Student loan debt is at an all-time high for many Americans. While the media typically highlights the financial and mental toll student debt has on millennials, baby boomers had the second-highest student loan balances in the first quarter of 2019. 

When student loans meet Social Security

It gets even more stressful if you’re eligible to start receiving Social Security. If your student loans reach default status (which occurs after a payment is 270 days past due), the government can garnish up to 15% of your total Social Security income.

This can be financially devastating if Social Security is your primary or sole source of income. While it’s possible to apply for a disability waiver or financial hardship to reduce or stop garnishment, it’s usually better to take a proactive approach before getting to this point. If you’re struggling to repay your student loans, there’s more information below on other available options.

Just looking at statistics though, there’s no question student loan debt is a significant source of stress and worry, especially if you’re retired or close to retirement. Because debt can easily consume a lot of mental energy, prioritizing self-care is more important than ever.

It’s easy to tie your net worth (or lack thereof) to your self-worth, but it’s very possible to enjoy a full life despite what you owe. Here are some ways to practice self-care in the face of your financial obligations. 

Spend more time with loved ones

Life gets hectic, but as you mature, you may find yourself reflecting on how precious the time is that you spend with those closest to you. It might seem like a better use of your time to put in a few extra hours if you’re still employed to knock off some of your debt. You might even have a part-time job or side gig to help cover some of the bills. While there’s nothing wrong with any of these, the tradeoff is less time to enjoy the company of friends and family. 

As much as possible, be mindful of striking a balance that allows you to catch up with loved ones. Block off time in your calendar and plan a game or movie night with your kids or grandkids, or schedule a phone call with a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Paying off debt is important, but it can’t replace the human connection you’ll make with people who care about you the most.

Volunteer or try a new hobby

Another way to focus on the positive is to find new things to learn, or to volunteer your time. Almost all of us have that one thing we always said we would love to do at least once in our lives. Now’s the time to find that one thing you want to do and make it happen. 

Giving your time to an organization or cause that’s important to you can help take your mind off some of the stress of student debt. The same goes with picking up a new hobby. There’s no better time than the present to learn a new language or play an instrument like you’ve always daydreamed about. You’ll likely find yourself feeling inquisitive, uncomfortable, and silly at the same time, which are all much better uses of your mental energy than constant thoughts about debt.

Meditation & mindfulness

It’s hard to find inner peace with all the noise of the outside world, and it’s only getting harder with the constant access to online media. There’s a common myth that being attached to smartphones is a millennial thing. However, a 2019 study found that baby boomers spend an average of five hours a day on their phones, which is about the same amount of time as millennials (who average 5.7 hours a day). When you’re plugged in to a constant stream of information on a daily basis, it can take a toll on your mental and emotional wellbeing, even if you don’t notice it. 

Find time throughout your day to unplug and re-center yourself. If you can’t bear the thought of staying off your phone for a full day, start out with a 10-minute breathing exercise in the morning. Limit the amount of time you spend scrolling social media and log off altogether at least an hour before bed. These are all simple practices that give you the time to collect your own thoughts without external influences. 

Find a strategy to manage debt

Educating yourself on different tools to manage your student loans is another form of self-care. It may not be as therapeutic as your morning meditation, but it can give you the knowledge you need to have some control, rather than feeling controlled by your debt.

The key is to start small and avoid overwhelming yourself. Schedule at least 30 minutes to an hour out of the month to figure out what strategy works best for you.

If you simply can’t make any payments, contact your student loan provider and find out your options for a deferment or forbearance, as well as an income-based repayment plan. Depending on your credit and total amount owed, it might even be best to consolidate or refinance your loans. 

Whatever option you choose, remember there is no one-size-fits-all solution to tackling debt, and taking care of yourself first should always be a priority.

K. Wright writes about finance. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Business Insider, and The Muse.

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