Q&A: Deploying a windfall wisely

Dear Liz: I recently received a $38,000 windfall. I have a student loan balance of $37,000. I want to buy a home, but I can’t decide if I should have a large down payment and continue paying down student loans slowly, or make a balloon payment on my student loans and put down a smaller amount on the home. The mortgage rate would be around 4% while the student loans are at 6.55%. The price of homes in my area is at least $250,000 for a two-bedroom house (which my income supports). I want to make a smart decision.

Answer: At first glance, the answer may seem obvious: Pay down the higher-rate debt. But a deeper look reveals that the second option may be the better course.

Student loan interest is deductible, so your effective interest rate on those loans may be less than 5%. If they’re federal student loans, they have all kinds of consumer protections as well. If you lose your job, for example, you have access to deferral and forbearance as well as income-sensitive repayment plans. In most cases, you don’t need to be in a rush to pay off this tax-advantaged, relatively low-rate debt.

A home purchase may be more time sensitive. Interest rates are already up from their recent lows and may go higher. If you can afford to buy a home and plan to stay put for several years, then you probably shouldn’t delay.

A 10% down payment should be sufficient to get a good loan. You’ll have to pay private mortgage insurance, since you can’t put 20% down, but PMI typically drops off after you’ve built enough equity. You usually can request that PMI be dropped once you’ve paid the mortgage down to 80% of the home’s original value. At 78%, the lender may be required to remove PMI. (Note that these rules apply to conventional mortgages and don’t apply to the mortgage insurance that comes with FHA loans.)

You can use the remaining cash to pay down your student loans, but do so only if you already have a healthy emergency fund. It’s smart to set aside at least 1% of the value of your home each year to cover repairs and maintenance, plus you’ll want at least three months’ worth of mortgage payments in the bank. Even better would be enough cash to cover all your expenses for three months.

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Use inheritance to pay credit cards, not mortgage

Dear Liz: I will be inheriting around $300,000 over the next year. My instincts are to pay down debt with this money. I have two homes and for practical reasons need to keep them. One home has a $260,000 mortgage balance at 5%. The other has a $130,000 mortgage at 4%. We have $35,000 in credit card balances. Some are telling us to invest. I think we should pay off all the credit cards and then pay down the larger mortgage by $100,000 or more. Am I on the right track?

Answer: Paying off your whopping credit card debt is a great idea. You need to figure out, though, what caused you to rack up so much debt and fix that problem. Otherwise, you’re likely to find yourself back in the hole.

Paying down a mortgage is a trickier proposition. Most people have better things to do with their money than prepay a low-rate, tax-deductible debt. Before they consider doing so, they should make sure they’re saving adequately for retirement, that all their other debt is paid off, that they have a substantial emergency fund of at least six months’ worth of expenses, and that they’re adequately insured with appropriate health, property, life and disability coverage. Those with children should think about funding a college savings plan.

If you’ve covered all these bases, then paying down and perhaps refinancing the larger mortgage makes sense.

Use windfall to boost retirement savings

Dear Liz: What would you suggest that someone do with $20,000 if the someone is closer to 40 than 30, single, with $100,000 of student loan debt and a $250,000 mortgage? My salary is around $100,000 a year. I have an emergency fund equal to six months of expenses and I make an annual IRA contribution since my employer doesn’t offer a 401(k) plan. Should I accelerate my student loan payments, since the interest isn’t tax deductible for me because my income is too high? Or should I invest instead? If I invest, should I put it all in a total market stock index fund or is that too risky?

Answer: Even if you’re making the maximum annual IRA contribution of $5,500 (people 50 and older can contribute an additional $1,000), you’re probably not saving enough for retirement. You can check the numbers using a retirement calculator (AARP offers a good one at its website, http://www.aarp.org). If indeed you’re coming up short, then consider opening a taxable brokerage account and earmarking it for retirement. You can use a chunk of your $20,000 windfall to get started, but also set up regular ongoing contributions.

The bulk of your retirement money should be invested in stocks, since that’s the only asset class that consistently outperforms inflation over time. If you try to play it too safe and avoid stocks, your purchasing power is likely to decline over the years instead of growing. A total market index fund with low expenses is a good bet for delivering diversification at low cost. But leaven your portfolio with bonds and cash as well, since these assets can cushion market downturns. All the returns that stocks give you in good markets won’t be much help if you panic and sell in a bad market. People who try to time the market that way often miss the subsequent rally, so they wind up selling low and buying high — not a winning way to invest.

If you don’t want to try to figure out an asset allocation, look for a low-cost target date fund. If you plan to retire in about 25 years, you’d want to look for a “Retirement 2040” fund.

Once you get your retirement savings on track, then you can start paying down that student loan debt. Target private loans first, if you have any, since they’re less flexible and have fewer consumer protections than federal student loan debt.

Windfall in your 50s? Don’t blow it

Dear Liz: I am 56 and will be receiving $175,000 from the sale of a home I inherited. I do not know what to do with this money. I have been underemployed or unemployed for six years, have no retirement savings and am terrified this money will get chipped away for day-to-day expenses so that I’ll have nothing to show for it. Should I invest? If so, what is relatively safe? Should I try to buy another house as an investment?

Answer: You’re right to worry about wasting this windfall, because that’s what often happens. A few thousand dollars here, a few thousand dollars there, and suddenly what once seemed like a vast amount of money is gone.

First, you need to talk to a tax pro to make sure there won’t be a tax bill from your home sale. Then you need to use a small portion of your inheritance to hire a fee-only financial planner who can review your situation and suggest some options. You can get referrals for fee-only planners who charge by the hour from the Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

You’re closing in quickly on retirement age, and you should know that typically Social Security doesn’t pay much. The average check is around $1,000 a month. This windfall can’t make up for all the years you didn’t save, but it could help you live a little better in retirement if properly invested.

You should read a good book on investing, such as Kathy Kristof’s “Investing 101,” so you can better understand the relationship between risk and reward. It’s understandable that you want to keep your money safe, but investments that promise no loss of principal don’t yield very much. In other words, keeping your money safe means it won’t be able to grow, which in turn means your buying power will be eroded over time.

Use windfall to pay down debt, boost savings

Dear Liz: I am closing a business deal that will net me just under $1 million. I have an interest-only loan on my home, two car loans and credit-card debt. My plan was to “clear the plate” and pay everything off, leaving me about $175,000. I am not worried about getting into further debt, as my wife and I are pretty grounded, but I wonder if I should be giving up the tax break of a mortgage. My wife and I make a fair income, so we will need advice on investment options as well.

Answer: You say you and your wife are “pretty grounded,” yet you carry a huge amount of debt, including a ticking time bomb of a mortgage.

Interest-only loans were quite fashionable in the boom years but make little sense for most people. That’s because the low initial payments ultimately reset much higher, as the interest-only period ends and the borrower must begin repaying principle.

Carrying credit-card debt is foolish as well, and a sign that you’re living beyond your apparently quite comfortable means.

Furthermore, you don’t say anything about your assets — whether you’re on track saving for retirement or if you have an adequate emergency fund. That would make a difference in how you should deploy this windfall. If your savings are inadequate, it would make sense to invest a good chunk of this money, even if it meant continuing to carry a mortgage. If you must have a home loan, though, it should be a traditional, fixed-rate version to avoid future payment shock.

The big danger is that you’ll pay off what you owe now, only to wind up deeper in debt in a few years because you haven’t changed your approach to money. Use some of your windfall to hire a fee-only (not fee-based) financial planner to review your situation. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org).