Though many workers look forward to retirement, it can be a financially challenging period of life. Suddenly, there you are, moving from a steady paycheck to a limited income you might struggle to boost as needed. That's why it pays to go into retirement with as little debt as possible.

Unfortunately, a growing number of seniors are entering retirement loaded with debt, and it's not necessarily of the mortgage or credit card variety. Rather, it's student debt that's causing retirees a world of financial upheaval.

The number of older borrowers with student debt has quadrupled over the past decade, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). So has the amount of money those indebted retirees owe. The average senior with educational debt is now on the hook for $40,096, says Credit Sesame, and the CFPB claims that adults 60 and older are now the fastest-growing age segment within the student loan market -- a distinction they'd clearly rather not have.

Senior couple at laptop looking at documents with serious expressions


If you have the ability to eliminate your student debt before retirement, or avoid racking it up in the first place, you'd be wise to go that route. Otherwise, you risk suffering financially at perhaps the most vulnerable time of your life.

The dangers of student debt in retirement

It's never easy to walk around saddled with student debt, but whereas younger borrowers have their whole lives ahead of them to pay down those obligations, retirees have limited options for shaking those loans. Once you retire, you'll move over to whatever fixed income your savings and Social Security benefits allow for. If you're lucky, you might have a pension to fall back on as well. But unless you're willing or able to get creative, your options for generating extra cash in retirement might be limited, which is why it's crucial to go in with as few expenses as possible. The more obligations you have in retirement, the greater your chances of falling behind.

Speaking of which, it's estimated that close to 40% of student loan borrowers aged 65 and older are in default on that debt. And that's problematic for a number of reasons. First, if you damage your credit score in retirement, you might struggle to secure financing when you need it in a pinch. And again, that's a position your limited income might put you in. Second, if you fail to make your student loan payments as scheduled, you could see a portion of your Social Security benefits garnished. And once that happens, paying the bills could become a major struggle.

A better bet, therefore, is to shake your student loans before entering retirement, or avoid taking them out in the first place. Many seniors rack up educational debt later in life to help out adult children or grandchildren, but again, your younger counterparts have plenty of working years ahead of them to pay off that debt, whereas if you're older, you do not.

If you have debt from your own education that's still not paid off by the time you reach your 60s, you might consider extending your career and plugging away until those loans are gone. Is that ideal? Maybe not. But if you can eliminate whatever your monthly loan payment is, you'll have that much less to worry about by the time you do retire. Or, to put it another way, what would you rather have: a 20-year retirement laden with worry, or an 18-year retirement that's much less hindered by financial stress? If the latter sounds preferable, then don't pull the trigger on retirement until you're totally, or at least mostly, debt-free.

Though student debt is a problem for borrowers of all ages, it can be especially troublesome for retirees. So aim to avoid that scenario to the greatest extent possible. If you do, you'll eliminate one potential source of stress so many seniors today are grappling with.