Student loans are a huge news story in the United States — and for good reason. Americans currently hold a staggering $1.77 trillion in federal and private student loan debt. This burden is not limited to just recent graduates either — millions of Gen X and baby boomer parents are still paying off their own student loans from decades ago. This multigenerational debt crisis is putting extra strain on many families.
Recent graduate Aly Newman is one of the over 43 million federal student loan borrowers struggling to pay back her loans. But, unlike some of her peers, Aly’s parents are unable to help pay off any of her student debt. The reason? They have their own student loans to worry about.
Aly graduated from a Midwestern university in 2022. Her parents, Brad and Sue, took out student loans over 30 years ago when they were in college themselves. Today, three members of this family face financial hardship due to student debt. Their story sheds light on how the crisis is impacting households on a deeper level.
Parents Have Less Savings Due to Their Own Loans
For many families, parents paying for some or all of their child’s education is part of the plan. But Sue explained this wasn’t an option for them.
“We just didn’t have the savings to contribute,” she told GOBankingRates. “The majority of our extra money has gone toward paying off our own student loans for over 30 years now.”
Like many people, Brad and Sue had to take out loans to pay for their university education. They met while attending the same college in the late 1980s, and one of the first things they bonded over was not being able to afford school, even with the aid of grants.
“Many of our first dates were just eating ramen on our dorm room floors,” Brad said.
While a four-year degree was more affordable at the time, their combined debt was still substantial. And interest accumulation over decades has increased the total amount owed significantly.
Sue said, “We’ve paid well over the original principal of our loans, but the balance just won’t go away thanks to high interest rates.”
With most spare income going toward their own student debt, Sue and Brad simply couldn’t set aside college savings for Aly as they hoped.
Parents’ Credit Score Suffers, Impacting Whole Family
Student debt doesn’t just strain finances — it can also negatively impact credit. Despite making consistent payments, Sue’s credit score took a hit due to her long-standing loans.
“It’s so frustrating because we’ve never missed a payment,” she said. “But just having this debt for over 30 years dragged down my credit score.”
Brad’s credit also suffered from the decades-long student loans. This had a ripple effect on the whole family.
For example, when Aly was looking to take out her own student loans, she was offered only higher interest rates due to her parents’ lower credit scores.
“My parents couldn’t even co-sign a private loan for me to help lower the interest rate,” she said. “So I’m stuck paying more thanks to their student debt.”
While Aly emphasized that she doesn’t blame her parents, it highlights how multigenerational debt can affect an entire family.
Retirement Savings Must Be Delayed
The Newmans’ retirement savings and plans have also been hindered significantly due to ongoing student loan payments.
Usually, parents aim to ramp up retirement contributions as their child nears college age. Instead, Brad and Sue have had to continually postpone saving because of their debt payments.
“I wanted to increase my 401(k) contributions before Aly went to college,” Brad explained. “But between our monthly student loan bills and her tuition, it just wasn’t feasible.”
Now that Aly has her own student loans to pay off, her parents’ retirement will be delayed even longer.
“We finally felt like the end was in sight for paying off our debt before Aly’s education began,” Sue said. “But now we’ll have to keep putting our future second so we can try to help her pay off her loans.”
Family Emergency Fund Is Nonexistent
The Newmans’ finances are so strapped that they’ve been unable to save up an emergency fund. This puts the entire family in a precarious situation.
“If anyone has an unexpected medical bill or car repair, we’ll go into even more debt,” Sue said. “It’s terrifying being this financially unstable.”
And forget about family vacations, hobbies or home repairs. The family shared that there’s simply no room in the budget for those extras. Their student loan payments consume most of their income.
“I feel like a huge failure as a parent because we aren’t able to provide more for Aly or do fun family things together,” Brad said.
Constant Stress and Guilt — and Some Hope
On top of the monetary impact, the Newmans’ collective student debt has taken a major emotional toll. All three family members expressed feeling stressed, anxious and guilty about their respective financial situations.
Aly feels guilty needing help from her parents, who in turn feel guilty they can’t provide more support. Brad and Sue also feel remorse that their own student loans indirectly hurt Aly’s ability to get lower interest rates on her education debt.
“It’s incredibly stressful feeling like we’re caught in this vicious debt cycle that is impacting every part of our lives — and will continue to affect future generations if things don’t change,” Sue said.
While the situation feels dire, the Newmans try to remain hopeful that help is coming. Aly continues to advocate for student debt forgiveness and reform. Brad and Sue are encouraged to see debt cancellation and tuition-free college becoming more mainstream political issues.
“We realize our story is just one example of how this crisis hurts real families,” Sue said. “But increased awareness truly makes us optimistic that policy changes are on the horizon.”
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