11 ways to trim your student loan payments

By Brian Acton/Credit.com

Student loan debt is a huge burden for millions of Americans, representing the second-largest form of consumer debt in the country. A large monthly student loan payment can make it difficult to afford your other living expenses. Luckily, there are many ways to make that monthly payment more affordable. Here are 11 of them:

1. Income-driven repayment plans

Federal borrowers with insufficient income should consider an income-driven repayment plan, which lowers your monthly payment based on your income and family size. There are several income-driven repayment plans, including the Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE), Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE), Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR) and Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR).

Each plan is different, but they all reduce your payments to a set percentage of your discretionary income. You can work directly with your loan servicer to determine which plan is right for you.

2. Loan consolidation

If you have multiple federal loans, a direct consolidation loan will combine them and allow you to make a single monthly payment. Consolidation can also extend your repayment period up to 30 years, reducing your monthly obligation. Keep in mind that this would increase the amount of money you pay in the long run.

3. Pay ahead of time

If you're still enrolled in school or you just graduated, it could be beneficial to start paying on your loan now. Many federal student loans do not accrue interest until the grace period after graduation expires. If you start making small payments now, you'll reduce the principal of your loan and the overall interest you'll pay.

4. Employer student loan repayment assistance

Many government employers have offered loan repayment assistance for some time, but even private companies are getting in on the game to attract millennial workers. Before you jump at a job offer from an employer with a student loan assistance program, you'll want to check the details to see if the program actually reduces your monthly payment.

"About 4 percent of employers are now offering employer-paid student loan repayment assistance," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and VP of strategy at Cappex.com. "However, the employer payments are almost always in addition to the borrower's payments, and the borrower may be required to make at least the standard monthly payment. So the main impact is on shortening the repayment term, not in reducing the monthly payment amount. "

5. Graduated repayment plans

Graduated repayment plans will temporarily reduce your monthly payments, increasing them every two years. This is a good choice if you currently can't afford your payments but have confidence that your income will steadily increase over the next 10 years.

Graduated repayment "starts off with very low payments, just above interest-only, and increases the monthly payment every two years. No payment will be more than three times any other payment," said Kantrowitz.

6. Extended repayment plans

Extended repayment plans increase the lifetime of your loan up to 25 years. This will drastically lower your monthly payment if you're currently on a 10-year payment plan. You will end up paying much more over the life of the loan.

7. Refinancing

Refinancing your federal loans with a private lender can help you get a better interest rate, which could lower your monthly payment and save a lot over the life of your loan. For this option, you'll need good credit. To see where your credit stands, you can check two of your scores for free on Credit.com.

You'll also want financial stability. That's because private lenders don't offer income-driven repayment plans, deferment or forbearance and many other options available to federal borrowers. If you fall on hard times with a private loan, you'll have fewer tools at your disposal.

8. Roll your loan into your mortgage

If you have a home with some available equity, you could roll your student loan into your home equity line of credit (HELOC). This can reduce your interest rate but will likely require good credit.

9. Automatic payments

Many lenders offer payment or interest reduction as an incentive to sign up for automatic payments. Check with your loan servicer to find out if they offer this option.

10. Use credit card rewards

Some credit cards offer rewards that can be put directly toward your student loan. For instance, the Citi Thank You Preferred Card for College Students earns points that can be redeemed for a check that is issued to your loan servicer.

11. Deferment or forbearance

If you're desperate to reduce your payment, deferment or forbearance can pause or significantly reduce your monthly payments for a limited amount of time. Deferment also pauses interest, while loans in forbearance will continue to accrue interest.

You must work directly with your loan servicer to apply for deferment or forbearance. Qualifying circumstances may include financial hardship, unemployment or military deployment.

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