Skip to main content

Editors' pick: Originally published July 1.

Astronomical student loan debt is a growing burden on the U.S. economy, causing college graduates to hold back on new home purchase, new cars and travel inside the country and abroad, until they satisfy their college loans. The stifling debt has cramped the ability for Americans to save long-term for retirement -- a potentially ruinous cycle.

For starters, here's how bad it is: historically, 20- and 30-something professionals have played a critical role in the U.S. economy, especially as buyers of "starter homes" and new minivans and SUV's for new families.

But high student loan debt is keeping those young, professional consumers at arm's length from the lifestyle their parents and grandparents likely enjoyed.

How toxic is that college debt?

The student loan analysis web site breaks down the current U.S. college data as follows :

- There's $1.26 trillion in total U.S. student loan debt

- 43.3 million Americans have student loan debt

- There's a student loan delinquency rate of 11.6%

- The average monthly student loan payment (for borrower aged 20 to 30 years) is $351

But the real burr under the saddle of the beleaguered student loan borrower - he owes so much in student loan debt that he can't save for retirement.

"As a student loan borrower with around $260,000 in student loan debt, this absolutely keeps me from saving for retirement," says Amanda Oliver, a content and brand strategist at OrionCKB in Walpole, Mass. "Thankfully, I have started working with a company a few months ago that offers a 401(k) plan, but until now, I haven't been able to save a cent, and I'm 29-years-old."

"I know I need to save, but when I am paying hundreds for student loans, it's hard to find money to set aside," Oliver adds.

Scroll to Continue

TheStreet Recommends

She's hardly alone.

A new survey coming out next week from IonTuition, a student loan tools and services company, shows that nearly 75% of respondents think that employees contribute less money to their company 401(k) plan because of their student loans. And, more than 90% of employees say student loan debt creates stress for them, and 80% believe this student loan stress decreases employee productivity.

Not saving for retirement, or for a new home, can take a highly negative cumulative effect on younger Americans, experts say.

"Working with buyers, I am on the front line the population dealing with student loans," says Bruce Ailion, a real estate professional with RE/MAX in the greater Atlanta area. "For most people, equity in their home is a substantial share of their net worth upon retirement. The inability to buy a home, to pay less monthly than rent, to get deductibility of interest and taxes, and benefit from mortgage reduction over time has a devastating impact on savings at retirement."

For many of these borrowers, job loss, a business failure, or reduced income can put them into default, Ailion says. "Plus, the government repayment/rehabilitation programs added 25%-to-30% collection charges, and borrowers are stuck in high interest loans of up to 10% they cannot refinance to market rates."

While businesses can go bankrupt, and as homeowners have walked away from mortgages causing losses far greater than student loans, many student loan borrowers will never be able to repay their loans, Ailion adds. "While reducing payments to a percentage of income offers some relief, doing so capitalizes interest and stretches the loan out 25 years or more," he says.

Pablo Salomon, a former consultant to the U.S. Department of Education, compares the current student loan crisis to the U.S. housing bubble that burst in 2007-2008.

"Students who should not have even gone to college were lured into loans and into worthless college degree programs," Salomon says. "Now that they're painfully aware that worthless liberal arts degrees result in few well paying jobs, they are in shock."

Salomon advises student loan borrowers with heavy debt to refinance as much of that debt as possible, into lower monthly payments. "In many cases they would do better by paying off their credit card debts -- often at 14 % or more interest -- and refinance their college loans at 5% or less," he advises.

Like it or not, others say, college graduates with high student loan debt primarily have themselves to blame. Nobody, after all, forced them to take out $100,000 college loans. But to make up any ground at all on retirement savings, they're going to have to adjust their lifestyles, in a decidedly downward financial direction.

"Student loans are a convenient scapegoat for people who don't want to take responsibility for their inability to save and invest," says Derek Tharp, a financial planner at Conscious Capital, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "As both a financial advisor and a millennial with my own student debt, I have seen some of my peers with very modest incomes do a fantastic job saving while they pay down their student loans."

"I've also seen peers with very high incomes who seem to be struggling to pay rent next month," he adds. "In either case, student loans aren't the deciding factor in their financial success -- it's the ability to live below one's means that is crucial, regardless of income."

Strong words indeed, but maybe tough love is the fast path to getting loan-weary young professionals on track for a decent retirement.

Because after all, the current status quo on student loans and retirement savings doesn't seem to be working.