Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Federal loans are paused until 2021 – should you pay anyway? Also in the news: A new episode of the SmartMoney podcast on pet costs and extreme couponing, what to know about the coronavirus charges on your college bill, and the tough choices renters are facing.

Federal Loans Are Paused Until 2021 — Should You Pay Anyway?
Federal student loan payments are suspended interest-free through the end of 2020.

Smart Money Podcast: Pet Costs and Extreme Couponing
The costs of our furry friends.

What to Know About Coronavirus Charges on Your College Bill
Some colleges are charging for testing.

Renters must make some tough choices in the coming weeks: What to do if you’re at risk
Ways to fight evection.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Money moves to help you feel more in control. Also in the news: How to renegotiate your bills to save money, ways for renters to cope in the financial crisis, and how to protect yourself before your federal student loan servicer changes.

Feeling Out of Control? These Money Moves Could Help
Regain control by revising spending, boosting savings and focusing on daily actions instead of long-term outcomes.

How to Renegotiate Your Bills to Save Money

Renters at Risk: Ways to Cope in the Financial Crisis

Protect Yourself Before Your Federal Student Loan Servicer Changes

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 8 ways to keep your travel credit card working for you. Also in the news: How being neighborly can save you money, why new federal student loans are getting cheaper, and to save more for retirement, add this to your budget.

8 Ways to Keep Your Travel Credit Card Working for You
Making sure your card is pulling its weight.

How Being Neighborly Can Save You Money
Borrowing tools and beyond.

New Federal Student Loans Are Getting Cheaper
Interest rates are dropping.

To Save More for Retirement, Add This to Your Budget
Making savings a line item.

Q&A: The downside of federal student loans

Dear Liz: Are federal student loans turned over to a collection agency still collectible after 20 years?

Answer: Yes. Very much so. There is no statute of limitations on federal student loans, which means collectors can come after you until you pay or die, whichever comes first. Statutes of limitations on most other types of debt limit how long you can be sued. Federal student loans also typically can’t be erased in bankruptcy.

Those aren’t the only ways federal student loans differ from other debt. The government can seize your tax refunds or take part of your wages without going to court. Even Social Security benefits aren’t protected, as they are from other creditors.

So it makes sense to dig yourself out of this debt if you possibly can. You can find out how to do so at the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid site (studentaid.ed.gov).

Don’t pay for student loan help

Customer Support liarI just got another recorded call from a woman who cheerfully told me that my student loans had been “flagged” to qualify for a new federal program, just approved by Congress, to help me pay my debt. The fact that I’ve never had a student loan is, surely, just a minor detail.

People fall for these scams all the time, paying good money to get help they could have found for free. Right now, there’s a free student loan hotline you can call to get your questions answered and find out about your options. It’s available today, tomorrow and Thursday from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. Eastern. Check it out at The Borrowers Hotline.

If you miss the hotline window, you can find answers to your questions at the U.S. Department of Education and at Student Loan Borrower Assistance, a site run by the National Consumer Law Center.

 

How not to drown in student loan debt

DrowningI recently talked to yet another recent grad who owes six figures for an undergraduate degree. The ease with which young people can drown themselves in debt makes me furious.

And a lot of young people are having trouble paying this debt. The exact number of struggling borrowers is a bit of a mystery, as I wrote in this week’s Reuters’ column, “Confusing data flummoxes fixing of student loan defaults.” But it’s safe to say a sizable portion of borrowers is having trouble paying down their education debt.

A college education, or at least some post-graduate education, will be a virtual necessity if you want to remain in the middle class in the 21st century. But believing that any investment in any education will pay off is naïve. The thing is, the colleges know better, or at least their financial aid staffs should. But their vested interest in selling educations typically means they don’t step in or even offer warnings as their teenage and twenty-something students pile on ridiculous amounts of debt.

Here’s what I wish every college student and every parent knew:

1. You should stick to federal student loans. These loans have fixed rates, tons of consumer protections and most importantly, limits on how much you can borrow. You typically can only borrow $5,500 for your freshmen year. You typically can’t borrow more than $31,000 for an undergraduate education. That makes it virtually impossible to take on too much debt as long as you get the degree. Can’t afford the education you want with just federal loans? Then you need to look for cheaper schools.

2. Steer clear of private student loans. Honestly, these loans should have warning stickers plastered all over them, like cigarette packs. The rates are typically variable, there are few options if you can’t afford the payments and you can borrow far more than you could ever repay. They should only be considered if the total amount you’ll borrow in both federal and private loans is no more than you expect to make your first year out of school.

3. Mom and Dad should not risk their retirement. Federal parent PLUS loans have some of the advantages of federal student loans. The rates are fixed and there are some repayment options (parents can choose extended, graduated or income-contingent payments, but not income-based or “Pay as You Earn,” the most helpful payment plans for overburdened debtors). But unlike federal student loans, there aren’t reasonable limits on what you can borrow. Parents’ ability to repay isn’t taken into account, and they can borrow up to the full amount of their child’s education. That’s a recipe for disaster. Parents should consider borrowing for college only if they’re able to comfortably repay the debt AND continue saving adequately for their own retirements.

4. You should get through school as fast as possible. If Mom and Dad are paying the bill in cash, then you can afford to party, pack your schedule with electives and switch majors 10 times. If your future self is paying the bill via loans, then you need to get your act together. Get help—find a mentor or advisor who cares about you enough to set you on the right path. The place to look is among your school’s best teachers. Ask around, because these teachers get talked about; take their classes; ask for their help.

 

Student loans may be better than home equity borrowing

Dear Liz: I am almost finished with my associate degree at my local community college and will be starting my undergraduate degree in January. I have been lucky enough to accrue no college debt so far but know I will when I start my bachelor’s degree. I am considering taking out a home equity loan to cover this cost, borrowing around $10,000. I got a great deal on my house and it continues to grow in value even with this economy. Your thoughts on this?

Answer: Home equity loans are actually more expensive than most federal student loans. Home equity loan rates for people with good credit range from 7% to 9% in many areas, while the current rate for direct, unsubsidized federal student loans is 5.41%. Furthermore, home equity loans aren’t as flexible and have fewer consumer protections than federal student loans.

You may initially get a lower rate on a home equity line of credit, but these variable-rate loans easily could get more expensive as interest rates rise.

Not only do federal student loans offer fixed rates, but they provide many affordable repayment options plus deferrals or forbearance if you should lose your job or run into other economic setbacks. You don’t have to demonstrate financial need to get federal student loans, although people with such needs can get subsidized loans with a lower interest rate. Your college’s financial aid office can help you apply.

Retiree burdened with unpayable student loan debt

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you fielded a query from parents whose son took out student loans in the mother’s name. You wrote, “If your only income is from Social Security and you don’t have any other property a creditor can legally take, you may be ‘judgment proof,'” which means “a creditor wouldn’t be able to collect on a judgment against you.”

I understand this advice was meant for the mom. But could it equally apply to the borrower who benefited from the loan?

In my case, I will be 70 next year and my only income is Social Security. I owe about $80,000 in private student loans and about $80,000 in federal student loans. I can’t afford to pay either loan. Is there hope for me to get out from under this burden by being judgment-proof? Right now, I can’t afford to see a bankruptcy attorney. It is a struggle just to pay the rent and put some food on my table.

Answer: You can’t afford not to see a bankruptcy attorney. Federal student loan collectors have enormous powers to collect, including taking a portion of your Social Security check.

The concept of being “judgment proof” applies to collections of private student loans. Collectors for those loans may be held at bay if you are, indeed, judgment proof. But you really want an experienced bankruptcy attorney to review your situation to make sure that’s the case. Fortunately, many bankruptcy attorneys offer free or discounted initial sessions. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org.

In case you missed it: the youth edition

Cut up cardsSpurning credit cards means younger people have less toxic debt but they may be doing inadvertent damage to their credit scores and costing themselves money. Learn more in “Why young people hate credit cards.

Read some smart answers to the awkward questions your kids may ask about family finances in “One way money is a lot like sex.

You’ve probably read that student loan rates doubled on Monday, but that’s not quite true. Read “Student loan rates: Facts amid the fictions” for the straight scoop.

Have a great weekend!

Student loan rates: facts amid the fictions

Paid education. Graduate cap on bank notesStudent loan rates aren’t about to double, despite the headlines.

Only rates for newly-issued, subsidized federal student loans are set to rise July 1 from 3.4% to 6.8% because Congress couldn’t get its act together to prevent the increase.

Loans that have already been made won’t be affected. Neither will there be an impact on unsubsidized federal student loans, since those already carried a 6.8% rate, or on PLUS loans for graduate students and parents, which have a 7.9% rate.

Subsidized loans traditionally got lower rates because the borrowers have demonstrated financial need. But subsidized loans also charge no interest:

  • while the student is still in school at least half time
  • for the first six months after the student leaves school and
  • during an approved postponement of loan payments.

Those are powerful advantages not available on unsubsidized loans, which is what you get when you can’t demonstrate financial need.

College expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy points out in her MoneyWatch column that the doubling of subsidized loan rates actually won’t have an outsized impact:

The hike will mean that a borrower will spend less than $7 a month repaying that extra interest, according to Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of Edvisors Network and a national financial-aid expert. Keeping the subsidized rate at 3.4 percent would cost the government $41 billion over 10 years, which is a high price to pay to save borrowers a few dollars a month.

Kantrowitz has said it’s unlikely that higher interest rates would dissuade many from attending college, and he would rather see the money go toward increasing Pell grants for the neediest students, which would do a lot more to encourage them to get a degree. Here’s what he had to say in a New York Times op-ed piece co-authored with O’Shaughnessy:

But the partisan posturing is a distraction from far more pressing issues that face students and parents who must borrow to cover their college costs. What’s lost is how Congress, in numerous ways, has been hurting the most vulnerable college students and dithering on the crisis of college affordability….Congress has starved the Pell grant program, an educational lifeline for low-income families.

He goes on to question why most student loan rates are so much higher than the government’s cost, something that’s turned education debt into a profit center for Uncle Sam. Congress also hasn’t done anything about the suffocating student loan debt many graduates have already taken on or the continuing (if somewhat moderated) increase in education costs. Private student loans remain especially problematic, since they lack the consumer protections of federal student loans and many lenders have been unwilling to work with borrowers to create affordable repayment plans. I’ve argued that we should give bankruptcy judges the power to modify private student loan terms as a way of forcing lenders to play ball.

Nobody wants to pay more interest, but there are bigger problems with the way we pay for higher education than a hike in the subsidized student loan rate.