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A third of borrowers are spending more on student debt than on rent

Jeanie Ahn
Senior Producer/Reporter

Nearly 9 out of 10 student loan borrowers are struggling financially, and nearly half (44%) will struggle to make their next payment, according to a new report from Student Debt Crisis.

More graduates find themselves in over their heads as soon as they enter the real world, saddled with an average debt load of $39,400, up 6% from the previous year. As wages have stagnated for over a decade, many are struggling to get by with a high debt-to-income ratio. In fact, many borrowers are spending more on their monthly student debt payments than on housing.

“My loans now are down to almost equal my rent, but once were nearly double rent,” said Melissa, a survey respondent from Texas.

The $1.5 trillion education debt crisis that affects over 45 million Americans shows no signs of abating. About 30% of those surveyed said their student loan bill is higher than their monthly mortgage or rent payments  debt than their rent or mortgage payments. U.S. rents average $1,412 a month, according to Yardi Matrix real estate data.

High stress and low bank balances

This uphill battle is the largest source of stress in the life of many borrowers. No matter how much they try to pay down their loans, they’re faced with loan servicers who have little incentive to alleviate borrowers’ financial burdens. The majority of borrowers (59%) said their loan servicer gave them confusing, unhelpful advice about their loan, and 42% had difficulty negotiating changes in their repayment plan when they were experiencing unexpected financial hardship.

“My student loans have prevented me from really living. They stress me out more than I can explain. I pay and pay and pay, and the balance never seems to go down,” said Colleen, a survey respondent from Pennsylvania. “Two of my loans have interest rates of 15%, and I have a third loan at 12%. I put almost two full paychecks towards my loans a month. It’s frustrating and honestly makes me feel completely defeated.”

Of those who responded to the survey, 18% said they’re in default on at least one student loan — consistent with the overall population of borrowers, or 8.5 million, who are in default in the United States as of June 2017.  

“The reality of the day-to-day crisis is staggering: the average borrower has under $1,000 in savings, 80% of borrowers cannot save for retirement, and many more are making sacrifices to their financial freedom, career opportunities, and personal life,” said Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis.

For those knee-deep in debt, the immediate outlook remains bleak, with the diminishing role that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can play in protecting student loan borrowers. Until there are systematic changes that roll out on both the federal and state level, the best borrowers can do is to take control as early as possible.

If you’re struggling with student loans, here are some additional resources to help avoid going into default and tackle your debt head-on:

Tackling student loans: 5 things you should know

‘It gets confusing fast’: FAFSA financial aid for students, explained

What you should know about money before starting college

4 solutions to common student loan issues

3 dangers of debt consolidation

There’s $350 million in loan forgiveness up for grabs: how you can get those funds

4 ways to avoid default and manage your student loans

Jeanie Ahn is a senior reporter and producer at Yahoo Finance, covering personal finance and women in business. Reach out by email jeaniea@oath.com. Follow her on Twitter @jeanie531.

This story was originally published on November 1, 2018.