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Dear Penny: I have $84,000 in student loans. Can I retire next year?

Can you retire while still swimming in debt? Photo by Getty Images
Published May 15

Dear Penny,

I owe about $84,000 in student loans, and for several years I've only paid the interest because it was what I could afford. I currently pay $224 per month. I'm 60 years old and looking to retire in one year. I feel I will never get out from under this debt.

What's the best way to tackle this huge amount knowing that my income will be cut in half when I retire in a year?

— L.

Dear L.,

I doubt it will bring you any comfort to know how many of your peers are facing the same struggle. But indulge me while I share just one scary stat.

The number of people age 60 and up with student loan debt quadrupled between 2005 and 2015, according to Federal Reserve Bank of New York data. Included in their ranks are people who went into debt to further their education and those who took out or cosigned a loan for a child or grandchild — or a combination in many cases.

You asked about how to "tackle" your $84,000 balance, and unfortunately there are no easy answers. Student loans are rarely dischargeable even in bankruptcy, as I'm sure you're painfully aware.

Since you're already struggling with payments while you're still earning a paycheck, I'm concerned about your risk of defaulting, which could result in part of your Social Security checks being garnished if you have federal loans. Or that you'll have to put your basic expenses on a high-interest credit card to stay current on your loans.

If you're determined to retire next year — and we'll get to your timeline in a minute — the goal of wiping out $84,000 in debt isn't realistic. A better question is: How can I mitigate the pain of retiring with student loan debt? That's where you do have options.

First, make it a priority to get your monthly payments as low as possible.

The best way to do this if you have federal student loans is to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan.

These plans cap your monthly payments at 10 percent to 20 percent of your discretionary income, and your remaining balance is forgiven after 20 or 25 years.

If your income is below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, you might not have to make any payments to stay current.

You can apply at the U.S. Department of Education's website, studentaid.gov.edu, or by a form you can get through your loan servicer.

Just know that you'll often pay more interest in the long term because you're extending the payback period, and you'll owe taxes on the amount forgiven.

Contact your lender for specific options if you're struggling to make payments on a private loan. A private lender won't be as flexible as Uncle Sam, but the good news is that private lenders can't garnish Social Security and other government benefits if you default.

But ultimately, my question for you is this: Can you afford to retire in a year? If you have health challenges, caregiving obligations or mandatory retirement, that date is probably out of your control.

If you have wiggle room in your time frame and a plan to survive on half your income — for example, if one year from now, you'll have paid off your mortgage and car loan — working for a couple more years while living like you're retired will pay off immensely.

Your No. 1 priority is a happy and healthy retirement. Even with student loan debt, there is a way to get there.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at the Penny Hoarder and the voice behind Dear Penny. Send your questions about student loans to askpenny@thepennyhoarder.com.

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