When it comes to paying for college, the process can seem overwhelming. There are so many financing options out there and you might be feeling lost about how to choose the correct ones for your family. The key is to equip yourself with information so that you can have knowledge you need to make an informed decision.

One of the most common ways to pay for college is student loans. There are two primary sources of student loan funding: federal loans and private credit loans. The two programs differ in fundamental ways: the money for federal loans comes from the Department of Education whereas private loans come from places like banks, credit unions and other financial institutions.  Federal loans are much more standardized providing the same rates and fees to all borrowers. Most students tend to take advantage of federal loans before moving onto private loans if they still need extra money.

For some families, private loans are a good option because offer competitive rates and a cosigner option to help student-borrowers gain approval. Other families will choose federal loans, which can be easier to get and offer flexible repayment options, like income-based repayment.  Whichever type of loan you choose (and some families take out both private and federal loans), there are a few ways to borrow smart.

Don’t borrow more than you need. Many families get caught up in the availability of what may seem like free money and end up taking out a bigger loan than they need, just because the option is there. But a loan is not free money, even though it is labeled as “financial aid” on a student’s award letter. Every cent you borrow has to be paid back in the future, and often with interest, which can sometimes be up to a few thousand dollars on top of the loan principal. Don’t take out too much money from a student loan; it should be used for education costs only. Take a careful look at actual expenses and remember that interest will accrue on the total balance. You can use a Student Loan Payment Amount Estimator to get an idea of what your payments might look like once you’ve graduated. Be smart about the debt you’re taking on. Only borrow the amount you actually need, otherwise you could be quite literally paying for your mistake down the line.

Review federal loans first. They tend to have the most favorable terms and flexible repayment options, and you generally don’t need a co-signer. To receive federal loans, families must submit the FAFSA form, with the 2016 – 2017 version available beginning October 1. Even if you don’t think your family will qualify for need-based aid, you should submit the FAFSA anyway. Every family that files one, regardless of family income level, is eligible for some type of federal student loan. You never know what you might be eligible for or how your family’s needs will change before the fall. There are different types of Federal Direct Student Loans, including Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and Federal Direct PLUS, among others. We will cover the specific differences between these loans in an upcoming post, but all of them are managed by the federal government. Some can be covered by debt forgiveness programs, like the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, but when you’re taking out a loan it’s best practice to assume that you will be paying back the entirety of the balance.

If you need more money, look into private loans. Federal loans are limited year-to-year, and if facing a tuition shortfall, you may need to look into private education loans. One of the best known private loan lenders is the company Sallie Mae, but private loans also come from banks, credit unions, and other lenders. In most cases you’ll need a co-signer. All private loans differ, but their interest rates may be fixed or variable and some require a minimum payment while still enrolled in school. You can learn more about the differences between the two types of loans at Studentaid.ed.gov.

When taking out loans, make sure you understand the terms of the loan. How will interest be charged? What is the grace period on the loan, that is, how much time will pass between graduation and when payments are due? Who will be the co-signer on the loan, if you need one? There are many factors to consider and like most aspects of the college process, the answers will differ among families. But with some research, you’ll feel more equipped to make the right choices for you. Good student loan borrowing is about being smart, making the right decisions, and doing what’s best for you and your family.

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