tax reform law

The Unintended Consequence of the Tax Reform Law for Student Loan Borrowers

Posted on Posted in Financial Planning, Student Loans, Taxes
Executive Summary

When married couples with student loan debt go onto an Income-Driven Repayment plan, there’s a choice to be made:  is it better to file your taxes jointly (but base your income-capped student loan payments on both you and your spouse’s income) or to file taxes separately (and only count your income when calculating your student loan payment)?

Although it didn’t address student loans directly, the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 has a big unintended consequence for these student loan borrowers.  This decision around whether to file taxes jointly or separately when on an Income Driven Repayment plan should be made by comparing the amount of money you’d save on taxes by filing jointly with how much more you’d need to pay each year on your student loans.  Since the tax reform law cuts taxes for most people, the difference in the amount you’d save on taxes by filing jointly versus separately will shrink for most people.  Which means that you’re now more likely to be better off filing taxes separately and saving money each month on student loans than you were under the old tax code.

Download our free student loan guide to learn more about Income Driven Repayment plans.  And if you’re interested in learning more about how to save money on taxes under the new tax law, check out our list of #taxhacks today!

(Bill’s Note: This video, and the lightly edited transcription below, was originally recorded as a Facebook Live broadcast on January 9, 2018. If you want to participate in our next Facebook Live session, which are normally held every Monday at 8 PM Eastern, head to our Facebook page, hit “like”, and you’ll get the announcement the next time we go live.  Most of the content comes from questions submitted by my readers and viewers, so if you have a topic you’d like to hear more about, send a message to our Facebook page and we will get back to you as soon as we can!)

Introduction

Hello and welcome!  Happy New Year to everybody.  Today I want to have our very first weekly chat that we’re going to have on the Pacesetter Planning Facebook Page (and will be published here every Thursday).  Normally we’ll broadcast live at 8 PM Eastern time on Mondays.

Each week, we’re going to do a deep dive into a financial topic.  Typically, these will be driven by questions that people either ask me in person while I’m out and about in Philadelphia, or are submitted through the website or our Facebook page.  And I’ll share my response to these questions here.

So, if you have an idea, anything you’re curious about hearing, shoot me a message or leave a comment on this video or post, and I’d be more than happy to talk through it. I already have a few questions that we’ll be covering over the next few weeks.

Tax Reform and Student Loans

But for today, I want to talk about something that I think is timely, given current events, and that is the potential side effects of the passage of the recent tax reform law that was enacted before the holidays.  There’s a new opportunity that I think is out there for student loan borrowers, particularly borrowers who are on an Income-Driven Repayment plan (IDR).

To give you a heads up in advance, this is going to primarily involve people who are on an IDR for their student loans who are married.  Now, if you’re not married yet but you’re on one of these plans, and you see yourself potentially getting married over the course of your student loan payments, stick around and you’ll pick up on some things that will help you someday down the road.

Before we dive into exactly what this effect is, I think it’s worth pausing to make a quick note.  We did a deep dive into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act right after it was passed in December 2017.  We’re not going to rehash that today, but just to reiterate:  there were NO direct effects on student loans in the law itself.

There were a lot of rumors going around through the legislative process that there were going to be some changes made to student loan policy, particularly to your ability to deduct student loan interest.  None of that actually happened.  So, everything in that light is exactly the way it was before.  If your income is below a certain threshold, you’re still able to deduct up to $2,500 in interest paid on your student loans from your taxes every year.  Nothing’s changed in that light.

Income-Driven Repayment Plans

What has changed, though, is the ways that we calculate student loan payments under these Income-Driven Repayment plans- or at least it has the potential to change, depending on your circumstances.

What do I mean by that?  The starting point needs to be: what is an Income-Driven Repayment plan?

For those of you who aren’t on one of these plans already, typically when you borrow student loans, you have a six- to nine-month grace period before you need to start making payments.  Your student loan servicer typically puts you on a standard, ten-year repayment plan.  They’ll tell you how much you owe based on how much you borrowed and the interest rate.  You make the monthly payment that they tell you to make, and ten years later it’s completely paid off and you’re good to go.

But for most student loans (note: not all of them, but most student loans will qualify), if you have a particularly high amount of loans compared to your income, you have a few options.  And one of them is going on an Income-Driven Repayment plan.  There are a wide variety of IDRs, but we’re going to treat them all as the same today (even though they are not the same).  There are some pretty substantial differences between them- if you want some more information on this, go ahead and download our free student loan guide. It’s about thirty pages long and it’s the most popular giveaway we’ve ever posted on our site.  It will walk you through exactly what you need to know about all of these different repayment plans, what they consist of, and will help you identify which one is right for you.  Click the link to download this guide.

But generally speaking, these IDRs tie the amount you owe every month on your student loans to your income level.  If you aren’t making a lot of money, or you have much higher levels of student loan debt than your income, it essentially allows you to scale your student loan payments back to a reasonable level based on your income.

How Do Married Couples Calculate Their Income for IDR Repayment Plans?

The question, though, is what actually counts as your income? Now if you’re single, this is pretty straightforward.  Your income itself is your income.  Whatever you make at your job, any other income you have, that’s what they base it on.  Nothing too complicated.

But, when you get married, it’s a little bit more complicated.  You have your personal income, and if you’re spouse works, they have income as well.  So- what does your student loan servicer base your payment on?  Is it based on just your salary, or is it based on you and your spouse’s?

Obviously, if your goal is to lower your student loan payment, you want to have the payments based on a lower amount.  So ideally, you’d just count your salary.

The answer to the question of how student loan servicers treat your income is that they actually let you choose which one to use.  You can either report just your income, or you and your spouses income- you have the choice.

So, that begs the question, why is that not a no-brainer?  Like I said, if you have the option to pay your loans based on a lower salary or a higher salary, your monthly payment is going to be lower based on just your income.  So, why wouldn’t you do that?

Your Tax Filing Status Determines What Income They Count

Unfortunately, there definitely is a catch to it.  And the catch is this:  however you decide to report your income (to base your student loans payment on), you need to file your taxes the same way too.  In other words, if you want to report just your income to lower your student loan payment every month, you need to file your taxes “married filing separately” from your spouse.  Or inversely, if you file your taxes “married filing jointly”, your loan servicer will look at both of your incomes when they calculate what you owe on your loans every month.

For most couples, you’re going to save more on taxes by filing jointly rather than separately.  There are a few big exceptions (we wrote on the blog last year a list of some of those particular exceptions), but particularly for most young couples, you’re going to find that you save more on taxes by filing jointly rather than separately.  But- that means that you’re going to owe more on your student loan payments if you’re on an IDR because you’re filing jointly and they’ll base your payments on your combined incomes.

You can think of this like a balance scale (like the ones we used back in school) where you weigh one thing against the other.  On one hand, we have the amount of taxes you’re going to owe.  If you file jointly, that’s likely going to be a lower number and if you file separately, it’s likely going to be a higher number.  On the other side of the scale, you have your monthly student loan payments.  And that works the exact opposite way:  if you file jointly, you’ll probably save on taxes, but you’ll owe more on your student loans.  And vice versa, if you file separately, you’ll probably owe more on taxes every year but you’ll save on your monthly student loan payments.

You can imagine that there’s a point at which these things will balance out.  For example, let’s say that if you file taxes jointly with your spouse, you’re going to save $2,000 more on your taxes every year than if you filed separately.  But, doing so might cost you an extra $2,000 in student loan payments across the whole year when you add up your monthly payments.  If this is the case, it doesn’t actually matter what you do: you’ll save $2,000 on taxes, and pay $2,000 extra toward your student loans every year.  It washes out.  (Technically, under this scenario I’d recommend that you file jointly and pay more on your student loans, since this method will cost you less in the long run!)

How Does the Tax Reform Law Change Things?

But typically, it doesn’t balance out.  There’s typically a better answer for you whether you should file separately and reduce your loan payments, or file jointly and pay more every month.  Usually, there’s going to be a clear cut answer.

And that brings us back to the tax reform law.

Because what this law has effectively done (it’s not intentional that it worked out this way, but it is the effect if you’re one of the IDR plans) is that the way you calculate your student loan payments hasn’t changed – your income is still the same, the options are still the same – but they’ve reduced  the other side of the scale for most people.  Most people are going to have tax cuts under the new law, which means the gap between how much you’re going to owe if you file jointly vs separately is less than it was under the old tax law for most people.  They’ve taken the equilibrium point between the two and threw it off a little bit.

Which means that there’s going to be more people that are going to be better off filing taxes separately and taking a lower student loan payment every month going forward than there was under the old tax law.  The balance point has shifted, which means that more people are going to better off filing taxes separately than there were before.

To be clear, for most people you’re still going to owe more on taxes filing separately than you would if you file jointly.  That hasn’t changed.

But what has changed is the magnitude of the difference.  If the overall dollar amount of your taxes is going down because of the way they drew the brackets, for most people the gap between what you’d owe if you file jointly vs. separately has shrunk- by a real dollar amount.

Which means, for more people than there were before, you’re going to be better off filing separately and reducing your student loan payments every month.  Not for everyone– there will be still people who are better off filing jointly and paying more on your student loans.  But, you need to go back and revisit the math, because the math has fundamentally changed as of January 1, 2018.

Not Too Late To Change

Now the good news is that you have the ability to decide this every single year.  If you’re already on one of the IDR plans and have been filing your taxes jointly and reporting the higher income number, you can change that every single year.  Every year, you file your taxes and you have to recertify your income level- if you’re already on one of the IDR plans, you’ve gone through this before.  So, I’d invite you to revisit this.  Try to figure it out on your own- are you still better off doing what was right for you under the old tax law, or has it changed?  Because there’s a very real chance that it could have potentially changed.

So, if you’re on an IDR and you’re filing jointly now, take a hard look at this to make sure it’s still the right option for you.  And if you qualify for an IDR, and just haven’t gotten around to signing up for one, there could be a higher benefit to you than there was before.  It might be a little bit more of an attractive option now than it was under the old tax law.  I’d invite you to take a look at this.

A Few Important Details: Other Factors You Need to Consider

Now, a couple quick details that I think are important to note before we wrap up.  I’ve tried to keep this at a fairly conceptual level, but there are some details you need to be aware of.

As I mentioned before, there are several different types of these Income-Driven Repayment plans.  Primarily, there are five different types.  You need to be aware that one of these five main types of IDRs actually doesn’t give you the choice to separate your income from your spouse’s.  We’ve spend this time talking about how you have the choice to file separately or jointly and report your income likewise, but if you’re on one particular type of IDR, you unfortunately don’t have the ability to make this choice.

The plan in question is called the Revised Pay As You Earn plan (you’ll usually see it abbreviated as “REPAYE”). If you’re on this plan, you unfortunately don’t have the option to split your income up- you need to report you and your spouse’s income jointly.  Which means that if IDRs are something that you’re looking into – like I said at the top, if you’re single now but you’re envisioning getting married down the road while you’re still making student loan payments – you might want to think twice about choosing REPAYE.

Now, there are some unique benefits to REPAYE- it’s not worth forsaking it altogether – but it is something you should take into account.  Under REPAYE, you won’t have the ability to separate your income (which might be a more attractive option now than it was under the old tax law).

(Note:  to be clear, the plan is question is REPAYE.  There’s another IDR called “Pay as You Earn”, or “PAYE”, that does give you the ability to separate your income from your spouse’s.  Congress has really mucked up the student loan policy over the past decade or so, with some assistance from the Department of Education.  There’s a lot of different types of IDRs, they all sound the same, but we’re talking today about REPAYE, not PAYE.)

Second key detail:  this principle of weighing the two sides of the balance scale is the right idea, but be aware that the calculation is a little bit more complicated than this.  There’s one other factor that you need to take into account before you decide to file separately and lower your student loan payments.

And that is that when you file separately, you lose the ability to claim the student loan interest deduction that I mentioned up at the top.  Right now, you can deduct $2,500 in student loan interest that you paid over the course of the year from your taxable income.  You can do that if you file jointly, as long as your income doesn’t exceed relevant thresholds.  But if you file separately, you lose the ability to do this.

The concept of balancing the two sides of the scale is the same… but you can almost think of the loss of the student loan interest deduction if you file separately as a “thumb on the scale” in favor of filing jointly.  It makes filing jointly a little bit more appealing.

The principle stands: more people today are going to be better off filing separately and reducing your student loan payments than there were under the old tax law.  But, there is a separate factor that you need to factor into your decision.

Student Loan Analysis is Complicated

To wrap up, this is complicated stuff.  Like I said, the way that we’ve come to the current student loan landscape doesn’t really make sense.  This is something that I help my financial planning clients with on an ongoing basis.  I help my clients do this sort of analysis to help figure out what steps need to be taken.

But, I actually offer a separate, standalone Student Loan Analysis service.  For people who don’t want, can’t afford, or don’t have any interest in doing Comprehensive Financial Planning, I offer this as a separate service.  We would meet via a video conference for 45 minutes to an hour, I’d collect your individual student loan data so we can understand what you specifically qualify for, discuss your goals for your student loans- are you trying to minimize your monthly payment, or are you trying to pay them off as quickly as possible?  Those are two good answers, depending on your circumstances, but they’re completely opposite strategies.  We discuss all of these things, and within two days I’ll send you a list of recommendations for what to do with your loans.

If this is something you’re interested in or would like to learn more about, I do offer free consultations.  Click here to set up a no-obligation, free strategy session to talk through this issue we’re talking about today, or any other issue when it comes to your loans.

In closing, I think there’s a very real, unintended consequence that came about from this change in tax law that really is an opportunity for a lot of people- if you decide to take advantage of it.  I encourage you to do so.

Again, Happy New Year!  We’re going to be holding these chats on our Facebook Page, usually live at 8 PM on Mondays.  If you have any questions or things you’d like me to cover, shoot me an email or leave a comment on this video.  Thanks so much, and have a great day!