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How to Lower Student Loan Payments: Start With Your Adjusted Gross Income

Your adjusted gross income (AGI) is used as a starting point to help determine your overall tax liability each year. But it also serves as one of the primary factors when calculating your federal student loan payment under an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan.

There are a variety of strategies to effectively reduce your AGI, and in turn, lower both your income tax bill and your student loan payment. Here’s how.

What’s adjusted gross income?

Your AGI is basically your total gross income for the year after making adjustments for certain tax deductions.

Gross income includes all types of income received for the year, including:

  • Wages,
  • Business income,
  • Dividends,
  • Capital gains,
  • Retirement distributions,
  • And other forms of income.

Income adjustments include specific “above-the-line” tax deductions, such as student loan interest and retirement contributions. In plain terms, your AGI is calculated as:

Total gross income – “Above-the-line” deductions = AGI

However, not all tax deductions are “above-the-line”. For example, deductions for medical expenses and mortgage interest are “below-the-line” tax deductions. They can only be claimed if you itemize your tax return (which most people don’t because the standard deduction is so high now).

An itemized deduction ends up reducing your taxable income, which lowers your overall tax liability. But they won’t affect your AGI calculation.

This is an important distinction to understand because your adjusted gross income has a direct relationship with your federal student loan payment: the lower your AGI, the lower your monthly payment.

How adjusted gross income affects student loan payments

The Department of Education offers a number of repayment plans to federal student loan borrowers, including four income-driven repayment plans:

  • Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE, formerly REPAYE)
  • Pay As You Earn (PAYE)
  • Income-Based Repayment (IBR)
  • Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)

Each of these IDR plans uses a different percentage of your discretionary income (ranging from 5% to 20%) and has different student loan forgiveness benefits (20 to 25 years).

However, all of the IDR plans work the same in terms of using your AGI and family size to determine your monthly payment.

The federal government uses your discretionary income to calculate your monthly payment. Under President Biden's new SAVE Plan, discretionary income takes your previous year’s AGI and subtracts 225% of the federal poverty line for your family size.

Note that PAYE and IBR use 150% of the federal poverty line for payment calculations and ICR uses 100%.

Discretionary income example

Let’s say you enroll in the SAVE plan, and you have an AGI of $100,000 as a family of four. The 2023 poverty line for a four-person household is $30,000. Therefore, your discretionary income would be $32,500 for the year. In contrast, your discretionary income would be $55,000 under PAYE or IBR.

Your discretionary income is then multiplied by the appropriate percentage based on the IDR plan you’re enrolled in. That number is then divided by 12 to determine your final monthly payment amount.

Using the same example, your monthly payment under SAVE would be around $135 per month if you only have undergrad loans. This is because the SAVE plan is based on 5% of your discretionary income for undergrad loans and 10% for graduate loans.

That's already a low monthly payment. But what happens if you could strategically lower your AGI by $15,000? Your new payment would drop to $73 per month.

Use our Income-Based Repayment Calculator to quickly plug in your own numbers and see how reducing your AGI could affect your student loan payment.

Get Started With Our New IDR Calculator

Strategically reduce your adjusted gross income for lower student loan payments

Reducing your AGI is the most effective way to lower your federal student loan payment (the alternative is to increase your family size). Fortunately, there are a handful of strategies that can make a major dent in your AGI, while also benefiting you for the long-term.

Here are several ways to reduce your AGI by using “above-the-line” tax deductions to your advantage.

Increase your pre-tax contributions to your retirement plan

Contributions made to a pre-tax retirement plan can lower your AGI and help set you up for retirement later down the road. This includes contributions made to a 401(k), 403(b), 457, government pension fund or a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

Note: It doesn’t include Roth IRA contributions since that type of retirement plan involves after-tax dollars.

If you have access to a retirement plan through work, you can significantly lower your AGI by maxing out your pre-tax contributions each year.

For example, the 2023 IRS maximum limit for a 401(k), 403(b) and most 457 plans is $22,500. Note that if you’re a government employee with access to both a 403(b) and a 457, you can max out both accounts at $22,500 per year.

There’s also the option to max out a traditional IRA at $6,500 per year regardless of whether your employer offers a retirement plan. However, your deduction might be reduced, phased out or eliminated if you or your spouse are covered by a retirement plan at work, depending on filing status and income. In this case, there are modified AGI limits to consider.

Keep in mind that your spouse can contribute to their own IRA or employer-sponsored retirement plan.

Contribute to a Health Saving Account (HSA)

If you have a high deductible health plan (HDHP), you can make tax-deductible contributions to an HSA for future medical expenses. HSA accounts offer tax-deferred growth and tax-free withdrawals (when used on qualified medical expenses). But they can also save you money by reducing your AGI, and thereby, lowering your student loan payment.

For 2023, you can contribute up to $3,850 if you have self-only HDHP coverage or up to $7,750 for family HDHP coverage.

Claim the student loan interest deduction

Private and federal student loan borrowers can deduct up to $2,500 of paid interest on their qualified education loans. However, the student loan interest deduction has modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) limits.

If your MAGI is $85,000 or more ($170,000 or more for married filing a joint return), then you won’t qualify for this tax deduction. However, if your MAGI is less than these parameters, you might be able to claim the full deduction or a partial deduction based on phaseout guidelines.

Use our Student Loan Interest Deduction Calculator to see how much you could save on your taxes, including how phaseout eligibility requirements will impact you.

Expenses that aren’t included in AGI

As mentioned earlier, some tax deductions lower your overall tax liability, but they won’t impact your AGI or your student loan payment. However, it’s still beneficial to understand potential deductions for:

  • Charitable contributions
  • Mortgage interest
  • State and local income, sales and property taxes
  • Medical costs

Keep in mind these “below-the-line” deductions require you to itemize your tax return. Most people claim the standard deduction, which is $13,850 for single and $27,700 for married filing jointly for the 2023 tax year. But if all of your eligible combined expenses exceed the standard deduction, you can save money by tracking and itemizing these deductions.

Plan ahead for your taxes and student loans

If you have a large amount of federal student loan debt, then your taxes and student loans should go hand-in-hand.

This is especially the case if you’re pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness or overall IDR forgiveness. Aim to save as much money on payments as possible and receive the largest forgiveness benefit in the end.

If you need tax prep help that factors in your unique student loan situation, we recommend using Student Loan Tax Experts. Be sure to mention Student Loan Planner as your referral source to receive a free 30-minute consult and discount.

However, if you need a long-term strategy for paying off your student loans, our team of student debt experts are here for you. We’ll create a customized student loan repayment plan to help you maximize your finances by looking at all angles of your financial, personal and career goals.

Not sure what to do with your student loans?

Take our 11 question quiz to get a personalized recommendation for 2024 on whether you should pursue PSLF, Biden’s New IDR plan, or refinancing (including the one lender we think could give you the best rate).

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