Student Loan Update – April 2017

higher-education

When I graduated in May of 2017, I chose not to think about my student loans. It was a hot humid day but people traveled from different states to come see me complete another milestone. I was juggling full time work and a part time MBA program right when my husband was settling into a new job. I had a lot to be thankful for and a number of people were proud of me. The Department of Education was going to grant me 10 years starting in December 2015 to agonize over student loans but I was never going to get another graduation day.

I picked up my diploma after the ceremony and I sat in the front seat of my husband’s car running my fingers on it back and forth as my parents sat in the back. I was pretty impressed with myself. Not in a gloating kind of way but more so in a “I actually did it…” Almost as if I couldn’t believe it.

The next day, things went back to normal and I decided that the honeymoon period with the diploma was over. Real world responsibilities required me to know what my balance was and what my monthly payments were projected to be. It was nothing that I could not afford but it was painful. Over $350 a month a and $40k+ balance. I could get a whole new car with that! I devised an aggressive pay down plan as follows:

  1. Start paying immediately rather than waiting for the grace period
  2. Apply all raises to the monthly payment and all bonuses to the balance
  3. Apply all tax refunds if any to the balance

3 simple steps. The toughest part was the discipline of not eating out as much as we would have liked and not splurging at the mall. However, 23 months later, that plan has worked so well that I am dancing for joy.

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In case you are having trouble reading the small font, this says:

Current balance $11,641.17 & Due date 7/18/2020

While there are no guarantees, these numbers indicate that I am likely on track to finish paying the debt off by the end of the year if all goes as planned. That will be 8 years ahead of schedule. This is more than I could ever hope to achieve. When I said I was determined to pay and save myself an astronomical amount of money in interest, I was not joking.

I am grateful for the discipline I have that allows me to focus on long term independence goals rather than instant gratification. I’m also thankful that I have a supportive husband who understands my goals and can see my vision for our family. Some people would have valued the high life over a debt free life and it could have been a source of friction. Instead, he trusts my judgement and is happy delaying a little bit of gratification in favor of peace of mind.

Dear DOE, thank you but no thank you. I will decline your offer to take a 3-year hiatus from my obligation. You’re going to collect these payments and you’re going to like it. But better yet, you will set me free.

 

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Debt vs. Savings: What to Prioritize

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Two of the building blocks of personal finance are saving money and paying off debt. Everything flows from these two principles. You can’t invest, start a business or retire if you are not saving and/or you are crippled by a mountain of debt. In an ideal world, we’d be maxing out our 401k and crushing our debt, getting ever closer to eliminating them every month. Alas, we live in the real world with tons of responsibility and a finite amount of money to work with. So how do we prioritize?

While the exact answer might vary from person to person depending on their respective situation, the steps we use to reach the appropriate conclusion are the same. To make it easier, I will eliminate the variables in a hypothetical situation by using myself as an example.

Currently, I have 3 savings account: one is a CD where I get the best return I’m going to get in this interest environment. It pays me 1.25%. The other one is a money market account that pays 0.05%. It’s not as lucrative as the CD but my money is accessible with few penalties. However, money markets have an important restriction. While you can deposit money any time you want, they cap how many times per month you can withdraw before you incur a fee. It’s a fantastic tool that forces you to keep your hand out of the honeypot. But life happens and we sometimes need to access money more often than we want to. That’s where my regular savings account comes in. Hold on to your hat folks, this return might blow you away: 0.01%. I’ll try not to spend it all in one place. If you’re wondering what this has to do with anything, be patient…

The debt that is currently the biggest thorn in my side is my student loan debt. As much as I would love to keep fattening up my savings, the interest rate on that debt is 5.16%. That means, for every hundred dollar I chose to add to my savings (let’s assume we’re talking about the CD since it offers the best rate) over paying off my student loans, I am getting a return of 1.25% that is costing me 5.16%. That puts me in a whole of close to 4% annually on that $100. Of course, student loan interest is tax deductible if you itemize (which I do), but you don’t get all of it back. The IRS caps it at $2,500 gradually decreasing it as your income goes up until it disappears. So we’re talking a saving of 1% to maybe 2%, and I’m being generous, which will then net you a negative return of almost 2% and we aren’t adjusting for inflation.

So what do I prioritize?

  1. Having an emergency fund: This buys you peace of mind and keeps you from falling into debt when tragedy strikes. How much you need depends on your particular situation. But I recommend a minimum of 6 months.
  2. Saving for retirement: The most important part of saving and investing for retirement is time. The longer you save, the more time that compound interest has to work in your favor. Also, the more time you have to recover from dips in the market.
  3. Paying off high interest debt: My student loan debt at over 5% is in stark contrast with this loan I took out for an energy efficient central AC which is a 0% loan. I am in no rush to pay that off. If they want to extend it 10 more years, I’ll take it! However, I am very aggressive with my student loan debt where I send every extra unexpected funds to Nelnet. Whether it’s a raise, a bonus or a tax return check, it goes towards my student loans. I have paid off over $23,000 in the past 18 months and I have no plans of slowing down until it’s gone.

While your situation might be different, for me, this is the least expensive and most sensible order in which I can allocate my funds. If I do anything else, I am not maximizing all of my dollars. Have you taken the time to consider if your debt repayment plan and your savings strategy are optimized?

The 7-Step Guide to Healing Your Credit

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Before you read this post, I encourage you to take a look at the previous blog that talks about what makes up a credit score. You will have a better understanding of how the steps that I am recommending will impact your score every step of the way.

Welcome back! Now that you know what makes up a credit score, I hope you’re ready to fix yours.

A capitalist society is a consumer driven society. Few people are as consumption driven as Americans. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t patient enough to wait until we can afford the luxuries of life before we decide to indulge. As a result, we overextend ourselves, borrowing our lives away to keep up with the Jones’. However, as various entities we do business with begin to put increasing value on credit history, we are starting to wake up to the fact that things need to change.

But before they change, we must right the wrongs of the past. So it is no surprise that credit repair has become big business. The other fact about the credit repair industry is that they are preying on low-income consumers. What if I told you that with a little bit of guidance, patience and a whole lot of discipline you could repair your own credit score for free? Well you can and I will outline all the steps below.

The following list is a guide for how you can repair your credit or keep your credit score high if you already have good credit.

  1. Pay on time – Pay all of your bills on time, every time. Verizon, T-Mobile, Comcast can all send you to collection and ruin your credit. While you want to prioritize things like your mortgage so you aren’t homeless, don’t think there is a company out there that you owe money to that doesn’t have the ability to report you to all 3 credit bureaus.
  2. Pay down your balances aggressively – Your outstanding debt balance, especially on revolving lines of credit (i.e. credit cards) negatively impact your debt usage ratio (how much of your available credit line that you are using). Therefore, your score will benefit  greatly from you paying off your balance due and not just the minimum payment.
  3. Do not apply for credit – If you read the previous article that I linked above, you will know that hard inquiries (shopping for credit vs. “soft” inquiries marketing/promotional inquiries) on your report adversely affect your score. Additionally, those inquiries remain on your report for about 2 years.
  4. Pay, don’t shift– Do not move your debt around. I know someone who spent nearly 3 years moving their credit card balances to 0% interest promotional cards until she was no longer getting those offers. This does not eliminate your debt. It just helps you avoid interest for a period of time while you’re paying a balance transfer fee as a percentage of your owed amount. It is costing you money to still carry the debt. Ignore those promotional offers as they only benefit the company that you’re moving to, while you continue to be in debt and your score continues to suffer.
  5. Don’t close good accounts – If you have accounts in good standing with little or no balances, especially if they are aged, keep them open. They help establish your history and offset negative information on your credit. However, you have to be able to resist the urge of using the card or credit line. You are NOT required to use your account to have good credit.
  6. Be patient – Time heals all wounds. Inquiry “wounds” 2 years. Delinquency “wounds” 7 years. Bankruptcy “wounds” 10 years. As you work your tail off to show improve the data that shows up on your credit report going forward, there is not much you can do about ACCURATE adverse information. However, all information, good or bad goes away eventually. This is why it is important to remain consistent once you decide to make a change. Once the bad information falls off, you want to make sure that new bad information doesn’t rear its ugly head as it has a 7 year shelf-life.
  7. Fight – Remember how I said you can’t do anything about accurate information? That is not the case for incorrect information. If someone has the same name as you, or their social security number is 1 digit off from yours, or if you were the victim of identity theft, you don’t have to be punished for an error or a thief. The law says that you have the right to fix errors on your credit report and you should absolutely exercise that right.

These are all steps you can take on your own, for free. I hope you find the information useful and that the credit repair business has just lost another customer.

The Lesson from For-Profit Colleges

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In case you’ve been in Antarctica with limited cell service, you’ve heard of the disgraceful collapse Corinthian “college”, the corporation that has been mascarading as a higher education institution for several decades, preying on low-income, usually minority, individuals promising them a way out of dead-end jobs, while having inadequate accreditation and saddling them with absurd amounts of debt.

The reason why that organization was so successful at tricking and trapping students is because we have all these proven studies that show college graduates earn way more than those with high school diplomas over a lifetime. This company used that information to lure students and convince them that paying for useless training was an investment in their future, even when they knew that their own job placement and salary statistics were overstated/misleading.

While we know that college graduates do earn more on average, that doesn’t change the fact that a degree is not a universal guarantee of high earnings. Other factors are crucial in determining your earning potential, such as your grades, your major, the industry you choose, the reputation of your Alma Mater, your professional network/contacts, the overall strength of both the economy at the national and local level. Matriculation is only one of the necessary steps.

But this is for those who want to go to school. What about those who don’t want to go to school? Those for whom traditional schooling isn’t possible either because of their limited capabilities or their lack of interest in lengthy papers, class presentations, and final exams? Should we as a society simply accept that they won’t be high earners? Even if we settle for that, it doesn’t mean they would. That unwilllngness to settle for minimal wages due to lack of formal training, combined with our complacency at creating non-traditional educational paths to help them develop useful skills contributes to turning these poor students into prey.

Our society doesn’t respect or value non-traditional schools. We don’t place any value on trade schools or alternative secondary education as we should. Not long ago I found out that my cousin may not be on track to graduate on time and may have changed majors for the third time in 3 years. He also made some comments that a discerning ear would understand that he is suggesting he’s not interested in traditional schooling. As someone with a graduate degree, I know that few people will make it far in life if they limit themselves only to a high school education. That is after all why I sacrificed my time and invested thousands into going back to school even with a full-time job on my plate. However, I would not dare ask him to explore alternative options as I know this would upset my family greatly and, while it sounds extreme, might even ostracize me.

While my cousin doesn’t attend a for-profit school, if he does not graduate, I do not see how the results will be much different. He will still be saddled with debt from 3 years worth of tuition attending a school to appease his family, while having no worthwhile degree to improve his earning potential. If anything, this might even put him in a less favorable position. These questionable schools have a track record on preying on students and they subsequently lost their accreditation and have been filing for bankruptcy left and right since 2015. Unlike them, he attends an accredited school with acceptable retention and graduation rates. He will not get the same sympathy victims of Corinthian Colleges got. He will not be able to sue, he will not get his loans pardoned and he will not be given the benefit of the doubt.

So what could he have done? Not going the traditional path would not necessarily doom him to predatory for profit schools. He could have done full-time sales, started in real estate, became a contractor, etc. Although these have the potential of being good paying jobs for those who are dedicated, they don’t have the “prestige” of saying you have a bachelor’s degree. They don’t put you on a path of becoming a physician or attorney. And to those who still insist on valuing people based on 1950’s standards, they will impose restrictions on their children that drive them to make life ruining decisions.

Path to a Million: 2016 Q4 – Results

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In this post I talk about why I wanted to make my net worth public. Here are the actual numbers and below I’ll discuss what they all represent. Since this is the first time I am posting this, I will give some background information below. Going forward, I will only be posting the statement of net worth and referring to this post for the details.

 

q4-nw

On the asset side

Liquid assets represent cash and investments that can be easily accessed in the event of an emergency.

Personal property includes things that have been appraised but aren’t real property and aren’t easily accessible. That includes jewelry, furniture, etc.

Real estate is pretty self-explanatory.

 

On the Liability side

Both the HELOC and the Consumer loans seem like “too good to be true” deals, however they are state and federal subsidized loans for energy efficient improvements on our primary residence. The HELOC is for the solar panels and the consumer loan is for energy efficient central AC.

The student loans are what they are. But if you want to know how determined I am to pay them off, I graduated with over $45,000 in 2015, and I’ve paid down over $10,000 in principal payments this year alone. So I don’t anticipate it will be weighing around my neck much longer.

2 of the 3 mortgage loans are on rental properties which are cash flowing well and do not require us to pay anything out of pocket.

I do not have, nor have I ever had credit card debt.

Net Worth

Pretty self-explanatory as well. It’s the difference between what I have and what I owe. While most of my NW is tied up in real estate, a significant portion of the real estate is income generating. By no means am I living in a $1 MM house. My goal is to increase my net worth by $75,000 by this time next year. While a good portion of that gain will be through eliminating my student loans, I think there will be several other income generating, savings and investment opportunities in the new year. Paying off the student loans alone will make a significant difference. Those $300 that are currently being eaten away by the loans, can be funneled to other projects and create a snow ball effect both in savings and in investments.

Nothing happens by luck. It takes faith, hard work and discipline. I am making a plan preparing for a prosperous 2017. I look forward to checking in for the first quarter.

 

It takes Luck to be Successful

Don’t mind me; I’m just practicing my click-bait titles…

It is often said that if hard work was the only way to success, day laborers, farmers, etc. would all be millionaires. Hard work is a key to success. No one (except maybe lottery winners) has ever achieved anything in life by sitting around the house doing nothing. Whether it’s Harriet Tubman freeing slaves, Mark Zuckerberg founding Facebook or Obama becoming president, you won’t hear about high achievers sitting on the couch with a lot of free time on their hands.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t be insinuating that anyone who didn’t find great professional or financial success failed to do so because they lacked discipline. Many of those people lacked opportunity, money and some were lazy and poor planners, but some lacked good fortune.

I say luck because many of my peers who came from similar backgrounds as myself are doing very well while others, who didn’t work any less hard are doing terribly or did so terribly that even after being back on their feet are playing catch up.

I want to tell the tales of 3 of my peers, all of whom graduated college within a year of  each other and a year of the Great Recession, eliminating the disparity that graduating during prosperous times would create.

All 3 are women of color, giving them the same likelihood of facing sex and race discrimination in academia and the workforce.

All 3 were traditional students with parental support (albeit to various degrees), no teen pregnancies, criminal past, etc.

While they remain anecdotes, I wanted to provide that small glimpse of their backgrounds to demonstrate that some of the major things that tend to create inequalities were not factors or were the same for all women.

I’ll start with the one that graduated in 2007. That was pre-recession but her lack of meaningful experience limited her opportunity to find full-time employment in time before Sallie Mae came calling. She was a little stubborn about getting internships in her field because they paid less than the temp-jobs she got that were completely unrelated to her major. She eventually found a job a year later after she began managing her salary expectations a little better. She built her savings and got her own apartment. She was no longer living on whatever allowance her parents could spare but she wasn’t living a life of prosperity either. For example, she couldn’t afford a car in any state (new or used) because the added cost of fuel and insurance was too much for her tight budget to bear. Some days she didn’t run the heat to keep utility costs manageable.

A year later, Peer #2 graduates. All is well.  At least for a few months until the market crashes and Lehman goes out of business on a humid august day. It’s pandemonium and lay offs start rolling in. She got to keep her job but it was only a matter of time before she too was offered a severance  package. She takes it, finds a job in retail and applies to graduate school, but she falls behind on her bills. Shortly there after, she lands another, better paying job which offers to pay for her to finish her degree. She says goodbye to retail for good as she graduates, gets promoted and gets married. Her now-husband who also has a good paying job brings in solid additional income that allows them to move to a really nice part of town and she keeps thriving. 8 years after undergrad, she has a happy family life, has a successful career and is financially stable.

Peer #3 is also a 2008 graduate. She’s an outgoing creative woman with a heart of gold. She’s generous to a fault. She’s active and participates in any and all activities that could enrich her undergraduate experience. She had lofty aspirations so she travels internationally and tries to get internships at various prominent organizations. Unfortunately her field of study is narrow and doors are closing fast. Her field is in demand but only for the most seasoned workers. There’s no desire to invest scarce resources into building inexperienced people. She bounces from paid internship to paid internship until things get so bad that she ends up working at the mall, focusing on just making a living since building her resume has done little for her career prospects. As a result of her basic costs (which are relatively low given that she still lives at home), she is unable to make her student loan payments which go into default and double in size after capitalized interest and late fees. 8 years after graduation, she is still making minimum wage and owes more on her student loans than she borrowed.

Next time you see someone struggling, don’t assume that they’ve done everything wrong. It could very well be that the necessary opportunities for success didn’t present themselves.

Student Loan Update – September 2016

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Boy, has it been a while since I’ve blogged. It’s been a really busy summer for my family, and while some of our activities haven’t all been fun, these past few months have been really good for us, both on a personal and financial level. As I previously mentioned, we were working on getting our solar panels up and running and I have good news on that topic, but today, it’s about the thorn in the sides of millions of degree holders: Student Loans!

I decided that now would be a good time to do an  update as I am 3 months shy of the 1-year anniversary of when my loan went into repayment and 3 months past the 1-year anniversary of my graduation from Business School. I have been super aggressive about paying my loans as well re-amortizing my balance to update my minimum monthly payment and it has paid off. Here are the results.

12/18/2015 (initial terms) 3/29/2016 9/27/2016
Monthly Payment  $                  395.00  $                         305.00  $                         290.00
Principal Balance  $            39,748.00  $                   27,301.00  $                   24,656.00
Repayment terms 120 months 114 months 109 months
Interest Rate 5.41% 5.16% 5.16%

Monthly Payment: I have decreased my monthly payment by over $100/month in less than a year. I am free to continue making the $395 payment, however, the extra now goes towards paying down the principal which will save me a bundle on interest. It is particularly important for me to save money on interest (besides the fact that it’s good money habit), as my income rises and my ability to deduct the interest phases out. In addition to interest savings, if I run into difficulty and I need to redirect those funds elsewhere, that’s fine!

Principal Balance: That’s good old discipline and self-control at work. Every windfall whether it was a tax return, bonus or raise, it was directed to making payments in excess of principal. That’s a nearly 40% pay day and an average payment of over $1,600/month! Has it been easy? No, but I will reap the rewards 10 folds when I’m free in less than 2 years.

Repayment Terms: That’s how long my loan servicer planned for me to take to repay them: 10 years. I don’t think so. Besides a loan securing tangible, real assets, I will never have a decade-plus loan. I have not only cut my monthly payments, I have cut down on my official repayment time! The original terms were predicting I would be making my last payment in December 2025. The extra payments I made in as of March 2016 had cut that estimate by 3 months and put my final payment in September 2025. And that’s the servicer’s estimate, not accounting for any additional payments I might make. I’ll let you in on a little secret: we’re less than 6 months away from “tax season”, what do you think I’ll do with any refunds I may get?

Interest Rate: This one is easy and I can’t take any credit for it. By setting up automatic payments for the minimum amount due, they give you a discount of 0.25%, which will save me a bit more money over the life of the loan.

I hope your debt repayment plan is on track, and if you’ve fallen off the wagon, don’t worry. Better late than never. We’ve all stumbled.