A wise investment: Pay off those student loans

Michelle Singletary
Columnist July 15, 2013

This online feature may include questions adapted from my weekly live chat. It’s also an opportunity for me to answer questions I couldn’t get to during the discussion. I may also respond to questions you send by e-mail to (colorofmoney@washpost.com), Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary.com).

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Pay off those student loans!

Q: Graduated, and I have a job pulling in $1,800 a month. Right now I need to build up my emergency funds (currently at $1,500, and would like it to be $3,000). Additionally, my student loans are $41,000. Outside expenses are doable, and I will be changing to a higher paying job soon. By June 2014, I would like to be doing an 80/20 split of stocks to bonds with $1,500. What else should I be doing?

Michelle Singletary: It’s so important to save and invest for the future. But before you invest in any stocks and bonds, pay off those student loans. You are on the right path. Keep saving for your emergency fund. Save enough for one or two months of expenses, and then so you can concentrate on becoming debt free. Attack the student loans aggressively. Then buckle down and start saving for retirement.

Avoid this financial tool:

Q: I realize you are fervently anti-debt, but wondering if you have ever studied leverage? While it may not be ideal for some folks, appropriate and careful use of leverage is a strong financial tool.

Michelle Singletary: Tell that to Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that went bankrupt or all the companies that leverage themselves out of business.

As Morgan Housel wrote for The Motley Fool in 2009, “The key to Lehman’s failure was, of course, leverage. At the end of 2007, leverage stood at more than 30-to-1.”

Or how about the people who listen to such nonsense and bought too much home and leveraged themselves into bankruptcy.

Yes, borrowing other people’s money allows us to get things that would take decades to save for, but it’s a very, very dangerous tool in the hands of the average consumer. Even the so-called experts get this wrong.

People try to put me in my so-called place all the time by questioning my education as if I don’t know what I’m talking about. So yes, I’ve studied leveraging. I have a master’s degree in business from The Johns Hopkins University. I’ve got smarts.

I’m smart enough to know that many people underestimate the burden of debt. So I err on the side of caution. I err on the side of borrowing as little as possible by doing what you can afford so that you don’t have to rely so much on other people’s money.

Advice leads to ‘crummy colleges’?

Q: If you don’t believe in student loans, how did you afford Johns Hopkins? Did you save up? Did you work while going to school? You tell people to go to “crummy colleges” but you did not seem to follow that advice. A “crummy college” is one where the company that you would like to work for does not interview people from that college.

Michelle Singletary: First of all I don’t tell people to go to crummy colleges.

What I try to do is encourage people to do what they can afford. And by crummy, if you are referring to suggesting that people attend community college or lesser-known schools, how elitist. There are many good non-brand name schools. Many communities have great community college systems.

I try my best to live what I preach. I’m sending my daughter to a state school with money my husband and I saved by giving up things to do it.

But to answer your question about my degree from Hopkins, I had great employers (The Evening Sun and then The Washington Post) who paid for me to get my graduate degree. But even if I hadn’t gotten tuition assistance, I would have still gone and paid for my degree with savings as my husband and I did for his MBA.

Finally, sounds like you have a chip on your shoulder about a job you didn’t get because of the college you attended. But don’t try to shift that chip to me.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071, or e-mail michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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