Q&A: Why co-signing a loan, especially a student loan, can be a costly move

Dear Liz: I co-signed a student loan to help a 31-year-old woman complete her schooling to become a nurse. I know this was something I should not have done, but I just could not refuse her. I did not realize that because no payments had to be made until after the student’s graduation, the loan amount would double. I am looking into a life insurance policy on the student to protect my interest.

Is there any advice you can provide me other than paying off the loan? I know the student can complete a form to take me off this loan, but she will not qualify on her own.

Answer: She may not be able to take you off the loan now, but hopefully she can within a few years of graduation. Most private lenders will allow a co-signer to be removed from a student loan after a certain number of on-time monthly payments, typically 12 to 48. If she has good credit and a decent income, she also may be able to refinance this loan with another lender to get you off the note.

In the meantime, you’ll want to protect your credit, because a single missed payment can damage your credit scores. Contact the lender to find out what notice, if any, you’ll get if she falls behind on payments. Discuss with her the importance of making payments on time, every time, and ask her to contact you immediately if there’s any chance that won’t happen.

Just as many people don’t realize that they’re putting their good credit in the other person’s hands when they co-sign a loan, many also don’t realize what can happen if they take a lender up on its offer to defer payments until graduation.

The loan amount swelled because of something known as capitalization. Because payments aren’t being made, the unpaid interest is being added to the loan amount and dramatically increasing what the two of you owe.

If the loan were a subsidized federal loan, the government would pay the interest while the student was in school. With unsubsidized federal loans and private student loans like the one you signed, it’s smart to start making payments immediately to avoid capitalization and having to pay interest on interest.

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Q&A: Is it smarter to save for retirement or pay off debt first?

Dear Liz: I graduated from college in May and began a full-time job in October making $36,000. I also do freelance work and receive anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a month from that. I live at home, so I don’t have to pay for rent or groceries, which really helps. Currently, I have just over $18,800 in student loans at an average interest rate of 4.45%. I have also opened a Roth IRA.

My plan currently is to contribute $500 a month to my IRA in order to max it out, and pay $700 a month to my student loans in order to get them out of the way quickly. Or is it better to skip the Roth and put that extra $500 toward my student loans? That way, I would be debt free when I move out of my parents’ house next year. The stock market has done nothing but fall since I opened my account, and I am reading that it could do the same this year as well. But I have also read that it’s good to just keep consistently contributing to an IRA when your debt isn’t high-interest to reap the rewards of compounded returns.

Answer: It’s generally a good idea to start the habit of saving for retirement early and not stop. What the market is doing now doesn’t really matter. It’s what the market does over the next four or five decades that you should care about, and history shows that stocks outperform every other investment class over time.

The $6,000 you contribute this year could grow to about $100,000 by the time you’re in your 60s, if you manage an average annual return of around 7%. (The stock market’s long-term average is closer to 8%.) And Roth IRAs are a pretty great way to invest, because withdrawals are tax-free in retirement.

That said, your other option isn’t a bad idea either. You are not proposing to put off retirement savings for years while you pay off relatively low-rate debt, which clearly would be a bad idea. Instead, what you’re losing is the opportunity to fund a Roth for one year. That’s an opportunity you can’t get back — but you could fully fund the Roth next year, and perhaps use some of your freelance money to fund a SEP IRA or solo 401(k) as well.

Either way, you should be fine.

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