I'm 54 and still have $50,000 in student debt. Will I be able to retire?

Question: T.D. from Boone County: I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I’m 54 and still have about $50,000 in student debt. Will I still be able to retire? I have $200,000 saved, but the debt has me worried.

A: We’re now living in a time when the student debt burden isn’t just a "young person’s" problem anymore. According to Bloomberg, borrowers like yourself (over the age of 50) are now the fastest-growing cohort with student loan debt, with about 8.7 million still owing money.

In some cases, they took out loans on behalf of a child or grandchild; in others, they went back to school themselves. But no matter the reason, it’s becoming more and more of a financial strain: This group’s debt load has increased by 50% since just four years ago; those ages 50-61 have about $43,000 in debt on average, while those 62 and older have about $39,000. And this is one of those instances in which accruing interest works against you; many borrowers now owe more than they originally took out. 

As for if you can retire, the best way to know is to start planning – now. You need to figure out how much income you’ll have coming in during retirement (via Social Security, outside investments, a pension, etc.), and then figure out your expenses – which, of course, needs to include payments on this debt. If the numbers don’t work out, you may have to delay retirement or tweak your budget. And just so you’re aware, if you’re retired and default on federal loans, a portion of your Social Security benefit could be garnished.

It’s also critical to understand the type of loans you have. Because federal student loans have what’s called a death and disability discharge – you don’t have to worry about passing on any unpaid debt to family or heirs. Private student loans, on the other hand, can potentially be passed on.

Here’s The Simply Money Point: Start crunching the numbers now so you have time to make any necessary adjustments. If you need guidance, a fiduciary financial advisor can help with a retirement cash flow assessment. And most importantly, stay current on your payments. You could also consider looking into income-driven repayment plans (assuming you have federal loans).

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