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  5. Meet the Gen Xers and boomers retiring with 6 figures of student debt that threatens their Social Security and savings

Meet the Gen Xers and boomers retiring with 6 figures of student debt that threatens their Social Security and savings

Ayelet Sheffey,Juliana Kaplan   

Meet the Gen Xers and boomers retiring with 6 figures of student debt that threatens their Social Security and savings
  • BI spoke to Gen X and boomer student-loan borrowers nearing retirement with six figures in debt.
  • The student loans have prevented each of them from saving sufficiently for retirement.

Diane Shelton, 58, has been working as a clinical psychologist for over 25 years — but her student loans are still in the six figures.

Shelton's debt load is something of a double-edged sword.

"There's just no doubt the value of the education and the value and the intrinsic richness that I have from the work that I've done," she said. But that's coupled with a heavy loan burden, complicated bureaucracy, and the interest it's accruing.

"I've taken forbearances at times when I really couldn't afford my mortgage. I had to pick and choose," she said. Even now, with a stable and well-paying career, her debt is still impacting her economic trajectory.

The situation is a bit different for Larry, 75, who requested his last name be withheld for privacy. He's staring down a $208,000 balance that he took out in the late 1990s to help his kids go to school. While they took out federal student loans for themselves, Larry wanted to ensure their options weren't limited. So he took out parent PLUS loans — a type of federal loan that allows a parent to cover up to the full cost of attendance for their kid's education. It has the highest interest rate of all federal loans.

Larry consolidated the four PLUS loans in 2007 with an original principal of nearly $160,000, but due to periods of unemployment, his loans went on forbearance, during which interest grew and surged the balance. Now, Larry is working full-time in retail sales, and while he hopes to retire in a few years, he knows he'll be taking his six-figure student-debt load with him.

"We have savings, which is probably about a 10th of what it should be," Larry said. "This is just hanging over our heads mentally. I think it affects me a lot because I probably think about it every day because I can't help but think about it. It's really very frustrating, very embarrassing, and just not fair."

Shelton and Larry aren't alone: As Gen Xers and boomers age into retirement, they're bringing student loans with them. It's part of a looming retirement crisis that could put even more seniors in a financially precarious position — and potentially without full Social Security benefits to back them up.

"I'm making a decent salary now, but there's all of this price that I've paid in terms of not being able to save for retirement," Shelton said.

The retirement student debt crisis

Both Shelton and Larry are facing a particular aspect of the retirement crisis: hoping to throw in the towel while sitting on mountains of student loan debt. Over a million American ages 55 to 64 are either holding student loans or have spouses holding loans, according to a report from the New School's Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. Those loan holders said that, on average, they expect to take 11 years to repay their debts — but it can oftentimes end up being much longer due to interest and financial hardship.

Among Americans holding student loan debt, Gen Xers and boomers have the highest median balance, although only a small percentage of those 55-64 — around 13% — and those 65-74 — around 5% — hold educational installment loans.

Just the other day, Shelton was checking what her Social Security check would look like at different retirement ages, since the program incentivizes waiting to collect checks.

"If I work until I'm 70, that's where I've got the most amount. But that's still going to be tight when a quarter of that is a student loan payment," Shelton said. "It stresses me to no end."

Interest is a key reason many older adults find themselves struggling to pay off their student loans for decades. Since Larry could not afford to make payments for a period of time due to financial hardship, the 6.25% interest rate caused his balance to grow larger than what he originally borrowed. It's an issue other PLUS borrowers have previously told BI — while they took out loans to give their children the best shot at a successful future, they didn't know at the time that doing so would leave them with balances they could not afford to pay off.

"We surely would've saved more than what we tried to do," Larry said. "And because of those payments, we pretty much have not saved a lot, other than my wife's retirement fund."

And while many older Americans rely on Social Security to get by in their later years, it's a benefit that's particularly imperiled for student loan borrowers. That's because if the borrower defaults on their payments, the government has the power to seize Social Security benefits and wages until the borrower can fulfill their student-loan obligations again. It's a practice some Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have called to end.

"The idea of just not paying it — well, now I understand they can garnish your Social Security, and so it just feels like there's no way out," Shelton said. "And so I'm probably going to work until I can't work anymore."

Are you worried about student loan debt impacting your ability to retire? Contact these reporters at asheffey@businessinsider.com and jkaplan@businessinsider.com.




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