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Income-Based Repayment: How It Works and Whom It’s Best For

Income-Based Repayment has different features depending on when you borrowed federal student loans; the new version is better for borrowers who qualify.
April 15, 2019
Loans, Student Loans
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Borrowers often use the term “income-based repayment” to describe repayment plans that can lower monthly student loan bills based on income and family size. But Income-Based Repayment, or IBR, is actually one of four such plans known collectively as income-driven repayment plans. IBR is potentially the most complicated of the bunch.

Old IBR at a glance

  • Repayment length: 25 years.
  • Payment amounts: 15% of your discretionary income.
  • Other qualifications: Must have federal student loans.
  • Best for: Borrowers with FFELP loans.

That’s because IBR’s features depend on when you first took out your federal student loans. If you only qualify for the older version — for those who took out loans before July 1, 2014 — you may want to consider other repayment options.

If you qualify for New IBR — meaning you took out loans on or after July 1, 2014 — this plan is usually the best income-driven option for you in the following instances:

  • You don’t also qualify for Pay As You Earn.
  • You don’t expect your income to increase much over time.
  • You have grad school debt.
  • You’re married, and you and your spouse both have incomes.
If IBR doesn’t sound right for you, consider one of the other three income-driven repayment plans.

  • Pay As You Earn (PAYE): good for married borrowers with two incomes, those with grad school debt and those with lower earning potential.
  • Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE): good for single borrowers, those without grad debt and those with higher earning potential.
  • Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR): good for parent PLUS borrowers and those who only want to reduce payments slightly.

  • » MORE: Income-driven repayment: Is it right for you?

    IBR vs. other income-driven plans

    All income-driven plans share some similarities: Each caps payments at between 10% and 20% of your discretionary income and forgives your remaining loan balance after 20 or 25 years of payments. Use Federal Student Aid’s Repayment Estimator to see how much you might pay under different plans.

    New IBR at a glance

    • Repayment length: 20 years.
    • Payment amounts: 10% of your discretionary income.
    • Other qualifications: Must have federal direct loans.
    • Best for: Borrowers who don’t qualify for PAYE.

    The biggest difference with Income-Based Repayment is that its features change depending on whether you took out your loans before July 1, 2014, or from that date on. Borrowing before that date will qualify you for Old IBR, which caps payments at 15% of your discretionary income and forgives your loans after 25 years of payments. New IBR improves on those numbers, shrinking them to 10% and 20 years, respectively.

    In most cases, the least confusing way to select an income-driven plan is to let your servicer place you on the plan with the lowest monthly payment you qualify for. But specifically choosing IBR may be right for you in the following instances:

    The new version of Income-Based Repayment and PAYE are nearly identical. The biggest difference between the two plans is that PAYE limits the amount of interest that can be capitalized, or added to your balance; new IBR does not. This makes PAYE a better option if you’re eligible.

    For example, let’s say you have a $100,000 loan that’s accrued $15,000 in interest. Under PAYE, only 10% — or $10,000 — of that interest could be added to your balance. New IBR would capitalize the entire $15,000, not only costing you that extra $5,000 but also allowing future interest to grow on a higher balance.

    » MORE: PAYE: How it works and whom it’s best for

    Payments under the new version of Income-Based Repayment are capped at 10% of your discretionary income. Unlike some other income-driven plans, IBR never increases your payments higher than what you would pay under the standard 10-year repayment plan — even if that’s less than 10% of your discretionary income.

    If your income rises enough, though, you may no longer qualify for IBR. IBR requires you to demonstrate a partial financial hardship, which essentially means you can’t afford the standard repayment amount. If you stop demonstrating this hardship, your payments would return to the standard amount and any unpaid interest would be capitalized, or added to your balance, increasing the amount you owe.

    Consider REPAYE instead if you think your income is going to increase greatly or is already high enough that you don’t qualify for IBR. REPAYE also caps payments at 10% of your discretionary income, but it doesn’t require you to demonstrate a partial financial hardship to qualify.

    » MORE: REPAYE: How it works and whom it’s best for

    If you’re married, your payments under Income-Based Repayment depend on your tax filing status:

  • File taxes separately. Payments will be based solely on your income.
  • File taxes jointly. Payments will be based on your and your spouse’s income.
  • Not all plans give you this choice. For example, REPAYE always counts your spouse’s income when calculating your income-driven payments.

    Income-driven repayment plans can last up to 25 years. Even if you’re not married now, you may be in the next quarter-century. If you’re using IBR at that point, you could keep your payments low by filing taxes separately.

    Talk to a tax professional to understand the pros and cons of different tax filing statuses. You shouldn’t choose or change your status based solely on student loan payments.

    » MORE: Guide to filing taxes with student loans

    The new version of Income-Based Repayment forgives any remaining balance on your loans after 20 years of payment no matter what type of federal loans you have.

    Other income-driven plans, including Old IBR, take 25 years until forgiveness or add five extra years to your repayment term if you took out loans for graduate or professional studies.

    If you only qualify for Old IBR, consider REPAYE instead. While you might not finish repayment earlier — REPAYE lasts 25 years for those with grad debt — REPAYE subsidizes more interest on your loans than IBR does. This would potentially leave you with a smaller balance to forgive at the end of your repayment term, which is actually a good thing since the forgiven amount would be taxable.

    » MORE: REPAYE: How it works and whom it’s best for

    The only income-driven plan that loans from the defunct Federal Family Education Loan Program qualify for is Old Income-Based Repayment.

    You can consolidate these loans to make them eligible for additional income-driven options, but that would wipe out any payments you’ve already made toward forgiveness, if applicable. Weigh the pros and cons of consolidation before choosing this option.

    » MORE: Can you consolidate student loans?

    How to apply for Income-Based Repayment

    You must enroll in Income-Based Repayment. You can do this by mailing a completed income-driven repayment request to your student loan servicer, but it’s easier to complete the process online. You can change your student loan repayment plan at any time.

    • Visit studentloans.gov. Log in with your Federal Student Aid ID, or create an FSA ID if you don’t have one.
    • Select income-driven repayment plan request. Preview the form so you know what documents to have ready, like your tax return.
    • Choose your plan. If you qualify for more than one income-driven repayment plan, you can be automatically placed in the plan with the lowest payment or specifically choose IBR if it makes the most sense for you.
    • Complete the application. Enter the required details about your income and family. Remember to include your spouse’s information, if applicable, as it will affect your payments under IBR.
    To stay on the Income-Based Repayment plan, you must resubmit the income-driven repayment application every year. If your income changes, your payments will change, too.

    If you miss the recertification deadline — or you begin earning too much to qualify for IBR — your payments will switch to the amount you’d pay under the standard plan. Any interest will also be capitalized, or added to your principal balance, at that point.


    » MORE: How to change student loan repayment plans

    Other ways to pay less

    If income-driven repayment isn’t right for you, the federal government offers extended repayment and graduated repayment plans, which lower your payments but aren’t based on your income. You may pay more interest under these plans, though, and neither offers loan forgiveness.

    The federal government offers extended repayment and graduated repayment plans, which lower your payments but aren’t based on your income.

    You also may be able to pay less by refinancing your student loans. Refinancing federal student loans can be risky, as you’ll lose access to income-driven repayment and other federal loan programs and protections. But if you’re comfortable giving up those options and have strong credit as well as a steady income, refinancing may save you money.

    » MORE: Should I refinance my student loans?

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