College costs have continued to climb through the years, and along with them, so too have student debt levels. Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that the typical Class of 2016 graduate came away over $37,000 in debt. Collectively, Americans owe more than $1.4 trillion in student loans, and over 44 million people are walking around saddled with them. But while you'd think more folks would be eager to shed that burden, an overwhelming majority of borrowers are choosing to focus their attention elsewhere.

In a study by Student Loan Hero, only 5% of borrowers list paying off their college debt as their main financial priority. And while roughly 10% feel that building their short-term savings should trump student loan repayments, 53% feel that paying their rent is far more important.

Student loans sign

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Of course, paying rent is one of those obligations you can't just ignore. But the fact that more graduates aren't set on knocking out their student debt points to a very concerning trend -- especially since outstanding student debt has been linked to lower levels of retirement savings. A recent Morningstar report found that for every $1 in student debt you accrue, you'll reduce your nest egg by $0.35. So if you're like the average Class of 2016 borrower, you're looking at roughly $13,000 less in retirement income by virtue of having taken out those loans.

While paying off student debt shouldn't necessarily displace other priorities, such as building an emergency fund or opening an IRA, it should rank higher on people's lists. The fact that only 5% of borrowers are focused on getting rid of those loans means that most folks don't realize how much of an impact long-term student debt can have.

What will your student debt cost you?

The longer it takes you to pay off your student debt, the more you'll end up spending on interest -- but you probably knew that already. What you may not realize, however, is that the longer you carry that debt, the less time you'll have to save for retirement, not to mention other goals.

Now let's get one thing straight: Even if you graduated college with a mountain of debt, you should work on building your emergency savings before putting extra money toward your loans. The reason? If you encounter an unplanned expense, and you're forced to charge it on a credit card, you'll typically pay way more in interest than what your loan charges.

Furthermore, you shouldn't necessarily work on paying down your student debt at the exclusion of your retirement savings. Again, if you invest wisely, there's a good chance you'll make more in the stock market than what you'll pay in interest on your loans, and the sooner you get some money into a dedicated retirement account, like an IRA or 401(k), the more you'll benefit from its tax-advantaged growth.

But assuming you're doing a decent job of saving for both the near term and the future, there's really no reason to relegate your student loan payments to the bottom of your priority list. Furthermore, there's really no excuse for putting rent payments ahead of your loan payments if you have the option to move back home for free. Pew Research Center data confirms that a growing number of young adults are moving in with their parents after graduating college. In fact, in 2016, 36% of seniors said they planned to live at home for at least a year to save money on living expenses.

Though living at home probably isn't ideal from a social perspective, what you sacrifice in sanity you'll more than make up for in saved money. And that money could go a long way toward helping you knock out that debt sooner.

Imagine you're on the hook for $30,000 in student debt with a 10-year repayment plan at 5% interest. If living at home for a year frees up $1,000 a month, and you're able to make a $12,000 lump-sum payment toward your loan early on, you'll cut your repayment period in half and save yourself over $5,000 in interest -- and that's money you can use to save for other key goals, like retirement.

Frustrating as those nagging student loans might be, don't make the mistake of ignoring them or resigning yourself to years of onerous payments. If you place that debt relatively high on your list of priorities, you'll end up being much happier for it in the long run.

 

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