How Much Is Too Much To Borrow For College?
By Joe Messinger, CFP®
November 17, 2023
For most families, student loans must be part of the college-funding conversation. Families can minimize the amount of debt their students take on through careful planning for smart savings, tax considerations, college choice, cash flow, scholarships, and other mechanisms.
However, the question still comes up:
How much debt is too much?
How can families make smart choices about loan debt levels in college planning? How much can a student afford to borrow to pay for college?
Believe it or not: “more than 2.5 million borrowers have student loan debt greater than $100,000.”
How is debt level this high ever a good idea?!
Well, it could be, but here’s the catch:
When we talk about smart student loan debt levels, we look to the future and see what that student’s first job will look like. The smartest debt level depends on a student’s future salary.
Why is starting salary part of the conversation?
We recommend families use the estimated annual starting salary for the future graduate as the maximum amount of student loan debt–for all four years. Let’s look at an example. If a student wants to be an accountant, we can look up their average starting salary online at salary.com. You can also include the preferred city since salaries can vary greatly by location.
In Columbus, OH, the average salary for “Accountant I” is $60,226. We use that figure as an estimated maximum student loan amount total for the whole four years of college, or $15,056 per year.
One of the keys for people to understand about student loans is that we base our metric on paying the loans off on a standard 10-year repayment plan. Studentloanhero.com has helpful calculators for various purposes like calculating monthly payments, interest amounts, or prepayment figures.
Time out for an important point!
Federal student loan amounts are capped at a certain amount each year–$5,500 freshman year, $6,500 sophomore year, $7,500 junior year and up (for dependent students), and you can’t go over a total of $31,000 overall.
So, if we borrow more than $31,000, as in our example, private loans will be part of the conversation. The interest rates for private loans can cover a wide range based on credit score, etc. Nerdwallet listed fixed APR ranges of approximately 3% to 13% recently.
Teach our kids
An important exercise is teaching students about monthly budgeting BEFORE they agree to a student loan. We have a helpful blog with a budget worksheet here.
Is a student comfortable with a $550+/month chunk allocated to a loan payment for the ten years after college? When students see what the other demands on their monthly budget will be, that consideration can have a huge impact on the choice of where to go to college.
Beware repayment plans
If a student takes out more in loans than they can afford, the only option under federal loans is a repayment plan, which can stretch out the payments over an extended period (25 years or more).
As a result, students will pay three times as much interest, not to mention be in debt until they are almost 50 years old.
The key is determining how much total student loan debt for all four years is required at a chosen college and understanding what those payments will look like every month after graduation. The college dream can become a college nightmare if student loan debt is too great a burden. Remember our handy guideline–maximum student loan debt equal to estimated annual starting salary. This guideline will keep your monthly payment at a comfortable level.
Do your research and work with a professional
At Capstone Wealth Partners, we always aim to help empower college-bound families with the information and support they need to make the right choice for their unique student, situation, and goals. Our free College Money Report™ can help. Using our report, you’ll be able to compare your top three schools with an apples-to-apples cost comparison to start the student loan conversation within your family.
Need more support? We’re here to help. You can schedule a call with us today by clicking here. We’d love to help guide you through these decisions, and help to minimize your student’s debt!
Updated November 2023.
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