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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.
This week’s episode starts with a discussion about scams consumers might encounter when holiday shopping this year.
Then we pivot to this week’s money question from Caroline, who sent us a voicemail. Here it is:
"I recently graduated from law school and got my first job as an attorney, and I have a big pile of student loans — over $200,000. I’ve already been accepted for an income-based repayment plan. So when the loans start after January of 2022, I’ll be able to afford the monthly payment.
"Here’s my question: Is there any reason for me to start paying on the student loans before January since that money will go directly to the principal of the loan? And is there any reason for me to overpay on these loans, even after January, in order to pay them down faster? For a little context, my wife and I have a mortgage on a rental property, but we don’t have any credit card debt, and our car is paid off. We both max out our Roth IRAs each year and we have a four-month emergency fund saved as well as an emergency fund for our rental property. So should any extra income go to the student loans, or would I be better off sending it somewhere it can grow, like paying off the rental mortgage earlier or investing the money elsewhere?
"Thank you for your help.”
Check out this episode on any of these platforms:
The holiday shopping season will be especially challenging this year, due to supply chain issues, shipping delays and lingering fears of the pandemic. That can make consumers especially susceptible to falling for holiday shopping scams. Some fraudsters are posting fake ads on social media sites. They may advertise a product that isn’t actually available or isn’t quite what you expect it to be. Scammers are also sending targeted emails that may look like they’re from legitimate retailers. To avoid falling for scams, vet any potential vendor — including searching online for complaints against the company. You can also steer clear of this mess by shopping in person at local small businesses.
When it comes to figuring out how to pay off a large amount of student loan debt while managing other financial priorities, know the tools you have available and how to best direct your money to meet your goals. Income-driven repayment plans can help make student loan payments more affordable, but there is some bureaucratic red tape that you’ll have to work through.
And there’s nothing wrong with directing additional money toward your loan payments monthly, beyond your minimum payment. But think about what else you can do with that money. If you’re paying off more than $100,000 in student loan debt, you might want to view this debt like a mortgage — something that will be with you for a long time to come. There’s no harm in paying more than the minimum payment, but try to work on your other financial goals, like investing or saving for a vacation, too.
Pay off student debt strategically. Applying additional payments toward your student loan during the payment pause can help you pay off your debt sooner since interest isn’t accruing.
Know your options to make payments more affordable. If you think you might run into trouble making payments when the payment pause ends, use an income-driven plan if you lost your job or your income is low and you need a lower payment amount.
Consider your other priorities. If you have other financial goals, use your would-be payment money to pay down high interest debt, pad an emergency fund, increase your retirement contribution or invest.
More about paying off student loans on NerdWallet:
Liz Weston: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money Podcast, where we answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I'm Liz Weston.
Sean Pyles: I'm Sean Pyles. To send the Nerds your money questions, call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD, or email us at [email protected]. To get new episodes delivered to your devices every Monday, be sure to subscribe. If you like what you hear, leave us a review and tell a friend.
Liz: Sean and I are working on a special episode for the end of the year all about what our listeners accomplished with their money in 2021. We want to celebrate your wins. So what did you accomplish? Did you buy a house? Did you pay off debt? Maybe you started an emergency fund or you kicked up your retirement savings. We want to hear about it and help you celebrate.
Sean: And because we are audio-focused folks, we want to literally hear about it. Leave us a voicemail on the Nerd hotline by calling 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. You can also email us a voice memo at [email protected]. And for the millennials who are phone shy, I will also reluctantly accept an email of your accomplishments to that email address, too.
Liz: So this is your opportunity to brag. Please do it.
Sean: Yes, exactly.
Liz: Let's get on with the show. In this episode, Sean and I answer a listener's question about how to deal with a massive amount of student loan debt.
Sean: Before we get into that, in our “This Week in Your Money” segment, we are going to talk about one of my favorite topics: scams. Specifically, how to spot a scam when you are looking for holiday deals this year.
Liz: Sean, you recently wrote a column about this. Can you talk about what people should know now?
Sean: Yeah, I think it's important to start out by really appreciating the unique moment that we're in. We're all tired of the word "unprecedented," but here we are, yet again, in a moment of unprecedented supply chain issues, delivery slowdowns, and also a unique structure to the holiday deal season, which is a continuation of what we saw last year. Before people even begin to shop, I think it's important that they first make a budget and then make a list, in that order. You don't want your list to blow out your budget. So make sure you know what you can spend and then understand precisely what you want to get this year.
Also, if you're in the market for electronics, I think it's important for people to know the model number of what they're trying to get because there are these items that are called derivative items. This is particularly common with TVs, where it will look pretty much like the model that you think you're going to get, but it'll be this derivative model that is pushed out only for the holiday season. It's made with cheaper parts. It might not have as many ports, but the companies can sell them at a discounted rate and not take as much of a loss.
Liz: Oh, that's interesting. I think I almost fell for one of those because I was looking for, not electronics, but some art supplies for my daughter. Nobody had this particular easel I was looking for, and then boom, it turns up on this site I'd never heard of. I actually started to order the darn thing before I realized, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. I've never heard of this site. Why am I sending my money to them?"
Sean: Okay, that is also something that people should look out for. Because of supply chain issues, a lot of scammers are putting up these basically fake websites where they will maybe only sell that one specific item that you're looking for that isn't available in stock at the main retailers that you would be looking at. That can be a red flag.
So if you are trying to get an item that you can't find at your local Blick or whatever, you might want to make sure that the retailer online is legitimate. You can vet that by seeing whether they have a physical address. That's a pretty big sign that they're a legitimate business if they have that. See again that they sell more products than the one that you saw advertised. Also see if there are any complaints against the company. So if you do find one of these random one-off websites, put their name into Google, plus the word "complaint" or the word "scam,” and you'll be able to see if anyone has had an issue with them.
One thing that's interesting that I came across in my reporting for this piece is that the number of social media ads that are fake is on the rise. More people are finding scam ads in their Instagram and social media feeds, according to a report from the FTC. Ninety-four percent of consumers who cited fake ads on their social media feeds, cited Facebook and Instagram as the platforms that they use where they found these scams.
Liz: Wow. Okay. So just be wary of anything that's being advertised there.
Sean: In addition to whatever vaccine misinformation or political vitriol you're seeing in your feeds, there's also a bunch of fake ads. So just add that to the list.
Liz: Oh, great.
Sean: When people are shopping online, it's important that they use their credit card, if possible. And that is because credit cards tend to have certain protections from fraud that debit cards and peer-to-peer payment methods don't offer. If a company does ask you to pay using a gift card or one of those peer-to-peer payment services like Venmo, that can be a red flag of a scam company.
Liz: I think it's more important this year than ever before to get an early start on your shopping, because it may take you a while to find what you're looking for. In addition to the supply chain issues you were talking about Sean, a lot of people have a lot of money and a lot of pent-up demand. They want to buy this holiday season. So many people were impacted by the pandemic and are still struggling, but on the other hand, there are a lot of people who have money to burn. That's going to lead to a lot of demand. If you can get an early start on your shopping, I think you'll be better off.
Sean: We're already seeing retailers like Amazon and Walmart roll out deals that are happening on a daily or weekly basis. You might as well hop on those deals when you can, because in a month or so when Black Friday hits, it may not be available.
Liz: Let's put in a pitch for shopping local, too. Your local businesses need your support. The stuff is there. It's on the shelves. You can take it home with you. You don't have to worry about when it's going to arrive. And I also am a huge fan of craft fairs.
Sean: Yes, I remember you talking about that.
Liz: Yeah, they are a wonderful way to buy unique gifts for your friends and family, and they help craftspeople and artisans, so it's a win-win-win.
Sean: I love doing that because I can maybe do a little bit of impulse shopping. I can say, "Okay, I have 30 bucks to spend on this relative. I want to get something unique from this craft fair." I don't know what it is. Something will stand out to me. And so I can have that rush of buying something impulsively, which is always fun admittedly, but not feel guilty about it, but also supporting a local business.
Liz: Yeah, exactly.
Sean: I also do want to mention one last scam that I came across in my reporting, and this is about hyper-targeted phishing emails. These are emails that you'll get from a scammer. It'll look like it's just from a legitimate retailer. They may even mock up the design of Levi's or Madewell, whatever, and they will know that you've made certain purchases lately and they'll say, "Oh, because you shopped at this store and this store, you are eligible for an exclusive deal." So you click on the link in the email, you go to the website, which also may look like the retailer's actual website, enter your credentials, and then you've been scammed.
Liz: Wow. How do they know where you've been?
Sean: Scammers are purchasing consumer datasets. They have your personally identifiable information, or PII, that can have things like your name, your address, even social media posts. These are collected by data brokers, assembled into consumer datasets and then sold to pretty much whomever, including scammers.
Liz: How do you distinguish between that and a legitimate email?
Sean: One thing to be on the lookout for is whether one of these emails has an uncanny amount of personalization, or if there's one detail that is a little off. So say you just bought a car and you get an email saying, "Oh, because you bought this model of car, you are eligible to buy certain accessories for it." If it seems almost too specific to you, that can be a red flag. Or alternatively, if there's something that's a little bit off, where it's like, "You've shopped at Madewell and Levi's," but you're getting emails saying, "Oh, because you shopped at Madewell and Victoria's Secret, you're eligible for this offer." If you haven't actually shopped at that retailer, that can be a sign that this is not legitimate.
Liz: OK, good. It sounds like you just need to have a lot of skepticism for anything that comes into your inbox.
Sean: Yeah, be very skeptical, but also one surefire way to verify whether you're getting a scam email is to check the sender. Some scammers will make an email address that looks a lot like it's from the actual retailer, but one letter will be off. Sometimes they won't even try. They'll just have a random, like gobbledygook of an email address, and that is a sure sign that it's not legit.
Liz: OK. Well, good advice.
Sean: Yeah. So regardless of the scam you do encounter, if you fall for one or you see one, you can report it to the Federal Trade Commission or your state's Attorney General. But one way to avoid all of this is, as we mentioned, by shopping local and get it done sooner than later, because it's going to be a tough holiday season.
Liz: Yeah, it looks like it from here anyway.
Liz: Let's get onto this week's money question.
Sean: Sounds good.
Liz: This episode's money question comes from Caroline who sent us a voice memo. Here it is.
Caroline: Hi Nerds. I recently graduated from law school and got my first job as an attorney, and I have a big pile of student loans — over $200,000. I've already been accepted for an income-based repayment plan. So when the loans start after January of 2022, I'll be able to afford the monthly payment. Here's my question:
Caroline: Is there any reason for me to start paying on the student loans before January, since that money will go directly to the principal of the loan? And is there any reason for me to overpay on these loans, even after January in order to pay them down faster?
Caroline: For a little context, my wife and I have a mortgage on a rental property, but we don't have any credit card debt, and our car is paid off. We both max out our Roth IRAs each year and we have a four-month emergency fund saved as well as an emergency fund for our rental property.
Caroline: So should any extra income go to the student loans, or would I be better off sending it somewhere it can grow, like paying off the rental mortgage earlier or investing the money elsewhere?
Caroline: Thank you for your help
Sean: To help us answer Caroline's question, on this episode of the podcast, we are joined by student loan Nerd, Anna Helhoski.
Liz: Welcome back to the show Anna.
Anna Helhoski: Thanks for having me. It's great to be back.
Sean: Great to have you on. This is a question I've been hoping to answer for a little bit because it tackles so much student debt. I think six figures is a large amount for anyone, but $200,000 is really quite enormous.
Anna: Yeah, enormous is definitely the right word for it.
Anna: I just want to back up and say first that what Caroline is referring to is the interest-free federal student loan forbearance. It's only for federal student loans, so private student loans don't apply. Basically it's a payment pause that's been in effect for quite a while now, since March 13th, 2020, and it was extended multiple times, but now is really, truly, definitely ending after January 31st, 2022.
Sean: At least as far as we know right now.
Anna: Yes, exactly.
Sean: We'll see.
Anna: The Education Department insists this is the final time.
Anna: During this pause you haven't had to worry about making a payment on your student loans, and interest is also not building on the debt during this time. So that provides a pretty nice long, deep breath for student loan borrowers to focus on other financial obligations. That could be making a mortgage or rent payment, or buying necessities like groceries.
Anna: But some borrowers, like Caroline, haven't been necessarily negatively impacted — at least financially. She graduated law school and she got a job. She's ready to make payments, but she doesn't have to yet. So she's trying to decide what her best option is. Now she could use that would-be payment money, or any other funds on top of that, to throw at her over $200,000 college debt, and that's a perfectly reasonable option. It's a great time to do it, too, since the pause is again, interest-free, so she can really put a dent in her principal, and the interest can be a real barrier to paying off the original amount that you borrowed to pay for school.
Liz: It seems like many people who are in Caroline's position might be in a good place to start paying off their student loans. But do you think now is a good time to do this, or would it be better to wait until payments start?
Anna: It really is a good time to pay off your student loan debt because of that interest-free period, and with the prepayment caveats that student loan servicers have. They're the private companies contracted by the federal government to manage bill payment. So usually when you're making a lump-sum or an additional payment on top of your regular bill, they can apply the extra amount to your next month's payment, which advances your due date. That's not really helping you attack your principal very efficiently.
Liz: Is that normal that you don't have a choice about putting money towards the principal, that they'll just put it towards the next payment?
Anna: That is correct.
Liz: That sucks.
Anna: Yeah, it's extremely frustrating. It was frustrating for me when I had student loans, which I paid off right before the payment pause went into effect.
Sean: I've seen a lot of people posting online on Twitter and personal finance subreddit about how much they will pay in interest.
Anna: I can personally say, I think I had somewhere around $30,000 of student debt, which is basically the median at this stage. I think I paid off overall somewhere around $43,000. That's pretty good. I did that in under 10 years.
Sean: Yeah, My first reaction was to think, "Okay, that's not that bad." And then I was thinking, "That's still a lot of debt to be paying."
Anna: It is. Yeah, yeah.
In normal times, if you want to pay off debt using extra payments, you have to ask your servicer. So you have to ask them online, by phone or mail specifically to apply the overpayment amount to your current balance and then keep your plan due date otherwise again, they're going to just advance your due date.
Sean: So it's not exactly easy to do for most people?
Anna: No, it's not, and it's not intuitive either. You think I'm making extra payments, OK great — I am doing the right thing here, and I'm going to pay off my debt faster, and that's just not necessarily the case.
Sean: One thing I wanted to talk about is that Caroline is enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan. Can you start by explaining how these work? And then a little bit later on, I want to talk about pros and cons of these plans.
Anna: This got me excited because my first thought was good on her for enrolling in an income-driven repayment plan. A lot of people don't even know that they exist. Income-driven repayment is one of the safety net programs that the federal government offers for student loan borrowers. It sets your payments at a portion of your income and extends your normal repayment term of 10 years to 20 or 25 years depending on the type of debt that you have. The easiest to get repayment plan that is income-driven is called, Revised Pay as You Earn, or REPAYE, and that sets your payment at 10% of your discretionary monthly income and extends your repayment to 20 or 25 years, depending on what kind of debt you have, again.
Caroline has graduate debt and quite a lot of it. I'd bet money that she probably has Grad PLUS debt, which has higher limits than regular direct undergraduate loans or graduate loans. They're easy to get, which is appealing, but there's also the potential to kind of bite off more than you can chew. It sounds like Caroline's getting ahead of that by enrolling in an income-driven plan so that she's not going to run into any difficulty making sure that her payments are proportionate to her income.
Liz: We've talked before about the limits on federal student loans for undergraduates, because I think it's, what, $33,000 is the most you can borrow?
Anna: Yes, somewhere around there.
Liz: With graduate school, you can borrow the full cost.
Anna: Yes, the full cost. So the full cost of attendance, which is determined by each college minus any other federal aid. So if you're given a grant or a scholarship, the remainder that's left, you can borrow that full amount, which gets pretty scary, pretty fast.
Liz: Which is how we get up to $200,000 in student loan debt.
Anna: Yes, it is.
Liz: OK. Who do you think is a good fit for an income-driven repayment plan?
Anna: Income-driven repayment plans are perfect for people who may be having difficulty repaying their debt. Come February, when loan repayment starts, that could be a whole lot of people since we know families are still dealing with the economic challenges presented by the pandemic. So if you lost your job, or you're underemployed and you're enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan, your monthly payment would be zero. You're still going to accrue interest. Ideally, you would still try and pay at least the interest that's growing with each bill. But if you can't pay anything at all, this ensures that you don't have to.
What you do have to do is re-certify your income whenever you change jobs, and also annually. When you do that — and you have to do it — your payment amount is adjusted. So you pay for 20 or 25 years, and then the remainder of your debt is forgiven. However, a recent study from the Student Borrower Protection Center found that only 32 people have ever gotten the remainder of their debt forgiven.
Liz: Oh my gosh.
Sean: Why is that?
Anna: Lots of red tape. A lot of issues just generally with forgiveness programs. However, most people won't actually be eligible for income-driven repayment forgiveness until 2035. And that's because that most easily accessible plan — the one that anyone can enroll in — is called Revised Pay as You Earn, or REPAYE, it wasn't available until 2015. So there is a reason for it, but it is still an extremely small number of people. One of my editors at one point was like, "Do you mean 32%?" And I'm like, "No, 32."
Liz: Oh, wow.
Sean: Right. Geez. OK.
So beyond the red tape and administrative overhead that goes into staying in one of these plans, I'm wondering if there are any other drawbacks to being enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan.
Anna: Well as I said, we really are trying to recommend them to people who anticipate having any kind of challenge paying off their debt, but what they're not good for is paying off your debt fast. The whole point is to extend your repayment term so you can pay less. So if you're like Caroline, and you want to chip away at your debt faster, an income-driven plan is still your safety net, but you're going to need to pay an additional amount each month or in one lump sum regularly to knock down the debt.
Sean: It kind of reminds me of paying the minimum on your credit card bill. You can continue to pay off debt in some way, but you're not actually making a ton of progress, and meanwhile, you're also accruing more interest than you would if you were paying off bigger amounts monthly. Is that right?
Anna: Yeah, absolutely.
Liz: Except I was thinking of it in terms of this amount of debt is so huge, I would just think of it like a mortgage, something that's in the background, and you have better things to do with your money than pay off that debt.
So Anna, what are your thoughts on doing something else with the money, say investing versus directing it toward additional student loan payments?
Anna: You can choose to make additional payments, and like I said before, that can help you pay off your debt faster. But if borrowers like Caroline want to take this time to address other financial priorities, that's fine, too. She mentioned paying down the mortgage on her rental property. Great. That's a good idea, especially if she has a high interest rate on her mortgage.
Sean: Liz, when you mentioned thinking about this like a mortgage, my thought is that this is not that much less than my mortgage. So I think that's a great thought because it's a tremendous amount of debt, and I have 30 years to pay it off. Caroline would have 20 or 25 years, so it would be that much more expensive. So you might as well make your monthly payments as you can, but then also bifurcate your financial goals. Put some toward investing. Do other things so you can have the life that you want while you're chipping away at this big amount of debt.
Liz: A lot of people get some benefit typically from their student loan. They can deduct $2,500 of interest, I think it is. Is that right, Anna?
Anna: It depends on how much money that you're making. There is an income cutoff. So that can be beneficial if you're making under, I think the threshold is somewhere around $75,000 or $80,000.
Liz: So I'm guessing if she can make extra payments on this amount of debt, that she probably is not getting a lot of tax benefit from the debt. We used to say that mortgage is a tax-favored debt, but a lot of people don't get any tax benefit from their mortgage anymore. I need to add that when you have a mortgage on a rental property, that is a tax advantage. That's one of the things that you can write off.
This is a lot you have to figure in, and you might even want to pull in a tax pro to help you figure out what is the smartest thing to start paying off first.
Anna: I'm not an investment expert, but there is a hierarchy of what you can do with your would-be payment money during the pause. We say if you choose not to continue paying your student loans because you don't have to, then great, address any toxic debt — that is any high-interest debt— first. So a private student loan, a credit card or a mortgage with a high interest rate are all really valid options. If you don't have any other high-interest debt, you could use this time to pad an emergency fund or contribute a little more than you would usually toward your retirement fund, or you can use this time to make other investments. There are only a few months left until the forbearance finally ends, so it really is just going to be up to the individual and their situation.
Sean: I'm going to throw a question at you that I don't know if you'll have an easy answer to or one at all. We've seen some minor forms of student loan forgiveness over the past year. I'm wondering, barring a crystal ball nearby, if you have any thoughts on the feasibility or likelihood of this for students at large over the coming few months or year.
Anna: Yeah, my crystal ball has been a little cloudy lately, but I would say that the Biden administration has been making an effort to address some of the backlog of certain existing forgiveness programs. One of them is called Borrower Defense to Repayment. That's for borrowers who feel that their school defrauded them in some way, and they can get their loans forgiven. That had not had a lot of movement at all under the previous administration, and there actually had been some roadblocks kind of put in place to make it a lot more difficult. Those have been removed at this point. Again, the administration is trying to clear that backlog, so we're seeing more of that.
We're also seeing some streamlining in total and permanent disability discharge, which is also really great. What we're not really seeing, or not seeing enough of — and certainly not to everyone's satisfaction — is a clearing of the backlog of Public Service Loan Forgiveness applications. That's kind of the big one. That's where you get your remainder of your debt forgiven after 10 years of making payments on an income-driven repayment plan while working in public service. So that could be teaching. That could be having a government job. Eventually you're supposed to get your debt forgiven, but it's something where we're really not sure where to put the blame, but it really does look like it's on the program itself. It structurally is just not borrower-friendly. It's not really servicer-friendly either in order to administer it.
So one of the things, getting in the weeds slightly here with things that are going on, is the private company that the government contracts, FedLoan — one of the servicers — is the company that oversees the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Their contract with the government is sunsetting at the end of the year, and they are not planning — and they have stated this — that they are not going to be seeking to extend that contract. So we also don't know what servicer is going to be taking over the administration of the program.
Sean: But they would likely have to spend some time getting up to speed, which would further delay forgiveness of this debt.
Anna: Oh yeah. It's a whole big mess. It's frustrating, too, because there are so many borrowers who reach out to me regularly and email me and ask me, "Am I ever going to get this?" And I tell them, "I'm not really sure." What I always tell people is to really keep track of everything. Keep track and document all of your payments. Make sure you're on the right repayment plan. Make sure you have the right loans. So you consolidate it into a direct loan program, if you have PLUS loan debt, for example, and really just try to track everything that you can.
Sean: Anna, do you have any final thoughts for Caroline or anyone else in this position?
Anna: I mean, it sounds like Caroline has already got her and her wife's retirement plans covered and has a pretty solid emergency fund. So if her instinct is to pay down the mortgage on the rental property, I say, go for it. But keep in mind that the opportunity cost is the difference that she could be making on her student loan principal during this interest-free period. At this point so close to payment restarting, we recommend putting that would-be payment back into your budget.
Anna: So if you're like me and you're not really great with actually allocating your money in a real or organized way, an easy way to do this is put the amount that you would be paying as of February into your emergency fund every month. That'll give you a pretty good idea of what you're going to be left with once your payment restarts again.
Sean: Well, thank you so much for chatting with us.
Anna: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Sean: With that, let's get onto our takeaway tips. Liz, do you want to kick us off?
Liz: I'd be delighted.
First, pay off student debt strategically. Applying additional payments toward your student loans during the payment pause can help you pay off your debt sooner since interest isn't accruing.
Sean: Next, know your options to make payments more affordable. If you think you might run into trouble making payments when they resume, use an income-driven plan if you lost your job or your income is low and you need a lower monthly payment amount.
Liz: Finally, consider your other priorities. If you have other financial goals, use your would-be payment money to pay down high-interest debt, pad an emergency fund, increase your retirement contribution or invest.
Liz: That's all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected]. Also visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more information on this episode. And remember to subscribe, rate and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.
Sean: Here is our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet's legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstance.
Liz: With that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.