financial Planning, a fee-only financial planning firm with expertise in helping families prepare for college financially.

2. High contribution limits

If you’d like to save a lot of money for education, a 529 savings plan will allow you to do it.

There is no annual contribution limit, though contributions are subject to gift tax rules, which means that you can effectively contribute $15,000 per year, per child, without exceeding the 2018 gift tax exemption. That limit is applied per donor, meaning that parents can combine their limits to contribute up to $30,000 per year, per child.

The tax code also allows you spread excess contributions over a 5-year period, meaning that as a couple, you could potentially contribute up to $150,000 in a single year without any gift tax consequences.

Most 529 savings plans do have lifetime contribution limits, but those limits are very high. For example, New York allows you to contribute up to $520,000 to any single beneficiary, and Utah allows up to $446,000 per beneficiary.

Additionally, there are no income restrictions on contributions, so anyone can take advantage of a 529 savings plan no matter how much money you make.

3. Mindset and accountability

One of the biggest benefits of contributing to a 529 plan is that it establishes saving for college as a real goal with progress that can be tracked along the way.

“Just having the 529 plan in and of itself solidifies that it’s an important priority for you and your family,” said Furubotten-LaRosee. “It’s now a budget item, it’s identified as money that’s earmarked for college, and I think that setting that habit is half the battle for a lot of people.”

4. Potential for long-term returns

By offering mutual funds that are invested in the stock and bond markets, 529 savings plans allow you to participate in the long-term, compounding returns that those investments offer. This can be especially powerful if you start when your child is young.

“Families who can invest over the long term are prime candidates for 529s,” said Boyd. “The earlier you start, the more time you have to take advantage of compound returns the markets provide over time.”

5. Low impact on financial aid

Many people are hesitant to save for college because of the potential impact on financial aid, but 529 savings plans have a relatively low impact.

As long as the account is held in a parent’s name, only up to 5.64% of the money in a 529 savings plan will be counted on the FAFSA. For example, if you have $100,000 in your 529 savings plan, only $5,640 will be considered for financial aid purposes.

In other words, there’s very little penalty for having money in a 529 savings plan. And the benefits of saving the money ahead of time will almost always outweigh any small decrease in financial aid.

6. Ability to change beneficiaries

529 savings plans allow a reasonable amount of flexibility when it comes to changing the beneficiary of the funds.

You are allowed to change the beneficiary as often as you like, and the only restriction is that the new beneficiary must be a family member of the old beneficiary. For the purposes of 529 plans, “family members” include siblings and stepsiblings, children, stepchildren, and grandchildren, parents, grandparents, nieces, nephews, first cousins and even in-laws.

All of which means that if the money isn’t needed for the original beneficiary, you can simply use it for another family member.

Pitfalls of 529 savings plans

1. Taxes and penalties if not used for education

The biggest downside to using a 529 savings plan is that if you withdraw money for anything other than qualified education expenses, the earnings will be subject to taxes and a 10% penalty.

This is one reason to be careful about over-contributing, and also to not contribute money that may be needed for other financial goals.

“That’s where that overarching financial plan comes into play,” said Furubotten-LaRosee. “You can always use other vehicles, like a Roth IRA, that come with more flexibility.”

2. Investment options can be narrow and confusing

Each 529 plan offers its own preselected set of investment options, and those options vary widely in terms of what they invest in and how much they cost. Sorting through all of those options and making the best choices for your needs can be difficult.

“Sometimes I see that parents are afraid to really invest the money and they don’t understand what the different investment options mean,” said Kamien. “Sometimes they get stuck in investments that are higher cost, and that really eats into the earnings that they could have gotten.”

Kamien said that she encourages people to look for “age-based index” options. These funds provide an all-in-one portfolio that automatically gets more conservative as your child approaches college, and they build the portfolio with index funds, which are generally low cost and have been shown to outperform actively managed funds the majority of the time.

3. Other financial responsibilities may be more important

While saving for college is a great goal, it’s often a good idea to handle other financial responsibilities first. This is especially important to consider before contributing money to a 529 savings plan because of the taxes and penalties on nonqualified withdrawals.

“I certainly would caution a parent or grandparent against sacrificing their own financial goals like saving for an emergency fund, paying off debt or retirement plans to contribute to a 529 plan,” said Boyd. “Saving for education is very important, but it’s also a luxury and a privilege for your children, and it shouldn’t come above your own financial security.”

How to compare 529 savings plans

When it comes to choosing a 529 savings plan, start by looking at the potential tax breaks offered by your home state’s plan, said Fred Amrein, a college funding expert and the founder of EFC Plus.

“You need to understand your in-state plan first, and if the beneficiary is in another state you need to understand their state’s plan next,” Amrein said. “In some cases, it may be more beneficial to gift the money to the beneficiary or the beneficiary’s parents and let them contribute the money.”

Even if your state does offer tax breaks, it’s not a given that your home state’s plan is the best option. There are a few more major variables you should consider as you compare 529 savings plans.

Here are the criteria we used to construct our list of best 529 plans.

Out of state

We evaluated each 529 savings plan from the perspective of an out-of-state resident. That means that state income tax breaks were not considered and that any 529 plans that are unavailable to out-of-state residents were ruled out.

Fees

Research has shown that cost is the best predictor of future investment performance, with lower costs leading to better returns. For that reason, we preferred 529 plans that minimized both investment and administrative fees.

We also filtered out adviser-selling 529 plans, which are specifically designed to be sold and managed by financial advisers and have higher fees in the form of commissions and management fees. Given that financial advisers can also advise on 529 plans that are sold directly to the consumer, and therefore cost less, we limited our search to those direct-sold plans.

Investment options

Investment portfolios built with index funds have been shown to outperform actively managed portfolios 80%-90% of the time, and we therefore only included 529 savings plans that offer index funds.

We also limited our list to 529 savings plans that offer age-based portfolios constructed with index funds, since these all-in-one portfolios simplify the investment process and automatically decrease your investment risk as your child nears college age.

Finally, we preferred 529 savings plans that offered access to individual index funds that allow investors to build custom portfolios if they so choose.

Minimum investment

Finding room in your budget for college savings can be difficult, so we did not consider any 529 savings plan that required a significant minimum investment.

None of the plans listed below require more than a $50 initial investment.

Other features

While most 529 savings plans offer most of the same basic features, we did consider additional features offered by certain plans that may be helpful for some investors.

The nine best 529 savings plans

Fidelity Arizona College Savings Plan

Arizona’s College Savings
Arizona’s College Savings Plan is managed by Fidelity, just like Delaware, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, which also appear on this list. Each of these states offers essentially the same plan.The index funds are high quality and low cost, and there are no other significant fees, though the presence of higher-cost actively managed funds could lead some people to pay more than they have to.

  • Investment options: Age-based portfolios constructed with Fidelity index funds, as well as access to individual Fidelity index funds if you’d like to customize your portfolio.
  • Fees: Age-based index funds range from 0.13%-0.16% per year. Individual index funds range from 0.13%-0.18% per year. There are no account maintenance fees.
  • Minimum initial investment: $15 with enrollment in automatic contributions. $50 otherwise.
  • Other features: None of note.
  • Website: https://www.fidelity.com/go/529-arizona/overview

California ScholarShare 529

ScholarShare 529
Managed by TIAA-CREF, California offers a selection of both index funds and actively managed funds. The lineup of passive age-based funds and individual index funds is strong.
  • Investment options: Age-based portfolios constructed with TIAA-CREF index funds, as well as access to individual TIAA-CREF index funds, if you’d like to customize your portfolio.
  • Fees: Age-based index funds range from 0.11%-0.17% per year. Individual index funds range from 0.08%-0.20% per year. There are no account maintenance fees.
  • Minimum initial investment: $15 with enrollment in automatic contributions. $25 otherwise.
  • Other features: None of note.
  • Website: https://www.scholarshare529.com

Delaware College Investment Plan

Delaware College Investment Plan

Delaware’s College Investment Plan is managed by Fidelity, just like Arizona, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. These states offer essentially the same plan.

The index funds are high-quality and low-cost and there are no other significant fees. The plan does offer higher cost actively managed funds, which could lead some people to pay more than they have to.

  • Investment options: Age-based portfolios constructed with Fidelity index funds, as well as access to individual Fidelity index funds if you’d like to customize your portfolio.
  • Fees: Age-based index funds range from 0.13%-0.16% per year. Individual index funds range from 0.13%-0.18% per year. There are no account maintenance fees.
  • Minimum initial investment: $15 with enrollment in automatic contributions. $50 otherwise.
  • Other features: None of note.
  • Website: https://www.fidelity.com/go/529-delaware/overview

Illinois Bright Start Direct-Sold College Savings Program

Illinois Bright Start Direct-Sold College Savings Program
The index age-based funds use Vanguard mutual funds with some of the lowest fees offered by any 529 savings plan. Even the higher-cost “multi-firm” age-based funds cost less than most actively managed funds offered by other plans.

  • Investment options: Age-based portfolios constructed with Vanguard index funds, as well as access to individual Vanguard index funds and DFA funds — a highly respected group of mutual funds that are typically only available through financial advisers — if you’d like to customize your portfolio.
  • Fees: Age-based index funds range from 0.12%-0.15% per year. Individual Vanguard index funds range from 0.10%-0.18% per year. There are no account maintenance fees.
  • Minimum initial investment: None
  • Other features: None of note.
  • Website: https://www.brightstartsavings.com

College Savings Iowa

College Savings Iowa
Every investment offered within Iowa’s 529 savings plan is managed by Vanguard and costs just 0.20% per year. And with a strong lineup of both age-based portfolios and individual mutual funds, you have plenty of room to personalize your investment plan.

  • Investment options: Age-based portfolios constructed with Vanguard index funds, as well as access to individual Vanguard index funds if you’d like to customize your portfolio.
  • Fees: Every investment option costs 0.20% per year. There are no account maintenance fees.
  • Minimum initial investment: $15 with enrollment in automatic contributions. $25 otherwise.
  • Other features: None of note.
  • Website: https://www.collegesavingsiowa.com

Massachusetts U.Fund College Investing Plan

Massachusetts U.Fund College Investing Plan
Massachusetts U.Fund College Investing Plan is managed by Fidelity. The plan is essentially the same as Arizona’s, Delaware’s and New Hampshire’s.

It offers high-quality, low-cost index funds with no other significant fees, though the presence of higher cost actively-managed funds could lead some people to pay more than they have to.

  • Investment options: Age-based portfolios constructed with Fidelity index funds, as well as access to individual Fidelity index funds if you’d like to customize your portfolio.
  • Fees: Age-based index funds range from 0.13%-0.16% per year. Individual index funds range from 0.13%-0.18% per year. There are no account maintenance fees.
  • Minimum initial investment: $15 with enrollment in automatic contributions. $50 otherwise.
  • Other features: None of note.
  • Website: https://www.fidelity.com/529-plans/massachusetts

New Hampshire UNIQUE College Investing Plan

New Hampshire UNIQUE College Investing Plan
New Hampshire’s UNIQUE College Investing Plan is managed by Fidelity, just like Arizona, Delaware and Massachusetts. Each of these states’ plans are on this list and are basically the same.

New Hampshire’s plan offers high-quality, low-cost index funds with no other significant fees. However, the plan offers higher cost actively-managed funds, which could lead some people to pay more than they have to.

  • Investment options: Age-based portfolios constructed with Fidelity index funds, as well as access to individual Fidelity index funds if you’d like to customize your portfolio.
  • Fees: Age-based index funds range from 0.13%-0.16% per year. Individual index funds range from 0.13%-0.18% per year. There are no account maintenance fees.
  • Minimum initial investment: $15 with enrollment in automatic contributions. $50 otherwise.
  • Other features: None of note.
  • Website: https://www.fidelity.com/529-plans/new-hampshire

New York’s 529 College Savings Program

New York’s 529 College Savings Program
Like Iowa, New York’s 529 College Savings Program offers only Vanguard index funds and index age-based funds, and in this case, the cost of each fund is even lower at 0.15% per year.

If your priority is minimizing fees and accessing Vanguard funds, this is likely the plan for you.

  • Investment options: Age-based portfolios constructed with Vanguard index funds, as well as access to individual Vanguard index funds if you’d like to customize your portfolio.
  • Fees: Every investment option costs 0.15% per year. There are no account maintenance fees.
  • Minimum initial investment: $0.
  • Other features: None of note.
  • Website: https://www.nysaves.org

Utah my529

Utah my529

Utah’s my529 offers possibly the most noteworthy set of features of any 529 savings plan:

  1. You can create your own age-based portfolio from the underlying funds offered by the plan, which include Vanguard index funds as well as DFA funds that are typically only offered by financial advisers.
  2. If you are working with a financial adviser, you can give him or her access to your 529 plan in order to manage your investments.

The fees are slightly higher than the other 529 savings plans listed here — though they are still very low — but the investment capabilities are second to none.

  • Investment options: A wide variety of age-based portfolios, Vanguard index funds and DFA funds.
  • Fees: Age-based index funds range from 0.169%-0.202% per year. Vanguard individual index funds range from 0.22%-0.40% per year and DFA funds range from 0.37%-0.72% per year. There are no account maintenance fees.
  • Minimum initial investment: $0.
  • Other features: Customized age-based portfolios and financial adviser access.
  • Website: https://my529.org

How to enroll in a 529 savings plan

Once you know which 529 savings plan you want to use, it’s time to open an account and make your first contribution. And while every plan will have a slightly different process, there are a few steps that are likely to be similar across the board:

  1. Have the necessary information ready for the account owner:
    1. Social Security number
    2. Birth date
    3. Mailing address
    4. Physical address
    5. Bank account number and routing number for making contributions
  2. Have the necessary information ready for the beneficiary
    1. Social Security number
    2. Birth date
    3. Mailing address
    4. Physical address
  3. Read the program description, which can be found on the 529 plan’s website
  4. Choose an investment strategy. You can review the options on the 529 plan’s website and in the program description.
  5. Start the application process online or submit the appropriate paperwork.

How to use 529 plans to pay for K-12 private education

The recently passed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act expanded the flexibility of 529 savings plans by allowing investors to withdraw up to $10,000 per year, per child tax-free and penalty-free for tuition for elementary or secondary school.

This opens up more opportunities for parents to use 529 funds for their child’s education. But given how new the law is, it’s a good idea to proceed carefully.

According to Amrein, the tax implications of withdrawing 529 money for K-12 tuition are straightforward on the federal side but are yet to be determined on the state side.

“What a lot of states are dealing with is a lot of them had incentive programs for college contributions,” said Amrein. “What I’m hearing is some of the states are either going to withdraw that incentive or, if you use it for K-12 expenses, there may be a clawback provision that they can rescind that tax break you received for previous contributions.”

If you live in a state that offers tax breaks for 529 plan contributions, and if you’ve taken advantage of those tax breaks, you may want to speak to an accountant before using your 529 funds for K-12 tuition.

Alternatives to 529 savings plans

While the tax breaks offered by a 529 savings plan are hard to beat if you’re saving money specifically for education, there are a number of other savings and investment accounts that can be more advantageous, depending on the specifics of your situation.

Here are some of the major alternatives to consider.

Roth IRA

While Roth IRAs are technically retirement accounts, they have a few characteristics that make them attractive college savings accounts:

  • They offer tax-deferred growth while the money is inside the account.
  • You can withdraw up to the amount you’ve contributed at any time and for any reason without tax or penalty.
  • Early withdrawals of Roth IRA earnings used for higher education are taxed but are not subject to the typical 10% penalty.
  • If you don’t need the money for college, you can keep it in the Roth IRA and use it tax-free for retirement.

“I’m a big proponent of incorporating a Roth into college planning, especially when you have a teenager who is hopefully earning money,” said Furubotten-LaRosee. “Starting the savings habit is a biggie, and if you don’t use it for college it’s available for retirement or any other goal.”

The big downsides are that Roth IRAs are not as tax-efficient as 529 savings plans when used for college and that by dedicating your Roth IRA for college savings, you’re using up valuable retirement space.

Still, the flexibility is often worth it.

Taxable investment account

A regular, taxable investment account doesn’t offer any tax advantages, but it does provide maximum flexibility to invest in whatever you’d like and to use the money at any time and for any reason.

“As a parent, sometimes you need flexibility with your money,” said Furubotten-LaRosee. “You need the ability to control things as life progresses, and not having it tied into a 529 plan means you can access it when you need to.”

Coverdell ESA

The primary benefit of a Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) used to be the ability to allocate the money for K-12 expenses, but that benefit is much less relevant now that 529 savings plans can also be used for the same purpose.

Coverdell ESAs also come with stricter contribution limits than 529 savings plans. Contributions are limited to $2,000 per year, per child across all contributors. Once your Modified AGI (adjusted gross income with certain deductions like student loan interest added back) exceeds $110,000 for individuals or $220,000 for married couples filing jointly, you can no longer contribute.

According to Amrein, the main benefit of a Coverdell ESA at this point is the ability to choose from a much wider range of investment options than you can get from a 529 plan.

“It’s kind of like comparing a 401(k) to an IRA,” said Amrein. “Most 529 plans are very restrictive, with maybe five to 10 investment options to choose from. On the Coverdell side, you can invest in anything you want, but you’re limited to $2,000 per year.”

Savings account

While a savings account can’t offer the long-term returns that you might get from a 529 savings plan, Roth IRA or Coverdell ESA, it is a simple and safe choice that can make sense either as a starting point or if your child will be starting college soon.

And Furubotten-LaRosee argues that no matter which account you choose, the main priority should simply be to separate your college savings from your regular checking and savings accounts.

“Even if it’s just in a separate savings account, the main thing is having it really separate and earmarked for college,” said Furubotten-LaRosee. “That gives it a little protection from your day-to-day spending.”

Choosing the right 529 savings plan for you

529 savings plans allow you to save a lot of money while being tax-efficient for your child’s education, which can help defray the rising costs of college.

The first step is always understanding your home state’s plan to see what kind of tax breaks are available. Then, you can compare it with other states to determine which 529 savings plan will allow you to minimize costs and access the best investment options.

Finally, you can make your decision within the context of your entire financial plan. Saving for college is a fantastic goal, and 529 savings plans are a powerful way to do it, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of other financial responsibilities.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Matt Becker
Matt Becker |

Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt here

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College Students and Recent Grads

6 Best Reasons to Refinance Student Loan Debt in 2019

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Like the beginning of a new year, student loan refinancing can offer you a fresh start.

And this time, you could enjoy a lower interest rate or reduced monthly payment, as well as choosing which lender or servicer helps you reach the finish line.

These are among the six reasons to refinance your student loan debt in 2019.

1. Reduce your rate

After staggering four rate hikes across 2018, upping its benchmark by a full percentage point, the Federal Reserve is expected to impose increases of roughly half a percentage point during 2019.

Although it’s difficult to pinpoint the perfect time to refinance your student loans, this year could be the right time for you, as banks, credit unions and online lenders are still offering relatively low rates.

Don’t simply rely on lenders’ advertising, however. To qualify for the bottom of their best rate ranges, you’ll need a strong credit score and a healthy debt-to-income ratio. A steady, well-paying job helps, too.

You might treat 2019 as the year to strengthen your refinancing application, even if you decide it’s not the year you’ll be able to snag that super low rate.

A lower rate equals greater savings. Say you refinance $30,000 on a 10-year term and manage to cut your original average rate of 8% down to 5%. You’d save $5,494 over the next decade — no small chunk of change.

Check out our student loan refinance calculator to see what your own numbers look like.

2. Stretch your paycheck

Some borrowers see refinancing as a way of lowering their interest rate, but others see it as a pathway to reduce monthly payments.

A smaller monthly due could stretch your paycheck, which could be helpful if debt repayment isn’t your only financial goal for the year ahead.

By refinancing your federal loans and their 10-year standard repayment plan, you could switch to a longer term with a private lender. Most lenders offer you the ability to choose a term anywhere between five and 20 years.

If temporarily lowering your payments via refinancing is your top priority, shop around. You might be surprised by what you find. LendKey, for example, offers interest-only payments for up to four years.

As you seek a lower monthly payment in 2019, keep a couple of caveats in mind. By choosing a longer repayment term, for example, your loan repayment becomes progressively more expensive. That’s because interest will accrue and capitalize onto the principal loan amount.

Say you refinanced that $30,000 loan to a longer, 20-year term. Despite lowering your rate from 8% to 5%, you’d pay an additional $3,839 in interest over the life of your loan.

Also, don’t forget about the federal government’s income-driven repayment plans. With a plan like income-based repayment, you could tie your dues to a percentage of your discretionary income — and hold on to government-exclusive protections, such as access to loan forgiveness programs. It’s a preferable alternative to refinancing for many borrowers.

3. Snag some perks

If you’re considering refinancing federal loans, you might be worried about what you’d be giving up. The list includes access to loan forgiveness, plus the ability to switch repayment plans or receive mandatory forbearance.

Although private lenders won’t offer the same protections, their benefits are getting better and better all the time.

Consider some of the recent innovations being offered by top-rated lenders:

  • SoFi’s Unemployment Protection program lets you pause your loan for up to 12 months, and it includes career coaching support to find your next gig.
  • Earnest allows you to choose your payment due date, select from a much wider assortment of repayment terms than at most lenders, and skip one payment annually.
  • CommonBond has pioneered hybrid loans for student refinancing, offering a loan that blends fixed and variable rates.
  • Laurel Road is among the group of lenders that give a parent the chance to refinance federal PLUS Loans in their child’s name.

If an atypical loan feature makes refinancing right for you, survey the landscape in 2019 to see if any reputable lender offers the benefits you seek.

4. Simplify your repayment

If you’re holding federal loans, you might be cautiously optimistic about NextGen, the Department of Education’s plan to reorganize how student loan servicing works. If it fulfills expectations when it arrives sometime in 2019, NextGen will allow you to make your monthly payments in one place at one time.

“Cautiously optimistic” are the operative words here. NextGen is a massive undertaking, and government projects can sometimes move more slowly then we’d like, so you might not want to count on the new platform simplifying your repayment.

On the other hand, refinancing offers you that simplicity now. By replacing your federal loans (and private loans, if you have them), you’re not just receiving a new interest rate and repayment term. You’re also simultaneously consolidating (or grouping) them by replacing them with a single refinanced loan.

5. Choose your lender

When you first borrowed federal loans, you weren’t given the option to select your loan servicer.

Refinancing, however, allows you to choose your lender based on whatever criteria matter most to you. For example, you might be seeking a lender that services its own loans or offers a unique perk (see point No. 3 above).

Regardless of what you want in a new lender, remember that this year, you’re in charge. Shop around and hold potential banks, credit unions and online companies accountable for what you want out of refinancing. If they’re unable to meet your needs, move on to a competitor.

6. Gain financial independence

Student loan refinancing is more accessible in 2019 than it has been at any point previously.

In mid-2018, for instance, CommonBond announced it would accept refinancing candidates who are visa holders who have graduated from a U.S. university. Citizens Bank has been refinancing debt for college dropouts. Plus, more and more lenders are removing employment and minimum income from their eligibility requirements.

If you’ve found refinancing to be out of your reach, you might now be in luck. As a creditworthy applicant, you could thank the cosigner on your original loans by removing their name from your refinance application.

If not — maybe your credit score still needs work — take the first months of 2019 to strengthen your application. A cosigner could help you do just that. Plus, through refinancing, you could release that cosigner within a relatively short period. Splash Financial and LendKey are among lenders that offer cosigner release after just one year of prompt payments.

That would give you greater financial independence by 2020 — and put you on a path to becoming debt-free on your own.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Andrew Pentis
Andrew Pentis |

Andrew Pentis is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Andrew here

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College Students and Recent Grads, Pay Down My Debt

Student Loan Forgiveness Programs for Doctors

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

As a medical professional, you might have taken on a mountain of debt on your journey to becoming a doctor. The average indebted doctor left medical school in 2016 owing more than $189,000 in student loans, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Even if you’re on your way to a six-figure income, your residency income will likely be far less — in 2017, residents earned an average of just over $57,000. During that time, the interest alone on all your student loans could be equal to your entire disposable income after room and board.

Fortunately, there are student loan forgiveness programs for doctors and other medical professionals that could pay off part or even all of your loans. If you’re looking to cure yourself of medical school debt, turn to these programs for assistance.

National Health Service Corps (NHSC)

The National Health Service Corps can provide up to $50,000 to repay your health profession student loan in exchange for a two-year commitment to work at an NHSC site in a high-need, underserved area. After completing your initial service commitment, you can apply to extend your service and receive additional loan repayment assistance.

In order to qualify, you’ll need to work at least half-time in a designated Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA). Along with earning loan forgiveness, you could put your medical degree to good use by caring for an underserved community.

Indian Health Services Loan Repayment Program

This federal program offers up to $40,000 in exchange for two years of service in an American Indian or Alaskan Native community. You can also renew your contract and receive additional benefits that could pay off your entire student loan balance.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Loan Repayment Program

If you work in medical research, you could qualify for $35,000 per year from the NIH Loan Repayment Program. To do so, you’ll need to conduct research at a non-profit organization in an eligible field, such as health disparities, contraception and infertility or pediatric medicine.

Students to Service Program

If you’re still in medical school, you can apply for a major award through the Students to Service Program. This program provides up to $120,000 to medical students who commit to providing primary health care at an approved site for three years after graduating.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF)

The PSLF program is intended to encourage individuals to enter and continue to work full-time in public service jobs. You could receive forgiveness of the remaining balance of your federal direct loans after making 120 qualifying payments while employed by certain public service employers.

Since you’ll likely have to work for 10 years before you get loan forgiveness, you’ll have to move your student loans off the standard 10-year plan and onto an income-driven repayment or extended repayment plan — otherwise you’ll have already paid off your balance by the time you qualify for forgiveness.

You should also keep up to date with any developments around the PSLF program. While it was signed into law in 2007, the program is not guaranteed to be around forever, and it’s recently drawn controversy over the uncertainty around getting approved.

Military loan repayment programs

If you’re serving as a medical provider in the Army, Navy or Air Force, you could qualify for assistance toward your student loans. Here are some of the programs available for military personnel.

Financial Assistance Program (FAP)

The Army, Air Force and Navy all offer the FAP, a program that grants loan repayment assistance and a living stipend to medical residents.

If you’re a medical resident in the Army or Air Force, you could get at least $45,000 per year of service, plus a monthly stipend of at least $2,000. And although the Navy grant can change from year to year, Navy medical residents could also qualify for significant assistance from the Navy FAP.

Active Duty Health Professions Loan Repayment Program

This program offers up to $40,000 per year in student loan repayment over a set number of years. You must be a physician in the Army, Navy, or Air Force to qualify.

U.S. Navy Health Professions Loan Repayment Program (HPLRP)

The Health Professions Loan Repayment Program (HPLRP) provides medical personnel in the Navy with aid for their education loans. If you meet the program’s criteria, you could receive repayment assistance of up to $40,000 per year, minus about 25% in federal taxes.

State Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs)

Many states also run programs that grant student loan repayment assistance in exchange for working in a high-need or underserved area. A good place to check the medical loan repayment and forgiveness programs available in your area is through the AAMC database.

Here are just two examples of the many state-specific programs:

  • The Arizona Loan Repayment Program offers up to $65,000 in exchange for a two-year commitment from physicians.
  • The Kansas State Loan Repayment Program offers up to $25,000 per year of contract toward your outstanding education debt. After completion of the initial two-year service obligation, you may be able to extend your contract in one-year increments.

Check with your state to find out if it has an LRAP for doctors, nurses or other medical professionals. Depending on where you live and work, you could qualify for significant assistance toward your student loans.

Do the math before committing to a loan forgiveness program

As you take a look at each loan forgiveness program, remember to weigh salary considerations against any amount you’d receive in student loan assistance. Opting for a job with a $75,000 salary to earn $25,000 in loan forgiveness wouldn’t be as lucrative as going after a job with a $200,000 salary and no loan forgiveness, for instance.

Unless you’re driven to work in a high-need area or with an underserved population, you might not benefit from sacrificing a high salary for the sake of qualifying for loan forgiveness. Consider your career goals and your wants and needs in a job.

Refinancing student loans can also help

Whether or not you’re working toward student loan forgiveness, you might also consider refinancing as a strategy for managing your debt. Through refinancing, you could reduce your interest rates and save money on your loans beyond whatever forgiveness you can get from these programs.

Because of their steady incomes, doctors tend to be especially strong candidates for student loan refinancing. Along with lowering your rate, you could choose new terms and adjust your monthly payments.

But refinancing with a private lender also means you’ll lose access to federal programs and repayment plans, so make sure you’re comfortable with this sacrifice before making any changes to your debt. If you decide refinancing is right for you — or simply want to learn more about the process — check out the best lenders to refinance student loans here.

Rebecca Safier contributed to this article.

Our Top Picks for Refinancing Student Loans

You can learn more about what these lenders have to offer by checking out the best options to refinance student loans here.

LenderTransparency ScoreMax TermFixed APRVariable APRMax Loan Amount 
SoFiA+

20


Years

3.90% - 7.95%


Fixed Rate*

2.47% - 7.17%


Variable Rate*

No Max


Undergrad/Grad
Max Loan
Learn more Secured

on SoFi’s secure website

EarnestA+

20


Years

3.89% - 7.89%


Fixed Rate

2.57% - 6.97%


Variable Rate

No Max


Undergrad/Grad
Max Loan
Learn more Secured

on Earnest’s secure website

CommonBondA+

20


Years

3.67% - 7.25%


Fixed Rate

2.61% - 7.35%


Variable Rate

No Max


Undergrad/Grad
Max Loan
Learn more Secured

on CommonBond’s secure website

LendKeyA+

20


Years

5.13% - 8.97%


Fixed Rate

2.68% - 8.77%


Variable Rate

$125k / $175k


Undergrad/Grad
Max Loan
Learn more Secured

on LendKey’s secure website

Laurel Road BankA+

20


Years

3.50% - 7.02%


Fixed Rate

3.24% - 6.66%


Variable Rate

No Max


Undergrad/Grad
Max Loan
Learn more Secured

on Laurel Road Bank’s secure website

Citizens BankA+

20


Years

3.90% - 9.99%


Fixed Rate

3.01% - 9.75%


Variable Rate

$90k / $350k


Undergraduate /
Graduate
Learn more Secured

on Citizens Bank (RI)’s secure website

Discover Student LoansA+

20


Years

5.74% - 8.49%


Fixed Rate

4.99% - 7.99%


Variable Rate

$150k


Undergraduate /
Graduate
Learn more Secured

on Discover Bank’s secure website

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Steven D. |

Steven D. is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Steven at steven@magnifymoney.com

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