Nearly 50% of all Americans who racked up student loan debt regret not choosing a cheaper college, the Finra Investor Education Foundation reported.

In fact, many with student loans report they did not fully understand what they were getting into when they took out student loans, with just 43% reporting they tried to estimate monthly payments before borrowing, according to the foundation's National Financial Capability Study.

There are now 45 million borrowers who owe nearly $1.6 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. Student loan debt is now the second-highest consumer debt category—higher than both credit cards and auto loans and trailing only mortgages, according to the Federal Reserve.

The findings don’t surprise Daniel T. Kirsch, author of “Sold My Soul for a Student Loan.” Kirsch said, “We’re encouraging everyone to take out debt and calling it ‘good debt.’” Kirsch suggests counseling borrowers that debt isn’t good if their degree doesn’t lead to a job where they can possibly earn enough to repay the loan. 

One way to do that is to limit student loan borrowing to 10% or less of projected take-home pay after taxes so that future monthly payments don’t consume more than 10% of take-home pay, he said. By that standard, a graduate expecting to earn $50,000 a year could afford a monthly payment of about $279. At the current undergraduate federal student loan interest rate of 4.53%, that payment would support college debt of about $26,800.

The average student loan debt for members of the class of 2018 is higher, clocking in at $29,200, a 2% increase from the prior year, according to the Institute for College Access. The average student loan payment is $393 per month.

To give borrowers temporary relief during the pandemic and lingering shutdown, the U.S. Education Department today extended President Trump’s executive order suspending federal student loan payments through the end of the year and clarified that borrowers with loans held by the federal agency will see their payments automatically suspended until Dec. 31 without penalty or accrual of interest.

Department officials also said they plan to extend the CARES Act’s pause on collecting defaulted federal student loans until the end of the year. They will not seek to seize wages, tax refunds or Social Security benefits of people who are in default on their federally held student loans.

Department officials said in their statement that “any borrower with defaulted federally held loans whose employer continues to garnish their wages will receive a refund of those garnishments” during the extended relief period.

Not surprisingly, states with larger populations have higher aggregate student loan debt. California, Florida, Texas and New York are among the four states with the highest total student loan debt outstanding among resident borrowers.

To avoid buyer’s remorse when it comes to college borrowing, the Finra Foundation suggests four strategies consumers can use:

1. Understand the true cost of loans. The foundation noted thaat consumers have access to online calculators that show how much a loan will cost and shows the minimum annual salary a consumer will need to repay the loan without financial hardship.

2. Manage salary expectations realistically. Borrowers should zero in on the likely salary for their expected major in the city or state where they plan to base their careers, the foundation said.

3. Find ways to borrow less. Scholarships, work-study opportunities, working as a resident assistant, community college and using Advanced Placement credits to graduate early are among the options borrowers should consider, the foundation saaid.

4. Be realistic about how to achieve goals. The foundation suggests that before deciding on a secondary education path, consumers should ask how much they are willing to borrow for their educational and professional goals. “Is college the best option, or would a trade school make more sense?” the foundation said.

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