Personal Finance

Planning a trip is nice. Paying down your student loan tab may be nicer.

Last year alone, American workers gave up about $62.2 billion in lost benefits by forfeiting over 200 million vacation days that could not be rolled over, according to Project: Time Off, which is sponsored by the U.S. Travel Association.

What if all that dough went toward your student debt?

In 2018, Fidelity Investments began to offer businesses a way to contribute to their workers’ education loans. Since then, more than 50 companies have signed up.

One company is now trying a different approach to help its employees tackle student debt in the year ahead.

Employee benefits provider Unum recently announced that, starting next year, U.S. employees can trade up to five days, or 40 hours, of unused vacation time for a payment against their student loan tab through the Student Debt Relief Program, which is also managed by Fidelity.

Full-time employees receive 28 days of paid time off, including holidays and personal days, their first year at Unum, with additional PTO available over time.

Unum estimates that around 40 percent to 50 percent of those employees carry over five days, or 40 hours, each year. In fact, American workers use about half of their eligible vacation time on average, according to a separate study by jobs and recruitment website Glassdoor.

“PTO is often underutilized,” said Carl Gagnon, an assistant vice president of Global Financial Well-being & Retirement Programs at Unum. “We just felt that this fell right in a sweet spot.”

Of its 8,700 workers in this country, Unum estimates that 2,000 to 2,600 have student loans. The program is available for recent graduates as well as their parents and other loan co-signers.

About 7 in 10 seniors graduate with debt, owing around $30,000 per borrower, according to data from the Institute for College Access & Success. Overall student debt stands at a record $1.5 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. Americans are now more burdened by college loans than they are by credit card or auto debt.

Jimmy Valentine, a professional development program associate at Unum, is one of them. Valentine graduated from the University of Florida in 2011 with about $32,000 in student loan debt. His balance is now roughly $22,000. “It’s definitely something that I think about,” he said.

Valentine, who rolled over five vacation days last year, plans to trade about a week’s worth of time off for loan help in the year ahead. “That’s almost a year of payments,” he said.

“It has the potential to shave literally years off their repayment window,” said Ashwini Srikantiah, a vice president of the Student Debt Program at Fidelity. (To get a better picture, Sallie Mae’s accrued interest calculator can help estimate how much you can save, depending on your loan balance and interest rate.)

That can pave the way to achieving other financial goals, often hindered by college debt, Srikantiah added.

For example, 4 in 10 adults said their student loans stopped them from saving for retirement, according to a report by the Association of Young Americans, or AYA, and AARP, an association representing the interests of Americans over age 50.

About 1 in 3 said college debt prevented or delayed them from buying a home and one-quarter of those polled said student loans stood in their way when it came to financially helping a family member.

Further, nearly 1 in 5 said their debt burden hindered them from getting the health care they needed.

In the long run, Valentine said he hopes to put the amount he’ll save in interest toward his 401(k) or another type of retirement account.

More from Personal Finance:
Student loan assistance becomes a mainstream workplace benefit
These companies will help you with your student debt
How to get other people to pay off your student loan debt

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