It's not uncommon to take out student loans to fund an education, but things get dicey when you rack up that debt in your 50s or 60s, as opposed to during your teens or 20s. In fact, Americans aged 50 to 61 collectively owe an estimated $224 billion in federal student loan debt, according to our Student Loan Debt Statistics for 2019. And those aged 62 and over owe $68 billion.

Why such a high number? It likely stems from older borrowers taking out loans on their children's or grandchildren's behalf, though some older adults may have also gone back to school at a later age. Either way, these numbers are troubling. If you're thinking of taking on student debt at a later stage of life, make sure you consider the following ways it can hurt you. 

An older woman sitting on the couch and looking stressed.

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1. You might stunt your retirement savings efforts

Chances are, you can only afford to part with so much of your salary to contribute to your IRA or 401(k). But if you're on the hook for a monthly student loan payment, you'll have even less flexibility to fund your nest egg. And that's problematic, because without ample savings, you risk struggling financially during your golden years. 

Imagine you take out student loans later in life and find yourself on the hook for a $300 monthly payment between the ages of 50 and 65. If you were to instead contribute that $300 a month to an IRA or 401(k) over those same 15 years, and invest it at an average annual 7% return (which is a few percentage points below the stock market's average), you'd boost your savings by over $90,000. And that's a lot of retirement money to give up.

In fact, having to pay off student loans could put you in a position where you can't contribute to your nest egg at all later in life. And again, that could then spell serious trouble when your career comes to a close and your paycheck disappears. 

2. You'll risk not paying off that debt in time for retirement

Once you retire and move over to a fixed income, you may find that money is tight -- so the last thing you'll want is extra expenses to work into your budget. But when you take out student loans at a later age, you run the risk of not paying them off in time for retirement, at which point you'll be forced to take that debt with you into your golden years. Furthermore, if you fail to make your student loan payments during retirement, you'll risk having your Social Security benefits garnished, which will make for an even more stressful financial situation.

Don't take the risk

It's one thing to have student debt later in life because you've yet to pay off the loans you took out for your own education years ago. But don't make the mistake of taking on new student debt when you're older. Chances are, those loans will mess with your retirement income one way or another, and the last thing you want is an ongoing financial struggle once your golden years roll around.