Stopping the Student-Loan Debt Stress
Is your student-loan debt causing stress, influencing you to make financial decisions that are not necessarily in your best long-term interests, and delaying your entry into what your parents may perceive as adulthood? If so, you aren’t alone.
Having earned my bachelor’s degree with no student-loan debt (thanks to the extremely low tuition of my public university and my parent’s generosity) and before graduate school became a near necessity to landing a good job way back in the 80s (perhaps about the time your parents graduated), I had an inkling that things have changed since then. Apparently, they have.
Erin Burt, who writes about personal finance for Kiplinger.com, has provided me with some insight into student-loan debt and its impact on those in their 20’s and 30’s. She tells me that “About 2/3 of 20-somethings have
student loan debt, according to a 2006 study by Experian. And a big chunk of that is in student loans.” (correction and addition made on August 2, 2007)
Ms. Burt also refers me to “College on Credit: How Borrowers Perceive their Education Debt” (a 40-page report in PDF) from Nellie Mae, a student loan company. “You'll see that average student loan debt has more than doubled in the past decade. And that's in inflation-adjusted dollars,” she points out. (Average debt has increased from $11,775 in 1987 to $27,600 in 2002)
Although student-loan debt is commonly viewed as a needed and acceptable way to access a viable career, why are students taking on more debt? Higher tuition costs and a more pressing need to earn a graduate degree are two obvious causes. I wonder, also, if relatively low interest rates and generous loan provisions may influence the decision to take out a loan rather than pay as you go. It seems foolish, as a parent or relative for example, to take money out of an investment account that has returned 8-20% in the past few years when your student can obtain a 3.9% loan, for example. And, as a student, if a high salary awaits you upon graduation, it seems like a good idea to focus on your studies (and not working at a minimum-wage job), so that you can start making some money that will allow you to easily pay off your debts.
Still, debt causes stress. According to the "College on Credit" summary, “Managing monthly payments is critical to managing stressful feelings about total debt. Regardless of the actual education debt amount, negative feelings about education debt increase as the percentage of gross monthly income spent on education loan payments increases.” How stressed are you feeling compared to others in a similar situation? Here’s a breakdown of stress based on the Percentage of Gross Monthly Income to Pay Education Debt:
- Less than 7% - mostly okay with debt
- 7–11% - slightly more stressed than the “less than 7%” group
- 12-16% - stressed
- Over 17% - experiencing high stress
And just as significantly, how does student-loan debt impact your decisions? As Ms. Burt illuminates “That same study from Nellie Mae found that young adults are putting off other life events because of their heavy student-loan debts -- having children, getting married, buying houses and cars. Some are even changing their career plans because of their debt. But when we're taking out these loans, we don't think about the effect it'll have on, quite literally, the rest of our lives.”
So, debt is oppressive and life-altering.
Though I didn’t have student-loan debt, I had mortgage debt in my 20’s (still do, but my dreams of being trapped inside of my house and crawling through a wire-laden obstacle course have stopped) and so have a few ideas for dealing with the financial and psychological burdens of debt:
- Consolidate loans if you can keep favorable student-loan provisions (for example, you can defer interest and/or principal payments if you become unemployed) and attractive interest rates (for example, a loan rate that is less than what you are earning in a high-interest savings account).
- Stop wrestling with yourself about paying off loans early (either decide to do it now and develop a payoff schedule or decide to pay the minimum only if your interest rate is low).
- Start setting aside money so that you will feel more in control of your financial situation; and if you can start investing, you can hopefully earn returns that are higher than your student-loan interest rates.