The student debt crisis has reached epic proportions, with Americans now collectively owing $1.59 trillion in outstanding loans. And it’s not just young adults who are struggling under the loans they took out for their own education. According to our Student Loan Debt Statistics for 2019, borrowers aged 62 and over owe an astounding $68 billion in student loans. They risk never managing to pay off that debt in their lifetime. 

An older couple looking stressed and facing away from each other on a couch.

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The danger of student debt later in life

Many older Americans carry educational debt not from their own studies, but due to the loans they took out in their 40s or 50s to help their children pay for college. However, that problem is compounded by the fact that many folks in their 60s are now grappling with those loan payments during retirement, when they're on a fixed income and money is extremely tight. 

While you'd think the federal government would go easy on seniors who are struggling to pay their debt, that’s sadly not the case. Older borrowers who don't keep up with their loan payments risk having their Social Security income garnished the same way younger workers in the same boat risk having their wages seized. It's a downright terrible situation to be in, and one that's best avoided at all costs.

Knocking out your debt before retirement

The last thing you need during retirement is an extra expense to worry about and an extra bill eating up a chunk of your limited income. So if you're still carrying student debt in your 50s or early 60s, it's a smart idea to knock it out before leaving the workforce, even if that means delaying retirement for a few years.

Now, one thing you don't want to do is raid your retirement savings account to pay off that debt, because you'll need your IRA or 401(k) to pay your bills when you're older (Social Security alone won't cut it, and unless you have a pension, you need an additional income source on top of those monthly benefits). Therefore, your best bet is to get on a tight budget in the years leading up to retirement and use whatever money you can save to pay down your debt. 

Getting a second job isn't a bad idea, either, and you can use that income to knock out some of your remaining student debt. Incidentally, it's a good idea to establish a side gig you can carry with you into retirement for when you need some extra money. So working a second job can serve two important purposes. 

When you can't pay off your student debt before retirement -- or in your lifetime

Unfortunately, you may find that, despite your best efforts, you're still loaded up with student debt when your career comes to a close. If that's the case, budget wisely during retirement so you don't fall behind on your payments.

Of course, depending on how things shake out, you may land in a scenario where you don't manage to fully pay off your debt in your lifetime. If that winds up happening, and you took out federal loans, don’t worry -- that debt will be canceled automatically upon your passing. It may not be much of a consolation prize, but at least you don't have to worry about burdening your heirs. 

However, if you took out private student loans, things work a little differently. In some cases, your surviving spouse may be liable to pick up your debt. In other cases, your lender might go after your estate to be made whole. 

It pays to make every effort to shed student loan debt in your lifetime. But in reality, that may not be possible. If that’s the case, your best bet is to attempt to keep up with your payments while you're still kicking and try not to let the idea of your loans' aftermath haunt you too much.