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Questions To Ask Before You Consolidate Your Student Loans

Joe Elias -- The federal student loan consolidation program is an excellent way to manage student loan debt as well as save thousands of dollars in interest payments.

Federal student loan consolidation is a free federal program that allows anyone with outstanding federal student loan debt to combine their loans, extend their repayment term, and lock in their interest rate.

The terms and conditions on all federal student loan consolidations are set by the U.S. Department of Education, meaning that all federal student loan consolidations are, at least initially, created equal. There are no prepayment penalties or fees, and every lender has to offer the same federal forbearance and deferment options and the same initial consolidated interest rate.

This rate is based on a weighted average of the interest rates of all the outstanding student loans rounded to the nearest 1/8th percent.

So, if every lender is offering the same federal terms and conditions, and every consolidated loan will have the same initial rate, what's the difference between consolidation lenders?

The difference between lenders is in the borrower benefits that are offered. These differences can be pretty substantial, and by asking the right questions, smart borrowers can get the best deal on their federal student consolidation loan.

Interest Rate Reductions

The most common benefit offered on a federal student loan consolidation is an interest rate reduction. This benefit is usually offered in two parts: a .25% reduction for auto debit and a 1% interest rate reduction after 36 months of on-time payments.

This is a great benefit that can greatly reduce the total amount of interest paid on the consolidated loan. On a $30,000 loan, this benefit alone can save a borrower over $6,500 in interest! Although this is an attractive benefit, there are a couple of things to ask your consolidation lender before proceeding with the loan:

1. Ask the lender if the benefit will lock in after you've made 36 months of on-time payments.

This means that, after the 1% interest rate reduction is awarded, the benefit can never be taken away, even if payments are made late in the future.

Most consolidation companies will add the 1% back in if any payment is late after the benefit has already been awarded. Many people don't worry about this, assuming that they will always make their payment on time.

However, most consolidation loans will take over 10 years to pay back and the odds are a payment will be late eventually. Clarify with the lender when a payment is considered late. Any reputable company should provide at least a 10-day grace period before a payment is considered late.

Remember, just because you have your payments set up to be auto-debited from a bank account doesn't mean they will always be on time. If there are insufficient funds in the bank account, the payment can be rejected and considered late.

2. Ask the lender if the on-time payments have to be consecutive to receive the interest rate reduction.

Many companies will take away the benefit if you put the loan into a forbearance or deferment. This can even include a deferment on payments if you decide to go back to school.

Reputable lenders will not take away your benefit for exercising your federal right to put your consolidation loan into a deferment or forbearance.

3. Ask the lender what will happen to the benefit if the loan is sold.

Regardless of what a lender tells you, many consolidation loans are sold.

Make sure that if your loan is sold, you will not lose your rate reductions. There are horror stories of borrowers making 30 on-time payments to find out that their consolidated loan had been sold to a new lender who will not honor the 1% rate reduction they were initially promised.

Cash Back Rebate

A relatively new benefit being touted by consolidation companies is the cash back rebate.

This is usually a percentage of the principal loan balance that is either applied to the outstanding loan or sent to the borrower as a cash payment. This can be a very attractive offer, especially when in the form of a cash payment to the borrower.

It's hard to resist a check for thousands of dollars, but when compared to the savings from the interest rate reductions, the cash back rebate is usually not the best financial discount.

For example:

One lender is offering a 1.25% rate reduction for on-time payments, and the other lender is offering a 3% cash back rebate on a $60,000 consolidated loan. The lender offering the cash back rebate will mail the borrower a check for $1,800 after they make 10 payments on time.

The other lender will give the 1% rate reduction after 3 years of on-time payments. The cash rebate sounds tempting, but when you realize that the 1.25% rate reduction could save over $32,000, it is clear the interest rate reduction is the superior benefit.

1. If you decide to go with a company offering the cash rebate option, make sure to read the fine print. Many companies require that a rebate form be submitted by a certain deadline to process the cash back benefit. If the cash back rebate form is not received, they will disqualify the borrower from the rebate.

2. Ask the lender what exactly is required to receive the cash back rebate before submitting a signed consolidation loan application. Many companies combine the cash back rebate with other borrower obligations. One company requires that a borrower enroll in their electronic newsletter with a valid email address before the rebate is awarded.

The federal student loan consolidation program is an excellent way to manage student loan debt as well as save thousands of dollars in interest payments. By asking the right questions and knowing what to look for, you can maximize your savings and make sure that you get the best deal possible on your consolidation loan.

Joe Elias is a partner in 4.0 Student Loans, a financial aid company that provides student loan information and consolidation for students and parents. For more information, visit: http://www.40studentloans.com.

© 2006 Joe Elias

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