Student loans have a way of making you feel powerless. But the truth is, you have more control than you think. That's what our Student Loan Smarts series is all about—helping you understand all of your options so you can make decisions that fit with your financial goals.
One of those options? Choosing to consolidate or refinance student loans. But what is consolidation, what is refinancing, and how do you know which one (if either) is right for you?
This is a somewhat complicated question, especially since these terms are sometimes used interchangeably. For example, consolidation simply means combining multiple student loans into one loan, but you get different results by consolidating with the federal government vs. consolidating with a private lender. Student loan refinancing is when you apply for a loan under new terms and use that loan to pay off one or more existing student loans.
Consolidate vs. Refinance. Let's break it down.
Here's a simple overview of the different types of student loan consolidation, how they differ from student loan refinancing, and how to evaluate whether you should do one of these things.
Federal loan consolidation
Federal loan consolidation is offered by the government and is available for most types of federal loans—no private loans allowed. When you consolidate with the government, your existing federal loans are combined into one new loan with a new rate, which is a weighted average of your old loans' rates.
This option doesn't save you any money, but there are still a few potential benefits:
1. Fewer bills and payments to keep track of each month.
2. The ability to switch out older, variable rate federal loans for one fixed rate loan, which could protect you from having to pay higher rates in the future if interest rates go up. (Note: the last variable rate federal student loans were disbursed in 2006. Since then, all federal loans have been fixed rate.)
3. Lower monthly payments. But beware—this is usually the result of lengthening your payment term, which means you'll actually have to pay more interest over the life of the loan.
Private loan consolidation
Like federal consolidation, a private consolidation loan allows you to combine multiple loans into one, and offers the same potential benefits listed above. However, the interest rate on your new, consolidated loan is not a weighted average of your old loans' rates. Instead, a private lender will look at your track record of handling debt and other financial information to give you a new (ideally lower) interest rate on your consolidation loan.
Bottom line: when you consolidate student loans with a private lender, you are also in fact refinancing those loans.
Student loan refinancing
As noted above, student loan refinancing is when a new loan is used to pay off one or more existing student loans. If your financial situation has improved since you first signed on the dotted line, you may be able to refinance student loans at a lower interest rate, which can allow you to:
1. Lower your monthly payments.
2. Shorten your loan term to pay off debt sooner.
3. Save money on total interest.
4. Choose a variable interest rate loan, which can be a cost-saving option if you plan to pay off your loan relatively quickly.
5. Enjoy the benefits of consolidation, including one simplified monthly bill.
Unlike consolidation, student loan refinancing is only available from private lenders. And while most private lenders will only refinance private loans, a few, including SoFi, will refinance both private and federal student loans, so you can consolidate all of your loans into one.
Before you combine federal and private student loans, be aware that federal loans offer certain benefits and protections, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness and income-driven repayment plans, which do not transfer to private lenders. If you're considering refinancing, you should first find out if any of these benefits apply to you.
If you don't anticipate needing or qualifying for federal loan benefits, getting a lower rate can save you a significant sum. For example, the average SoFi borrower saves about $19,000.
So should you consolidate, refinance – or neither? The decision depends a lot on your specific situation. Do you qualify to refinance at a lower rate? Do you plan to take advantage of federal loan benefits? Answering these questions will go a long way to helping you make the right choice.
You may not be able to change the fact that you have student loans, but you can make smart decisions about them. And that's what ultimately gives you power over your debt.
Editor's Note: This is an updated version of a post we originally published in November 2013. We welcome new comments and questions below.