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Student loans aren’t handouts

Nov 14, 2012 | | Comments (6)

Dear Liz: I am increasingly annoyed by the entitlement attitude of today’s students. Why should the taxpayers (me) pay to educate somebody else’s children? I remember when there was no such thing as a student loan. If I wanted to go to college and didn’t have the money for tuition, I delayed starting college until I had worked for a year and saved up the money. Many of my friends did this, as did I. Now these kids stand around with their hands out looking for somebody to bring them their education on a silver platter. I wish you would say something about this in your column.

Answer: Let’s start with the obvious, which is that an education costs a heck of a lot more than it did when you were in college.

The College Board reports that a student attending an in-state, four-year public university needs to budget an average of $22,261 to pay for the 2012-13 year. Which means the total cost to get an undergraduate degree would be about $90,000, assuming he or she can get all the required courses in four years (something that’s increasingly difficult because of state budget cuts in education).

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there aren’t many jobs these days that would enable someone (particularly someone without a college degree) to save the full cost of a college education in a single year. Even someone who started out with two years of community college would need to budget about $8,000 for each of those years, according to the College Board, and the total cost of a four-year degree would still be around $60,000. Some people would pay less if they got a lot of financial aid or lived at home, but any way you cut it, the tab is much, much higher than it has been in decades past.

Something else has changed since you were a student, and that’s the importance of having a college education if you want to have a decent financial life and remain in the middle class. In your day, people without college educations — even those without high school diplomas — could find well-paying jobs. Those jobs have increasingly been phased out by technology or they’ve gone overseas. The manufacturing and technical jobs that remain often require at least some post-secondary education. Having a college degree is what having a high school diploma used to be — an essential entry-level credential in many fields.

Our nation and our economy need educated workers if we’re to be competitive in a global economy. It also would help to have an expanding pool of well-paid workers to pay taxes toward things like roads, defense, police and fire protection and Social Security, from which you presumably benefit.

This is why governments promote post-secondary education with a relatively small amount of grants for the needy, and a relatively large amount of loans for everyone else. The first federal student loans were part of the National Defense Education Act of 1958; today, most students borrow at least some portion of their education costs.

You see, most kids (and their parents) aren’t standing around waiting for a handout. Most financial aid these days comes in the form of loans, which have to be paid back. These loans aren’t necessarily cheap — the rate on a Stafford student loan is 6.8%, while graduate and parent PLUS loans have 7.9% rates (plus a 4% origination fee that’s deducted from each disbursement).

If students or their parents default, the government can garnish their wages, seize their tax refunds, take a chunk of their Social Security checks and trash their credit. There is no statute of limitations on federal student loans and only rare relief in Bankruptcy Court, so borrowers can be pursued to their graves for what they owe.

Yes, many families overspend on education and overdose on student loans. The majority, however, graduate with a reasonable amount of debt (about $26,000 on average) that can be repaid from their now-higher earnings. Student loans aren’t a handout — they’re an investment in both the graduate and our economy.

Categories : College, College Savings, Q&A
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How Social Security calculates your check

Nov 14, 2012 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I have been told over the years that your Social Security monthly benefit amount is computed using years closest to retirement. I have now been told benefits are calculated from your highest earning year in your working life. Which is true? I am 61 and unable to work more than part time for physical reasons, so now my income has gone down while I’m still contributing to Social Security from my earnings. Are my lower yearly earnings for the next couple of years going to lower my overall benefit when I do start drawing my benefit?

Answer: Your Social Security benefit is not based on either your earnings close to retirement or your highest-earning year. Your checks will be based on your 35 highest-earning years. That long period helps keep you from being too badly penalized if your earnings drop toward the end of your working career. You can find out more at http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/10070.html. You can estimate your future benefits with this calculator: http://www.ssa.gov/estimator.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: I am the single mother of four daughters, including one who has a serious heart condition that causes $10,000 to $30,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses each year. These medical bills have caused me to file bankruptcy twice, but the bankruptcies have not wiped out my student loans.

I have qualified for minimum payments and deferments a couple of times but have been on a payment schedule the vast majority of the time. The interest grows faster than I can keep up, and I keep getting deeper into the hole. I am now 51 and have over $45,000 in student loans. After a year and a half of being unemployed, and depleting my retirement funds to pay for COBRA health coverage, I finally found a job — I am making $30,000 a year working for a nonprofit as a social worker — but I still can’t make any progress on these loans.

The only program I can find is one in which I have to make payments, no matter how little I have, for the next 10 years if I continue to work for only nonprofits. No one can explain to me why all the money I have already paid, plus only working for nonprofits, plus my volunteer service over the years, doesn’t count for something. I am holding my breath hoping you might have some suggestions to share.

Answer: The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program you discovered is actually a fairly recent development. Before 2007, people in your situation didn’t have an option to have their balances erased.

It’s unfortunate you didn’t know about the program earlier, since if you’d signed up when it first became available you could be partway through your required payments by now and only a few years away from having your balance forgiven.

But better late than never. The program is ideal for those who have big federal student loan debts and small incomes. If you sign up for the “income-based repayment” option, your monthly payments will be limited to 15% of your “discretionary income,” defined as the amount of your income over 150% of the poverty line for your family. Since the poverty line for a family of five is $27,010 in 2012, your required monthly payment may well be zero. Even if your household is smaller, payments under the program typically are less than 10% of your gross income, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid and Fastweb financial aid sites.

If you didn’t have a public service job, your required repayment period would be 25 years — so you are receiving some credit for your service. Public service jobs include, among others, those in public safety and law enforcement, military service, public health, public education, public interest legal services, social work in public or family service agencies and jobs at tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations. Government employees also are considered to have public service positions, although interestingly enough, time served as a member of Congress doesn’t count.

Categories : College, Q&A, Student Loans
Comments (1)

Selling home could ease student loan burden

Nov 05, 2012 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: Your answer to the parents with $200,000 in student loans for their daughters’ educations was interesting — and cautionary. I wonder, since they mentioned refinancing their home, why not explore using their equity by selling the home and renting?

Depending on the amount they have in the home, they might be able to fund more retirement as well as reduce the loan balance. Also depending on the size of the mortgage, they might be able to rent for the same monthly amount or less. Presumably, their house was big enough for four, but now they could “live well with less.” And be more flexible.

Answer: The writer did mention getting a new mortgage, but didn’t say whether it was a refinance or a modification, or whether the couple had any equity in the home. Although a conventional refinance requires considerable equity, a mortgage modification or a refinance made through the government’s HARP program would not require that they owe less than the house is worth.

If they do have equity, it would be worth considering using at least some of it to alleviate their debt burden and supplement their retirement funds. If they don’t have equity, selling the house might still be an option if they could substantially reduce their living costs. Given that their income plunged by more than half, they would be smart to cut their expenses as far as possible to free up money to save for retirement and pay their debts. Taking such a big step down in their lifestyle might be painful, but it’s often to better to do so now rather than risk being old and broke.

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Dear Liz: My husband and I took out more than $200,000 in federal parent PLUS loans to pay for our two daughters’ college educations. My husband earned over $300,000 when the loans were made. Since then, he lost his job and now makes $100,000. I went back to work and earn $35,000. We finally succeeded in getting a more affordable mortgage, but we are taking about $3,000 out of our savings each month to pay the bills.

My husband handles the finances and says that even if we could lower our loan payments, it wouldn’t matter because we still have to pay forever. He can’t even think about retiring. We do have a financial advisor, but I’m very concerned and wonder whether we should be using our savings this way. What are our options?

(P.S. Our girls both graduated, although one doesn’t have a great job and the other is still looking for work.)

Answer: Parent PLUS loans can, in moderation, help families pay for their children’s college educations. The key phrase there is “in moderation.” Even at your former income level, taking on so much debt for your children’s educations was ill-advised.

You don’t have a lot of options, unfortunately. As you probably know, this debt typically can’t be erased in Bankruptcy Court. If you stop paying, the government can take your federal and state tax refunds, garnish up to 15% of any Social Security benefit payments and ruin your credit, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid and Fastweb financial aid sites.

“The government can also sue defaulted borrowers to recover the debt if they believe the borrower has sufficient funds to repay,” Kantrowitz said.

Ideally, you wouldn’t have borrowed more than you could have paid off before retirement (while still being able to contribute to your retirement savings). Since that’s not the case, your best strategy may be to simply get the payments as low as you can and resign yourself to paying this bill, perhaps until you die. (PLUS loans are canceled when the borrower dies and are not charged against the borrower’s estate, Kantrowitz said.)

As you suspect, it’s not a good idea to dip into savings to pay your monthly bills, especially when you’re doing so in the vague hope that things will get better rather than in the face of concrete evidence that they will.

There are several ways of stretching out the term of the loan to reduce your payments. One is using all available deferments and forbearances to suspend repayment for a few years. Then you could use an extended repayment plan to stretch out the loan term to 30 years.

Normally you wouldn’t want to take deferments and forbearances because interest continues to accrue, digging you into a deeper hole, Kantrowitz said. “But if the goal is to reduce the burden of the monthly payments and not ever fully repay the debt, it can be a workable strategy,” he said.

Another possible option for some families is an income-contingent repayment plan. Parent PLUS loans aren’t eligible for the more favorable income-based repayment plan, but income-contingent plans could lower your payments to 20% of your discretionary income, with the balance of the loans forgiven after 25 years of repayment. Discretionary income in this case is the amount of your income over the poverty line.

To qualify, you’d need to consolidate your Parental PLUS loans into a Direct Loan consolidation loan. You can find out more at http://www.loanconsolidation.ed.gov. Given your current income, though, you may be better off with the extended repayment plan.

 

Comments (7)

Delaying Social Security increases your options

Oct 29, 2012 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I’m confused by your answer about the “file and suspend” strategy for boosting Social Security benefits. You wrote that the higher-earning, younger spouse in this case had to wait until her full retirement age if she wanted to use this strategy to let her husband claim a spousal benefit while her own benefit continued to grow.

I was told by a financial planner and thought I had confirmed on the Social Security website that once I am 62 and my spouse is 66 (his full retirement age), I can file for and suspend my benefits, allowing him to claim my spousal benefit.

Answer: You’re confusing two different strategies. If your husband waits until his full retirement age to apply for benefits, he has the option of receiving a spousal benefit and allowing his own benefit to continue growing. But he can receive the spousal benefit only if you’ve applied to receive your own benefits.

If you’re younger than your full retirement age, you don’t have the option to “file and suspend” — in other words, to apply for your benefit and then suspend your claim so your husband can get benefits while yours continue to grow.

“The strategy of filing for retirement and suspending the retirement benefits to allow your spouse to collect is only available after full retirement age,” Social Security Administration spokesman Lowell Kepke said.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Are you ready?

Oct 25, 2012 | | Comments (1)

A big storm is threatening the East Coast, and my buddy Elizabeth Razzi had some good advice yesterday for getting ready:

 “From my experience, most important prep includes doing ALL the laundry, making milk jugs of ice for the fridge, clearing leaves from drains and having a good supply of ground coffee for the French press.”

At the same time, Ann Carrns over at the New York Times’ Bucks blog was wondering about “Keeping Cash on Hand, Just in Case.” Carns asked whether it might be prudent to have a stash of green in case hackers took down an ATM network. Of course, the more likely scenario is that nature will be the culprit: hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, blackouts and other disasters can make getting cash tough.

I’ve kept a stash of cash handy ever since I lived in Alaska, land of extreme weather and earthquakes. Up there, I also learned to keep a two-week supply of food, water and fuel at home, to carry emergency supplies in my car and to always keep the car’s gas tank at least half full. (You can learn more about emergency preparedness at www.ready.gov, among other sites.) Our supplies include camp stoves for cooking, since both gas and electric lines can get disrupted. You can get single-burner camp stoves for about $20 and propane cylinders for around $5.

We’re so used to modern conveniences, from a ready supply of electricity to a steady supply of ATM cash, that it can be hard to imagine what we’d need to survive life for several days without them. If you’ve ever flipped on a light switch when you knew the power was out, you know what I mean—our brains really aren’t wired for disaster. But taking a few minutes to gather some supplies, check flashlight batteries and tuck away a little cash can make getting through any disruption, by nature or otherwise, a lot easier.

What emergency preparations have you made? What do you still need to do?

Categories : Liz's Blog
Comments (1)

Dear Liz: Please make me feel like I’m doing the right thing. My daughter happens to be very talented academically and athletically. She will graduate from one of the best prep schools in the country. She also plays ice hockey and is being recruited by some of the best schools. However, we are of middle-class means. We were given outstanding aid from her prep school, which made it very affordable. The net price calculators of the colleges recruiting her indicate we won’t get nearly the same level of support.

We have a lot of equity in our home and about $25,000 total in college funds for both of our children (we also have a son in 9th grade). We make about $185,000 as a family and pay about 12% to mandatory retirement and healthcare accounts. I’m hoping by some magical formula we can beat the “calculator” but I’m not so confident. So please tell me that paying for an elite education is worth our sacrifices. Our daughter has worked very hard to put herself in a position to gain entry into these schools, but I just need an expert to make me feel better.

Answer: An expert who makes you feel better about buying an education you can’t afford isn’t doing you any favors.

So let’s do a reality check. The amount you have saved for both your children would pay for a little more than one semester at most elite schools, which run around $60,000 a year these days. If she finishes in four years, that’s a price tag of about a quarter of a million dollars.

Of course, most college students don’t pay the sticker price for college. They get some kind of help. You, however, can’t expect much of that help, since you’re really not “of middle-class means.” At your current income, you make more money than about 95% of American households. Financial aid formulas don’t particularly care that you may live in an expensive area or that you prioritized spending over saving, only realizing too late that you can’t afford the schools your daughter wants to attend.

The exceptions may be Ivy League schools, many of which have committed to capping tuition costs even for upper-income families. If your daughter gets into one of those schools, she may have a shot at an affordable education.

Other schools may be willing to give her “merit aid” to induce her to attend, especially if she’s an outstanding hockey player and they want outstanding hockey players. But you’ll still be left with a sizable bill and only one way to pay for it: borrowing, either from your home equity or via federal student loans. Your daughter can borrow $5,500 in federal loans her first year, but as parents you can borrow up to the full cost of her education from the federal PLUS loan program.

Which leads to the question: Is taking on up to a quarter of a million dollars in debt for an undergraduate degree a sacrifice or is it insane? Before you answer, consider that some research shows that students who are accepted to elite schools, but attend elsewhere, do just as well in life as people who actually attend those elite schools. (The exceptions are kids from lower-income families, who actually do get a boost in life from attending elite schools. Obviously, that doesn’t include your child.)

Also consider how you’ll feel about making payments of $1,800 a month or so for the next 30 years to pay for this education. And how you’ll feel telling your son, “Sorry, kid, we spent all the money on your sister. You’re on your own.”

The picture may not be as grim as all that. You may get a better deal from one of these schools than you expect. But you should start managing your daughter’s expectations now and look for some colleges you can actually afford in case the dream schools don’t come through for her.

Categories : College, College Savings, Q&A
Comments (11)

What’s a “must have”?

Oct 22, 2012 | | Comments (4)

Dear Liz: You’ve written frequently about the 50/30/20 budget, where no more than 50% of your after-tax income should be spent on “must haves” so that you have 30% for “wants” and 20% for debt repayment and savings. In which category would alimony fall? How about car payments?

Answer: Any expense that can’t be put off without serious consequences is considered a must-have. Since you could be sued or held in contempt of court for not paying your alimony, that would certainly qualify as a must-have. So too are all required loan payments, since failing to pay those will lead to credit card damage, possible lawsuits and, in the case of vehicles, repossession. Other must-haves include shelter costs, food, utilities, other transportation costs, insurance and child support.

Categories : Budgeting, Q&A
Comments (4)

How to help a friend with big debts

Oct 15, 2012 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I have a friend who owes $30,000 in credit card debt. I suggested he see a financial advisor who can help him to get out of this situation, but he never finds the time to do it. He pays all his bills on time, but only the minimum required, and there’s nothing left for him to save for his old age. He has a good-paying job but still struggles financially. How can we help him?

Answer: If your friend can pay only the minimum on his debt and can’t save for retirement, he’s in a deeper hole than he probably realizes. Many people in his situation wind up filing for bankruptcy, often after years of throwing money at impossible-to-pay debt.

Your friend should make two appointments: one with a legitimate credit counselor (referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org) and another with an experienced bankruptcy attorney (referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org).

The credit counselor will review his financial situation and see whether he qualifies for a low-interest repayment program that would allow him to pay off his debt within five years. The bankruptcy attorney will let him know whether bankruptcy might be the better option.

As a friend, you can pass these suggestions along to him, and even offer to go with him to one or both appointments if he’s comfortable with that idea. But you can’t force him to face reality or take any action until he’s ready to do so. One thing you definitely shouldn’t do is lend him money. He’s not managing the debt he has, and you don’t want your loan winding up with the rest of his bills in Bankruptcy Court.

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