An estimated 1.4 million Americans are battling student loans these days, and the average graduate leaves school saddled with more than $37,000 in education debt. It’s not just younger Americans who are feeling the financial pinch, however. In 2015, 2.8 million seniors ages 60 and older had student loan debt, up from 700,000 a decade earlier. Collectively, they owe $66.7 billion, which breaks down to an average balance of $23,500.
Carrying that much student loan debt later in life, whether it’s from your own education or from helping one of your kids or grandkids through school, could throw a wrench in your retirement plans. Having a strategy for dealing with your loans while staying focused on your saving and investment goals can help you create some security for your later years.
Make Student Debt More Affordable
If you expect your income to go down when you retire, finding ways to pay less on student loans can give you more wiggle room in your budget. There are potentially two ways to lower your monthly debt payments:
Refinance your loans.
Refinancing simply involves taking out a new loan to pay off your existing loans, hopefully at a lower interest rate. Lowering your rate may mean you have less to pay on your loans each month.
Remember, though, that if you refinance federal student loans into a private student loan, you lose certain protections, such as eligibility for deferment or forbearance periods. Also, be sure to take the time to compare private lenders’ interest rates to see which loan has the best rate.
Enroll in an income-driven repayment plan.
This is an option if you have federal student loans. With these plans, your monthly payment is based on your income, which includes your spouse’s income if you’re married. An income-driven plan could lower your monthly payments significantly, but it could also increase your loan term. That means that you may pay more in total for student debt over the life of the loans. Running the numbers can tell you whether income-driven repayment makes sense.
Don’t Default on Your Debt
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, nearly 40 percent of student loan borrowers age 65 or older are in default. Defaulting on your student loans can hurt your credit rating and it can have an unintended consequence for your retirement. If you default on federal loans, your Social Security benefits may be garnished to repay what you owe. In 2015, an estimated 40,000 borrowers had their benefits garnished because of outstanding student loans.
Considering that the average monthly Social Security benefit was $1,325 in July 2017, having your benefits garnished is something you likely can’t afford. If you think you might have trouble keeping up with your payments, it’s better to reach out to your lender sooner rather than later. It may be able to offer you some options for managing your debt so you don’t end up in default.
Continue Saving with a Roth IRA
If you’re planning to work part-time in retirement or start a side business, you can use a Roth IRA to continue adding to your nest egg. Generally, you can make contributions to a Roth IRA if you have earned income for the year. For 2017, the annual contribution limit tops out at $6,500 for savers ages 50 and older.
You could save in a Traditional IRA instead, but a Roth IRA gives you two primary advantages. First, any withdrawals you make after age 59½ would be tax-free. That means you wouldn’t have to worry about those withdrawals increasing your tax bill each year.
The other benefit is that unlike a Traditional IRA, Roth IRAs don’t require you to begin making minimum withdrawals at age 70½. You can leave money in a Roth IRA until you need it, allowing your savings to continue growing through the power of compound interest.
If you’re still working when you’re well into retirement age, there’s a third benefit of saving in a Roth: You’re not allowed to contribute to a Traditional IRA starting in the year when you reach 70½.
You won’t get a deduction for your contributions the way you would with a Traditional IRA, but you may still be able to deduct any student loan interest you’re paying, which would work in your favor at tax time. And, any tax savings you get from a student loan deduction could be used to pad your Roth IRA so you have the brightest retirement outlook possible.