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The Simple Dollar

Student loans equal $35,000. Pay 'em off or save?

Student loans have variable interest rates, but they're low now. So concentrate first on an emergency fund. See question No. 4 in the reader mailbag.

By Guest blogger / May 1, 2012

Students walk across campus at the University of Vermont on Monday in Burlington, Vt. In Vermont, almost 70 percent of college graduates have an average of $30,000 in student loans.

Toby Talbot/AP


What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Dried versus fresh produce
2. Gencon
3. Emergency fund planning
4. Figuring out primary focus
5. Baseball on the cheap
6. Spending excess savings
7. Major lifestyle change
8. Boys or girls night out
9. Overspending for work parties
10. Refinance or cash in investments?

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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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Q1: Dried versus fresh produce
My husband and I have recently begun purchasing freeze-dried produce instead of fresh because we never seem to be able to use up our fresh produce before it goes bad. I was wondering if you would be willing to do the math to see if we are actually saving any money doing it this way. The great thing about freeze-dried produce is that it comes pre-washed and pre-cut, so the preparation time is basically zero and the produce lasts for years (instead of days). We’ve had great success using these ingredients in place of fresh vegetables in nearly all of the dishes we’ve made, but I wanted to get an idea of how much extra money this strategy may cost (or perhaps, save!).
- Kelly

This is a comparison that’s extremely hard to quantify because of the wide variability in prices. You will likely be able to find specific instances where dried fruits and vegetables are at an equal cost to fresh and other instances where the difference between the two is enormous.

I prefer using fresh produce, for several reasons. The biggest reason is that fresh produce is generally more nutrient-rich than dried produce, which is something I look out for. Most of the time, I find it to be less expensive as well, and the flavors are sharper.

However, I certainly see value in having dried produce on hand as a backup option. We have several examples of dried produce in our home, from dried tomatoes to raisins, and we certainly use them.

Q2: Gencon
You’ve said many times that one of your splurges is a trip to Gencon with some of your friends. What is Gencon? I read about it online but I don’t get it.
- Andy

Gencon is an annual non-electronic gaming convention, held each August in Indianapolis. Last year, 36,000 people attended. There were people there of all ages, from little kids to college students to parents to elderly couples. It’s mostly just a giant convention center filled with people playing non-electronic games of all varieties – board games, card games, and so on.

I typically drive out there the day before with a friend or two and usually stay in a hotel room with several friends and it becomes very much a “summer camp” type of atmosphere, with lots of joking and talking about what we did that day. I also tend to run into people that I know there from the events of previous years, so there’s a lot of socializing.

In a few years, I plan on taking my son to Gencon with me, and my wife has expressed mild interest in going for at least one year (she’s much more in favor of playing games with friends she already has rather than building new friendships).

It ends up being pretty inexpensive for the time I spend there and the enjoyment I get out of it.

Q3: Emergency fund planning
I was wondering what your thoughts are on when to grow an emergency fund to 4-6 months and when to pay off debt. Our example: My wife and I have a take home pay of $70,000. We both contribute effectively 9% (including employer match) to our 401k. We have 45k of student loans at about 5%, two car loans, both of which are about half-way home, one at 6% and one at 4.4%. We just bought a house, conventional loan, with 7.5% down, and got the sellers to pay the PMI buy-out. That is at 3.75% fixed. We have 5k in the bank and no credit debt.

We are both in our mid-twenties. Our mininum monthly expenses on these loans, plus utilities and necessities, and insurance, is about $3,000/month. We are bringing in about $5,800/month. We spend about 4,400/month realistically. I am confident we could cut that to $3,500 in an emergency. Last year, 2011, we saved $20,000 for the house down payment. I know you wouldn’t recommend it but that also doubled as our emergency fund. We never tapped into it.

Now, it’s time to make a real emergency fund for emergencies only. But, is what we already have enough (5k), and we should tackle debt now, or should we save up to $20,000 again before we tackle these secured debts?
- Danielle

Given that you don’t have any high interest debt, if I were you, I would establish an emergency fund equal to four months of your shared expenses. How much do you spend, together, on everything over a period of four months? That’s the emergency fund I would shoot for in this situation.

Once you have that, I would start knocking down the debts in order of interest, starting with the highest. IN this case, it looks like your highest debt is 7.5%, so I’d start there.

As for your retirement, I’d consider contributing a little more. The generally accepted range is between 10 and 15%. One good way for you to do this would be to open your own Roth IRA and contribute 3% (or so) of your income to it each year.

Q4: Figuring out primary focus
I’m 23, graduated in May 2011 with about $35K in student loans; I have been at my current job for 6 months now making 40K. I recently consolidated my student loans so I have two: a Direct loan for $25K at 6% fixed, and a private loan for 9K at 4.25% currently, variable up to 25%. I just signed up through my company’s 403B plan to contribute 6% of my paycheck, which will max out their matching at 3%, so 9% of my salary will go towards that. I also opened up a Roth IRA with $50 but haven’t done anything with that yet. I have no savings (yet). I have about $1200/month left over after living expenses and other “needs”. What is the best way to use this money?

I don’t know what is more “important” as far as what to pay down or save for first. I was thinking of putting most of it towards my private student loan since the interest rate is variable, but it’s been at 4.25% since 2008 when I got it and I just read on your blog you recommend paying down the loan with the current highest interest rate first. So should I put that towards my Direct Loan? Or should I pay the minimums on both and max out my Roth IRA? Also, I have no emergency savings at all, so should I focus on that first? I don’t know what I should be focusing on.
- Lucy

Since none of your loans are what I would call high interest, I would focus on making an emergency fund first, so you can handle things like an unexpected job loss. I would funnel my spare money into a savings account until I had two months of living expenses stored up (I usually suggest two months of emergency fund per dependent).

After that, I would start hammering away at the debts. I would pay down the debts in order of their current interest rate, starting with the highets. Don’t worry yourself about what they might do. The only time I would worry about it is if a major adjustment were imminent, one that would shift the order of your debts.

I would suggest contributing between 1% and 3% of your annual income to your Roth IRA, starting today. That way, your total retirement savings is between 10% and 12%, which is a good number given that you’re starting relatively young.

Q5: Baseball on the cheap
You’ve talked many times about how you’re a big baseball fan. How do you follow games without spending a ton of money on a big TV package?
- Donald

I usually listen to games on the radio rather than watching them. I find that when I watch baseball, I usually end up in a stupor after staring at the television for that long. If I listen on the radio while doing something, I can follow the game pretty well and still accomplish some things.

The only way I enjoy watching a game is at a ballpark, and there is nothing that compares to that. If I lived anywhere in the Chicagoland area, I’d probably own Cubs season tickets.

My primary way of following the game is through statistics. Yeah, I’m one of those stat-heads. I love looking at stats like WHIP and win shares and such to evaluate players.



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