When Kathy Carter sent her two sons off to college, she knew that some level of borrowing would be required to fund their education.
So Carter initially used credit card cash advances to pay for her oldest son’s living expenses. Then when her younger son enrolled in college, Carter took out student loans to help cover tuition, books and other college costs.
The result: Carter, a retired educator who is now 65, wound up with thousands in credit card bills, along with $7,000 worth of Sallie Mae student loans she is still repaying.
“I sacrificed for them both. But I have two really good sons, and I wanted to help,” she says.
Carter, a resident of New Jersey, isn’t alone.
Jude Wilson, a certified financial planner and head of the Florida-based retirement planning firm Wilson Group Financial, says he constantly sees parents take or co-sign for student loans, or use hard-earned savings that should be earmarked for retirement.
It doesn’t help that under the terms of the popular Federal PLUS loan program, parents can often borrow up to the total cost of a child’s education.
The result? Nearly 3 million Americans who are 60 and above owe a collective $67 billion in student loans, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, with an average loan balance of $23,500—about double the average a decade ago.
Worse, about a third of those borrowers are behind on their loan payments.
And a new report co-sponsored by AARP reveals that nearly one-third of older Americans saddled with student loan debt say it’s prevented them from saving for their own retirement.
It’s natural to want to support your offspring—and to try to give them a leg up in life. But it’s just as important not to put your own retirement at risk.
Given that, I feel strongly that it’s important for your child to assume at least some of the responsibility for his or her loans. If you haven’t discussed this with your kid previously, sit down and explain why—and how—he or she will take over the payments.
Obviously, you don’t want to dig your child into a financial hole, or jeopardize her credit. So your best strategy depends on your child’s financial situation.
If you want to transfer the loans to your child
If your child is employed and earning a decent salary, there are options to transfer the debt to your child’s name. Though you still may opt to help with payments, lenders can no longer come after you if your child neglects to pay the loan.
Refinance federal loans. If you have federal PLUS loans, your child may be able refinance the loans in his or her own name, using private lenders like SoFi or CommonBond. In general, your child will need to have a fairly high credit score (a FICO score of at least 680), and be able to prove that he has enough income to meet the payments.
Before selecting a specific lender, be sure to compare interest rates, origination fees and loan terms. Refinancing costs can vary widely, based on a person’s credit score, income and the length of the loan term chosen.
Get a co-signer release. If you were a co-signer on private loans, you can get off the hook for those payments by having your child apply for a co-signer release.
Requirements vary slightly by lender, but your child must have graduated from college, provide proof of income, and have solid credit. The lender must also have received at least 12 months’ worth of on-time payments.
If you need to keep the loans in your name
If your child doesn’t have a good income and/or credit history, you’ll likely have to keep the loans in your name for now. But there may be options to lower your monthly payments.
Consolidate federal student loans. Consolidation combines multiple federal student loans into a single government loan. This can lower your monthly payment, since loan consolidation typically involves extending the length of your loan.
Just be aware that stretching out your loan term means you’ll pay more in interest charges over the long haul.
Investigate a home equity loan. If you have equity in your primary residence, and good credit, one potential solution is to tap your home’s equity in order to pay off higher-rate student loan debt. The average rate on a home equity loan was recently about 5%, vs. over 7% for a PLUS loan.
Pursue this strategy with eyes wide open, however, since your housing debt will now be bigger and any missed loan payments mean you risk losing your home.
Transition payments to your child. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
If your child isn’t quite ready to take on the entire payment, you may want to agree to continue helping them for now, but set a future date—perhaps three to six months—after which time your child will be fully responsible for repaying their student loans.
Alternatively, have your child ease into a repayment schedule—say, starting with assuming 50% of the bill, and moving that number up gradually over a period of months.
Putting your own retirement savings needs first, above college expenses, may seem selfish or even contrary to your parental instincts.
But experts say that at this stage of life, it’s crucial to focus on socking away money for your future.
“Your kid can get a loan for college,” Wilson says. “But there’s no such thing as a retirement loan.”