Student debt is growing problem that doesn't seem to be slowing down. An estimated 45 million Americans are on the hook for student loans -- and to the tune of a collective $1.56 trillion.
When we think about those saddled with student debt, we tend to land on millennials -- those who graduated college fairly recently and have a reputation for being overly liberal on the borrowing front. And technically, on a dollar basis, the highest increase in student debt is among borrowers aged 30 to 39 -- a mix of millennials and Gen Xers, if you're keeping score -- who now, collectively, owe $460 billion in college loans, according to a new Guardian report.
But on a percentage basis, the age group that's seen the largest increase in student debt is baby boomers, aged 60 to 69. These folks have experienced a whopping 72% increase in college loans, which is surprising given that most are many, many years out of college.
So what gives? It largely boils down to boomers who are taking on college debt not for themselves, but for the sake of funding their children's education.
And it's not just debt. Boomers have consistently tapped their retirement savings, depleted their emergency funds, and liquidated assets in an attempt to spare their children the burden of student loans. In doing so, however, many have put their long-term financial security at risk. Over 50% of baby boomers say college debt has impeded their ability to meet financial goals -- namely, maintaining a decent lifestyle in retirement.
If you're in your 40s, 50s, or 60s and are planning to rack up college debt on your children's behalf, think twice. It could be a decision you end up sorely regretting when you're older.
Don't put your retirement at risk
The main reason you shouldn't load up on debt to help your kids go to college comes down to this: Your children have their entire lives ahead of them to earn money and pay down their college costs, all the while saving for retirement and other important matters. You, on the other hand, might only have a decade or so left to do the same, and if you're already in your 60s, you'll have less time than that until retirement kicks off. That's why taking on debt later in life is a dangerous move -- because the money that goes toward those loan payments could instead be used to boost your nest egg and ensure that you have enough savings to live on when your career comes to a close.
Furthermore, if you take on student debt later in life, there's a good chance it'll get carried with you into retirement, thereby monopolizing a large chunk of your limited income. And that might make for a very stressful financial situation -- one you don't deserve.
Not only that, but if money is tight in retirement and you end up falling behind on your student loan payments, you could also wind up having your Social Security benefits garnished. Once that happens, your finances might take a permanent tumble.
A better bet? Avoid debt at all costs later in life, including that of the educational variety. If you missed the boat on saving for your kids' college, don't take out loans to compensate. While you might spare your kids from having to go that route, it won't end up helping them if they're forced to pay your senior living expenses because you can't afford to do so yourself.
At the same time, don't hesitate to encourage your children to keep their college costs to a minimum. Opting for a public four-year, in-state school over private college could shave $100,000 off their total tuition, and that's an easy way for your kids to avoid falling into the trap so many student loan borrowers succumb to today.