Sometimes people wonder how their payments get out of control so quickly. And many people have a wrong idea about how interest rates on big loans work. This article is designed to help with that, and it comes in large part from our Report on Student Loans and our discussion of a case everyone considering signing up for a student loan, and especially considering loan consolidation with another person, should read carefully. This case is In re Hixson, 450 B.R. 9 (S.D.N.Y. 2011),
Suppose you borrow $100 at 10% interest and you agree to make one payment per year. At the end of year one, you will owe $110. To make any progress, you must pay more than ten dollars (the interest); since it’s a student loan with a 100-year maturity, your payment is $11. It isn’t magic or fancy book-keeping. To make progress you must pay more than the interest, otherwise it gets added to the principle. Your $11 payment will reduce the total owed by only one dollar.
Times are rough, though, so you seek and get a deferment of that first payment. At the end of year 2, you now owe $121. Your $11 payment will not make any headway on the principle, but it will hold things steady. If you need a second deferment, you are now on a downward spiral – even if you make all your scheduled payments till doomsday, you will still get further and further behind.
This won’t happen. Instead, your payments will rise. After a few deferments your payments will be significantly higher and will stretch out just as far into the future as ever. In other words, deferments in which the interest continues to run are extremely dangerous and are to be avoided if possible. If you renegotiate the deal (consolidating your loans, for example), you can possibly change the payments back, but you will do this at the price of increasing the number of payments unless you can get a lower rate of interest, which is not likely for student loans.
The idea behind student loans is simple: you pay one price for an asset that should help you in many ways over a long term. Inflation should help, too, because although your income should go up over time simply because of inflation (as well as your increasing experience), your payments will remain constant. Thus your payments should, in theory, go down relative to your income.
That's the theory. It's easier to see in something tangible, like a house. Suppose you buy a house for $100,000 with an interest rate of 5%. You pay $10,000 down and agree to pay $100/month for as long as it takes. If the price of the house goes up 10% in the first year, you have made a great bargain: the house is now worth $110,000. The amount you spent to get that house was only $11,200, so you have made $8,800. If your income has kept up with inflation, your hundred dollar payment will be easier to pay than it was at the start, too.
Student loans theoretically work the same way. You pay something down and take out loans for tuition, and you get a sort of two-faced asset: your education and a job using that education. The job, hopefully, is better than you would have gotten without the education, and it should also appreciate over time, so the value of your assets will rise, while inflation will reduce the real impact of your loan payments.
The theory behind taking loans is easy, so why did so many homeowners go broke in the early 2000s? Because the home-buying spree, like student loans, were based on a premise that isn't always right. The asset you buy isn't always worth it - and prices don't always go up. If prices go down, or if the educational asset does not result in financial gain, and if inflation is low, the leverage can cut the other way. The payments remain constant (or go up if payments are missed), while the ability to pay goes down.
And this is what has happened to so many people in the 2000s. Our Report on Student Loans discusses the way bankruptcy law has affected the equation and makes some suggestions about what to do if you are struggling with student loan payments. For help with the math of your loan, we suggest that you use a loan calculator, and you will find the link to that in the side panel. For a case study of the choices and issues facing one real person who took out student loans, please read A Case Study: The Choices Facing Hixson.
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