Good Debt vs Bad Debt: Key Characteristics

Not all debt is bad! The specific definitions of good debt vs bad debt will vary from person to person. For people who plan to retire very early and live on a limited income or for people who know that they have a hard time paying their bills either for lack of money or organization skills, most debt is likely to be problematic.  For other people, taking on debt is less of an issue.

One of my followers was thinking of expanding his business and was concerned that taking on debt would be harmful. As part of helping him with his thinking, I identified general characteristics that distinguish good debt vs bad debt. He ended up selling his business instead of expanding it, but I am sharing my insights in this post. These characteristics may not apply to your particular situation, so be sure to think about them in the context of your own situation and temperament.

Characteristics of Bad Debt

Here are five characteristics of debts that I would consider bad.

You Don’t Understand the Terms

Loans and other sources of borrowing, such as credit cards, all have different terms. It is important that you understand the terms of your debt. For example, some loans, mortgages in particular, have adjustable rates. That is, the interest rate that you pay on your loan will change as a benchmark interest rate changes. If the benchmark interest rate increases, your loan payments will also increase.

Credit cards also can have interest rates that change. A teaser rate is an interest rate that applies to credit card debt for the first several months to a year. After that initial period, the interest rate charged on credit card debt can be very high.

Another example of a loan provision that can be problematic is a balloon payment. Some loans, including some mortgages in the US and many mortgages in Canada, have balloon payment provisions. For the initial period of time (often five years for Canadian mortgages), you make payments on your loan as if you were re-paying the loan over 30 years. However, at the end of the fifth year, the entire balance of the loan is due. The Canadian mortgage I reviewed requires the lender to re-finance the loan at the end of the fifth year, but at an interest rate that reflects the then-current interest rate environment and your then-current credit rating. In effect, that loan has an adjustable interest rate that depends not only on a benchmark interest rate but also changes in your credit score.

I consider any debt for which you don’t fully understand the terms, best avoided by reading the entirety of the loan document, as bad debt.

You Can’t Afford the Payments

When you enter into a loan agreement, you will be provided with the amount and timing of loan payments. With credit cards, the payments are usually due monthly and are a function of how much you charge and the card’s interest rate. Any debt that has payments that don’t fit in your budget is bad debt.   I would even take it one step further and say that any debt that has payments so high that you aren’t able to save for emergencies, large purchases and retirement is bad debt.

High Interest Rate

Some types of debt, such as credit cards and payday loans, have very high interest rates. The definition of a high interest rate depends on the economic conditions. Currently (around 2020), I would say any interest rate of more than 8% to 10% is high. By comparison, when I was young in the early 1980s, the interest rate on a 10-year US Government bond was more than 15% and mortgage rates were even higher.

If you have debt with high interest rates, you will be better off re-paying them as quickly as possible as you can’t earn a high enough investment return on any excess savings to cover the interest cost. That is, the investment return you can earn on the money, especially after tax, is going to be less than the interest rate you pay on the debt. In that case, it doesn’t make financial sense to invest any excess cash but rather you will be better off by using any excess cash to pay off the debt.

Depreciating Collateral

In many cases, debt is used to purchase something large, such as a boat, a home or a car. When you make a large purchase, the item you bought is considered collateral and the lender can take the collateral if you don’t make your loan payments.

The value of some items goes down (depreciates) faster than the principal of the loan. If you default on your payments when that happens, the lender is allowed to make you pay the difference. Determining whether your purchase is something that will retain its value or will depreciate quickly is a good test of whether it is financially responsible to use debt to make the purchase. If not, I would consider the purchase a poor use of debt.

No Long-Term Benefit

Many other purchases for which debt, such as credit cards and payday loans, is used have no long-term benefit. For example, if you buy a knick-knack for your home with a credit card and don’t pay the balance when the credit card is due, you will be paying interest for something that has no long-term benefit to you. I consider using debt for items or experiences with no long-term benefit to be bad.

There is a gray area. If you use debt to buy clothes that are required for your job, the clothes themselves don’t have a long-term benefit, but they could be considered as creating the ability to go to work and earn money.   As such, while I would normally consider clothes as a poor use of debt, I can see how work clothes that allow you to increase your income might need to be financed for a month or two on a credit card.

Characteristics of Good Debt (vs Bad Debt)

The first requirement of good debt is that it doesn’t have any of the characteristics of bad debt. That is, good debt:

  • Has terms you fully understand.
  • Fits in your budget, especially if your budget also includes saving for retirement, large purchases and an emergency fund.
  • Is one that has a reasonable interest rate.
  • Isn’t backed by depreciating collateral.
  • Is used for something with long-term benefit.

There are many ways in which a debt can create a long-term benefit. I’ve mentioned buying clothes required for a job that allows you to earn money, in particular a lot more money than the cost of paying off the debt.

Your Primary Residence

Most people borrow, using a mortgage, to purchase a home.   The market values of homes generally increase over long periods of time, though there are periods of times when the market values of homes decrease. In addition, there are a lot of carrying costs of owning a home, such as insurance, property taxes, maintenance and repairs. However, by owning a home, you don’t have to pay rent which, in theory, covers all of the costs of home ownership.

I think that buying a house is a good use of debt as long as the mortgage meets all of the criteria identified above. Although not specifically related to the use of debt, you might want to think carefully about buying a home (with or without debt) if you plan to live in it for only a short period of time. The transactions costs of buying and selling a home are high and you increase the likelihood that the value of the house will decrease if you own it for only a few years.

Your Car

Using debt to buy a car is also quite common. If you are using the debt to cover the cost of your only mode of transportation and you need it to get to work, it can be a good use of debt. Again, you’ll want to check that it has the other characteristics of good debt identified above.   Using debt to buy a car that is more expensive than you need or leads to loan payments that are higher than you can afford is not as good a use of debt.

Your Education

Many people use student loans to pay for college. From an economic perspective, student loans can be either good or bad. The criteria for evaluating the student loans are:

  • Will the increase in your wages will cover your loan payments?
  • Will you earn enough after graduation to allow the loan payments to fit in your budget?

For example, let’s say you can earn $30,000 a year if you don’t go to college and $40,000 if you get a degree. If you borrowed $50,000 a year for four years at 5% with a 10-year term, your payments would be more than $25,000 per year.

First Criterion

Over the term of the loan, your increase in wages ($10,000 per year) is less than your loan payments. Over your working life time, the return on your investment in your student loans is about 3.5%. The return on investment is positive, so the use of debt could be justified using the first criterion.

Second Criterion

It might be very difficult to cover the $25,000 of annual student loan payments on annual wages of $40,000 a year. If you are willing and able to live on $15,000 a year until your student loans are re-paid, they could be considered a good investment economically.

A smaller amount of debt or a larger increase in salary will improve the economic benefit of student loans. If you are considering student loans to finance your education, you’ll want to look at their economic costs and benefits carefully.

Your Business

When you start your own business, you often need to invest in one or more of equipment, inventory or a place to run your business.  Many people borrow money to make these initial investments. Starting a profitable business can be a very good use of debt, as it provides you the opportunity to increase your net worth. However, 30% of businesses fail in the first year and 50% fail in five years, according to the Small Business Administration, as reported by Investopedia. If you borrow money to start a small business and it fails, you will often still be liable for re-paying the debt, depending on whether you had to personally guarantee the loan or if the business was able to procure the loan.

Investing

There are at least a couple of ways you can use “debt” to invest.

Don’t Pre-Pay Your Debt

The most common way to use debt to invest is to invest extra money rather than using the money to pre-pay your mortgage or other debt. Whether it is good or bad to use this “debt” to increase your investing depends on several factors and your financial situation:

  • The longer the term on your debt, the better the choice is to invest instead of pre-paying your debt. If your loan payments only extend over a year or two, it is more likely that your investments will lose money making you worse off than if you pre-paid your loan. Over long periods of time, your investment returns are more likely to be positive.
  • The lower the interest rate on your debt, the better the choice it is to invest instead of pre-pay your debt. If the interest rate on your debt is higher than you can expect to earn on the investments you would buy (after considering income taxes), you will almost always be better off pre-paying your loan. If your interest rate is low, e.g., less than 3% or 4%, you are more likely to earn more in investment returns than the interest cost on your debt.
  • You have another source of income to make your loan payments if your investments decrease in value. For example, if you were planning to retire in the next few years, pre-paying your debt is more likely to be a better decision than investing. On the other hand, if you plan to have other sources of income besides your investments for the next 10 or more years, you might be better off investing rather than pre-paying your debt.

Investing on Margin

Another way you can use debt to invest is to buy your investments on margin. Under this approach, you borrow money from the brokerage (or similar) firm to buy your investments using your existing invested assets as collateral. In many cases, you can borrow up to 50% of the value of your existing assets. So, if you have $100,000 of stocks, you could borrow $50,000 to make additional investments.

The drawback of buying investments on margin is that the lender can make you re-pay the loan or a portion of it as soon as the value of the assets you own (the $100,000 of stocks in my example) decreases to less than twice the amount you’ve borrowed. Unfortunately, the amount you borrowed may have decreased in value at the same time while the amount you borrowed as stayed constant. As such, buying investments on margin is considered very risky and should be done only by people who fully understand all of its ramifications.

Final Thoughts on Good Debt vs. Bad Debt

Debt, when used carefully, can greatly improve your life and your ability to earn money. However, if you take on too much bad debt, it can lead to significant financial problems. This post has provided a framework to help you decide whether any debts you have or are considering are likely to be good debt vs bad debt.

6 Ways to Slay Your Student Debt This Year

Slay-Student-Debt

From Susie Q: I’m not as familiar with student debt as I am with the other topics on which I write, so was pleased to accept this guest post from Kate Underwood.  Kate is a freelance writer and staff writer for Club Thrifty, a website dedicated to helping people dream big, spend less, and travel more.  With Kate’s permission and approval, I’ve interspersed some comments and numerical examples in italics to expand on a few of her points.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that we’ve got a bit of a student loan crisis on our hands. The amount currently owed by borrowers isn’t in the billions…nope, it’s actually past the $1 trillion mark!

Chances are, you don’t want to be saddled with your own student debt forever. Debt can hold you back from buying a home, starting a family, traveling the world, and other exciting parts of life. Don’t let student loans ruin your dreams – it’s time to start slaying your student debt this year.

Think it’s impossible? Check out the following ways to attack your student loans with a vengeance.

Follow A Budget

A budget is an essential financial tool that gives a job to every dollar you earn. Get yourself on track by making and following a smart budget. Be sure to account for all necessary expenses, including your student loan payments.

Balance out how much you’re earning with how much you’re spending (and don’t spend money you don’t have). When you’re stuck with student loan debt, it’s key to eliminate luxury spending. Put every spare dollar, after necessities, into paying off your loans.

While it’s tempting to overspend when you get your first “real” job, it’s a bad move. Don’t make the mistake of financing new cars or spending too much on stuff you don’t need. Living within – or below – your means could make a big dent in your student debt. Just live like a college kid for a little longer.

Susie Q adds: For a more detailed discussion of how budgets can be helpful, check out this post or start here for my week-by-week guidance on creating a budget using a spreadsheet template I’ve provided.

Trust me, it’ll be worth it! The faster you pay off your loans, the sooner you can get started building wealth and planning for your next big goal!

Start Repayment Right Away

That little grace period from your lender is appealing, but don’t hang out there too long. The sooner you can begin repayment, the better.

Even during the grace period, interest accrues for many types of loans. So, while you’re allowed to postpone repayment for a time (usually 6 months), it’s prudent to begin repayment as soon as possible.

Susie Q adds: As an example, if you have a $30,000 balance on a 5% loan with 15 years left in the term and don’t defer your payments during the grace period, your payments will be $237 a month. You’ll pay a total of $12,703 in interest over the life of the loan. If you make the same payments and defer your loan, you’ll pay an extra $1,628 in interest payments and extend your loan by 13 months (6 months of grace period and 7 months of extra payments to cover the extra interest).

Pay Extra Each Month

Once you know what your minimum payment amount is every month, don’t get too comfy with it. If you push yourself to increase that amount by even $25 or $50 more each month, you could destroy those loans much faster! At the very least, round up to the nearest $10 or $50 mark. So, a minimum payment of $62 could be rounded up to $70 or $100.

Just be sure that, if you’re making extra payments, they’re applied to the principal, not the interest. If you’re in doubt, talk directly to your lender or loan provider to find out how you can go about doing this.

Susie Q adds: Using the same example as above, if you don’t defer your loan for the grace period and round up to $250 a month, you’ll save over $1,000 as you’ll pay only $11,676 in interest and will pay off your loan a full year earlier.   You can include your student debt in your debt repayment strategy to figure out how much you can pre-pay each month, as discussed in this post.

Another tip: make biweekly payments rather than monthly. After one year, this simple step will add up to having slashed an extra month’s payment off your total. However you choose to set it up, paying more than the minimum will lead to student loan freedom sooner!

Refinance Your Loans

One strategy for paying off your loans faster is to refinance your student loans. The general idea is that if you refinance to a lower interest rate, you’ll end up paying less over the life of the loan. Plus, you can pay them off faster, since you won’t owe as much in interest! Win-win!

A couple of factors to beware of: you usually don’t want to refinance if your credit score has taken a recent hit. That will likely only get you a higher interest rate – you definitely don’t want that! Also, if you plan on utilizing student loan forgiveness programs, you typically need to stay away from refinancing. Most of the forgiveness programs will disqualify you if you’ve refinanced.

If you’re unsure about how to go forward with refinancing, Credible is an online loan marketplace that can make that decision easier. Compare interest rates for which you may qualify with different lenders in order to make the best choice.

Susie Q adds: Using the same example as above, if you are able to re-finance your loan at 3.5% and continue to make the same $237-a-month payment, you’ll save over $5,000 as you’ll pay only $7,485 in interest and will pay off your loan almost two years earlier. This savings will be offset by any fees you need to pay when you re-finance your loan.

Now, if you’re such a rock star that you plan to pay off the full balance within a really short time, like 2 or 3 years, refinancing might not be worth the trouble. Just pay those babies off and be done with them!

Start A Side Hustle

One of the best ways to pay off any debt fast is to increase your income. I’m a big proponent of side hustles. You can make extra cash to pay down debt and side hustles are often super flexible with your other responsibilities.

If you’re looking to begin your own side hustle, you can check out these work-from-home jobs and see which might be a good fit. The possibilities are nearly limitless, so be creative and think about your skills and things you enjoy doing anyway.

You could start doing freelance writing or blogging from home (our favorites!). Or start selling your to-die-for cakes for special occasions. Try your hand at bookkeeping, photography, or proofreading or any number of other ways people are raising their income.

Susie Q adds: For more ideas about ways to increase income or reduce expenses to help free up money to reduce your student loan debt, check out this post. Also, if you decide to pursue a side hustle, you’ll want to make sure you don’t spend more money than you earn!

Just imagine how much extra money you could throw at your student debt by starting a side hustle!

Use Employer Benefits

Some companies are looking to build positive relationships with employees by offering student loan repayment assistance. So, before you decide to take a job, it might be beneficial to ask if it offers this option. If you’ve already signed on to work somewhere, talk to your HR department to see if it’s available.

You should also explore various government student loan forgiveness programs. Though it’s extremely important to follow all of their rules to be eligible, if you’re working in a career field that allows you loan forgiveness, you might as well go for it!

A piece of advice: save enough during your repayment period that you could pay the entire loan balance off just in case the forgiveness doesn’t come through! Most applications for forgiveness so far have been rejected, so those borrowers are still on the hook for the full balance.

Say Goodbye to Student Loans Fast

Debt sucks. You know you don’t want to keep your student loans around forever, so use any and all of these tips to slay your student debt as fast as you can!

 

 

 

When Is It Good to Pay Off Student Loans

 This week, I’ll conclude the case study about Mary and her savings.  Her last question focused on whether to pay off her student loans.  The considerations include:

  • The interest rate on her loans.
  • How many more payments she has.
  • What she can earn if she doesn’t pay off her loans.
  • Her risk tolerance and other cost-benefit trade-offs.  

To help set the stage, I created a fictitious person, Mary, whose finances I use for illustration.

  • Mary is single with no dependents.
  • She lives alone in an apartment she rents.
  • She makes $62,000 per year.
  • Mary has $25,000 in a savings account at her bank and $10,000 in her Roth 401(k).
  • Her annual budget shows:
    • Basic living expenses of $40,000
    • $5,000 for fun and discretionary items
    • $10,000 for social security, Federal and state income taxes
    • $4,000 for 401(k) contributions
    • $3,000 for non-retirement savings
  • Mary has $15,000 in student loans which have a 5% interest rate.
  • She owns her seven-year-old car outright. She plans to replace her car with a used vehicle in three years and would like to have $10,000 in cash to pay for it.
  • She has no plans to buy a house in the near future.

Mary's-Savings-Infographic

I’ll explain how she decides what to do and then will conclude with a summary of the benefits of all of her decisions. As a reminder, Mary has $10,000 of student loans outstanding at a 5% interest rate.  She has 5 years of payments remaining, so her monthly payment is $189.  She has $25,000 in total savings and has already decided to set aside $13,000 for emergency savings and $5,500 for her car.  These decisions leave her with $6,500 for long-term savings and paying off her loan. There are several different approaches Mary could take to pre-pay her student loans. In her case, she could pre-pay up to $6,500 with her savings. Alternatively, she could pre-pay her students loans more slowly using one of the methods in this post.

Should I Pay Off the Principal on my Loans?

Simple Answer

Instead of investing her long-term savings, Mary could use some of her savings to pre-pay her loans.   When you pre-pay a loan, it is the equivalent to earning a return equal to the interest rate on the loan.  I’m sure that analogy sounds weird.  To help make more sense of that statement, consider the following thought process:

  • You don’t pre-pay your student loan.
  • You loan the money you have available to make pre-payments to someone else at the interest rate on your student loan. The loan to the other person also returns your principal at the same rate you are paying principal on your student loan.  The return on the loan that you made to the other person is the same as the interest rate on your student loan because that is what you are charging the other person.
  • When you combine your student loan payments and the payments you get from the loan you made to the other person they offset and you have no net cash flows.
  • If you pre-pay your student loan, you also have no net cash flows.

As you can see, pre-paying your student loan puts in you the same situation as if you didn’t pre-pay your student loan and you loaned that money to someone else at the same interest rate.  Therefore, the return on the money you use to pre-pay your student loans is equal to the interest rate on the loans. In Mary’s case, she has student loans on which she pays 5% per year on the outstanding balance.  The simple approach to answering Mary’s question is that it makes sense for her to pre-pay her loans if the after-tax interest cost on the loans is higher than the after-tax return she could earn on the money if she invests the money in financial instruments with the same level of risk.

What is Risk?

Risk is the volatility in the returns on a particular financial instrument, as discussed in more detail in this post.  If you buy a Treasury bond[1]and hold it to maturity, you are pretty much guaranteed that you will earn the yield to maturity[2]at the time you buy it.  If you buy an S&P 500 index fund (a form of exchange traded fund or ETF), the long-term average return is around 9%, but the returns can vary widely from one year to the next.  In fact, the S&P 500 return was outside the range of 0% to 18% in half of the years from 1951 to 2017.[3]

Risk of Pre-paying a Loan

There is no volatility in the return Mary gets from paying off her loan.  In all scenarios, it will be the interest rate on the loan.   As such, the simple approach will tell Mary she should pre-pay her loan if her interest rate is higher than she can earn on a Treasury bond with the same time to maturity as her loan, after adjusting for the difference in the tax rates.

Complex Answer

There are several benefits to Mary if she pays off the loan, including:

  • The sense of relief that she no longer has to make the payments.
  • Extra cash in the future she can either save or spend.
  • Improvement in her credit score.

On the other hand, Mary is so eager to start investing in something other than risk-free instruments which she can do if she doesn’t use all of her available savings to pre-pay her loan.  That is, Mary has the choice between taking the risk that she will lose money (if she doesn’t pre-pay her loans) and not having the opportunity to start investing (if she does pre-pay her loans).  Her view on this choice is called her risk toleranceRisk tolerance is an individual decision. To make this comparison, Mary needs to know or decide:

  • At what return can she invest the money if she doesn’t pre-pay her loans?
  • What is the tax rate applicable to the investment returns she would earn?
  • Is the interest on her loans tax-deductible?
  • If she can deduct the interest on her loans, what is her marginal tax rate?

After-tax Return by Paying Off Loan

In the US, you can deduct up to $2,500 of student loan interest as long as your income (measured using a value calculated on your tax return called modified adjusted gross income which, for Mary, is essentially her wages) is less than $65,000 for an individual.[4]  Mary’s state uses the same rules as the Internal Revenue Service.   Her total interest is below $2,500 and her income is below $65,000, so the entire 5% interest is tax-deductible.  Mary’s marginal tax rate (the percentage she will pay on the next dollar of income) is 25% including state income taxes.  We can calculate the after-tax cost of the loan as the interest rate times the portion she keeps after she pays taxes (= 100% – the tax rate of 25%): 5% times (100% – 25%) = 3.75%

After-tax Return of Treasuries

Mary’s combined Federal and state tax rate on a Treasury bond is the same as her marginal Federal tax rate (20%) as Treasury bond interest is exempt from state tax.  As I write this post, the yields on US Treasuries of between one and five years are all right around 2.7%.[5]  She can calculate the after-tax return on a Treasury bond as: 2.7% times (100% – 20%) = 2.2% Because the after-tax interest rate on her loans of 3.75% is higher than the after-tax return on a risk-free US Treasury bond (2.2%), the simple approach would tell use she should pay off her loan.

Expected After-tax Return of S&P 500 Index Fund

Mary will consider an S&P 500 index fund (a form of exchanged-traded fund that is intended to track S&P 500 returns fairly closely) as a risky asset in which to invest any money she doesn’t use to pre-pay her loan.  Mary’s combined Federal and state tax rate on the S&P 500 index fund is 20%.[6]  She can calculate her expected[7]after-tax return on the S&P 500 index fund as: 8.9% times (100% – 20%) = 7.1%

Cash Flow Comparison

Mary isn’t quite sure she knows what the differences in the returns mean to her.  She therefore calculated the total amount of interest she will pay in the future if she pays off her loan immediately ($0) and if she pays it off as scheduled ($1,323).[8]  She then calculates the total expected return she would get if she invests in her savings account, Treasuries and the S&P 500 index fund between today and the time each loan payment is due.  She also adjusts those returns for the tax payments she will make and the reduction in her taxes she will get if she makes the interest payments on her loan.  She summarizes her findings in the table below.   As a reminder, these values are the total amounts she would pay or earn between now and the time she has made all of her loan payments.

Option

Future Interest Payments

Average Future Investment Returns

Average Future Taxes

Average Cash from $10,000 in 5 Years

No Pre-Payments, Leave in Savings

1,323

0

-331

-992

No Pre-Payments, Invest in Treasuries

1,323

676

-195

-451

No Pre-Payments, Invest in S&P 500

1,323

2,383

146

914

Pre-Pay 100%

0

0

0

0

As you can see, on average, she will earn $2,383 if she invests in the S&P 500, leaving her with $914 at the end of five years once all her loan payments have been made and after consideration of interest payments on the loan and taxes.[9] If she pays off her loan immediately, she has no future interest payments or investment returns, so she has no cash from investments in five years.  If she puts the $10,000 in savings or Treasuries, she is worse off than pre-paying her loan because the average cash she will have in five years (the fourth column) is less under these two options than if she pre-pays the loan.  These findings are consistent with the calculations presented earlier about the expected yields – she is better off if she doesn’t pre-pay her loans and earns the expected return on the S&P 500 and worse off using the returns on a savings account or Treasuries.

How to Think About Risk

Looking at the table above in isolation, Mary might conclude that she should not pre-pay her loan and, instead, invest in the S&P 500.  However, as noted above, the S&P 500 returns are volatile or risky. That is, she will not earn the average return in every single year.  To try to get a view on how much risk she will take if she takes this approach, Mary asked me for some help.[10]  Because modeling future stock returns is very difficult, I chose to use historical returns to provide Mary some insights.  I downloaded the monthly prices of the S&P 500 from January 1951 to August 2018 from Yahoo finance.  I then created all of the possible five-year time series of S&P 500 prices to use as returns over the time Mary will make loan payments.  I explained to Mary that there are many flaws in this approach, but that it can help inform her decision nonetheless. The first risk metric I calculated is how much money would she lose if the stock market had the worst returns of any five-year period in the historical data.  I calculated that she could lose $3,592. The second and third metrics I calculated were the percentages of the time would she be better off investing in the index fund than if she (a) didn’t pre-pay her loan and invested the $10,000 in Treasuries or (b) pre-paid her loan today.  That is, out of all of the possible five-year periods, would the cash she had after she paid off her loan be greater than (a) $-451 or (b) 0[11]?  Using the historical returns on the S&P 500, she was better off investing in the S&P 500 than Treasuries 73% of the time and better of than pre-paying her loan 65% of the time.

Other Options

Mary decided that $3,592 was too much to lose in the worst-case scenario.  She then considered pre-paying only a portion of her loan and investing the rest in the S&P 500 index fund.  To help her understand how much she might want to pre-pay, I repeated my analysis assuming she pre-paid of each of 25%, 50% and 75% of her balance. To put these results in perspective, I created a graph that showed the average amount of money that she would have (the x or horizonal axis) as compared to the least amount of money she would have, using the historical returns on the S&P 500 (the y or vertical axis).  Here’s my graph.

There is a lot of information in this graph, as follows.

  • First, let’s figure out the axes.
    • The horizontal axis is the average cash Mary will have after she pays off her loan. Higher numbers are better so anything to the right is better than anything to the left.
    • The vertical axis is the cash she will have after she pays off her loan in the worst-case scenario from the historical data.Again, higher numbers are better so, in this case, anything that is higher on the graph is better than anything lower on the graph.
    • These concepts are illustrated by the arrow pointing to the upper right and the words next to it.
  • Next, we’ll look at the dots. I plotted a dot for each of the options she is considering.  The first part of the label for each dot tells in what she will invest with the money she doesn’t use to pre-pay her loan.  The second part of each label shows what percentage of the loan she pre-pays.
  • I added lines connecting the dots in which she invests in the S&P 500.
    • All of the dots corresponding to investing in the S&P 500 have average cash after she pays off her loan that is positive (to the right of the y-axis). The less of her loan she pre-pays, the higher that average (further to the right on the graph).
    • These same dots all have negative values for the worst scenario (the one with the least cash after she pays off her loan).The more of her loan she pre-pays, the less she loses in the worst-case scenario (further up on the graph).
    • These lines form something called an efficient frontier. For each of the values of the average cash at the end of five years, the efficient frontier identifies the least bad result in the worst-case scenario.   That is, there are no points to the right of or above the efficient frontier in this chart.
    • When making a choice among the options, Mary will want to pick an option on the efficient frontier. If she picks one of the other options, the average cash will be higher for some other option with approximately the same worst-case scenario result.  For example, let’s look at putting her money in a savings account.  The average and worst-case results are both $-992.  If she pre-pays 75% of her loan and invests the rest in the S&P 500, the average result is $58 (to the right on the graph – the good direction) and the worst-case result is $-1,083.  So, she can have a slightly worse worst-case result and a somewhat higher average cash after she pre-pays 75% of her loan.
    • The choice of option along the efficient frontier is one of personal preference as defined by your risk tolerance. Mary needs to decide how much risk (in this case measured by the worst-case result) she is willing to take in order to get the higher return (in this case measured by the average result).

Mary’s Decision

The last consideration in Mary’s decision is how much cash she has available to pre-pay her loan.  While she has decided she really likes the characteristics of the option in which she pre-pays of 75% of her loan, she has only $6,500 in savings available and would very much like to start investing.  She decides to pre-pay 50% of her loan or $5,000. She will put the remaining $1,500 in a Roth IRA.[12] The historical data indicate that 64% of the time, she will be have most cash in five years than if she was able to fully pre-pay her loan today and an 84% chance of having more cash in five years than if she doesn’t pre-pay the loan at all and invests in Treasuries.  These two options are the risk-free options, the riskier option she has chosen has a high probability of putting her in a better position (based on historical S&P 500 returns) and she gets the benefit of starting to invest.

Summary

To recap, here are the answers Mary selected to her questions.

  • Should I start investing the $25,000 in my savings account? ANSWER:  Mary decided to move all of her money out of her savings account.  Mary set aside $13,000 for emergency savings.  She put half of her emergency savings in a high-yield checking account so she is sure to have instant access to it and half in a money market account.  This decision gives her an average return of 1.275%, as compared to the 0.06%[13]she was earning on her bank’s savings account.
  • Should I have a separate account to save the $10,000 for the car? ANSWER:  She allocated $1,500 a year from the money identified for savings in her budget over the next three years for her car.  To meet her $10,000 goal, she had to designate $5,500 of her current savings for the car.  Rather than create a separate account for the car savings, Mary bought a certificate of deposit earning 3.4% to distinguish those savings from her other savings.
  • Should I pre-pay some or all of the principal on my student loans? ANSWER:  Mary considered how much of her savings was available after allocating money for her emergency and designated savings and the risks and rewards of different options. She decided to pre-pay $5,000 of the principal on her student loans.  This decision saved her 5% interest on the portion she pre-paid.
  • What are good choices for my first investments for anything I don’t set aside for my car or use to pre-pay my loans? ANSWER: Mary chose to invest her long-term savings ($1,500) in an S&P 500 index fund.  She sees the benefits of this choice as (a) easily attained diversification and (b) less time needed for research relative to owning individual stocks. Over the long-term, the average return on the S&P 500 is about 8.9%.

The pie chart below illustrates how Mary will use her savings. 

In summary, Mary has increased the long-term average pre-tax return (excluding her 401(k) investments) from the 0.06% return on her savings account to a weighted average return of 2.9%.

Key Points

The key takeaways from this portion of the case study are:

  • Pre-paying your student loans is equivalent to earning a pre-tax return on your money equal to the interest rate on your student loans.
  • If you live in the US, the full amount of your student loan interest reduces your taxable income unless you have a high income (more than $65,000 a year) or high interest payments (above $2,500 a year). The tax benefit will be the highest tax rate applicable to your income.
  • Other risk-free alternatives to pre-paying your loan include leaving the money in a savings account or investing in risk-free instruments, such as government (Treasury) bonds with the same maturity as the term of your loan.
  • If you are willing to take more risk, you could invest some of the money in a riskier instrument, such as an S&P 500 index fund. If you make that choice, your average or expected cash when you are finished paying off you loan will usually be higher, but there is a chance you could end up with less money.

Suggested Next Steps

This post talks about Mary’s situation.  Here are some questions you can be asking yourself and things you can do to apply these concepts to your situation.

  • Determine if you have any savings left after setting aside emergency and designated savings and, if so, how much.
  • Compare the interest rate on your student loans with the values that Mary calculated. If your interest rate is similar to the 5% Mary paid, you can review her analysis. If it is higher, pre-paying the loan will be more attractive than it was for Mary.  If it is lower, pre-paying the loan will be less attractive.
  • Consider your own risk tolerance. You can think in terms of making bets.  At the extremes, think about how much would you pay to have a 1% chance of winning $1,000. Then use numbers that are closer to the question you are evaluating.  What is the most amount of money you are willing to use to have a 70% chance of being better off than the risk-free alternative?  How much for a 90% chance of being in a better position?

[1]As a reminder, a Treasury bond is issued by the US government.  The term Treasury bond is used broadly to include bills (maturities less than one year), notes (maturities of one to ten year) and bonds (maturities of more than ten years).  The term Treasury bond can be confusing because it can mean two different things. You’ll need to figure out which is being used based on the context. [2]When you buy a bond, your brokerage firm will provide the yield to maturity.  It is different from the coupon rate on the bond if the bond price is different from $100 when you buy it.  More on yields to maturity and bond prices in a future post. [3]All statistics about the S&P 500 were calculated based on data downloaded from https://finance.yahoo.com/quote/%5EGSPC/history?p=%5EGSPC. [4]https://www.irs.gov/publications/p970#en_US_2017_publink1000178280, December 10, 2018.  For the definition of modified adjusted gross income, see Worksheet 4-1 in https://www.irs.gov/publications/p970#en_US_2017_publink1000178298.  Modified adjusted gross income includes your wages and any investment returns, reduced by contributions to your health savings account, some moving and education expenses, among other things, and adjusted for some items related to foreign income and income from Puerto Rico and American Samoa. [5]https://home.treasury.gov/, December 10, 2018. [6]This rate is lower than the marginal rate on her wages because dividends and capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than wages and interest by the Internal Revenue Service. [7]Expected is a statistical term referring to the expected value or average over all possible results. [8]To keep the math a little simpler, Mary does the calculations assuming she has $10,000 available to fully pre-pay her loan. She will take into consideration the fact that she has only $6,500 available to pre-pay her loan later when she is making her final decision. [9]The fourth column is calculated as the second column minus the first and third columns.  Negative numbers in the third column mean that the tax savings from the interest deduction from her loans is more than the taxes on her investment income. The positive number for the S&P 500 option indicates that the taxes on the dividends and capital gains is more than the tax savings from her interest deduction. [10]I’ll provide details of how to do this type of analysis for yourself in a future post.  For now, I suggest focusing on the logic of the analysis and not thinking about the nitty gritty details. [11]See the fourth column in the table above. [12]Because Mary chose to put her money in a Roth IRA, she won’t pay taxes on any investment returns and won’t get a tax benefit in years in which the S&P 500 index fund loses money.  She’ll want to consider this additional volatility in her decision-making process. [13]https://www.wellsfargo.com/savings-cds/rates, November 17, 2018.