How not to owe half a million in student loans

Most college students graduate with manageable student loan debt, but there are plenty of exceptions. Marketplace Money highlighted one case last week: the medical student who expected to owe nearly half a million in loans by the time he graduated. I was in the studio with host Tess Vigeland and senior producer Paddy Hirsch to talk to this guy and discuss his options, as well as the choices he made that led him into such whopping debt. You can listen to our conversation here.

One point that Tess made, and that I’d reiterate to anyone thinking about student loans, is that taking on debt is a choice. No matter what your financial situation or education goals, you don’t “have to” borrow gobs of money to pay for school. You can go to a cheaper school, serve in the military and pay for school with the G.I. Bill, or work while you study, among other choices. You reasonably may choose to borrow some money to get through college, but if you borrow more in total than what you expect to make the first year you’re out of school, then you’re borrowing trouble.

Our caller was in a bind since he’ll need to start paying back his loans while he’s in residency. But with federal loans, at least for now, he has the option of an income-based repayment plan that will ensure he has enough money left over to eat. Once he’s in practice, he should make somewhere around $300,000 a year, which will ease the pain of paying back all that debt.

Far too many borrowers aren’t as lucky. They’re unemployed, or never got their degrees, or owe far more than they’re ever likely to earn. Nobody warned them when they were 17 or 18 and beginning to sign up for this debt that it could dog them for the rest of their lives. Private student loans in particular should come with warning labels, since they’re like paying for college with credit cards–except, unlike credit cards, the debt can almost never be erased in bankruptcy court. Read “Wipe out your student loan debt,” my column for MSN on this topic, for more details about the differences between federal and private loans, plus strategies that can help you deal with your education debt.

 

 

Regulator targets mortgage servicers

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wants to “whip the mortgage servicing industry into shape,” as this post on The Consumerist puts it, and such action is long overdue. Mortgage servicers have been the choke point in the mortgage mess, often costing people their homes because of their inefficiency, inaction and indifference. The CFPB wants to increase transparency and accountability among servicers, which take people’s mortgage payments and pass them along, minus a small cut, to the loans’ owners. Here’s how CFPB head Richard Cordray put it in a speech today to Operation HOPE:

“This industry has never had a requirement, or a strong incentive, to meet the needs of consumers.  Even before the crisis, there were already problems with bad practices and sloppy recordkeeping. When the financial crisis hit, however, things got much worse…And instead of investing in new personnel and processes, too many mortgage servicers took short-cuts that made things far worse for homeowners in trouble.

Picture every bad customer service experience you have ever had: calls going unanswered, glacially slow processes, mistakes made and not fixed, a kaleidoscopic cast of human beings who never seem to deal with you more than once, your paperwork submitted and lost repeatedly.  Now, multiply that mountain of frustration exponentially, and you can begin to get an inkling of the scope of the problems that Americans face:  house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, and community by community.

And it is not just consumers who suffer.  Mortgage investors do not benefit from a broken system where servicers do not fulfill their obligations or make reasonable efforts to mitigate losses.  And this failed business model widened the pain of the housing crisis and destroyed an incalculable measure of consumer trust in financial businesses, perhaps in a lasting way.”

Cordray points out that consumers have absolutely no control over which company winds up servicing their loans and can’t walk away from bad service. He quotes Abraham Lincoln, who said, “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.”

Like everyone else who’s covered the mortgage industry, I’ve heard horror story after horror story from people given the runaround by their mortgage servicers. People have lost their homes, and investors have suffered far worse losses than necessary, because the servicing industry is so messed up.

The CFPB’s proposed rules won’t give people back the homes they’ve already lost, but it could prevent needless foreclosures in the future.

Find cheaper checking and ditch your bank

If you’re sick of rising bank fees, check out a new feature at NerdWallet that allows you to compare the costs of more than 120 different checking accounts across a spectrum of banks and credit unions.

You’ll answer a few questions about how you use your account, including the minimum balance you can maintain and how much you’ll deposit each month. The feature serves up the best matches based on your answers. If you have enough cash on hand to qualify for an interest-bearing checking account, the feature can help you find some good options.

You also might want to read a couple of my previous posts on this topic: “How to shop for a new bank” and “7 steps to say ‘buh-bye’ to your bank.”

Changing banks isn’t hassle-free, but you can save some decent money switching to an institution that actually wants your business, rather than punishing you for it.

Missing or bogus tax forms? Here’s what to do

A couple of my Facebook fans haven’t gotten their taxes done because they’re missing key forms–one has a W-2 that’s incorrect, while the other is missing a 1099-R.

These aren’t unusual problems, so I’m hooking you up with the resources you’ll need if you’re facing a similar situation. Here’s what to do:

Gather relevant information. In the case of a missing or incorrect W-2, you’ll want to have handy the employer’s exact name, address and Employer Identification Number (EIN) if possible. (You can find the EIN on a previous year’s W2, if you have that.) It’s also handy to know what the missing or incorrect form SHOULD say, if you have that information from your year-end pay stub or bank records.

Call the IRS at 800-829-1040. Expect to spend a fair bit of time on hold, as they’re a bit busy this time of year. In the future, you can call the agency if you haven’t received a form by Feb. 15 (in other words, don’t wait until the last minute).

Explain the problem. With missing or incorrect W-2s, ask the agent to open a Form W-2 complaint. You’ll need to fill out a Form 4852, which is a substitute W-2 you fill out using the information you have, such as a year-end pay stub. You can find the form and other information here. Missing 1099s often aren’t a big deal, since you don’t need to attach them to your form, with the exception of the 1099-R, which reports tax withheld on retirement plan distributions.

Expect this to delay your refund. If you can’t get a corrected form in time (which is doubtful, at this point), your refund may be held up while the IRS verifies your information.

You may need to file an amended return. If you get a corrected form after the tax-filing deadline and the amounts are different than the ones you entered on your form, you may have to file a 1040X amended return.

You could also consider filing for an automatic six-month extension. You’ll still need to pay any tax owed by April 17, and could face some penalties if you underpay, so use this as a last resort.

20 best cars for teens

My good buddy Des Toups has a nice piece at CarInsurance.com about the best cars for teens. He started with the 65 cars that made the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s 2008 Top Safety Picks list, then whittled them down to those with likely price tags of $15,000 or less, average or better reliability, and gas mileage of 20 mpg or higher. He also has some good suggestions for how to keep somewhat of a lid on insurance costs–although make no mistake: you are going to feel it deep in the wallet when you insure a teen driver.

The #1 car? An Audi. For the rest of the list, click here.

More mega millions madness: Money pros weigh in

Here’s a recent post from Credit.com where a bunch of us money types hold forth about the lottery:

Mega Millions Madness: Money Pros Weigh In (via Credit.com)

Let’s face it. When it comes to things like lottery jackpots, personal finance experts and writers tend to be wet rags. We usually put lottery ticket purchases in the same category of money sins as bottled water or spending $5 for a cup of coffee that can be brewed at home for 25 cents. But whom…

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You’re not going to win the lottery. But if you do, read this.

With so much talk about the record Mega Millions jackpot, I thought I’d throw in my two cents:

First cent: You’re not going to win. The odds are ridiculous.

Second cent: If you should win this or any other windfall, even a much smaller one, you’ve got some work ahead of you.

If you’ve never had money, you may not realize how much effort it takes to manage it wisely–and not lose it. You don’t want to wind up like the folks featured in SmartMoney’s “Why lottery winners go bankrupt“–lottery winners who went bust, or even to jail.

So here’s my MSN column “You won the lottery. Now what?” When you don’t win, you can still read it for advice about what to do should any major windfall enter your life.

The weekly round-up

Spring break starts tomorrow for my kiddo, so I won’t be hanging out at the computer–we’ve got some serious goofing off to do. Therefore, I’m posting links to some stuff I hope you’ll find interesting, by myself and others, a day early.

Bob Sullivan of MSNBC posted a very scary column about how “Hackers turn credit report websites against consumers.” This one’s a must read.

GoBankingRates.com posted my column “Biggest Myths About Credit Scores.” We know so much more about  how these formulas work than we did a decade ago, but some of the same myths persist. Falling for any of these could cost you.

Fox Business picked up Jodi Helmer’s piece for CreditCards.com “Seven Easy Ways to Go Green with Your Finances,” to which I contributed a thought or three.

Donna Freedman’s latest for MSN, “A cheap death: Donate your body,” may take frugality a touch too far for some, but it could be just the ticket for those who want to benefit science and education while avoiding big burial costs.

Are you pregnant, or hope to be so soon? You might want to check out the baby planner created by “Generation Earn” author Kimberly Palmer. You can find the link, and read about the soon-to-be mom that Palmer’s advising, at Daily Worth’s Money Fix 3.

My MSN column this week “Lose your house, get socked by the IRS?” is about the coming expiration of the Mortgage Debt Relief Act, which protects homeowners from facing a tax bill after they lose their homes to foreclosure or short sales.

Want to know more about Roths? Check out these links

Nearly 150 bloggers so far have contributed posts to the Roth IRA Movement, which financial planner Jeff Rose organized after speaking to a group of college seniors and discovering none of them knew what a Roth was, or how important it was to their financial futures. (It’s “the best thing since sliced bread,” and really, really important, as you can read in my post “Young and broke? Open a Roth.”)

You can read Jeff’s post here, which is also where you’ll find links to the other 146 (so far) posts. That’s probably more about Roths than anyone can absorb, so here are a few good ones to start with:

Studenomics: “Read This if You Want to Retire Before 70.” An excellent, clear guide to why it’s so important to contribute to a Roth while you’re young.

House of Rose: “I Opened My First IRA Account. Age 22.” The blogger’s personal story of early enlightenment.

Parenting Family Money: “Opening a Roth IRA for a Child.” An early start is good; an even earlier start is better.

Bible Money Matters: “10 Reasons Why I Love The Roth IRA (And Why You Should Too).” If this doesn’t convert you to the wisdom of a Roth, what will?

Amateur Asset Allocator: “Roth IRA: How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.” This blogger wrote a sonnet. Seriously. You must read this.

Lauren Lyons Cole: “How To Pay Taxes Like the Rich.” Why has no one given financial planner Lauren Lyons Cole her own TV show yet? She’s delightful, and hits the highlights of the Roth in a two-minute video.

Please share these links with your friends and anyone you know who isn’t already contributing to a Roth. Help us get the word out about this wonderful vehicle for future financial independence.

Save money. Don’t multi-task.

The barista had to ask three times for her order before the woman finally responded. She’d been so busy nattering away to her friend in line that she didn’t notice she was now at the front.

And the fun wasn’t over. When it was time to pay, the woman pulled out her wallet and dug fruitlessly inside, opening the same compartments over and over, all the while keeping up the nonstop chatter.

As the seconds ticked passed and the line grew, what started out as vaguely annoying became absolutely absurd. The barista looked at me, the next person in line, and widened her eyes in exasperation.

I shrugged. I was just grateful I’d encountered this person in a coffee shop rather than on the road, where she probably thinks she can drive while talking on the phone just fine.

Obviously, she can’t. None of us can. Multi-tasking is a myth, and only works when both the things you’re trying to do are brain-dead simple–like folding laundry and watching TV. Anything more complicated, and you’re likely to do one or both things far worse than if you’d concentrated on a single task.

But multi-tasking isn’t just stupid. It can be expensive. Consider:

  • Talking on a cell phone while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk. You’re four times as likely to be in an accident.
  • Texting while driving raises your chances of an accident by 20 times.
  • Not only are you risking injury and death–and the injury and death of others–but you’re just begging for a nice juicy lawsuit. As Nolo Press puts it, “plaintiffs have argued (and some courts have agreed) that a driver was legally at fault for the accident (“negligent,” in legalese) because the driver used a cell phone immediately before or during the collision.”
  • If a plaintiff’s attorney can successfully argue that a phone call is distracting, think how much easier his or her case will be if you were texting–which any idiot knows you shouldn’t do in a car.
  • Even if everybody walks away without stunning medical bills, you can bet your life your auto insurance rates will skyrocket.

It’s not that hard to turn off the phone and put it away when you drive. You’ll drive better, and you could save yourself a fortune.