Independent, Fee-Only Financial Advisor

Independent, Fee-Only Financial Advisor

Thursday, February 13, 2014

paying off debt

Last week I paid off the last of my student loans. I did not have a lot to start with, so finally getting rid of them after only 4 years was not a difficult task.

Paying off debt can be a huge emotional relief. It seems like it would be a financially savvy move too - but that is not always the case. Let's look at when it makes sense, and when it does not. The general rule of thumb is that you should pay off debt when the interest rate is as high as, or higher than what you could earn on that money elsewhere. For a point of reference, I generally look at long term investments earning 6% or more (over 10-20 year periods).

Mortgages are the biggest debts Americans owe. These are very long term debts and money is cheap right now! With my mortgage at 3.5% I am in no hurry to pay that off, as I expect my long term investments to earn a premium over that. However, even at these low rates, there are special cases. There are various thresholds which may benefit the homeowner to be under:

  • Paying a little extra off before you refinance may help put you under a threshold to get a better rate. Namely, prime rate mortgages generally require 20% equity or more, so if you owe $121,000 on a $150,000 home, paying an extra $1,000 might translate into big savings on interest. 
  • Certain loans may have Mortgage Insurance Payments which go away once you hit a certain threshold. For instance, FHA loans typically require 22% equity before the mortgage insurance payment goes away. The insurance payment will vary with the program, so check with your mortgage servicer to see where your threshold is.
  • Refinancing. If interest rates are lower than when you got your mortgage, look into refinancing. Though the monthly payment may be higher, a shorter term loan may have a lower interest rate, and the faster amortization will mean you pay less interest overall.
Credit Card debt is a big problem. While this is some of the most flexible debt you can obtain, you pay dearly for that flexibility.
  • Check your interest rate. Rates on credit cards are typically variable and if you carry a balance, will probably only rise. Average APR right now is over 15%, though cards with rates from 20-30% are not uncommon. With an interest rate of 18%, every $66 you owe translates to about a dollar of interest a month - that's money you never benefited from.
  • Many cards come with an introductory 0% APR. If you need to, take advantage of this, but you will want to pay down the balance aggressively before the interest rate shows up.
  • Lower your total credit utilization. This is a question of thresholds again. Your utilization ratio is your total balance outstanding to your total credit available. This total is from all of the cards in your name - 50% would mean that the sum of all of your balances is half of the sum of all of your credit limits. The recommendation is to keep the ratio under 30%, but the lower you go, the better. This accounts for almost a third of your FICO credit score, so it may be worthwhile to pay down even a low or 0% interest card if you need your credit score to drift up.
Student loans are in the headlines in very scary ways lately. Rising use of student loans has been in a vicious cycle of being needed to pay ever higher tuition while also making it easier to bid up the cost of said tuition. In general, student loans are a great idea - it is some of the easiest debt you can get, and you expect to earn enough to comfortably pay for it when you graduate. The problem now is that people are not getting payed quite what they expected. Government program loans are typically fixed rate and for a 10 year term while private loans are have variable rate options and different terms. The lowest rates are for undergraduate loans, but graduate and parent loans are a much higher rate that may usefully be paid off early. There are repayment programs available to help ease the cost of the loans when you first start paying them back.

Debt can be intimidating, but that doesn't mean it can't be useful as well. The decision to pay off debt is just as important to consider carefully as the decision to take the debt on in the first place.