Forgiveness occurs when you reach the maximum repayment period under an income-driven repayment plan (IDR), like Income-Based Repayment (IBR), Pay As You Earn (PAYE), and Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE). When you reach the maximum number of payments that can be made under a respective IDR, any remaining unpaid interest or principal amount is forgiven. Currently, these forgiven amounts are treated as “canceled debt” by the IRS ( Generally, canceled debt is treated as ordinary income, thus taxed at your marginal income tax rate during the tax year the debt is forgiven.

IDR Aspects

IBR 2009


IBR 2014


Maximum repayment period (in years)





Maximum repayment period (in months)





Forgiveness taxable


With high starting student loan repayment balances and maximum repayment periods of 20 and 25 years, it is quite possible for the forgiven amount to be higher than your starting balance due to unpaid interest. You can test various repayment scenarios using the VIN Foundation Student Loan Repayment Simulator.

So how do we account for student loan forgiveness when it does occur? First, no one can tell you what the income tax rates will be when your taxable loan forgiveness occurs. However, we can make some reasonable assumptions based on historic and current federal and state income tax rates. Currently, the highest 2016 income tax rate is 39.6% and begins at incomes over $415,050 for single filers and $466,905 for married joint filers. That means only income above that level is taxed at that rate. Keep in mind that tax brackets are also adjusted each year for inflation. For example, in 1996 (20 years ago), the top tax bracket started at incomes over $263,705 per year and taxed at a rate of 39.6% (same as the highest income tax rate today).

For illustration, let’s say you have a total taxable income plus forgiven balance of $500,000 in 20 years under PAYE and the federal tax rates and brackets are the same as they are now. When forgiveness occurs, we'll assume you are married and plan to file your taxes jointly.

Tax bracket for Married Joint Filers


Tax amount

First $18,550 is taxed at 10%



Amounts between $18,551 and $75,300 taxed at 15%



Amounts between $75,301 and $151,900 taxed at 25%



Amounts between $151,901 and $231,450 taxed at 28%



Amounts between $231,451 and $413,350 taxed at 33%



Amounts between $413,351 and $466,950 taxed at 35%



Amounts over $466,950 taxed at 39.6%



Total Tax Amount

Sum of tax amounts


Effective Tax Rate



Marginal Tax Rate

Highest tax rate


Under this example scenario, ideally you would plan to have enough saved to cover the tax liability of $143,666.30. If you use a conservative estimate of $150,000 to have on hand for the tax due, you could save $150,000/240 months = $625 per month to cover the tax liability.

Alternatively, you could save for the tax liability using investments (money market, certificate of deposit, equities, bonds, annuities, life insurance, etc, or a combination thereof) in an effort to earn interest on your forgiveness savings. For example, if you were to receive at least a 2% return on your forgiveness savings, you could reduce your $625/month savings plan to $509/month in order to have $150,000 on hand to cover your forgiveness tax liability from the example above

Estimating your potential forgiveness amounts and planning for a possible tax liability can reduce your overall loan repayment costs substantially.

The following table lists several total repayment costs for theoretical scenarios using various repayment strategies assuming a family size of 1, an average student loan interest rate of 6%, and a starting income of $75,000, increasing 3% per year for the duration of repayment. The tax rate on forgiven amounts is assumed to be 35% for IBR, PAYE and REPAYE and total costs do not assume any savings realized from investing forgiveness savings.

Starting repayment balance

Standard 10 year repayment

Standard 25 year repayment

1st yr @ ($717/mo)

1st yr @ ($478/mo)

1st yr @ ($478/mo)


$133,225 @ ($1,110/mo)

$193,290 @ ($644/mo)





$199,837 @ ($1,665/mo)

$257,915 @ ($1,075/mo)





$266,449 @ ($2,220/mo)

$386,581 @ ($1,289/mo)





$333,062 @ ($2,776/mo)

$483,226 @ ($1,611/mo)





$399,674 @ ($3,331/mo)

$579,871 @ ($1,933/mo)





$466,286 @ ($3,886/mo)

$676,516 @ ($2,255/mo)




Let’s take a closer look at the $200,000 starting repayment example above utilizing IDR:


Total monthly payments

Forgiven amount

Forgiveness @ 35% income tax rate

Total repayment costs

Effective annual interest rate



















Effective Annual Interest Rate

If you’ve paid $257,064 in total under PAYE including the forgiven amounts, that means you have paid $57,064 in interest over 20 years (amounts above your starting repayment balance, $257,064 - $200,00 = $57,064). That results in an “effective annual interest rate” equal to $57,064/$257,064/20 * 100 = 1.43%.

The effective annual interest rate calculation will help you compare repayment under an IDR  vs. a private consolidation loan. Oftentimes private consolidation loans will look enticing because of the seemingly lower variable or fixed interest rate that you may qualify for based on your credit history. However, if you know how the IDR plans and forgiveness works, you may be able to greatly reduce your overall repayment costs to a level not possible with a private consolidation loan while retaining the benefits provided with IDR plans.

Scroll to top