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Survey: Student loan debt forces many to put life on hold

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The dream of getting a college education can end up delaying other lifetime milestones if students are saddled with a mountain of debt. This is especially likely among younger adults, according to a new Bankrate Money Pulse survey.

45% of Americans with student loans, and 56% of those between 18 and 29, have put off a major life event because of the burden of that debt. Part of the problem could be that more than half of student borrowers who were surveyed, and 2/3 of millennials in that group, say they didn't receive enough information or advice about the financial risks.

"Most families are not advised through this process. The decision to take on this debt is largely made based on the fact that this is the only way to pay," says Allan Katz, president of Comprehensive Wealth Management Group in Staten Island, New York. "The key is to plan properly early so that you can reduce the amount of debt you are taking (in) the first place."

Milestones postponed

Americans struggling with student debt held off on buying a home more than any other life event, according to the Bankrate survey. Saving for retirement and buying a car closely followed. For millennials, the top 2 were buying a home and buying a car, followed by getting married. But experts contend that it doesn't have to be that way.

"Don't put your life on hold because you have student debt," says Niv Persaud, CFP professional for Transition Planning & Guidance in Atlanta. Instead, she recommends seeing a financial professional to put together a plan that shows how to allocate money toward debt reduction while also saving for your life goals.

"It is important to continue paying this debt timely, as it builds your credit score and will be considered when applying for a mortgage," she says.

Make sure to finish

While 49% of college graduates carried student debt, the burden isn't confined to those who have diplomas. More than a third of those who finished "some college" education carried student debt, according to the survey. 63% of them reported not getting enough information. A quarter delayed buying a home, and nearly a quarter delayed buying a car or saving for retirement.

"Complete the degree, because if you have taken out a student loan and you do not complete the degree, it may be even harder to get the position to generate the income to pay it off," says Angela Giboney, CFP professional at AFG Financial in Mill Creek, Washington.

Dealing with debt now

For those with student debt -- such as those ages 30-49, the group most likely to have debt, according to the survey -- experts offer a few tips on dealing with what can seem like an insurmountable sum.

If you have a high credit score, consider consolidating multiple loans into 1 with a private lender to get an even lower rate than you are paying now, says Rose Swanger, a financial planner at Advise Finance in Knoxville, Tennessee. She recommends those with a federal loan use the income-based repayment method, while those with public sector jobs, such as a teacher or firefighter, should take advantage of loan forgiveness after 10 years of employment.

Thomas Scanlon, a financial adviser with Raymond James Financial in Manchester, Connecticut, offers a more basic approach for younger adults trying to manage student debt.

"Live at home for as long as you and your parents can stand it. I get it; nobody wants to go back and live in their parents' basement. The reality is, with student debt, a car loan, cellphone bill, car insurance and some spending money, most of the paycheck is gone. Live at home and save the rent," he says.

Advice for those taking out loans

Before signing on the dotted line to finance your education, consider these tips from experts to make college costs more affordable:

  • Explore scholarships available for academics, activities, sports and need to reduce the amount to borrow.
  • Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid even if you don't think your income will qualify. Many loans require a completed FAFSA to apply.
  • Compare private lenders, which can offer competitive interest rates.
  • Boost your credit score to get the best possible terms on student loans.
  • Make sure your likely career after school will enable you to pay off the entire balance within 5 years. However, a high-paying job doesn't mean no student debt. Bankrate's survey found that those making $75,000 or more a year -- the highest income category -- were most likely to carry college loans, with 44% having student debt.

Keep your credit score climbing. Check it for free at myBankrate.

Find a 'cheaper' education

Another way to cut down on education costs is to consider alternatives to pricey private schools. Katz suggests holding off on "name-brand" schools during the undergraduate years and spending that money on well-known graduate programs.

Or, consider community college, trade school, a certificate program or the military, Scanlon says. "Not every student is college material," he says.

Persaud of Transition Planning & Guidance says that the best college for you or your child is the one that is affordable and doesn't leave a pile of debt after graduation. "No school offers a money-back guarantee if you can't find a job after college," she says.


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