- 8 million borrowers over the age of 50 hold 22% of the $1.7 trillion student debt crisis.
- Insider spoke to a 61-year-old single grandmother raising 3 grandchildren with $75,000 in student debt.
- Her main hope is that her student debt doesn’t push her grandchildren into poverty.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Gwen Carney’s main hope is that her three grandchildren don’t grow up in poverty. But her $75,000 student-debt load is standing in the way.
Carney, a 61-year-old single grandmother in Oklahoma, has a Bachelor’s degree in counseling, a minor in psychology, and a Master’s degree in Indigenous people’s law. With her grandchildren’s parents out of the picture, she is supporting a 12-year-old, a 14-year-old, and a 17-year old in addition to herself. She told Insider it takes “every penny she earns” to get by.
“I probably would be able to qualify for food stamps, but I don’t want to do that,” Carney said. “I don’t want my grandkids to know that grandma had to go get food stamps, and that’s how they ate.”
Insider reported in May on the over 8 million borrowers over the age of 50 who hold 22% of the $1.7 trillion student-debt load in the country, with three of those borrowers saying they don’t think they will ever be able to pay off their student debt before they die. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Insider that “student debt isn’t just crushing young people,” and that student debt is one of the biggest contributors” to the rise in debt for seniors overall.
The situation for Carney is different from most seniors. She desperately wants to give her grandchildren the lives they deserve, but with having to pay all of their expenses, including medical and education, on top of her student debt, working 40 hours a week at a job in counseling just isn’t enough.
“They’re good athletes, they’re good students, they’re good kids, and they give me no trouble whatsoever,” Carney said, referring to her grandchildren. “I don’t want my grandkids to be in poverty.”
‘Restarting payments makes me very anxious’
The student-loan payment pause during the pandemic has given Carney significant relief. She sewed facemasks and sent them across the country, and to Canada, to make some extra cash while she wasn’t paying off her student debt. But with payments set to resume in February, Carney is worried she won’t be ready.
“Restarting payments makes me very anxious because I somehow have to find that extra $200,” Carney said. “I just don’t have it.”
Since her grandchildren were doing school remotely during the pandemic, Carney said her water, gas, electric, and food bills tripled, and even though she was still getting her paychecks, the money that could have gone toward her student-loan payments went elsewhere.
Other borrowers took money saved from the payment pause and used it toward other expenses, as well. One borrower previously told Insider that the almost $400 she saved each month from not making student-loan payments during the pandemic allowed her to pay off the expenses of giving birth, in full.
And even for borrowers who did make payments on their student debt during the freeze, some of them did not even get $1 less in debt than their original balances, showing the inescapable nature of the debt.
“I’m really not looking forward to February at all,” Carney said. “It scares me.”
‘Don’t forget about us grandparents’
Elizabeth Warren and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote a CNBC op-ed in February highlighting the student debt plight for older Americans.
“Older Americans with student debt include people who may not have had a chance at a degree when they were younger because they had a family to support, but took a shot at the American dream and went to college later in life,” the lawmakers said. “Now their student debt eats away at the retirement security they worked so hard for.”
Carney pursued her Master’s degree because she had a family to support, and she wants to make sure other grandparents like her are not getting lost in the student-debt forgiveness conversation.
“Don’t forget about us grandparents that have done a great job raising our grandchildren with student debt,” she said.
But even with the constraints of student debt, Carney does not regret seeking an education. She just doesn’t want the debt to hold her grandkids back.
“I want them to be able to grow up and say, ‘We did not live in poverty. We did not use food stamps. We did not rely on the government to support us – Grandma did,” Carney said. “‘She did it the best she knew how.'”