Here are savvy strategies for dealing with loans, plus ways to get ahead on your retirement savings. Q: I'm a 27-year-old married medical student and new mom who has taken out $120,000 in student loans, $35,000 of which I have in cash. Instead of applying the money toward future tuition, my husband and I are thinking of buying a condo, which we'd rent out to earn extra income until I finish school. We own our house and pay our bills using my husband's salary. Does our strategy make sense?
A: Not to me it doesn't. How do you expect to come up with $35,000 when you need to write a check for tuition again? And when you say "buy" a condo, does that mean you plan to pay in full or merely offer a substantial down payment? I also wonder if you own your home outright or if, like most 20-somethings, you have a mortgage. The point is, $120,000 in student loans plus mortgages on your home and a new investment property would saddle you with too much debt.
If you are certain you won't need the money you've borrowed for tuition (and your emergency fund and retirement savings are on track), your first goal should be to pay down any existing school debt that has a variable interest rate. By the time you graduate, these loans could cost more; the Federal Reserve has indicated it intends to keep interest rates low only through mid-2015. Frankly, I'd rather you use extra cash to pay down fixed-rate school loans as well.
I'd also advise you and your husband to buy 20-year level-term life insurance policies, since each of you is vulnerable should something happen to the other. You're completely dependent on his salary; he may have to repay your privately held loans, which aren't necessarily forgiven when the borrower dies. At your age, a $1 million policy would probably cost around $50 a month. That's a healthy investment for the future of your family.
Q: I suffer from Lyme disease, and I'm undergoing naturopathic therapy, which isn't covered by my health insurance. So far I've spent more than $35,000 out of pocket. I feel a bit better, but I anticipate two more years of costly treatments. I've already exhausted my savings and maxed out my flexible spending account for the year. Would you suggest that I withdraw from my retirement account (I've saved $110,000), buy supplemental health insurance, or take out a personal loan?
A: I'm so glad you are on the mend; recovery from Lyme disease can be a long, slow, and—as you note—expensive process.
Even though you're strapped for cash, I'd advise you not to touch your 401(k). It just isn't smart to repay a loan with after-tax dollars only to have that money taxed again when you withdraw it during retirement. And finding a supplemental insurance policy that would cover you might prove difficult given your preexisting condition.
So what are your options? For starters, ask your naturopath to let you spread your payments over an extended period. Also take advantage of a tax break Uncle Sam offers: When you file an itemized return, you can deduct medical expenses that exceed 10 percent of your adjustable gross income (AGI). Let's say your AGI is $75,000. That means you can write off out-of-pocket payments in excess of $7,500. (Check out IRS publication 502 for a list of qualified expenses.)
As far as borrowing goes, a personal unsecured loan can be costly. Interest rates depend on where you live, how much you request, how long you need for repayment, and your creditworthiness. Some lenders now charge 10 percent or more.
You may want to consider a fixed-rate home equity loan (HEL) if you own your house. Let me stress that I'm not talking about an adjustable home equity line of credit (HELOC), which is too risky given that today's low rates will certainly rise. A credit union like Pentagon Federal offers solid HEL deals, including a fixed interest rate under 4 percent. (Anyone can join PenFed with a donation to a designated military nonprofit.)
Another option is to request a loan from a friend or family member. As with any loan, you must pay interest. (Google "simple promissory note" to find examples of how to draw up a deal.) If someone has more than eight months of savings in an account earning less than 1 percent, they may welcome the chance to let you borrow their surplus funds at 5 percent interest. Both parties win: You borrow at a reasonable rate, and your lender earns a great return.