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Discretionary Income

Discretionary Income

Your minimum payment due under IDR plans is a percentage of your “Discretionary Income.” Discretionary Income is a specific measure used by the federal government for calculating payments for federal student loans using income-driven repayment (IDR) plans. There are currently two different Discretionary Income calculations depending on the income-driven plan you choose. 

Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) defines Discretionary Income as your taxable income less the poverty level as determined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Income-Based Repayment (IBR) and Pay as you Earn (PAYE) defines Discretionary Income as your taxable income less 150 percent of the poverty level as determined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Written as a formula:

IBR and PAYE Discretionary Income = Your Taxable Income – (150% × HHS federal poverty guidelines)

The Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) plan (recently updated from REPAYE) defines Discretionary Income as your taxable income less 225 percent of the poverty level as determined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). A higher percentage protects more of your income and lowers your monthly student loan payment. Written as a formula:

SAVE Discretionary Income = Your Taxable Income – (225% × HHS federal poverty guidelines)

Two inputs determine your Discretionary Income:

1. Your Taxable Income, reported through:

a. The Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) from your most recently filed tax return (within the last two years); or

b. Alternative documentation of income via a pay stub, W-2, or something similar to estimate yearly taxable income

2. The annual HHS Poverty Guideline for your family size and state of residence (http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty)

a. Family size generally counts your spouse plus any other children/family members for whom you provide a majority of financial assistance, including unborn children due to arrive during the repayment period.
b. As your family size increases, your discretionary income may decrease, thus your minimum monthly amount may decrease under an IDR. Renew your income and family size when it changes!

Sample of Discretionary Income and Monthly Repayment Under IDR for Taxable income of $100,370

The 2023 HHS poverty guidelines for family sizes of one for the 48 contiguous states and D.C. are $14,580.  Poverty guidelines are updated every year in January: https://www.vin.com/doc/?id=11405419&pid=26503

IBR/PAYE Discretionary Income, Family size 1 = $100,370 – (150% × $14,580) = $78,500

SAVE Discretionary Income, Family size 1 = $100,370 – (225% × $14,580) = $67,565

ICR Discretionary Income, Family size 1 = $100,370 - $14,580 = $85,790

SAVE monthly payment= (5%-10%*$67,565)/12 = $282-563/mo

PAYE/IBR 2014 monthly payment = (10%*$78,500)/12 = $654/mo

IBR 2009 monthly payment = (15%*$78,500)/12 = $981/mo

ICR monthly payment is the lower of your payment determined by a fixed monthly plan over 12 years multiplied by an income factor (not shown), OR 20% of your discretionary income = (20%*$85,790)/12 = $1,430/mo

If your loan servicer does not calculate a similar minimum monthly IDR payment as determined by your calculations, call to see how they arrived at their discretionary income and monthly payment figures.  They often make mistakes!


Your Taxable Income

Your taxable income will depend on the documentation you have available at the time of application and whether or not that information matches your current income and family situation.  If you use an AGI, it must be from the most recent two tax return years. Alternative documentation of income (pay stub, offer letter, W-2) can be no more than 90 days old.  Choose the documentation that is the most reasonable representation of your current taxable income situation and meets the income-driven repayment requirements.

Electronic Application

Currently, the easiest way to certify your income for IDR is via studentaid.gov using the IRS data retrieval tool. This will automatically send your AGI from your most recent tax return to your loan servicer(s) and should reduce the amount of time and effort required to apply. Your AGI is often lower than your gross taxable income due to adjustments and accounting for non-taxable income like 401k contributions and health insurance premiums. Plainly stated, your AGI will often result in a lower minimum monthly student loan repayment amount than providing your pay stub to your loan servicer.

Alternative or Current Documentation of Income 

In order to utilize alternative documentation, you will have to provide information directly to your loan servicer. The alternative documentation must be no older than 90 days. When you utilize alternative documentation, your loan servicer will take your proof of income and annualize the taxable income based on your rate of pay. Pay close attention to your pay frequency and taxable income only. If you're paid biweekly, you receive 26 paychecks vs. 24 if you're paid semimonthly. When providing alternative documentation, extrapolate your annualized taxable income for your loan servicer. The less you leave for them to interpret for you, the more accurate the calculation should be. Subtract non-taxable items from your gross income like certain retirement plan contributions, health insurance premiums, health savings account contributions, etc.

Production/Bonus Pay

If you are paid on production or receive a bonus periodically, either provide a description of your base taxable salary or choose a paycheck from the last 90 days that most closely matches your base salary without production. Production bonuses are not guaranteed. You may not want your loan servicer calculating an annualized gross or taxable income from a particularly productive month if that production level may not continue for the next twelve months. If you consistently receive a higher salary than your base, that will be captured in your AGI when you file your income taxes for that year.

Unemployment or Periods of Reduced Income

If you are unemployed or are in a situation with no taxable income, there is an application option to declare that you have no taxable income on the IDR application/renewal documentation (Section 4, IDR Plan Request). If you switch jobs or take a period of unpaid maternity leave, anything that reduces your income for more than a month or two and makes your current student loan payment difficult to make, you can have your IDR payment adjusted.

Periods of decreased income are where the IDR shines most. The Department of Education and your loan servicers are most interested in hearing about decreases in your income. If your current income decreases to zero, you may utilize the electronic application via studentaid.gov. If your current income has decreased but is not zero, then you will have to provide alternative documentation to your loan servicer and have them recalculate your monthly IDR amount. In this case, you will be expected to re-certify your income again the following year at which time you may utilize a recent AGI or whatever is going to result in the most reasonable IDR amount for you.

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