It might seem that earning your college degree was easier than paying off all the student loans you're still stuck with. But now could be the best time to deal with the debt, because you have until the end of June to lock in lower interest rates on consolidated student loans.
Starting July 1, the variable interest rates on federally backed student loans such as Stafford loans and Federal Family Education Loans will jump 1.93 percentage points to 4.70 percent for current students and those in the six-month post-graduation grace period. The rate will also rise by 1.93 percentage points to 5.30 percent for those currently repaying.
"I think there are very few people who would not benefit from consolidation," says Martha Holler, a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, which manages about 8 million student loans. Here's a cheat sheet for figuring out if consolidation is right for you:
WHAT IT MEANS: By consolidating, borrowers take out a new loan to pay off multiple old loans. The interest rate you get might not be a mega-low less-than-3 percent, however -- you lock in a rate that's the weighted average of your previous student loans. That average will remain the fixed rate for the life of the new loan. While this can mean a lower interest rate and lower monthly payments, the new loan can run from 10 to 30 years, and you could end up paying more in interest over the life of your loan.
WHO'S AFFECTED: Out-of-school borrowers already in repayment have the most to gain from consolidating. If you're a current student or in the grace period, you can consolidate, but you may have to start paying back your loans sooner, usually between two and six months. If you've consolidated before, you're most likely out of luck: You can consolidate federal loans only once.
HOW TO GET STARTED: Loans are available through the federal government and from private banks and financial firms. Given the looming deadline, Holler recommends checking with your current lender first. "You don't want to waste time contacting a lender and going through the application process only to find out they aren't qualified to handle your loan," Holler said.
WHERE TO LEARN MORE: There's a loan calculator at Federal Direct Consolidation Loans Information Center (www.loanconsolidation.ed.gov) that can help you figure out what you'll end up paying if you consolidate. People can apply for a federal loan on this site, which also has comprehensive answers to consolidation questions. If you have questions about student financial aid, visit the Federal Student Aid site (www.studentaid.ed.gov). You can look up information about your loans on the National Student Loan Data System (www.nslds.ed.gov).
-- Paul J. Williams