Student loan debt and Millennials. In news headlines (and meme culture), the two seem to go hand in hand. But Millennials are far from the only age group feeling the pain.
Sure, Millennials (born in the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s) hold 48% of the $1.49 trillion in outstanding student loans, but the student loan debt crisis actually spans generations. In fact, Gen X (born in the mid-1960s through the early 1980s) carry 34% of student debt and Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 64) carry 12%.
And there’s another issue that’s often left out of the student debt conversation. The fastest growing age cohort of student loan borrowers is probably not who you expect: It’s those 60 years and older.
Whether planning to go back to school yourself or fund your children or grandchildren’s educations, it’s important to know that the number of senior student-loan borrowers has more than doubled in the past decade. And the outstanding loan balance has grown from $6.3 billion to more than $86 billion (!) — an increase of more than 1,256%.
These numbers are staggering, but it’s not a fate you’re destined to. With careful planning, mindful saving, and strategic payments, you can avoid student loan debt (whether your own, your kids’, or your grandchildren’s) before you have to delay your golden years because of school debt.
Start saving ASAP.
Nobody wants to see their child or grandchild graduate college only to shoulder massive amounts of education debt, but that doesn’t mean you can afford the financial burden yourself. If you’re helping carry some or all of the costs of college for your progeny, the number one way to avoid education debt is to start building a college fund as early as possible. It’s never too late to start saving and any money you put aside now is bound to come in handy later on.
Plenty of education-focused savings account options exist to make this more manageable. Two of the most popular are 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (formerly known as Education IRAs). Like with saving for anything, the earlier you start putting money away, the more time it will have to grow.
Don’t immediately apply for the loan (or raid your retirement).
Before resorting to making withdrawals from your retirement fund (which could cause you to incur a financial penalty) or taking out a Parent PLUS loan for your child’s education, first take advantage of all other aid options. Have your child complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) so they’re eligible for grants, work-study programs, and federal loans.
Not taking the time to apply could mean missing out on free money. In fact, 2018 graduates who would have been eligible for Pell Grants lost out on an average of nearly $4,000 by not completing the FAFSA. And in total, the class of 2018 left $2.6 billion on the table by not completing the application.
Pro tip: Remember to re-file your FAFSA each school year. It only takes about 30 minutes.
Limit loan amounts.
If you take out a student loan for yourself, your child, or your grandchild, set reasonable borrowing limits for yourself. Consulting with a financial advisor can help you determine how large of a loan a bank might give you, but a general rule to follow is to borrow no more than your household’s annual income (in total — not per student).
Do not default if possible.
Defaulting on loans becomes more common as borrowers age, but defaulting on a student loan during retirement can be highly detrimental. The federal government may withhold tax refunds, garnish wages, or partially withhold Social Security payments up to 15% to pay back student debt. If you are in danger of defaulting on your loan, you may consider an alternate repayment plan.
Consider an income-driven payment plan.
If you’re struggling to repay student debt later in life, you may be eligible for one of the federal government’s income-driven repayment plans to make your payments more manageable. The plans offered are:
- Income-Based Repayment
- Pay As You Earn
- Revised Pay As You Earn
- Income-Contingent Repayment
While each has its own distinctive qualities (including income and timeframe limits), all four income-driven repayment plans have two things in common. First, each caps payments between 10 to 20% of your discretionary income. Second, your remaining loan balance is forgiven after 20 or 25 years of timely repayment. You can apply at studentloans.gov or through your loan servicer.
With 3 million Americans over the age of 60 paying off student loans, it’s clear that this debt knows no age limit. But by planning well and in advance for your own or your family’s higher education, borrowing smartly, and utilizing a manageable payment plan, you can avoid burdensome student debt, regardless of your age.