Help women tackle their larger student debt burden

Advisers should encourage clients to avoid taking on too large a loan in the first place, and implement repayment strategies to quickly pay down debt

Feb 12, 2016 @ 12:06 pm

By Liz Skinner

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Women have yet another financial concern that weighs more heavily on their shoulders than on men's.

College-educated women are taking a longer time paying off the debt they incurred to attend school, new research has found.

In 2012, working women who had graduated four years earlier had paid off about 33% of their student loans, compared to men who graduated at the same time and had paid off about 44%, according to a new analysis of Education Department data by the American Association of University Women.

Financial advisers said they're not surprised by the finding. Since women on average earn less than men for performing the same job, they would have more trouble paying down their loans.

But they recommend several steps women should be taking to ensure they are proactively trying to be student-debt-free as soon as possible, because the repercussions are many.

Long-term student debt makes it harder for women to save for retirement, buy cars or homes, and may make it more difficult for a woman to take risks that could pay off down the road, such as changing jobs or starting a business, the AAUW report concludes.

Getting them to take action, though, can be challenging.

“Women overall have more of an aversion to personal finance, so they try to shove things under the rug and may not settle things like debt issues,” said Steven Wightman, owner of Wightman Financial.

(More: Fears about rising college costs present an opportunity for advisers)

Even younger women seem to take a more lackadaisical approach to finances than they should, advisers said.

“Most of us think millennial women suffer from the same 'underconfidence' and 'lack of interest' in finances and financial planning as their moms and grandmoms,” said Eileen O'Connor, managing principal of Hemington Wealth Management.

Advisers who specialize on working with female clients said the first step toward a solution is encouraging women to take out less. Seek out scholarships so they can finance lower amounts overall, they said.

Today women on average owe more in student loans, the AAUW research found. In 2009, recently graduated men owed on average $22,656 and women owed $24,126.

“Prevention is the greatest cure,” Mr. Wightman said.

When it comes to student loan repayment, women should look for applicable repayment programs that will lower their monthly loan responsibilities.

For example, the federal government has a program for teachers who work full time for five years in certain schools for forgiveness of up to $17,500 on federal loans.

Mr. Wightman himself repaid $18,000 in student debt by joining the US Army Reserve.

“Even if you find you can get help on 20% of your college loans, that's still a big help,” he said.

The AAUW study found that 53% of women are paying more on their student loans than a typical person can reasonably afford. In comparison, about 39% of men are in that boat.

Women also should consider looking for loan options with interest rates lower than their student loans, Mr. Wightman said. Perhaps they, or their parents, can take out a home-equity loan that has lower rates than the college loans.

(More: Advisers still aren't taking advantage of the opportunities, benefits 529s can provide clients)

Ms. O'Connor said financial planning can especially benefit women because they are most likely to leave the workforce at some point to care for kids or older generations, they have longer life expectancies and, as already noted, earn less on average than men.

"About 95% of all women will be responsible for their finances at some point in their lives," she said.

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