How long will it take to pay off your student loan?

Student debt in the U.S. totals about $1.6 trillion. When paying back your loans, it's important to weight your expectations with financial reality. (iStock)

Collectively, Americans owe a staggering $1.45 trillion in student loans -- and that's just for federal student loans. Outstanding private student loans add another $119 billion to the total, bringing it to $1.6 trillion overall.

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The typical borrower has an average student loan debt of $33,564. If you're staring down a similar number, one of your biggest concerns might be how long it'll take to pay it off.

What's the average time it takes to repay student loans?

How long you think it will take to repay student debt and how long it actually takes can be very different.

Upcoming and recent grads reported having an average student loan debt of $22,919, according to a 2019 report from Cengage. Based on that number, they estimated it would take six years to pay it off. In reality, Cengage estimates it takes closer to 20 years to pay back student loans.

"It's important to remember that every student is different," said Laura Morgan, vice president of communications, savings and legal affairs at College Foundation, Inc. (CFI).

WHEN TO REFINANCE YOUR STUDENT LOANS 

For example, your ability to repay student loans quickly may hinge on how fast you're able to find a job after graduation, your starting salary and how much potential you have for advancement. Other factors that affect your student loan payoff include:

  • Amounts borrowed
  • Type of degree
  • Which school you attended
  • Choice of repayment plan
  • Whether you consolidate or refinance student loans

For example, according to an analysis from Credible it can take just shy of 20 years for the average borrower to repay student loan debt earned in connection with obtaining a bachelor's degree. Meanwhile, financing graduate school pushes the average student loan debt repayment to 23 years.

Owing less than $7,500 in federal student loans makes you more likely to repay them in under a decade. But owing $60,000 in federal student debt could mean making payments for 30 years under a standard consolidation repayment plan.

How to pay off student loans fast

Your best bet for paying off student loans quickly is to limit how much you borrow, according to Morgan. But if you've already graduated or will soon, there are other things you can do to speed up your repayment timeline.

Consider whether it makes sense to refinance private student loans if you owe any. Refinancing could help you to get a lower interest rate which can save you money. And the more of your payment that goes to the principal each month, the faster you can make a dent in your balances.

STUDENT LOAN REPAYMENT PLANS: HOW TO PICK THE BEST ONE FOR YOU

If refinancing isn't an option, you could still save on interest by signing up for autopay. Many lenders offer an interest rate discount if you make your payments automatically.

Next, think about tweaking your repayment strategy. Doubling up on monthly payments can help get rid of student loans faster if your budget allows it. Run the numbers through a student loan calculator to see how much faster you might be able to repay your loans this way.

Finally, make use of financial windfalls. Rebates, refunds, an annual bonus at work or even birthday gifts of cash could all be applied to your student loans to bring the balance down.