Student loan debt represents a significant financial burden for a large number of Americans. While you may believe only young professionals are saddled with student loan debt, some older Americans are heading into retirement with student loan debt.
According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 9 million adults over the age of 50 are still paying off federal student loans. With millions of older Americans carrying student loans, many are facing an uncomfortable burden during their retirement years.
Let’s explore the challenges of retiring with student loans and how to handle this debt in retirement.
Challenges of Paying Off Student Loans in Retirement
If you’re an older American carrying student loan debt, you may find yourself financially stuck. Whether you cosigned student loans for your children or took out loans for your own education, the financial burden can put a damper on your retirement plans.
Student loans are never a fun expense in your budget. But as you transition into retirement, these debts can put new pressures on your life. Some challenges you might face as an older American carrying student loan debt include:
- Limited ability to save for retirement: In the years leading up to retirement, you might not have the financial bandwidth to set aside funds for your golden years.
- Working longer: When you add a loan payment on top of your other living expenses, you might not have the financial means to retire on your preferred schedule.
- Balancing costs: Retirees tend to have higher healthcare costs. If you are dealing with student loans, it can be tough to balance your other costs.
- Garnishment: If you are struggling to repay federal student loans and are in default, the government might garnish up to 15% of your Social Security benefits and portions of your tax refunds.
How to Handle Student Loan Debt in Retirement
The reality is that paying off your student loans in your retirement years is a challenge. If you are planning to retire before your student loans are paid off, here are some tips on how to handle this burden.
Assess Your Finances Carefully Before You Retire
Before you jump into retirement, take an honest look at your financial situation. If you are carrying student loan debt, that’s one payment you cannot afford to miss. But, of course, you have other living expenses to consider.
If possible, don’t move forward with retirement until you’ve reached a place where you can comfortably afford your student loan payments during retirement. If it’s not possible, be aware of the financial pinch you might feel during retirement.
The key is to head into retirement with a complete understanding of your finances. You might decide that your finances aren’t ready to support the retirement you’ve planned. Depending on your situation, you might choose to work longer or cut back on other retirement expenses to manage your student loan payments.
Consider an Income-Driven Repayment Plan
If you are carrying federal student loans, you may have access to income-driven repayment (IDR) plans. Essentially, IDR plans take your income into account when determining your monthly payment.
If you are interested in pursuing an IDR option, start by using the loan simulator. It can help you determine what your student loans might look like. After picking the right IDR solution for your situation, you’ll need to fill out a formal application with the federal government.
The federal government defines discretionary income as the difference between your annual income and 150% of the poverty line for your household. Any of these plans might help you make ends meet while living on your retirement income.
Here’s a quick look at those options:
- SAVE: May require you to pay around 5-10% of your discretionary income toward your student loans. It tends to last for 20 or 25 years.
- PAYE: Usually requires you to pay 10% of your discretionary income toward your student loans. But the monthly payment cannot exceed the payment tied to the 10-year standard repayment plan and lasts for 20 years.
- IBR Plan: Typically requires you to pay 10% or 15% of your discretionary income toward your student loans. However, the repayment amount cannot exceed the payment associated with your 10-year standard repayment plan.
- ICR Plan: Generally requires you to pay 20% of your discretionary income.
Make On-Time Payments
Paying off your student loans is tough at any age. Regardless of where you stand in the repayment timeline, make it a priority to keep up with on-time payments. If you miss payments, you risk putting your loan into default.
A defaulted loan comes with extra hurdles. For example, you might not be eligible for certain IDR options if your loan is in default. Also, defaulting on your student loans will likely have a negative impact on your credit score.
Look for Student Loan Forgiveness Opportunities
Depending on your situation, student loan forgiveness might be an option. It’s worth exploring all of your student loan forgiveness options as you ease into retirement. If you’ve spent time in the right career, you might qualify for career-based student loan forgiveness.
For example, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program offers loan forgiveness after 120 payments and 10 years of service. Some of the qualifying professions include government workers, teachers, and more.
If you're on an income-driven repayment plan, your loans will also be forgiven after the repayment term (20 or 25 years). That doesn't sound great, but it's a viable option to keep your payments very low, and not have to worry about the debt.
Take a look at the complete list of student loan forgiveness options today.
If you refinance federal student loans into private loans, you’ll give up any of the borrower protections offered by the government. But if you can qualify for a low enough interest rate, it might be the right decision.
The benefit of refinancing is that you might reduce the interest rate you pay on the loan. You can also opt for a short repayment term, which can lead to significant interest savings. If you are aiming to completely pay off your student loans either in retirement or in the years leading up to retirement, refinancing could be a good fit.
But before you refinance, consider all of your options. If you move forward, look for the lowest possible interest rate. Also, think about combining other debt repayment strategies, like picking up a side hustle or cutting expenses, while you focus on clearing this debt.
Let Them Ride
As odd as it sounds, it may also make sense to let your loans "ride" - meaning make the lowest monthly payment allowed and do nothing more. It's possible that at this point in time, your student loans may be best served dying with you.
Federal student loans are discharged on death, meaning your children will not have to deal with them. Most private loans (as long as they aren't cosigned) operate the same way.
In some situations, you have to take care of your living expenses now, and you simply need to get on an income-driven repayment plan, make the minimum payments (which could even be $0), and not do anything more.
The Bottom Line
In a perfect world, you’d eliminate your student loans before riding off into the retirement sunset. It’s possible to get by with student loans in retirement. Just be sure to have a plan to pay it off and explore all of your options such as debt repayment or refinancing.
Sarah Sharkey is a personal finance writer covering banking, insurance, credit cards, mortgages and student loans. She has written for numerous finance publications, including MagnifyMoney, Business Insider and ChooseFI. Her blog, Adventurous Adulting, helps young adults get a handle on their finances.