Are Student Loans Making Borrowers Delay Life Decisions?

By Janet Siroto · January 22, 2024 · 10 minute read

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Are Student Loans Making Borrowers Delay Life Decisions?

A college degree can be a major rite of passage and career stepping stone for millions of Americans. Putting one’s education to work can unlock professional rewards and a solid financial future.

However, there’s no denying that the cost of tuition can be daunting. The student loan debt balance has surged 66% over the past decade and, according to the Federal Reserve, currently totals more than $1.77 trillion (that’s trillion, not billion).

Having those payments unfurling before you can be stressful and frustrating, and the effects of student loan debt can be far-reaching. It can seem as if some of your personal, professional, and financial goals will have to wait until you can pay off what you owe. But there are ways to manage those loans and navigate this situation. After all, student debt is what you are going through, not who you are.

Here, you’ll learn more about student loan debt, how it can impact borrowers’ life decisions, and ways to minimize those effects and manage debt more effectively.

Student Loan Debt Statistics

To understand how impactful student loan debt can be, here’s some perspective. Consumer debt in the United States is measured by the Federal Reserve in five distinct categories — home, auto, credit card, student, and other debt.

Using the Federal Reserve Bank of New York data from 2023, here’s how household debt stacks up in the U.S.:

•   Mortgage debt (excluding HELOCs, or home equity lines of credit): $12.14 trillion

•   Student loan debt: $1.599 trillion

•   Auto loan debt: $1.595 trillion

•   Credit card debt: $1.079 trillion

Here’s how educational debt stacks up more specifically: In 2023, the average student loan borrower carried $37,338 in federal debt and $54,921 in private debt.

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Impact of Student Loan Debt on Life Plans

Given the cost of student loan debt, some borrowers may delay big life decisions, such as buying a home or starting a family until they are further along in their loan repayment or have their debt totally paid off. Here are some specifics about the potential negative effects of student loan debt. Then, more happily, you’ll find tips on managing what you owe.


One landmark study in the Journal of Labor Economics found that a $1,000 increase in student loan debt lowered the rate of homeownership by approximately 1.8% for people in their mid-twenties who went to a public college for four years. This is equivalent to a delay of about four months in achieving homeownership per $1,000 in debt.

Indeed, as student debt has increased, homeownership among younger Americans has decreased. Experts, however, caution that this is a complex situation and not a matter of student debt meaning you can’t buy a house.

It’s true that student loans can raise a person’s debt-to-income ratio (DTI), a critical measure of creditworthiness. And it can slow an individual’s ability to save for a down payment.

That said, there are ways to get a mortgage with a student loan. By managing debt responsibly and building your credit score, you can achieve this goal. It’s also wise to look into the various mortgages available with as little as 3% down or even 0% for qualifying candidates.

Pursuing Graduate School

If you have undergraduate student loan debt, you may decide to delay or forgo enrolling in a graduate or professional degree program. Graduate school can often mean even more debt. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average graduate student loan debt is $76,620 among federal borrowers, with only 14.3% of that coming from the borrower’s undergraduate studies.

That said, an advanced degree can mean increased job opportunities. For example, the starting salary for those who majored in computer and information sciences of a recent graduating class was $86,964 with a bachelor’s degree and $105,894 with a master’s degree. And if you want to go to medical school, law school, or business school (which can lead to fulfilling and lucrative careers), you will need significant additional training. So it’s important to determine if taking out the debt is worthwhile vs. your anticipated earning potential.

Recommended: Average Cost of Medical School

Employment and Career Choices

What you’ve just read indicates some of the ways that student loan debt can impact your career plans. There are a couple of other ways that your loan balance might impact your career:

•   If you have significant debt and are faced with the choice between your dream job at a lower salary and a basic job at a higher pay grade, you might opt for the one that fattens your bank account even though it doesn’t thrill you.

•   Also, some companies (particularly those in the financial industry) may check your credit score as part of your job application. Student loans could build your score if you pay on time, and they could broaden your credit mix. But loans also create the opportunity to make a late payment or miss one entirely. Those are aspects of your payment history, the single largest contributor to your score. If you don’t stick to your schedule and pay what you owe every month, you could wind up with a lower score.

Recommended: Average Student Loan Debt by State

Marriage and Divorce

Student loans can also impact one’s personal relationships. According to a 2023 Student Loan Planner® survey, one in four borrowers said they delayed their marriage plans due to student debt. In addition, more than half of respondents (57%) said their student loans were a source of considerable stress in their marriage or relationship.

Marriage can impact your student loan payments, depending on the types of loans you have and the repayment plan you are on. If you are on an income-based repayment plan, your monthly bill might change based on how much you and your spouse earn and how you file your taxes.

Marriages and money can create complex situations that are hard to fully decode. When looking at the impact of student loan debt on divorce, it can be tricky to unravel the interplay of factors. One survey conducted a few years ago found that 13% of respondents attribute student loan debt as a cause of their divorce. Yet some couples with student loan debt were more likely to delay divorce due to their student loans and how it might impact their ability to repay their debt. So in matters of the heart and the wallet, there isn’t a clear consensus.

Recommended: How Marriage Can Affect Your Student Loan Payments

Starting a Family

According to the USDA and other government statistics, it can cost more than $330,000 to raise a child to age 18. That’s no small amount, and it’s a daunting figure for many. Those carrying a hefty amount of student debt may delay parenthood as they pay off their loans.

One landmark New York Times survey in 2018 found that among people who didn’t plan to have children at all, 13% said it was as a result of student debt. In a more recent study of those with high student debt, 35% said they were waiting to have kids due to the impact of their loans on their finances. Still others may respond to this scenario by adopting strategies to pay off student loans faster.

Saving for Retirement

One of the negative effects of debt on young adults is that their retirement savings can be impacted. A recent study conducted by Fidelity found that 84% of borrowers felt that their loans impacted their ability to save for their retirement.

A study from a few years ago bore this out: Research by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that Millennials who had never borrowed student loans saved twice as much for retirement by age 30 as college graduates who have student debt.

Here’s another bit of intel that supports the fact that student debt can make it harder to save for your future. Fidelity also found that the percentage of student loan borrowers who put at least 5% of their salary into their retirement plan rose from 63% to 72% during the Covid-19 loan payment pause.

Delaying retirement savings can mean playing catch up in your later years. Typically, the earlier you start saving for retirement, the more time your money will have to benefit from compound interest.

It can seem overwhelming to start saving for retirement while you’re still paying off student loan debt, but doing both at the same time can help you meet your financial goals in the future.

💡 Quick Tip: Refinancing could be a great choice for working graduates who have higher-interest graduate PLUS loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and/or private loans.

How to Manage Your Student Loans

As you’ve just read, student loans can impact many areas of your life. But you are not alone in this situation, and your loans will not be with you forever. Focus on smart solutions to help you manage your debt repayment. Consider the following strategies.

Keep Paying

Even when money is tight, it’s wise to pay on time, as much as possible. Timely payments are the single biggest contributing factor to your credit score, an important financial metric. So do your best to keep current on those monthly installments.

Make a Budget

It’s hard to effectively manage your student debt and your finances in general if you don’t know how much money you have coming in and going out. If you don’t yet have a budget or yours isn’t working well for you, commit to reviewing different budgeting methods and finding one that works.

This process of tracking your money and possibly trimming your spending could reveal ways to free up more funds to pay off your debt.

Repayment Plans

There are federal student loan repayment plans that base your monthly payment on your income or ones that give you a fixed monthly payment. Those that are based on your income may help you lower your monthly payment.

It can be worthwhile to consider your options. For fixed payments, you may have a choice between standard, graduated, and extended plans. If you focus on income-driven repayment (IDR) plans, you will likely review the SAVE Plan (which replaces REPAYE), PAYE, IBR (income-based repayment), and ICR (income-contingent repayment) plans. With IDR plans, once you satisfy a certain number of months of qualifying payments, you can be eligible for forgiveness on the remaining balance of your loan(s).

Deferment and Forbearance

If you are finding it challenging to pay your federal student loans, you may be able to take advantage of deferment or forbearance, which are both ways of pausing or lowering your payments for a specific period of time. Perhaps you haven’t yet found a job after graduation or have another situation that is impacting your ability to pay; these programs can help qualifying borrowers out.

The main difference between is that during deferment, borrowers are not required to pay the interest that accrues if they have a qualifying loan. With forbearance, however, borrowers are always responsible for paying the interest that accrues, no matter what kind of federal loans they have.


Here’s another path to lessening the impact of student loans on your life: forgiveness, which means you may not have to pay back some or all of your federal student loans. For these programs, there are a variety of qualifying factors, such as whether you’re a teacher, government employee, or worker at a nonprofit. Other factors could be that you have a disability, your school closed, or you declared bankruptcy, among others. It’s worthwhile to research your eligibility because the upside could be significant.

Recommended: A Look at the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program


Another possible way to reduce the impact of student debt on your life is student loan refinancing.

When you refinance your loans you take out a new loan with a private lender. Depending on your credit history and financial profile, you can qualify for a lower interest rate, which could substantially lower the amount of money you pay in interest over the life of the loan (depending on the term you select, of course). Two important notes about this:

•   When you refinance federal loans with a private loan, you forfeit federal protections and benefits (such as the forbearance and forgiveness options mentioned above).

•   If you refinance for an extended term, even though your monthly payment may be lower, you may pay more in interest over the life of the loan.

To see how refinancing could help you manage your student loans, take a look at an online student loan refinance calculator.

The Takeaway

Looking to lower your monthly student loan payment? Refinancing may be one way to do it — by extending your loan term, getting a lower interest rate than what you currently have, or both. (Please note that refinancing federal loans makes them ineligible for federal forgiveness and protections. Also, lengthening your loan term may mean paying more in interest over the life of the loan.) SoFi student loan refinancing offers flexible terms that fit your budget.

With SoFi, refinancing is fast, easy, and all online. We offer competitive fixed and variable rates.

SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. Please note that once you refinance federal student loans you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans or extended repayment plans.

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Non affiliation: SoFi isn’t affiliated with any of the companies highlighted in this article.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.


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