Avoid going bust on kids’ student-loan debt

Crushing student loan debt is usually thought to be the younger generation’s

problem. But more and more, with graduates unable to handle it on their own,

mountains of student loans are becoming mom and dad’s albatross, as well.

Many baby boomers are now faced with helping pay off their kids’ college loans, and

that added burden can threaten their financial security in retirement. About 2.8

million people age 60 and older have outstanding student loans – quadruple the

number in 2005, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Most

of the current student-loan debts of people 60-plus were incurred paying for college

for a child or grandchild, and in the past decade, for the 60 to 64 age group,

student-loan debt has increased eight-fold – to $38 billion!

“Americans in their 60s are now the fastest-growing age group facing student-loan

debt,” says Andrew Anable, a financial planner at Safeguard Investment Advisory Group.

“It is a serious problem for many who are in retirement or approaching it. But there

are ways to manage the debt, and for those still in the planning stages, there are

key points to consider so college debt doesn’t compromise their retirement.”

Anable lists four steps baby-boomer parents should take if they are dealing with –

or considering taking on – their kids’ student-loan debt:

• Attack the debt. Anable recommends an aggressive payment plan because a higher monthly payment may be worthwhile in the long run. “Let’s imagine someone has a $35,000 student loan with 7 percent interest,” Anable says. “They may want to take a 30-year payment plan instead of a 10-year plan, because it’s going to lower the monthly payment by $170. But at what cost? Paying over 30 years is going to cost thousands more in interest.” Anable suggests checking a student-loan calculator for payment terms. CFPB reports the average amount of student loan debt for people 60-and-over is more than $23,000.

• Be careful about co-signing. Over half of co-signers on outstanding student

loans are 55 and over. With students struggling to make payments, parents or

grandparents are on the hook if they co-signed – a bigger problem if they’re near or

in retirement with a fixed income. “Many people who co-sign don’t realize they’re

responsible for the debt if their kid don’t pay,” says Anable. “It’s OK for you not

to co-sign for the kids. It sounds harsh, but the kids need to know this can impact

your retirement as well as your credit.” One easy guideline is: For your kids’

college, don’t borrow more than half your annual income.

• Make retirement a priority. “Whether you choose to help your kids or not, your

retirement needs to be a priority,” Anable says. “A good rule is putting 10-15

percent a year into your 401 (k) or retirement plans. “Earmark it for your future,

and it should not be touched early for you or for your kids.”

• Do not default. Lapsing in payments can lead to garnishment of Social Security

checks. In 2015, more than 12 percent of 60-and-over borrowers were in default.

Income-driven repayment plans can be an option to reduce monthly payments. “If you miss a payment, aim to resume payments or renegotiate the terms of the loan as soon as you can,” says Anable.

“This isn’t a problem you can hide away in a drawer,” says Mr. Anable. “And before

it becomes a problem, baby boomers must carefully balance the decision to help their children along with providing for their own retirement needs.”