Student loans: Pay them down or start an emergency fund?
Student loans are above $50,000, but there are ways to balance saving with paying down debt. See questions No. 2, 3, and 5 for advice on student loans.
What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries.
1. Investing in light of default
2. Debt eradication
3. Loans or emergency fund?
4. Repetitive questions
5. What’s next on my path?
6. Time for a financial advisor?
7. Polite hygiene advice
8. Wedding and financial planning
9. What are readers like?
10. 2012 predictions
The Simple Dollar is a blog for those of us who need both cents and sense: people fighting debt and bad spending habits while building a financially secure future and still affording a latte or two. Our busy lives are crazy enough without having to compare five hundred mutual funds – we just want simple ways to manage our finances and save a little money.
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Four great online personal finance resources
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(Almost) everything useful I've learned about personal finance in 10 sentences
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How long does it take for you to stop dating checks and other documents with the previous year after the calendar flips?
I’ll admit that it will probably take me most of January to get used to writing 2012.
Q1: Investing in light of default
I have a small IRA, with half in a mutual fund, which has topped out, and the other half in two stocks which are near to bottoming out, from a lag factor associated with recession and reinvestment.
I anticipate a currency devaluation as an effect of renegotiation or default on national debt limits. Would overseas money markets be a safe place to stash funds from the sale of the mutual while I wait for it to drop so I can repurchase it? If you believe that our debt problems will negatively impact overseas money markets, what is an alternate spot, exclusive of index funds, which will drop as the market does?
I don’t think I would trust overseas money markets more than domestic ones, as I think a lot of economies are facing some sort of currency devaluation due to the ongoing economic conditions.
I also wouldn’t bank my entire plan on market timing, particularly when you’re making moves based on a sense of a fund having “topped out” or “bottoming out.” If I were you and I moved forward with this plan, I’d set some thresholds on when to buy back in. For example, you might want to say that you’ll buy back in after three months if either the value of the fund is down, say, 15% or it matches the value you sold it at.
Don’t worry about what the absolute top of the market is or what the bottom is – worry about making money for yourself.
Q2: Debt eradication
I’m a 22-year old student who will graduate with a B.A. in December. I took out some federal and private loans to pay for school. I saved for the past year and paid off the private loans while in school. I’ll be left with $16,000 at 6.8% when I graduate. I have no other debt and a 3-month emergency fund ($6,000). I plan to make payments well over the minimum to pay this balance off in 2 years or less.
Is this a good thing? The more I research credit and credit scores, it seems that a relatively low-balance loan isn’t a bad thing to keep around for ten, even fifteen years. However, having a positive net worth is my #1 priority. Should I be making aggressive payments or simply using that money to pad my retirement and savings while keeping the loan around? While paying the loan aggressively I’ll still be contributing 15% of my net income to an IRA. I have one credit card with a $500 limit; never carried a balance. I pay bills on time every month. I currently rent. A house isn’t on my to-do list, and I’ll buy a car outright if I get one in the future. Is it enough to build my credit without a credit card balance, mortgage, car payment, and (soon) no student loan?
I don’t think the value of having a 6.8% student loan (in terms of your credit score) is worth the financial cost of having to pay 6.8% interest on the balance every year. If it’s within your means without causing other financial troubles, I would pay it off sooner rather than later.
Given that you do have a continuing line of credit in the form of your credit card, your credit report won’t go completely empty after you pay off the student loan. I would consider using the card regularly (and paying off the balance) and being open to moderate raises in your credit limit.
You’re doing very well. Keep along your current path and you’ll continue to do very well.
Q3: Loans or emergency fund?
I’ll graduate from grad school this May with $25,500 in federal subsidized loans (spouse and I also still have $27k combined undergrad debt at 5.3%). I haven’t technically needed these loans for the last year of school but because they’re subsidized I’ve been storing the money in a rewards checking account earning about 3%. It will be around 12,000 total in November when the subsidization ends and 6.8% interest kicks in. This is the extent of our short-term savings/emergency fund right now (my spouse and I are also saving for retirement). So, since we are looking to save for life’s big things in the next few years (car, family, and house, probably in that order), and we don’t have a defined emergency fund amount, I wonder how much of that 12k should we pay back immediately? We’re currently steadily employed though I’m seeking new full-time work in my desired field instead of my current part-time job. We have roughly $1000 extra/month to put to good use on student loan repayment and savings (we’re a pretty frugal couple), but I’m not sure what the best combination would be. We have to pay minimum $400/mo on our student loans. Is it best to pay more on student loans and postpone more emergency/car/baby/home savings? Is it best to pay back the entire $12k “savings” (which is really borrowed money) and start our “real” savings from scratch? I’m lost and confused and would be interested in your and your readers’ opinions.
If I were you, I would establish a new emergency fund and fund it with enough money to provide three months or so of living expenses for you and your partner. I would then use the remainder to pay off your highest loan and then use the subsequent $1,000 per month toward minimum payments and whatever loan has the highest interest rate.
I would count that 6.8% loan as already having that rate and make “payments” on that debt to a savings account. Then, when the subsidization ends, I’d pay the entire balance of that savings account to that 6.8% loan.
In terms of balancing emergency protection and a path toward debt freedom, I think this is a very good plan.
Q4: Repetitive questions
I’ve noticed that there are a lot of consistent shall we say themes in your reader mailbag questions. Student loans come up a lot for example and so does retirement. Why repeat so much?
The reason these stories show up so often is because they’re the type of concerns that cause people to really start thinking about their finances and because they are so common among people. A lot of people leave college with student loans and they worry about paying them off.
I use a lot of these types of questions because there are a lot of variations in the story and because it’s a genuine concern that a lot of people out there have.
I try to choose questions that reflect the whole of the questions that I receive. I do often pick out specific interesting ones, but I also see from my email inbox that I get a LOT of questions about student loans, so I cover those questions.
Q5: What’s next on my path?
I’m now fortunate to be in a position where I’m (finally) earning a great wage at a company I have no intention of leaving anytime soon, living in a city (NYC) that I love, and living well below my means.
It’s been drilled into me for years that paying off your credit card(s) and building a healthy emergency fund are the first foundation steps to a healthy financial life. I’ve accomplished both (finally!), and have $0 credit card debt (only one credit card), and $11,000 in savings. I still have outstanding student loans, which I’m paying back and contributing more than the minimum on each month – these are at a very low interest rate, and the total repayment each month comes to $350. Paying off one would save me about half of that amount as the payments are pretty much equal between the loans.
I’m also putting $12,000/year into a 401(k), and am planning on continuing to contribute $1,000/mo into my savings account for the next 9 months – until it reaches $20,000. Since I live in NYC, I plan on renting for quite a few more years and I’m planning ahead for when I’ll want to move (moving into a new apartment here typically costs $4-5,000 upfront in costs for my price range – first month’s rent, last month’s rent, possibly a broker’s fee and a security deposit). 6 months of my bills (if I were laid off) comes to about $15,000, and that’s my emergency fund savings goal since I don’t have close family in the area and wouldn’t want to have to move due to prolonged unemployment. The $20,000 goal for this year assumes that I’ll want to move within the next year, which is a possibility (but not set in stone).
I’m not in a hurry to change my plans right now as I still have a bit of time left to contribute to my savings account, but I’d like to have some solid steps in place when I get there.
So – what comes next? It seems like after the savings account, credit card and retirement account are all healthy (or being contributed to healthily), that any number of options open up. I don’t get an employer match on my 401(k), so it’s 100% my own money in there, and I’d like to max it out for a few years, due to not being able to contribute anything in my younger 20′s (4 years of working w/o the spare $$ to contribute). But, I’ll still have a good amount of money that I’m now putting into savings left over after maxing out my 401(k), and I want to make sure I’m investing it wisely, if that’s even the right first step after this.
Are there any recommended steps after this point, or does it depend on the individual and their goals?
It really comes down to goal-setting more than anything else.
Simply put, there is no general right way to invest. There are only good ways to invest to help you reach a specific goal. If you don’t know what you’re saving for, you’re probably going to save in an inopportune manner.
Let’s say, for example, that you decide to start investing in stocks because you heard they have a great return, not because you had any goals in mind. Let’s say you make this decision in January 2008. In December 2008, you decide to buy a house because you got pregnant and you decided you needed a house for that child. Your money has now lost 40% of its value.
You would have been far better off in a savings account had you incorporated the idea of buying a house in the next one or two years into your plan.
Spend some time thinking about where you want your life to be in five years or ten years. Where are you headed? Your investment choices should really follow that.
Jill also had a follow-up question.