It's easy to think of student debt as a young person's problem -- one that impacts adults in their 20s and 30s. But student loans are a burden for Americans of all ages, and baby boomers are no exception.
In fact, over the past five years, Americans in the 60–69 age group have seen a larger percentage increase in student debt (72%) than all other age groups, according to Guardian Life Insurance.
In many cases, that debt isn't a remnant from boomers' own degrees. Rather, it represents student loans taken out to pay for their children's (or grandchildren's) education. But as Americans in their 60s near or reach retirement, that debt becomes increasingly troublesome.
For one thing, folks nearing retirement who are short on personal savings need as much money for their IRAs or 401(k)s as possible. If they're stuck making student loan payments, that money can't go toward savings.
Furthermore, once retired, seniors typically move over to a fixed income. Entering retirement with any sort of debt could result in a host of financial struggles for those without flexible finances. But older Americans can't afford to just shrug off that debt, either. If they don't keep up with their student loan payments, they risk a range of consequences. They could even have their Social Security benefits garnished.
Are you thinking of taking out student loans later in life to pay for your children's or grandchildren's education? You may want to think twice. Otherwise, you could wind up suffering financially in an effort to do something noble.
Don't rack up needless student debt
If you take on student debt later in life, you could put your retirement at risk by shorting your nest egg or having monthly loan payments that eat away at your limited income. Neither situation is ideal. A better bet is to keep student debt out of your name so you're not the one liable for it. Instead, help your children or grandchildren tackle their loans to the best of your ability.
For example, if you're in your 50s and your nest egg is in good shape, you might take some of the money you'd otherwise contribute to your IRA or 401(k) and give it to your children to help them cover their student loan payments. That's far safer than signing up to be the one responsible for that debt.
If your nest egg isn't in great shape, keep that money for yourself and don't feel guilty about it. Remember, your children have their whole lives ahead of them to pay off whatever student debt they rack up. You only have a handful of years before retirement kicks off. The last thing you want to do is neglect your savings at a point when there's little time to catch up.
At the same time, it doesn’t hurt to encourage your children or grandchildren to explore lower-cost options for getting a degree. Minimizing the need for debt makes a big difference down the road. Opting for community or in-state college is a good starting point. Tuition at either will be cheaper than that of a private or out-of-state school.
Accelerating their studies helps your children or grandchildren save money, too. The more semesters they shave off, the less expensive college will be.
The fact that baby boomers have seen an uptick in student debt is disturbing. If you’re approaching your 60s, don’t become a part of that trend. Instead, steer clear of student debt -- your retirement depends on it.