Paying for college with student loans has become the norm, but unfortunately things can get confusing quickly when you take on student debt. That's because most students don't get just one student loan -- they get new student loans for each semester or school year and have a mix of different kinds of federal and private student loans. Those balances add up fast, so much so that the average student loan balance after graduation was $28,650 in 2017.
When you have multiple student loans to pay, and multiple different loan servicers to deal with, it's easy to lose track of the total loan balance you owe. The problem is, unless you know what your loan balance is, it's really hard to make a payoff plan or even estimate what your monthly payments will be. In a worst-case scenario, paying some of your loans could slip through the cracks and you could end up late in making loan payments.
You'll want to make sure you know your total student loan balance so you don't end up making costly mistakes -- but how exactly can you figure out the total you owe? There are a few different steps you may need to take depending on what kinds of debt you've taken on.
How to figure out your total student loan balance
To figure out the total amount you owe in student loans, you'll need to find both your outstanding federal student loan balance as well as the total amount you owe in private student loans.
Determining your federal student loan balance
There are two ways to find out the total balance of your federal student loans: You can sign into your My Federal Student Aid account and check your total loan balances, or you can sign onto the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS). The NSLDS is a database used by the Department of Education to keep track of all outstanding federal loans, including subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
To sign into either of these websites, you'll need a username and password. You can create one on either website, but you may already have one for your My Federal Student Aid account. The same username and password will be used on the NSLDS site as well.
While these websites will tell you your federal student loan balance for each outstanding loan you have, chances are good you also owe private lenders. Many students take out private loans once they've exhausted their available federal funding. These loans won't be listed in the NSLDS or on your My Federal Student Aid account.
Determining your private student loan balance
There are two ways to find out how much you owe in total private loans. You could call your school's financial aid office and request a list. But if you attended more than one school -- say if you have undergrad and grad school loans -- you'll need to contact all of the different educational institutions you attended.
You could also check your credit report, which will list your total outstanding debt balance for all your loans. You can get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). You're entitled to one free credit report each year from each of these reporting agencies and can request that report at AnnualCreditReport.com.
By checking your credit and the NSLDS database, you can get a comprehensive list of each lender you owe. You'll also find out the highest balance on each loan, as well as the current balance. But you should contact individual private lenders -- or check your online accounts -- to find out loan rates and other terms, such as monthly payment amounts due.
How to keep track of your total student loan balance
Owing multiple lenders makes tracking repayment complicated, so it's helpful to have a comprehensive list. Your list should include:
- The name of the lender
- The type of loan (federal Direct Subsidized Loans, federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans, federal PLUS Loans, or private student loans)
- The outstanding balance due
- The monthly payment
- The interest rate
You can use a simple spreadsheet to record all of this information. Apps such as Mint can also help you keep track of your loan balances, but won't always provide all of the details about every loan, such as your interest rate.
Making a list that you update each time you make a payment or if loan terms change -- such as when you switch to a different federal repayment plan -- will allow you to see at a glance how you're doing on debt repayment. You can also refer to your list when deciding if you should make extra payments on any of your loans.
Refinancing and consolidating could simplify the repayment process
If you are frustrated with keeping track of multiple student loans serviced by different lenders, you may want to refinance and consolidate your debt.
Consolidation loans are actually a specific type of loan you can get from the Department of Education to roll all of your existing federal loans into one big loan. When you consolidate using a Direct Consolidation Loan from the Department of Education, your new loan will have an interest rate equal to a weighted average of your old rates. In other words, you won't change the total amount of interest you pay on your loans just by consolidating. Direct Consolidation Loans can give you access to different payment plans, and you'll have just one big loan to pay down.
It's also possible to refinance loans with a private lender. You can refinance just your private loans, taking one new loan to pay them all off. Or you can refinance both private and federal loans in one big loan. While this solution may seem simplest, you lose many important borrower protections by refinancing federal loans -- including flexibility in repayment, deferment and forbearance options, and loan forgiveness options. So before you make this move, you need to consider all you're giving up by refinancing to just one loan.
If you can refinance to a lower rate loan, you can save substantial interest costs. And having just one lender for all your loans definitely makes life a lot easier.
Figure out your student loan balance today
Use your My Federal Student Aid account or the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to find out how much you owe in federal loans and visit AnnualCreditReport.com or call your school's financial aid office to find out your private loan balance. Once you know your current balance, keep tabs on what you owe to each lender so you can make a payoff plan and monitor your progress towards becoming free of your student debt burden.