Student loan debt hobbling more older adults

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Anya Kamenetz

Older Americans are shouldering far more of the nation’s debt than in years past.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York released numbers recently showing that the share of all household debt held by people aged 60 and older has almost doubled: from 12.6 percent in 2003, to 22.5 percent in 2016. That’s nearly $3 trillion!

Mortgages, auto loans, credit cards, and even student loan balances have all grown significantly for older Americans — and only older Americans. Borrowers under 60 reduced their mortgages and credit card balances relative to the peak during the 2008 financial crisis.

It’s one thing to run up a big student loan balance when you are in your 20s going through graduate school and anticipating big salary increases. Or even in your 30s and 40s, putting a down payment on a house, with room to grow and time to pay it off as it appreciates.

For people facing retirement, however, this growing debt is a far more serious proposition.

Loans taken for children

Take student loans as an example. We usually think of these as a young person’s problem. But seniors are holding $67 billion in student loans, and the number of seniors holding such loans has quadrupled since 2005. That makes older folks the fastest-growing segment of the student loan borrower population, according to a January report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Some of these loans are decades old. These include loans older people took out for their own education and did not pay off. But the majority are loans taken out or cosigned for children and grandchildren, both federal PLUS loans and private student loans.

The bad news is that, as people get older, their student loans are more likely to go into default, triggering ballooning penalties and fees. The CFPB found that default rates among borrowers 65 and older were almost 40 percent — more than twice the rate of younger borrowers.

A defaulted student loan can ruin your credit, meaning larger interest rates on other resources, like credit cards. And worst of all, if you have a federal student loan in default, the government can seize part of your Social Security and disability payments to pay it.

What can be done?

If you are over 60 and don’t have any student loans, the obvious answer is don’t take them out. Especially not for someone else — not if you can’t afford to pay them back right away. And if you could, why would you be borrowing? They are a massive liability.

Certainly, it can be difficult to tell a child or grandchild that you can’t afford to help them achieve their educational goals and dreams. But honestly, it would be better to help them along with cash, if you have some to spare, than to enter into an obligation for a decade or more. The tax-free gift limit in 2017 1s $14,000.

If you are over 60 and have student loans, get into an affordable payment plan to lower your monthly obligations. Under these plans, the monthly payment is based on your income — which works in your favor if you are retired and living on a limited or fixed income.

One caveat: Affordable payment plans can balloon the balance when the monthly payment is set below the level that would cover interest. But honestly, for people later in life this is less of a concern than losing access to Social Security benefits.

These plans include pay-as-you-earn, income-contingent repayment, and income-based repayment, and you might even pursue public service loan forgiveness. There are several different plans, and the options can be confusing. Check https://studentaid. for more information.

If you are in default on student loans, there is a process called rehabilitation to get out of default. Again, contact Federal Student Aid, an office of the Education Department, at the web address above.

Anya Kamenetz welcomes your questions at

© 2017 Anya Kamenetz. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC