Retirement Plans Poised to Benefit From Student Loan Forgiveness


The Biden administration’s plan to forgive student-loan debts may be a boon for retirement plans, too.

The program, which will forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loans, will lower the debt burdens of tens of millions of Americans. It is way too early to know what all of those borrowers decide to do with the money they had set aside to pay down student loans; they could opt to pay off credit-card debt, make a major purchase or even set up an emergency fund that would cover their expenses in the event of job loss.  

“We’re hopeful folks who are going to benefit from this forgiveness can now have more money each month to devote to other financial goals,” said Kirsten Hunter Peterson, a vice president in the research arm of Fidelity Investments’ workplace-retirement division. 

In a 2021 survey conducted by the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, researchers found that 24% of those polled would save more for retirement if $10,000 of their student-loan debt were forgiven. That figure increased to 29% when respondents were asked if they would set aside more for retirement if $20,000 were forgiven. 

“Down the road, maybe it facilitates more retirement savings,” said Stephen Roll, associate director of research at the institute. “But low-income and young people have more pressing financial priorities they have to get in order.” 

One of those more elusive goals for many younger Americans, and especially those in debt, has been finding enough income to plan for retirement. And there are reasons to believe many who can participate in the student-loan forgiveness plan will set aside more money for the future, even if it isn’t their most pressing need. 

Virginia Maguire, vice president of wealth solutions at Alight Solutions, said nearly 70% of those under the age of 40 who were polled by the retirement-plan manager said that student loans “significantly impact their ability to save for the future.” Nearly a quarter of respondents in the Alight study also said that their level of debt is ruining their quality of life, she said. 

In time, she said, Alight intends to reach out to retirement account holders who might benefit from the forgiveness plan offering tools and advice on how they can manage their savings. 

 “Any time there’s a significant financial event, or even an emotional event, it can trigger someone to look at what their financial picture looks like,” Fidelity’s Ms. Hunter Peterson said. “This is an event that will certainly do that.” 

Even if most of those student-loan borrowers don’t give priority to boosting retirement savings over, say, paying off credit-card debt, the government’s forgiveness plan may lead millions to rethink their budgets and financial goals. 

“We’ll see how it plays out,” Ms. Hunter Peterson said. “Financial well-being is still an important topic for employers, and savings is a huge component of that. How that manifests on an individual basis is complicated.” 

President Biden said Wednesday that his administration will forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for tens of millions of Americans. Independent estimates suggest the plan will cost more than $300 billion over 10 years. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

Write to Justin Baer at justin.baer@wsj.com

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Appeared in the August 27, 2022, print edition as ‘Retirement Plans Eye Student-Debt Relief.’

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