Borrowing to afford an education is common. And, since many student loans are low-rate loans with long repayment timelines and ample borrower protections, it's not a big problem in most situations.
Taking out student loans can become an issue, however, if you end up borrowing more than you can pay back or more than you should. If you find yourself taking out tons of student loans, you could end up in a difficult financial situation in which your debt impedes your other goals.
How can you tell if that's happening to you?
How to determine if you're taking on too much student debt
There's no one right answer when considering how much student debt is too much, largely because this depends on earning potential. If your degree opens the door to a six-figure salary as soon as you graduate, it will obviously be more affordable for you to borrow a lot than someone in another profession who will have a hard time cracking a $50,000 salary.
One rule of thumb is to consider what your starting salary is likely to be and aim to keep your loan balance under that amount. So if your degree will enable you to enter a profession in which you're likely to start at $30,000, you wouldn't want to borrow more than that.
You might also consider what your payments are likely to be after graduation, based on your final debt balance.
Say, for example, you're likely to end up with $25,000 in loans at 5% interest with a 10-year repayment period. Your monthly payment would be about $265 per month. If you earn $25,000, that's about 13% of your household income. If you figure you're spending 30% of your income on housing, 10% on health insurance, 15% on transportation, 13% on taxes, and 10% on food, that would leave you with about 9% for everything else, including savings.
It's doable, but would leave you little money to save or spend on anything fun. If you had a roommate and lowered your housing costs, or your salary increased in time, you'd probably be fine. But if you took out $50,000 in loans on that $25,000 salary, you'd be in trouble.
You can choose income-driven plans for federal student loans that limit your monthly payment and free up cash, but these plans stretch your payments out over 20 or 25 years. Committing to being in debt for such a long time is often a bad idea, because it can interfere with your efforts to do other things with your money.
What should you do if you have tons of student loans?
If you've already taken on a lot of student loan debt, you do have options.
If you work in a public service job and have federal student loans, make sure you're working toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness. This program allows you to get loans forgiven after making 120 on-time payments on a qualifying income-driven repayment plan.
If you're struggling to pay federal loans, you can also explore income-driven repayment plans that cap your monthly payments as a percentage of income. After 20 to 25 years, depending on the plan, any outstanding balance will be forgiven. As mentioned above, stretching out repayment for so long isn't ideal -- but it's better than struggling for a decade, or risking missed payments.
Finally, you can refinance loans with a private student loan refinance lender. If you have federal loans, this often isn't a good idea, because private loans aren't as flexible in allowing you to pause or lower your payments if you're struggling, and there are no forgiveness options for private loans. But you can often lower the rate with private loans, and sometimes on federal loans if you don't plan to take advantage of any federal borrower protections.
Be smart about how you borrow for school
If you have to borrow to fund your education, you want to take on the minimum debt necessary to earn a degree that can help you improve your income. If you find you're borrowing more than you can reasonably pay back, or if you're taking out loans for non-essential spending while in school, it's time to take a step back and reconsider your actions. You don't want to commit your future self to a debt payback schedule that won't work for your budget.