Student Loans Keeping Millennials From Buying Cars, Houses

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By Ellen Chang

NEW YORK -- Four years after graduating from Syracuse University, Dan Kaplan's first priority each month is to pay his student loans, hindering his plan to save for an emergency fund or to buy a car.

After borrowing $25,000 for his bachelor's degree, the marketing and communications employee for a New York government organization shifted his spending and saving habits. Kaplan has maintained a "fairly strict, $300-a-month approach to my payments" and has allocated nearly all of his end-of-year bonuses from previous jobs and holiday gift money from family members toward the loan balance.

While this dedicated approach has helped him whittle down the amount of his debts so that they will be paid off by early 2016, Kaplan has also felt the strain of not having a personal rainy day fund for unexpected expenses or other goals such as buying a vehicle or "an eventual home of my own, which has really started to hit home as friends and family members around my age have begun buying these things."

Kaplan's struggle is becoming more commonplace as tuition costs have risen steadily and more students are borrowing money to fund their degrees, forcing many millennials to postpone purchases of a car or home or other milestones. A July survey conducted by Bankrate, the North Palm Beach, Florida-based financial content company, found that 56 percent of Gen-Yers with student loan debt delayed major life events because of their debt compared with 43 percent of older adults.

The most common event millennials were compelled to shelve was purchasing a home, followed closely by saving for retirement and buying an automobile. The survey also revealed that 28 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds have student loan debt compared with 41 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds.

Student Loans Affects Generation X, Too

"Student debt is often portrayed strictly as a millennial issue, but the truth is that Americans of all ages have put their lives on hold due to student debt," said Steve Pounds, a analyst. "Delaying major life milestones such as buying a home or saving for retirement doesn't only affect the individual and his or her family, it also has effects on the overall economy."

Over half of the borrowers said they lacked receiving adequate information or advice about the ramifications of accruing the debt with 66 percent of millennials who voiced this sentiment.

Tips to Buy Your Car or First House

Waiting to conduct major purchases "may be a good thing actually and shows some solid restraint in our consumer-driven society," said J.J. Montanaro, a certified financial planner at USAA, the San Antonio, Texas-based financial institution.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-Unfortunately, the weight of student loan debt could make additional obligations unrealistic or at least a source of financial stress.%"As a financial planner, my mantra is, 'If you can't do it right, it's not the right time to do it,' " he said. "Unfortunately, the weight of student loan debt could make additional obligations unrealistic or at least a source of financial stress."

Building up a savings account for emergencies or to fund other purchases down the road is critical for younger consumers, Montanaro said. Even nominal deposits help millennials get in the right mindset for the future.

"I'm a big fan of saving for the future and would love to see younger investors get things started, even if it's in a small way," he said. "Unlike the major budget commitments required to buy a home or car, it doesn't take a lot to start to build the savings habit."

Since his final student loan payment will be made early next year, Kaplan is already counting down the months until they are completely paid off and is already planning how he wants to allocate the extra money.

Budgeting Reduces Debt Faster

One unintended consequence of having student loans is that Kaplan learned to budget early on, "which is an essential life skill that I don't know if would have otherwise developed to the same extent."

"While the student loans can be frustrating in the short-term, the long-term benefits can't really be overstated," he said. "I think it's all been absolutely worth it, because there's simply no substitute for the experience I had at Syracuse. I simply wouldn't be where I am in my career today without those four years and to me, that's worth $25,000 any day."

Although student loans are a "roadblock" for millennials to save for larger purchases, the goal is to develop a plan to pay down the debt quickly, said Rachel Cruze, a Nashville, Tenn.-based author who educates students on staying out of debt.

"With some people facing $30,000 to $40,000 in student loan debt, it can be difficult to see past the loans," she said.

In addition to creating a budget and plan to pay off the loans, Gen-Yers need to make sacrifices. "Too many people keep student loans around for years, but I want millennials to get rid of them quickly," Cruze said. "By getting rid of these loans, you'll free up your money to buy a house or invest for retirement."

Paying off smaller debts first can help many millennials eliminate the debt, she said.

"Put all your extra money towards your smallest debt, while paying minimum payments on the other debts," Cruze said. "The 'debt snowball' gives you momentum and keeps you motivated."

Sacrifices such as eating out less or getting an extra job will give someone extra money to get rid of their student loans sooner, she said.

After serving in special operations in the Army with four combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Phillip Padilla, completed his undergraduate degree at UNC Chapel Hill. Since he had two years left on his GI Bill, the 30-year old Washington resident opted to continue his education by obtaining a master's degree at Georgetown University. Since the GI Bill only funds tuition at the "most expensive public school in a given state, the only public college is the city's community college," he said. This meant Padilla's tuition assistance was $5,000 a year even though Georgetown's tuition was $60,000 a year, leaving him no choice but to take on a large amount of debt to finance the degree.

While the advanced degree had "its rewards" since Padilla was recruited nearly immediately to work for a prestigious policy think tank, the choice has "come at a huge cost," he said. During the first two years one of the two paychecks Padilla received each month went "solely to paying off the student loans."

From 'Impossible' to 'Debilitating'

Although his monthly payments have been reduced to $1,200 from $2,200 due to the Pay As You Earn program, which is based on a borrower's income for federal student loans, Padilla said it has only changed his debt situation from "impossible" to "debilitating" as he continues to drive his 15-year-old truck and remains a renter.

"It has been a godsend, but it still hasn't changed the fundamental situation," he said. "The loan repayments effectively take away all of my disposable income. Buying a vehicle and saving money simply aren't possibilities."

The amount of his loans affected other decisions his wife and he made. While they were both eligible for unpaid parental leave after their first child was born recently, the loan repayments "keep us tethered to our desks," Padilla said.

Ensuring that his credit score is good is paramount for Padilla since he works in national security and a lapse in repayments could cause him to lose his job.

While it is not easy to gauge if his decision to take on such a debt burden was the right one, Padilla believes in the value of his education amid the setbacks.

"If I didn't take the loans, I wouldn't have gotten my position or my career in D.C.," he said. "However, my family and I have to forgo an awful lot."

That's the sacrifice of the student debt burden and the new normal many Americans are facing as they delay major purchases and get their financial house in order.
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