It can be tough for students to gauge, at the time they are borrowing, how much any extra funds borrowed will influence their eventual bill — and monthly budget, said Brianna McGurran, a student-loan expert for NerdWallet.
"Those numbers are big, and they don't really have a clear connection to your life now or after graduation," she said.
Another part of the problem: Many students intentionally borrow more than they need for tuition and other education expenses to cover lifestyle costs. In a 2016 survey from Student Loan Hero, 41.3 percent of respondents spent student loan funds on monthly bills, while 14.9 percent used them for clothing and 12.8 percent for restaurants. (See graphic below for how some of those costs add up.)
So how much is too much to borrow? Your total debt at graduation should be less than your total starting salary, said Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of strategy for college and scholarship search site Cappex.com. Any more than that, and you're likely to struggle with repayment.
"Loan limits, even in rules of thumb like this, should not be targets," he said. "Borrow as little as you need, not as much as you can."
Families should create a college payment that spans a student's entire college career, instead of anticipating costs annually. That can help you maximize scholarships and tax breaks, he said. A four-year plan can also help you spread out borrowing to avoid having to turn to pricier private student loans.
Students should be cautious about borrowing for non-educational expenses and look to smart savings strategies — like buying used textbooks, and hunting for an inexpensive apartment — to spend frugally on those expenses they need loans to cover.
"Live like a student when you're in school so you don't have to live like a student after you graduate," Kantrowitz said.