Most people who went through law school in recent years are saddled with significant debt. If you’re not, be thankful. If you are, it’s often difficult to discuss how best to handle addressing this massive debt, particularly if making payments is difficult due to sporadic employment or low pay. Even with full time jobs along the way, I finished undergraduate and law school with more than $100,000 in outstanding student loans.
If you have a significant number of federal loans, Income Based Repayment may be a useful and attractive repayment option. There are some drawbacks and situations where it might not be appropriate, but it is certainly worth investigating. This is doubly important if you work for the government or a nonprofit, as Public Service Loan Forgiveness can dramatically reduce the amount you must repay, but forgiving the balance due after 120 payments. Ten years goes by faster than you might imagine.
In 2008, I consolidated my subsidized and unsubsidized student loans. All of my loans had been originated by or sold to the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA), so I used them for the consolidation out of convenience. Not shopping around for the best deal at that time was unwise. I was unhappy with the billing, online payment tools and general customer service at MOHELA. Other servicers may have offered a better experience.
My private student loans could not be rolled into that consolidation, but most were already in a single payment at MOHELA. One random loan from undergrad – provided as emergency support when my scholarships were suddenly decreased – was the outlier. I worked as quickly as possible to pay off that loan, as the servicer was incredibly abusive, even though I was never delinquent.
Ultimately, the bulk of my outstanding debt was refinanced at 7%. My payments were close to $900 a month, but most of the money I paid went to interest. My final payment was scheduled for July 2, 2038. I’d be nearly 60 years old. That’s a really, really long time to be paying out a non-trivial amount of money each month.
In late 2015, I started looking at ways to tackle my student loans. New options for private financing were entering the market. I have a good credit score and understand that moving to a private lender causes me to lose some of the rights I might otherwise have with my federal loans.
First, I found SoFi. Then, searching brought me Earnest and several others like Citizens Bank and DRB.
SoFi seemed to be really on top of their advertising and SEO game. They offered a $500 signing bonus through my employer and had our HR department schedule a WebEx to tell us about their offerings. The others didn’t seem quite so polished, but my regret over not shopping my earlier consolidation caused me to seek out all the lenders I could find. I was also seriously troubled with my inability to find substantive “I hate SoFi” or “SoFi sucks” search results. Almost all the reviews I could find were positive, which seems unlikely. At a minimum, there should be delinquent customers unhappy with the collections process. Their SEO team seems to have no interest in allowing that, however. The company even bought SoFiSucks.com to prevent some angry customer from nabbing that prime spot.
I was able to find a mix of positive, negative and mixed reviews for the other lenders. While I’d never rely on a single review to help steer my decision, the general sentiment seemed to make me feel comfortable with Earnest. Ultimately, I filed an application with SoFi and Earnest.
After completing a rather detailed application process (including linking Earnest into my online banking and credit card accounts), I received my loan paperwork.
- SoFi offered (for $1,020/mo payment) a 5.00% fixed, ten year loan (including a -.25% autopay discount), along with some variable rate options I didn’t consider. They also offered a $500 bonus through my employer.
- Earnest offered (for $1000/mo payment) a 5.24% fixed, ten year loan or 3.32% variable 9 year 3 mo loan (both rates include -.25% autopay discount);
I was tempted to ignore my concerns over the SEO and sign for the lower rate. Then, however, I learned that SoFi uses MOHELA as their servicer. While their platform as dramatically improved over the years, I was impressed that Earnest handled everything in-house. I reached out to their team and eventually emailed with Kai, who offered to resubmit my application along with the rate I’d been offered from SoFi to see if their team could make me a better offer.
A few days later, they came back with a revised offer. $1000 per month for ten years at a 4.71% fixed rate. Sold!
Earnest made the payoffs quickly and their website has been great for managing my payments – they send me notifications far in advance of the deduction, I have the ability to change my due date at will and they even allow skipping a monthly payment once a year, if desired. Extra payments are easily scheduled online. The loan documents were easy to understand and the billing process simple and clear. No more confusing bills laden with disclaimers and confusing formatting. They even offer a $200 signing bonus, similar to what SoFi offered, for anyone referred by a current customer (click here to claim).
Ignoring extra payments, my final autodraft will be in December of 2025. With just a little bit of work and a slight increase in my monthly payments, I’ve cut more than twelve and a half years off of my student loans. I couldn’t be happier.
If you have significant student loan debt, I highly recommend you consider a private refinancing. The savings can be dramatic.