A spending spree spurred on by the nearly four-year pause on student loan payments has left many borrowers in a precarious financial position, according to recent surveys. The pause, extended by President Biden, alongside promises of loan forgiveness, has led to an increase in spending and debt accumulation for not only advanced degrees but also for homes, cars, and travel. The result is a worsening financial situation for borrowers compared to their pre-pandemic state.
The looming "student loan cliff" is causing unease amongst borrowers, many of whom admit to not knowing how they will resume payments once the pause ends next month. The Biden administration’s proposed Plan B, which caps payments at 5% of discretionary income and forgives remaining balances after 20 years, is anticipated to slash payments by more than half for most borrowers. However, the reality is that the debt accumulated during the pandemic has left borrowers in deeper financial trouble than before, raising concerns about their ability to manage other debt payments.
The Student Loan Spring Break: Unexpected Financial Consequences
The Spending Philosophy: Live for Today
In the past four years, student-loan borrowers have enjoyed a break from making payments, using their savings to indulge in vacations, home renovations, and other personal luxuries. According to a June UBS survey, 62% of these borrowers subscribed to the philosophy of "live for today because tomorrow is so uncertain." This break in payments, extended by President Biden, not only encouraged borrowers to live beyond their means but also saw them accumulate more debt in anticipation of loan forgiveness.
The Financial Cliff After the Payment Pause
Unexpectedly, borrowers find themselves in a worse financial position than before the pandemic. A recent Fidelity survey reveals that two-thirds of borrowers are uncertain of how they will resume payments once the pause ends. The media has dubbed this the "student loan cliff." The Biden administration’s promises of loan forgiveness could potentially lead unsuspecting borrowers over this proverbial ledge.
The Government’s Plan B and Its Impact
Despite the Supreme Court striking down the Biden administration’s initial plan of debt forgiveness, a secondary plan is in place: capping payments at 5% of discretionary income and forgiving remaining balances after 20 years. If upheld by the court, most borrowers will have their payments significantly reduced, with those earning less than $32,800 paying nothing at all. However, this plan, along with the $200 billion cost of the payment pause, will be shouldered by taxpayers.
The Deepening Debt Crisis
Despite these measures, borrowers are deeper in debt than before the pandemic. A TransUnion study indicates that 53% of student-loan borrowers accumulated credit card debt during the pandemic, 36% took on auto loans, and 15% acquired new mortgages. With the resumption of student loan payments, borrowers may struggle to service these other debts, some of which carry higher interest rates.
The Mental Distress and the Protest
The looming restart of payments is causing distress among borrowers. Some have used the pause to take on additional debt, like home renovations or vacations. Others, like a millennial owing $150,000 for a master’s degree, suggest that borrowers refuse to repay their loans in protest against the politicians who encouraged them to take on this debt.
The student loan payment pause, coupled with the promise of debt forgiveness, has led to a surge in private debt and poor financial management. As a result, even high-income borrowers are falling behind on payments and the nation is facing a significant debt crisis. Financial advisors now recommend overleveraged grads to pay down their other debts first, given the few consequences for missing student loan payments. The extended student loan spring break may have unintended long-lasting effects on the financial health of borrowers and the economy.