Taking out loans for college is hardly an uncommon practice. Americans are nearly $1.5 trillion in debt, with that load spread out over 44 million borrowers. But when we think about the folks who are saddled with student debt, we tend to picture recent graduates struggling to make ends meet. The reality, though, is that parents are actually borrowing more money than their kids to cover those tuition bills.
According to research from Savingforcollege.com, graduates with bachelor's degrees owed an average of $29,669 in student loans in 2015-2016. Parents, on the other hand, owed an average of $32,596 in loans taken out under the Federal Parent PLUS program in 2015-2016.
Interestingly, a smaller percentage of parents borrow than actual students. Whereas roughly 69% of students took out loans in 2015-2016, only about 14% of parents did the same. But among parents who do borrow, the damage tends to be greater.
It's easy to see why a parent would be willing to take on some debt to help a child out. For some, it's a matter of wanting to spare their kids the burden of owing too much. In other scenarios, parents step in when their kids exhaust their borrowing options under the federal student loan program and don't want to resort to private lenders. Still, there's a danger in parents taking out student loans on their children's behalf, and if they don't come to terms with it, they risk compromising their own finances indefinitely.
Think twice before you borrow for your kids' college
As a parent, it's natural to feel somewhat responsible for covering the cost of college. And if you have the savings on hand to do so, you should by all means put that money to its intended use. But there's a big difference between helping your children pay for college and borrowing money for it yourself.
Unless you happened to have had children at a particularly young age, chances are, you'll be in your late 40s or 50s by the time they graduate. And if, at that point in your life, you find yourself on the hook for a large loan balance, it might seriously affect your ability to save for retirement.
Think about it: If you're suddenly liable for a $300 monthly loan payment in your 50s, that's money that can't go into your nest egg. But your 50s are a time to start boosting your retirement savings or catching up when you're behind -- not neglecting your savings because your money is being tied up elsewhere.
Imagine you're 52 years old with $200,000 in retirement savings, and you want to retire at 67. If you were to put $300 a month into your IRA or 401(k) over the next 15 years and see an average annual 7% return on that money, you'd wind up with $642,000. But if those loan payments leave you with no money to put into your retirement plan during that time, you'll be looking at over $17,000 less in annual income during your golden years, assuming you'd withdraw from your nest egg at a rate of 4% per year.
And that's why borrowing money for college later in life is a bad idea, even if you think you're doing it for the right reasons. If your children don't get enough federal loans to cover their education costs, encourage them to work during their studies to make up the difference, or delay college for a year or two until they've worked and saved to bridge that gap.
Another option? Take out those parent PLUS loans, but have your children agree that they're the ones responsible for paying them back. Subjecting your kids to that condition doesn't make you a bad parent by any means. If anything, it makes you a financially responsible person who isn't willing to let retirement savings fall by the wayside.