Category Archives: Dealing with Debt

Is college worth it?

Lately, there have been tons of headlines touting the idea that rising unemployment, high tuition costs, and overcrowding in the post-college job market have made college degrees a poor value. Proponents of this theory believe that other career tracks — such as internships and entry-level positions that don’t require a degree — may be a smarter idea to get students into the work force faster without spending thousands of dollars.

I think this Time article does a pretty good job of dispelling this theory:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, the median weekly earnings for someone with some college but no degree were $712, compared to $1038 for a college graduate. That’s almost $17,000 over the course of a year and there is an even bigger divide for those with less education. College graduates are also more likely to be in jobs with better benefits, further widening the divide. Meanwhile, in 2010, the unemployment rate was 9.2 percent for those with only some college and more than 10 percent for those with just a high school degree, but it was 5.4 percent for college graduates. The economic gaps between college completers and those with less education are getting larger, too.

These statistics paint a pretty obvious picture. It appears that college graduates are not only less likely to face unemployment, but their salaries are thousands of dollars higher than non-college grads.

That doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge that there’s a problem, though. As someone who personally made the foolish choice to unnecessarily borrow thousands for a college degree, I think college debt is a serious problem in this country.

That doesn’t mean I regret my decision to go to college. My college education opened doors for me. Not only did I learn valuable skills during my time at college, but I was able to find a job afterward that taught me even more valuable skills — and allowed me to support my husband and me while he earned a master’s degree, which is what allows him to pay our bills now. Do I regret the debt, though? You betcha.

You could argue that a college degree isn’t required for my freelance income. However, it’s unlikely I’d have the skills necessary to earn my freelance income without my degree and previous work experience. Not to mention, I don’t plan to be a stay-at-home mom indefinitely. When my youngest child starts school, I’ll be back in the job market. Depending on how many children we have, it could be a while, but I’m glad I won’t be starting college at that point like my mom did.

I think the question of whether college is “worth it” is silly. The more important question is whether college debt is “worth it.” And to me, the answer is no. The debt isn’t worth living beyond your means as a college student.

Skipping college isn’t the answer. The answer is skipping college debt (or at least as much of it as you can). Attend a state school or community college for all or part of your education. Apply for grants and scholarships. Work as much as you possibly can. Live frugally. Do not use student loans to subsidize your beer and pizza fund or buy expensive gadgets or a car you can’t afford. Work full time and attend school part time for longer than four years.

I’m not naive enough to claim that graduating with no debt is an option for everyone. I acknowledge that middle class students without a college nest egg often have limited options. As someone who attended a state school, worked two jobs in college, received financial help from parents, and still didn’t have enough to pay for tuition and living expenses, I understand that avoiding all debt may not be possible if you want to graduate in under a decade. But the point is to borrow as little as you possibly can — and the ideal is to borrow none.

If you’re a graduating senior, please trust me when I tell you — your first job will not pay you enough to make those student loans payments easy. But don’t feel discouraged enough to skip college all together. An education is absolutely worth the hard work required to pay for it — the debt, however, is not.

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Why I’m a money multitasker

Last week’s post about holding off on paying down debt sparked a little controversy in the comments. I wanted to clarify some of my views, because there seems to be some confusion about my financial philosophy.

First of all, I am not debt free. I have never claimed to be. Like most 25-year-olds, my husband and I both carry student loan debt. I’ve written about it before. I don’t regret a day of my education, but I do regret some of my financial choices during that time. But it’s done now.

My husband is a graduate student. I earn an entry level salary. We’ve been blessed with a few pay increases over the past few years, but our income remains pretty low by today’s standards.

When I started this blog, I was depressed about our financial situation. We had credit card debt, student loan debt, no savings, tuition to pay, and we still felt like we didn’t have any money left over for fun. I wanted to learn to save without sacrificing fun.

Since then we’ve adapted to spending very little money in our daily lives. We don’t eat out. We shop the clearance racks (when we do shop). We meal plan. We share a single vehicle. The result is that 30% of our income goes directly into savings. Another 10% of our income goes toward debt repayment.

As my husband prepares to graduate next month, and we prepare to close this chapter in our lives, we have been spending more than usual lately. After three years of frugal living and hard work to pay off credit card debt, build an emergency fund, save for our move, and save for our vacation, we are rewarding ourselves.

I did not ask for permission. I don’t think any of you should ask for permission from anyone when you make decisions about how to manage your money. The point of my blog — from the beginning — was for my husband and I to learn to live on less than our already low income so that we could have enough money to pay debt, save, and enjoy life. Those are my priorities.

I have never subscribed to the Dave Ramsey philosophy. I understand that it’s worked for many people. I admire them, and would never ever judge their choices. I’m happy for them, because they’re happy. But putting every single penny of my extra income toward debt repayment doesn’t make me happy. I don’t want to wait until I’m debt-free to have children, own a home, or see Europe. So I’m using some of my extra income to save for these goals while I pay down our debt.

I admire the commitment to debt-free living, I do, but there is room in my budget for more than that. Dave Ramsey’s baby steps philosophy is focused on one thing at a time — save, then pay debt, then save some more. Only after you’ve saved and paid debt is there room for fun. I just don’t believe that.

I come from the generation of multitaskers, and I think if you’re smart about your spending, you can do a lot even with a very limited salary — without increasing your debt. You can save money, have fun, and pay down debt at the same time. It will take a little longer, but it’s worth it to me. I will eventually be debt free. That low-interest debt will be there waiting for me when we get back from Europe. And we will pay it off — on our own terms and our own timeline.

What Dave Ramsey takes for granted is that we have all the time in the world. But what happens if you spend your young life doing nothing but saving and paying down debt, and then your life is cut short by tragedy? You’re left with no time to enjoy the riches you’ve accumulated. I’d rather multitask now and know that I won’t run out of time before I can enjoy the fruits of all that saving and hard work.

When we get home, it’s back to counting every penny, just like we have for the past three years. It’s back to saving for our goals through very limited spending. We can’t forget about why we’re doing this, though. We want to build a better life for ourselves, and sometimes that means spending a little money.

The whole point of budgeting is making your money go further. If there’s something you’ve been wanting to save for, don’t wait for permission. Start saving now. I think you’d be surprised at just how far your money goes if you spend carefully.

Photo by amagill

Why we chose to let debt-free living wait

Update: I just wanted to clarify something. We are currently repaying our student loan debt slowly but surely. Our loans are not in forbearance. We just aren’t focusing our efforts solely on debt repayment. We’re splitting our extra income between debt repayment and savings.

In January 2009, we paid off our credit card debt. Compared to some of the debt horror stories you hear, our amount was relatively low — it was about $4,000 left over from college overspending and car repairs. We paid it off in just over a year while Tony was a graduate student and I was working in retail. Money was very tight at the time, so we’ve always been proud that we were not only able to avoid increasing out debt at that time, but we were able to pay it off.

We’re not debt-free, though. Not even close. Between the two of us, we still have a huge chunk of student loan debt — to the tune of $50,000.

For the past year or so, we’ve continued to pay minimum payments on my loans. We haven’t even begun paying Tony’s debt back because his loans are deferred until he graduates.

So here’s my confession: for right now, paying off our student loan debt is not our #1 priority. And it probably won’t be for another 5 years.

When we were working to pay off our credit card debt, we weren’t using every penny of our extra income for debt-repayment. We knew we had a move coming up in a year, and we wanted to build an emergency fund because we wanted to start a family. We made the decision to split our income between savings and debt repayment.

Right after we finished paying off our credit card debt, our plan was to use that money to pay off our student loans. But when you’re living on a small income, there just isn’t a lot of money to go around. We realized that in order to reach our savings goals, we’d need to divert a lot more money into savings.

Then we started talking about Europe. Believe me, I know that in the frugal community, saving for a vacation like that with as much debt as we have is a no-no. But you know what? We didn’t want to wait until we were debt-free to live our lives. Sure, we could put every penny toward debt and really work to pay down those student loans right now. Even then, we’d be well into our 30s before they were paid off. By then we’ll have children, maybe even a house, and a lot more financial responsibility. We’ll hopefully have more income, too.

Does debt-repayment mean putting everything else on hold when you’re young? In my opinion, no. For some people, the rush they get from sending another huge payment to pay off debt is enough to keep them motivated. Not me. If we were using every penny to pay off debt right now, it would be so depressing for me.

Unless we magically double our income overnight, it’s going to take us years to pay off this debt. For years and years, our only focus would be debt repayment. I’m not going to wait to do and see the things I want to see. I’m not going to wait to start a family or save for a house. That debt is going to be there for a long time. I can’t wait that long to live my life.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a plan, though. There are just a couple things that are going to come first. When we get settled in Indiana, we’ll be in survival mode until Tony gets settled in a job. Then we’ll replenish our emergency fund. Then we’ll start saving for a house. Once we’re moved into a house, it will finally be time for us to put all of our extra money toward those debts.

This method isn’t for everyone. I’m sure many of you think it’s crazy for us to leave that debt alone for the next 5 years or so, accruing interest. When it’s time to pay it off, though, I plan to do it in about 5 years. Our plan is to buy a very modest starter home, which will help us put more money toward debt. It will be tough, but at least I’ll know that I’m not missing out on experiences in order to do it.

Photo by sgw

Should we pay off all debt before buying a home?


We’ve been doing some big planning again for the future. That’s always dangerous. :) But lately, we’ve been talking about a timeline for becoming homeowners.

The closer Tony gets to finishing school (about 17 months now), the more confident we feel that we want to live near family. We’re pretty set on starting our own family shortly after Tony finds a teaching job, and we don’t want to raise our kids more than a couple hours away from their grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Now that we’re pretty sure we know where we want to settle down, we’ve been bitten by the homeowner bug. We want a backyard where the dog can run, and we want more space of our own for our family. Our original plan was to rent a house when we move. Then I started looking at the cost of rent for even small houses.

I don’t know how much the market will change in the next couple years, but as of right now with our stellar credit history and low housing costs in the Midwest, a small, older home in Indiana would likely yield a lower mortgage payment than we’d pay to rent a comparable home, especially if we can save a chunk of change for a down payment. It just doesn’t make sense to me for us to pay more in rent than we would if we owned a home, especially since we don’t want to move again for a long time. We’ve spent the last 6 years of our lives moving way too frequently. We’re ready to just settle down and stay put.

The only problem is that we won’t be anywhere near paying off our student loan debt. In the past I had lofty dreams about paying down our student loans before even thinking about buying a home. But now I’m just not so sure.

Currently, our only remaining debt is $60,000 in student loans. It’s overwhelming, and when I think about trying to pay that down, save for a house, and survive all on one teacher’s salary, it feels impossible.

The plan was to move into an apartment, pay down that debt, and then start saving for a down payment for a home after that. I’m just concerned that on that plan we’ll be 35 before we can start saving for a home.

So we’ve been talking about an alternative plan: continuing to save as much money as we can, renting a tiny apartment for a year or so after we move to save even more money for a down payment, and then buying a home. Then we’ll work toward paying off student loan debt from there.

Even the tiniest apartment will be doable for just a year while we’re working toward the goal of home ownership. The longest amount of time we’d have to live there with a baby would be 3 months (and that’s under the unlikely circumstance that I got pregnant immediately after we start trying). However, I wouldn’t want to be cramped like that for the long term while we paid off student loan debt and saved for a house for 5+ years.

Right now we’re paying a little more than the minimum amount on the student loan debt, and that’s what we’d continue to pay while saving for a house. Now that we’re out of credit card debt, I feel okay about paying off the student loan debt slowly while we’re getting started. It’s going to take us so much time to pay off, I just don’t want to wait years to start working toward other goals.

What do you think?

Why I’m using credit cards again


Tony and I have been credit card debt free since January of this year. But for the past couple of months, we’ve started using our cards again every month.

Don’t worry, it’s not what you think. We still don’t carry a balance, and we probably never will again. But we also don’t want to leave our credit cards with a zero balance for longer than a month or so right now.

I’m sure you’ve heard about credit card companies reducing credit lines or even closing unused accounts. By not using your zero-balance credit cards, you may be targeting yourself for account closure.

As much as I hate that it works this way, your credit history is tied pretty strongly to your credit card history — especially if you’re like me and you’ve never had a car loan or a mortgage.

I opened my first credit card at 18 years old. I didn’t open another one until I was 23 years old. If my first credit card account was closed, it would shave 5 years off my credit history. Since length of history is a factor in determining your credit history and score, it’s likely mine would take a big hit.

Even though we plan to live as debt free as possible, I’m not against the idea of holding a mortgage or another car loan someday. If I want to get a low interest rate, though, keeping my credit history healthy is crucial.

To ensure that my accounts stay open, I’m using them a little bit here and there. Using credit cards at all can be a little dangerous, so I’m very careful to set boundaries.

  • I never use them to purchase things that I want, only regular needs that I would be spending money on regardless (gas, groceries, and other necessary purchases).
  • I pay the balance as soon as I receive the statement.
  • I budget for these purchases just like any other purchase. This is crucial. I’m not using my credit cards to sidestep my budget. They’re just another way to pay for regular purchases.

It’s definitely a hassle, and I wish we could get away with not using them at all. But unfortunately this is a reality of our current economy. I want to protect my credit history and credit score so that when we’re ready, we can qualify for a low interest rate on our mortgage or (maybe) car loan.

Photo by andresrueda

My biggest financial mistakes in college & what I learned

Now that I’m frugal, it’s hard not to look back on the choices I made in the past with regret. Luckily, I came to my senses pretty early in life. I could have done a lot more damage throughout my 20s if we hadn’t decided to change our lifestyle before we got married. But I’d be a lot better off if I’d avoided the mistakes I made in my teens and during college.

In the hopes that others may learn from my mistakes, here are the biggest financial mistakes I made before and during college:

I didn’t save for college.

I got my first part time job at 15 years old. I paid for my own car insurance and gas, but other than that I had no bills or responsibilities. I didn’t save a single penny. Where did my money go? I blew it on stuff that I didn’t need.

What I learned: Plan ahead for the things you want. We’re saving now so we can pay cash for our trip to Europe, we’re already saving for retirement, and we’ll start saving early for our children’s college educations.

I didn’t apply for scholarships.

I only applied for a couple scholarships. My grades were above average, and I was active in the school newspaper. If I had taken scholarships more seriously, I would have qualified for at least a few.

What I learned: A little extra work can save you a lot of money. Scholarship applications are the college equivalent of coupons, menu planning, and other frugal pursuits.

I took out private student loans to cover living expenses (and lived extravagantly).

My parents paid my rent, and federal loans covered my tuition. I was responsible for food, car insurance, and utilities. My job at the student newspaper took up a lot of time, but I managed to work part-time my junior and senior year. If I had worked more and lived frugally, I wouldn’t have needed to borrow high-interest loans. Now I’m stuck paying $20,000+ at 8%.

What I learned: Don’t borrow to live a lifestyle you can’t afford. It also taught me the importance of fully understanding all of my financial decisions before making them. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and now I’m paying the price. I wish I could take back my decision, but I’m stuck with these loans. Forever.

I ate out constantly.

At least 75% of the money I spent in college went to restaurant food. This wasn’t good for my bank account or my health.

What I learned: Eating out is expensive and unhealthy! Not only did I drain my bank account, but I gained weight. I appreciate how little we spend on food and how much healthier we are now that we menu plan and buy groceries.

I charged up credit cards and only made minimum payments.

Some of my credit card debt was due to a car that broke down every other week one summer. I didn’t have the money to pay for the repairs, but I had an “emergency” credit card.

Only $1,000 of my $5,000 in credit card debt went to car repairs, though. The rest? Couldn’t tell you. I have no idea where that money went. Probably pizza, clothes, DVDs, and bar tabs. I never missed a payment, but I only sent the minimum. It wasn’t until I graduated, after three years and who knows how much interest paid, that I got serious about paying them off.

What I learned: Plan ahead for emergencies and avoid credit cards. I lived in fear that my car was going to break down because I knew I didn’t have money to cover it. I feel so much better now with an emergency fund. It also taught me about interest rates. You can make minimum payments for your whole life and never make any headway. I’ll apply this lesson someday when we have a car payment and mortgage.

It could have been a lot worse. I had friends with twice as much student loan debt and $20,000 in credit card debt. Yikes.

What are the worst financial mistakes you’ve made and what did you learn?

A difficult decision about student loan repayment

Once we became credit card debt free, we had an extra $200 a month available. We decided to put some of that money toward retirement savings every month, so we only have $100 left to work into the budget.

Yesterday, Tony and I looked at our budget, and talked about where we’d like to put the money.

We have a huge amount of student loan debt (about $60,000 all told). My plan has always been to pay off credit card debt first, and then move on to my private student loans. Private loans account for about 1/3 of our student loan debt, but they carry about a 7% average interest rate. We also have about $40,000 in federal student loans with a much lower interest rate (about 4%).

When I think about all of that debt, I feel so overwhelmed. To make it easier on myself, I’m focusing on one loan at a time — for now the private loans (about $22,600).

I plugged some numbers into a loan repayment calculator to figure out some scenarios. The numbers are disappointing.

  • If we continue paying our current amount ($200 a month), it will take us 10 years to pay off my private loans.
  • If we put the extra $100 toward student loan debt (my original plan), it will be 8 years before the private loans are paid off.
  • Even if we could come up with $500 a month to put toward the private loans alone (while continuing to pay the minimum payment on federal loans), it would take about 4 and a half years to pay off just the private loans. Then we’d still have to pay off $40,000 in federal loans.

“Don’t worry,” people tell me. “Your income will go up.”

The problem is, it probably won’t. Right now I work full time, and Tony makes the equivalent of a part-time salary teaching. Sometime after he graduates, we want to have children. At that point, our roles will switch. He’ll bring in a full time salary, while I work part time (hopefully from home). So we’re looking at quite a while before we see a significant increase in our income.

Tony and I had a long talk about our short- and long-term goals. As much as I want to be debt free (and believe me, I really want to be debt free), at this point in our lives with our limited income and the economy a wreck, my gut is telling me that saving is more important.

Once we’re settled somewhere that we know we want to stay long term — and we have an emergency fund in place — our focus will shift. At that point, we’ll be able to put everything we have into debt. But for now, I want to have as much money stashed as possible.

So we made the decision to continue making minimum payments on student loans for the next year and a half while we beef up our savings. After that, we’ll reassess our financial situation. Hopefully we’ll have enough in savings that we can hold off on saving and shift our focus to debt.

I’m disappointed that we can’t do both, but I’m also confident in our decision. When I look at the difference an extra $100 a month will make in our savings, I feel calm and reassured. I don’t feel that same calm when I see the minor change in our debt that would result from paying an extra $100 a month on it for the next 18 months.

I also don’t regret putting $100 toward retirement every month. If we don’t plan for our future, no one else will. Putting $100 away for retirement every month makes me feel incredibly empowered.

The important thing is that we’re doing what works for us. The best part? Liquid savings is, well, liquid. If we change our minds, we can always pull that money out of savings and put it toward student loans.

Resolutions for another frugal year

I’m so excited about the year ahead! For the first time, I feel like I’m looking ahead with a clear set of goals and the resolve to actually achieve them.

In the interest of keeping myself honest, here’s what I hope to accomplish in the coming year:

  • Finish building our 6-month emergency fund. We’re a third of the way there now, but I hope to finish it by the end of the year.
  • Spend less than our budget. We’re doing a lot better than we used to, but we continue to go over budget by $50-$100 every month. Technically we’re not spending more than we make because we save at least $300 a month, but we’re cutting down our actual net savings by going over budget each month.
  • Make a dent in our student loan debt. Now that we’re credit card debt free, I want to really crack down on our spending and send every extra penny to our student loans so we can be completely debt free sooner.
  • Learn more at my job and grow my skill set. Someday when we have children, I’d like to work from home, so it’s important that I learn as much as I can now to build my credentials and qualifications.
  • Enjoy the present, and try to stop looking ahead to the next big thing. This is a constant work in progress for me. Planning ahead is essential to reaching long term goals, but sometimes my constant planning makes me lose sight of the present. I need to find a balance between appreciating what’s now and planning for the future.

What are your resolutions for the new year?

Starting the new year credit card free!

photo by b.franchina

This morning I sent my final payment to American Express. We’re officially credit card debt free!! In the past year, we’ve paid off almost $5,000 in credit card debt. I’m pretty proud considering how low our income was for a big part of the year. :)

Unfortunately, we still have quite a ways to go before we’re totally debt free — we have a combined total of about $60,000 in student loan debt. :( But we’re a lot better off than we were a year ago. Now I know what works, and I can apply the same principles to our student loan debt.

I’m hoping to have my $20,000 private loan paid off in 2 years. It’s a pretty lofty goal considering it took us a year to pay off less than $5,000 in credit card debt, but we have more income now and we’re getting better at frugal living.

The student loan debt is overwhelming, but I keep reminding myself that I once felt that way about my credit card debt. High balances and high interest rates made it feel impossible to get ahead. But I just kept sending those payments every month, watching the balance slowly decrease until it was manageable.

I’m looking forward to getting those student loans out of my life using the same method.