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Student loans – Getting to “Paid in Full”

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the five stages of grief in her book “On Death and Dying”: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. If you have a large student loan balance, then you’ve probably experienced some “grief” and are no stranger to the five stages. If you are in the “Acceptance” stage, this article is for you!

Being in the Acceptance stage is a good place to be. It means that: you have discovered that deferrals and forbearances are not forever (Denial stage), you have stopped blaming others for getting what you assumed to be a “free ride” (Anger stage), you have learned that you can not discharge your loan through bankruptcy (Bargaining stage), you have stopped drinking heavily and watching re-runs of the Gilmore Girls (Depression stage), and you now accept your financial responsibility and are prepared to do something about it. You are not going to find any “magic bullets” in this article, but you will find an effective strategy for paying off your loan in the shortest amount of time.

Step 1 – Organize Loan in a Spreadsheet

To better manage your student loan, you must completely understand what you are up against. Creating a spreadsheet will give you insight into how your loan works and show you the positive results of making extra principal payments. To create a functional spreadsheet, you must understand the terms of your loan and know how to organize this information into a spreadsheet. If you are not a spreadsheet user, you will find that learning the basics is easy.

To begin building your spreadsheet, you will need the following information about your loan: current balance, interest rate, payment amount, and how the interest is calculated. This will allow you to create an interactive spreadsheet that will calculate how much interest accrues daily and provide you with a daily balance.

How the interest is calculated may require some digging. You will find this information by reviewing your loan documents, going to the lender’s website, or calling your lender’s customer service number. The number of days used to calculate interest on a loan is known as basis. For example, a mortgage is typically calculated using “30/360”, which means a year is assumed to have 360 days and a month is assumed to have 30 days. Thus, when you make a mortgage payment, your interest will be based on 30 days. Student loans typically use the actual number of days in the month and a year with 365 days (actual/365). Some loans may use an actual/365. 25 convention; each loan is different. On a loan with an actual/365 basis, you will pay less interest in a short month (one that has less than 31 days) than in a month with 31 days.

Feeling lost yet? Don’t worry, because once we put it all together it will make sense. I’ll also explain how to test your spreadsheet to make sure it’s functioning properly. The initial setup of a spreadsheet is the most challenging step.

On the top of your spreadsheet, insert the key pieces of information regarding your loan, such as: beginning balance, interest rate, monthly payment, payment due date, and the interest rate factor. The interest rate factor is the interest rate divided by the number of days in the year. Again, every lender and type of loan is different in terms of how many days in the year are used. The informational part of the spreadsheet is important because you want to clearly see the variables that impact your loan.

After you input the key pieces of information, you can begin the construction of your interactive spreadsheet. Your goal is to create a spreadsheet that shows when each payment is posted, how much of each payment is applied to principal and interest, and what the ending (or current) balance is. The column names that you will create are (from left to right): Payment Date, Principal, Interest, and New Balance. Below is a more detailed explanation of these columns:

• Payment Date – This is the date that your payment is actually posted to your account. This is critical since the interest on your student loan is likely based on the actual number of days between payments.

• Principal – This will be a formula that equals your payment amount less the interest portion of your monthly payment. It’s the part of your payment that will be applied to reduce your balance.

• Interest – You need to know how your lender calculates interest on your loan. Typically, it is based on the actual number of days multiplied by the previous month’s balance multiplied by the interest rate factor. Your Excel formula will be: (current payment date minus previous payment date) x previous month’s balance x the interest rate factor.

• New Balance – This is equal to your previous month’s balance less the principal portion of your current payment.

If your lender has a website that allows you to see information about your loan and/or make payments, establish online access immediately. Print the balance history of your loan and begin building your spreadsheet using your first payment as the starting point. The balance history should show how much of each payment was applied to principal and interest. This is how you can test your spreadsheet to make sure it is working properly. Check to see if your formula results match the history on the website. If they do not match you will need to troubleshoot to figure out why. It could be that the lender made an error, but more than likely the error is on your spreadsheet. If you have a friend or family member who is an Excel user, see if they can give you some assistance. The web is a great resource as well.

The real power of a spreadsheet is that you can simulate what-if scenarios easily. For example, let’s say that you receive a large cash windfall. You can input this figure into your spreadsheet and easily see what the results of such a big pay-down would be. You might learn that if you made this extra principal reduction payment your loan would be paid off in ten years instead of 15. You may find this very motivating. However, if you don’t have a tool such as a spreadsheet to generate this type of information, then you might choose do something else with your money.

Step 2) – Strategies to Accelerate Payoff

Congratulations on building a spreadsheet where you can track your student loan balances and payments. Tracking a loan in this manner gives you control over the loan. Getting a statement in the mail every month and not really understanding why your balance moved so little is not motivating and adds to a sense of hopelessness (and you really don’t want to go back to the cheap beer and Gilmore Girls re-runs). Here are some specific strategies to help you pay off your loan quickly:

Pay a little extra each month – We’ve all heard this before, especially when talking about mortgages. Well, the same holds true for student loans. When you make a monthly payment, part of that payment is applied to interest, and the rest to principal. My suggestion: Pay the amount of extra principal that will result in your loan balance having two zeros at the end of it. For example, if your balance will be $37, 845. 21 after you make your next payment, pay an extra $45. 21 to make you principal balance $37, 800. Getting your loan to an even hundred dollar figure is a strategy to encourage you to pay extra each month.

To facilitate this strategy, I suggest you pay your loan electronically. You have no control over when your payment is posted when you mail it. When you make an online payment, you typically select the payment post date. In addition, there will likely be a section to input the extra amount of principal you wish to pay.

The benefit of paying more than your minimum payment is that when you make your next loan payment, a bigger portion will be applied towards the principal and less towards the interest (compared to if you did not pay extra the prior month). If you continue to pay more than the minimum due, this effect will be compounded each month. The result is that you will pay off your loan significantly faster than if you only made the minimum payment. That is because as your balance decreases, the amount of interest you pay decreases. More of each payment will be applied to reducing the principal. This effect is easy to see when you track it on a spreadsheet, which is why doing so is an effective strategy.

Make a plan to pay “a lot extra” on a regular basis – If you get a tax refund each year, apply it to your student loan balance. This will have a tremendous impact on how quickly your loan is repaid. If you get a bonus each year, apply that as well. Any windfall, or instance of “found money”, should be used to reduce your balance. It is not uncommon for people to treat “found money” differently. “Found money” is often wasted on “splurge” items. Resist this urge! Use any extra money, no matter where or how you got it, to pay down your student loan balance!

In summary, the steps needed to help you pay off your loan quicker are:

1) Utilize a spreadsheet to track your loan so that you can see how much of each payment goes to principal and interest. Perform what-if scenarios so that you can see the impact of paying down your loan and formulate a strategy for doing so.

2) Pay a little extra each month. One strategy is to pay an extra amount such that your balance is an even increment of $100.

3) Commit to making large payments when you have a cash windfall, such as an income tax refund or bonus. While this may not provide an immediate reward, the long-term consequences will be sizeable. Time truly does fly, and what may seem like a huge balance now can be reduced to zero in a lot less time than you think, but only if you make it a priority and a goal.

Paying off a student loan can seem overwhelming. However, if you employ the strategies provided here, you’ll learn you can succeed more quickly than you ever imagined. You can apply these same ideas to your mortgage and other loans. Gaining control of your finances is empowering. And by the way, I started this article by referencing the five stages of grief. If you die, please know that in most cases your loan will die with you – unless you consolidated with a spouse. In that case, unfortunately, the loan will live on!