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.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
Dear Liz: We have $130,000 invested in mutual funds, but the returns the last few years have been less than 4%. With the financial advisor taking 2% as a fee annually, we are not satisfied with the growth. A co-worker suggested buying blue-chip stocks with a strategy to hold and reinvest the dividends. If this is done in a self-directed plan to avoid the fees, we could be netting 4% plus. Is this a good plan or should we trust the advisor’s optimism that our returns will improve soon?
Answer: You don’t mention your age, your investment mix or your goals for this money. But if your portfolio isn’t doing significantly better this year — after all, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock market benchmark is up about 30% over the last 12 months — you have cause for concern.
Even if your returns were better, a 2% fee is pretty high. Small investors need to keep an eagle eye on costs, since expenses can have a huge effect on your nest egg. Paying even 1% too much could shave more than $100,000 off your returns over the next 20 years.
That doesn’t mean, however, that an all-stock portfolio is a better choice. Individual stocks typically are much riskier than a diversified portfolio of mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs).
What might make more sense is consulting a fee-only financial planner who can design a low-cost portfolio for you. You can get referrals to planners who charge by the hour at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.
Dear Liz: My credit score just dropped more than 100 points within 45 days. The only thing I can think of that might have caused it is a $46 medical bill that was paid by my flexible spending account. I have a confirmation that the bill was paid, but for some reason the bill went to a collection agency. How do I get my credit score back to 828? I just recently moved and need a good credit rating for numerous reasons, especially purchasing a home and a new car. I was just turned down for a credit card from the bank that holds my mortgage. I tried dealing with the original medical office that received my payment, but they said I have to talk to the collection agency.
Answer: Check first to see if the collection account is actually on your credit reports. Go to http://www.annualcreditreport.com, the only site that offers you free, federally mandated annual access to your credit files at the three major credit bureaus. Other sites may advertise “free” credit reports, but they often come with strings attached such as requirements that you sign up for credit monitoring. Sites that offer free scores typically aren’t providing the FICO scores that most lenders use.
If the collection account isn’t on your reports, something else may have caused the score plunge. Consider buying at least one of your FICO scores from MyFico.com, which will give you an explanation of why your score isn’t higher.
If you find the collection account on your records, however, you need to go back to the medical billing office and insist that someone fix this, said Gerri Detweiler, a credit expert for Credit.com.
“The bill did not magically turn up in collections,” Detweiler said. “Someone made a mistake and since it is their office that was the source of the mistake, they need to fix it.”
Detweiler recommends sending a certified letter explaining that the office has damaged your credit reports and that if someone doesn’t fix the mistake immediately, you will be talking to an attorney about a credit damage lawsuit.
“If the medical office placed it for collections, they can pull it back from collections,” Detweiler said. “It sounds like they are being lazy by refusing to help.”
If the office balks for any reason, you can follow up with an attorney (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates at http://www.naca.net). You also can send a certified letter to the collection agency explaining the mistake and insisting it be removed from your credit reports.
You should mention in the letter that you’re trying to get a mortgage and a car loan and that if you’re unsuccessful because of this error, you’ll be talking with a consumer law attorney. It would be helpful to include proof of the mistake, Detweiler said. In many cases, the collection agency will simply delete the erroneous information rather than face getting sued.
“They may not want to bother with it since it’s such a small amount and not worth risking a lawsuit over,” Detweiler said.
Dear Liz: My former employer is offering the one-time opportunity to receive the value of my pension benefit as a lump-sum payment. The other option is to leave the money where it is and get a guaranteed monthly check from a single life annuity when I reach retirement age. I am 40 and single, and I have been investing regularly in a 401(k) since graduating from college. I have minimal debt aside from a car payment. When does it make financial sense to take a lump sum now instead of an annuity check later?
Answer: Theoretically, you often could do better taking a lump sum and investing it rather than waiting for a payoff in retirement. That assumes that you invest wisely, that the markets cooperate, that you don’t pay too much in investing expenses and that you don’t do anything foolish, like raid the funds early.
That’s assuming a lot. Another factor to consider is that the annuity is designed to continue until you die. It’s a kind of “longevity insurance” that can help you pay your bills if you live a long life.
Some financial advisors will encourage you to take the lump sum, since they may be paid more if you invest it with them. Consider consulting instead a fee-only financial planner who charges by the hour — in other words, someone who doesn’t have a dog in this particular fight. The planner can walk you through the math of comparing a lump sum to a later annuity and help you understand the consequences of both paths. This is a big enough decision that it’s worth paying a few hundred bucks to get some expert advice.