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

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    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.
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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?

One of the surest signs that spring is here to stay is the emergence of rapidly growing green grass.

Few things mark the passing of the seasons quite like pulling out the lawnmower, replacing the gas and oil, and firing it up for some laps around the yard.

Recommended: Can you manage your money? A personal finance quiz.

 

 

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.

 

 

Q6: Spending excess savings
My husband and I have nearly $48K in savings. We only need $18K for our 6 month emergency fund, leaving about $30,000 to “play” with. The only debts we have are students loans: mine – $33K @ 6%, his – $1,900 @ 4.5%. However, I recently joined my company’s pension and realized I need to pay back a $20K for the years I should have joined (I know, I know). And of course, being a young couple in our early thirties, we want to have a baby (fertility permitting) next year and save for a home (purchase within 3-5 years). What are your suggestions about what to do? Pay off the pension debt? Loans? Save like crazy for baby? Continue growing the house fund?
- Nina

The biggest reason you would need to save for a baby is if you’re planning on quitting your job when the baby arrives. If you’re simply going to take maternity leave and return to work after the baby’s arrival, you don’t need to save up that much. What will happen instead is a lifestyle change, one that you’ll simply have to adjust to, where you don’t go out as much both for financial reasons and because of the child.

Assuming that you’re returning to work, I would pay off the pension debt before anything else. You need to secure your retirement, and that’s probably the best way for you to do so.

Once the pension debt is repaid, tackle his student loan first. This goes against the usual “pay in order of interest rate” advice, but his balance is really low and with a baby on the way you’ll be glad to have one less required payment to worry about.

Q7: Major lifestyle change
I am 31 and work in a mid level executive position in a firm. I enjoy my job to an extent, but the hours and pressure of the new job are tremendous. Also I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur and that constantly lingers in my brain each day.

My issue is – should I leave my current setup, and move to another city entirely where our Corp HQ (and my boss) is located?

The PROS of moving -
1 – Far more visibility in the job..also will make things easier because of face to face interactions with crucial people.
2 – Very free lifestyle in terms of not having to think of the whole household but just us 3.

The CONS -
1 – Higher expenses – for .e.g I will pay rentals in the most expensive city in India..while I’ve never paid a rent before.
2 – My wife won’t have much to do – we may explore job options but as a Physiotherapist we may choose to look after the kid rather than burn hours at a low paying job.

I know I haven’t done a good job of this question.. there’s a lot of other things at play here..for e.g. the need of my wife and I to live a ‘nuclear’ lifestyle for a while because our marriage is a bit of a rocky one and staying with parents hasn’t remedied that… the fact that we suffered financial losses early in our marriage and I have finally reached a point where I have some ‘extra fun’ money.. or the fact that we haven’t had a ‘couple only’ vacation after our honeymoon in 6 yrs of marriage.. you get the point.
- Roger

I think that this potential career move is secondary to whatever you need to do to get your marriage on firm ground. In our life, any career move that either one of us would make is secondary to the strength of our marriage, because without each other, everything in life would be much harder.

Which avenue is best for your marriage? Which avenue would make your wife happier with the situation? You need to sit down together and talk about this.

You can earn all the money in the world, but none of it is worth much if you had to sacrifice most of what you personally held dear to achieve it.

Q8: Boys or girls night out
Do you think it’s appropriate for members of a couple to spend an evening or two a week out with the “gals” or the “guys”?
- Alice

If both members are happy with it, I think it’s completely fine.

My wife has been involved in quite a few shorter-term projects that have taken her out of the house one night a week (and sometimes two nights). These things tend to come and go – singing groups and so on.

I have one night a week where I get together with two close friends of mine and play board games. We play at the home of the one friend who is a bachelor. Imagine a “guy’s poker night” and you’re probably roughly in the ballpark.

We both value these nights out and we both value how much it means to our partner to have that night of freedom. I know that Sarah really enjoys her singing groups, and she knows that I enjoy playing games with the boys. It works well for both of us.

Q9: Overspending for work parties
I’m an American currently living in Japan teaching English as an Assistant Teacher through the JET Program. Just for background information, the program places participants in rural areas of Japan and we teach English at the local schools (from elementary to high school). My contract is with my city’s local Board of Education (BOE) and I rotate between 5 schools throughout the month teaching English. This job is temporary and my contract will end in Summer of 2013.

My job has many formal work social events. There’s a End of the Year party in December, New Years Party in January, Staff Trip in February (traveling to a nearby prefecture in Japan), Farewell Party for leaving staff in March, Welcome Party for new staff in April, and other various smaller scale parties throughout the year. Each of the formal events costs significant amount of money because it’s usually unlimited alcohol and at expensive hotels or restaurants. It is encouraged (but mandatory if you’re Japanese) to attend these parties because this is how the Japanese bond with their colleagues. But the expenses for these parties add up. I spent about $225.00 (with the current exchange rate) in the past two weeks going to three parties. While I want to participate, I have a hard time justifying the costs. I don’t drink so I don’t benefit from the unlimited alcohol (my coworkers love to drink!) and because there’s so much mingling and talking I don’t get a chance to actually eat the expensive food I’m paying for.

So my question is this: Is it worth attending these parties just to bond with my coworkers? These work parties let me experience Japanese work culture and I’m grateful that they even invite me. But I spend so much on these parties. I want to save the money I make here so that I can enroll into graduate school when I come home. Yet I am also worried my work relations will be negatively affected if I refuse to go to the parties. There are still parties that I already gave a verbal rsvp to and I’m regretting it now.
- Kelly

For me, the question would be whether or not I was developing a career-long relationship with these people. Are you going to be continuing the relationships you are building here in ten years? Twenty?

If you’re doing this just for the culture of the situation, then it sounds like you’ve already absorbed your fill of it and there’s no reason for you to go for that reason.

In other words, I’d drop out of this party scene if you know that your contract is ending in 2013 and you’re sure that you’re going to return to the United States and you know that these relationships are not career-lasting. If you’re hoping to stay long term and build career-length relationships, I would look at the party cost as being an expense of your career.

Q10: Refinance or cash in investments?
I am sending my second son to college this coming fall so I will have two kids in college. Neither child received much financial aid because I have $267K that I inherited 12 years ago. I put this money in Vanguard and it has been growing. I am wondering if I should take money out to pay for college, which will be about $30K for the next two years and then $20K for the next year or two after or should I refinance my home and take some money out that way? Currently my gross salary is $54K and I owe $69K on my mortgage. I contribute to my Roth IRA and have 15% taken out of my salary for retirement which won’t be for another 20 years. I have about 7 years left on my mortgage which is at an interest rate of 3.875% and no other debt. Thank you. 
- Connie

Given your low interest rate, I don’t think refinancing will help you very much. If I were you, I would withdraw what is needed to pay for their education from the Vanguard account and, when they’re done with school, use the remainder of that money to pay off the mortgage.

In truth, this comes down to how you want to spend that money. Do you want to cover their full education? If you do, then make sure it’s covered.

I would not do anything to add to my debt load if I had that much money sitting in the bank, particularly given that you’ve also got healthy retirement savings.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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