Debt Reduction for the Willfully Stupid

Photo by: kainr

People get into debt in a variety of ways.  Some people have medical problems or other things that are largely beyond their control.  Others have simply traded their future earnings for current creature comforts.

While the ways in which people get into debt are varied, the ways out really aren’t.  A lot of people try to make debt reduction complicated.  It isn’t.  There are a few basic moves that will get you out of debt, but they’re predicated on being realistic, accepting that you’ve already had more fun than you’ve earned, and it’s time to redress the balance.  Even if your debt is the result of things beyond your control, here’s some basic advice for those who feel like it’s time to be realistic about how to get out.

Cut Your Expenses

So you have a certain standard of living you’d like to maintain?  Too bad.  When you’re in debt, every dollar you spend costs you that dollar, plus all the financing costs until all your debt is paid off.  Let’s take a simple example.  If you have a 20% APR credit card and it’s going to take you 3 years to pay down your debt, every dollar you spend is actually costing you over two dollars.  That’s without taking into account the fact that a penny saved is more valuable than a penny earned after taxes.  That five dollar burger is now going to cost you ten dollars.  While this ignores the effect of inflation, you get the point.  Putting that dollar towards debts was the better move.

Get a Second Job

Many people are very concerned about their free time.  If you have debt, you’ve already spent your future free time.  When you bought that flat screen TV on your credit card, you were trading your future free time for a TV.  Doesn’t seem like such a good trade now?  Imagine the impact of another twenty hours of work on your ability to pay off your debts.  Assuming you’re at least in the black and slowly paying down your debts, you can put every penny you make at your second job toward your debts.  While you’ll lose some free time, you’ll reduce the stress that all that debt is putting on you. (more…)


CD Ladders: Some Personal Experience

Photo by: Collin Anderson

Back in the era before I started falling asleep at night terrified by visions of inflation, I had a retirement plan.  Every month I would open a CD.  Eventually I would get to where I had a CD renewing every month, then every week, then every day.  Once the interest on those CDs paid my living expenses, I was done and could retire.  Of course my dreams of building a CD ladder were somewhat upended by the recession and  banking crisis.

What Is A CD Ladder?

A CD ladder is a way to get the improved returns CDs usually offer without the problems of diminished liquidity.  The idea is that you get CDs set up in such a way that the money you have invested in them matures periodically, maybe every month, giving you easy access to liquid funds while retaining better returns than a regular savings account.  This can be a good way to maximize returns on your cash.

How to Build a CD Ladder

A typical way to build a CD ladder is to build it all at once.  Let’s say you have $12,000 and you want to build a ladder where you have a one year CD renewing every month.  One way to approach the problem is to simply open a CD with one month, two month, etc. maturity dates, and then when the time comes to renew them, renew at a 12 month period.  Of course it can be hard to find a seven month CD, so you may have to go to plan B and build it over time.  My approach was simply to buy a 12 month CD every month until I had mine set up.  You do not have to use one year CDs of course.  You could use half as many six month CDs to get the same effects, although likely with inferior yields. (more…)


Investing Step #7: Home Ownership

Photo by: Hamed Saber

This post is step 7 in our Investing Template.

While there are no explicitly tax-deferred savings plans for housing, the Roth IRA can work very much like one.  If you are looking to buy your first home in the future, more than 5 years from now, or if you have a Roth IRA opened already, such an account may be a very reasonable option for your investing dollar.  While you cannot take your contribution out pre-tax, any income you make over those 5 years can be used tax-free to buy a house, up to $10,000 per person.  This can be a considerable savings.

While retirement and college may seem like distant issues, buying a home is much closer on our investment timeline for most of us.  If you already own a home, or have in the past, you can pretty much skip this section as a Roth IRA will not do you much good.  Its exemption for buying a home only applies to first time buyers, but it can be very powerful for those looking to maximize their earnings.

Your Strategy

When you contribute to your Roth IRA, the account must have been opened for 5 years for you to be able to withdraw money to help buy your first house.  Additionally, you can only withdraw a maximum of $10,000 per person.  This means that if you are married you can withdraw $20,000.  If you are slowly saving for a house, putting money into an Roth IRA can be a great option, since all of your investment proceeds can be used without ever paying any tax on them.

Generally your approach here would be to contribute money towards your Roth IRA until it looks like your window is getting close.  At the point where you approach your maximum contribution for your home, you will have to consider whether continuing to contribute to your Roth makes sense.  You may have better options for your other investment goals, but why pay taxes on your home down payment investment when you don’t have to?

An Example

Imagine if you want to buy a house in 10 years.  Each year you put $1000 in your Roth IRA and it earns 11% (a lofty goal, but it helps illustrate the power.)  If you pay 33% in taxes each year, by the time you were ready to buy the house you would have almost $3,500 more dollars in your Roth IRA than you would in a regular investment account.  The Roth would have $18,561 vs $15,097 in the regular account.  You made $3,500 simply by selecting the right account in which to save your money.

This is a fairly narrow option.  It only applies to those who have never owned a home and who can qualify for the specifics of the Roth IRA, bu it should be included in your timeline if it applies to you.  Dedicate some of your investment funds to your Roth and you can get the massive returns that the absence of taxes can provide you.


Investing Step #6: College Saving

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This post is step 6 in our Investing Template.

After retirement, the next farthest investing event is your kids’ college education.  While in some cases a first house may be sooner than college, or in more rare cases retirement might come before your kids go to college, generally money that is invested in College Savings Plans will be tied up the second longest, next to your Retirement Accounts.

Why College Savings Plans?

College Savings Plans, often referred to as 529 plans, allow you to contribute money towards future tuition, have that money grow tax-free, and if it is used for appropriate expenses, used without paying taxes.  Thus, while your contributions are not typically pre-tax, they grow without taxes and can be used without taxes, which can be a huge advantage.

Types of 529 Plans

There are two major variations in 529 plans:

  • Prepaid Tuition: In this case you pay for tuition at today’s rates and they are locked in for the future.
  • Savings Plans: These allow you to contribute your after tax dollars to grow tax free and offer various investment options.

Overall, 529 plans are implemented at state levels, or sometimes even at the particular institution level.  Thus you see a much wider variety in options and details than in many federal plans. 


Due to the wide variety in the plans there can be many key details, but ultimately the primary consideration in these plans is the likelihood that this money will be used for college.   If it is not, then the money will be taxed when withdrawn, as well as a 10% penalty, similar to early withdrawal in a retirement account.  At the same time, college can be a major expense in a family’s life, and the tax benefits of these accounts can be huge.

When deciding if and how to contribute to a college savings plan, I typically recommend caution.  While these plans can offer huge savings if your child goes to an appropriate college, that is not a guarantee.  Many other expenses will definitely happen and are slightly safer options because you can guarantee their use. 

Still, this money should not be viewed as a terrible investment either way.  If you use a typical college savings plan for 15 years and then your child doesn’t go to college, you can withdraw that money with a 10% penalty.  While this may sound harsh, you’ve had 15 years of your gains compounding without taxes, which will generally overcome the 10% penalty.


Investing Prerequisite #1: How To Deal With Debt

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This post is step 1 in our Investing Template.

Deciding when and how to pay off your debts is not a simple matter.  While it can be comforting to be debt-free, that may not always be the most financially expedient approach-nor is it the whole picture. Here are a few steps, including analyzing and paying off debt, that really make your money work FOR you.

Step One: The Basic Emergency Fund

The absolute first thing you need to have is something to pay for unforeseen events.  I personally recommend keeping this fund as small as possible at the beginning.  We’ll get to creating a larger cushion later, but right now the goal is simply to get enough money so that you’re covered if your car breaks down or something else untoward happens.  In fact, in some cases I’d recommend skipping this step altogether.  If you have friends or family you believe you can reliably rely on in case of an emergency, get right down to paying off any debts.  Once your debts are paid off, go on to creating an expanded emergency fund.

Step Two: Minimum Payments

Paying off your debts is one of the best investments you can make, but it isn’t always the best.  You need to take a lot of things into account to decide when and how to pay off your debts, and the analysis isn’t always simple.  One main rule is this:

Always Pay Your Minimums

You cannot possibly hope to match the interest rate you will be charged with late fees and penalties, so you have to pay at least the minimum to every debt you have.  So no matter what other options are open to you, do not let yourself be subjected to these kinds of charges.  If you cannot meet your minimum payments, it’s time for another job, or to sell some things.  Getting your head above water is a separate subject, but make sure to do it.

Step Three: Tax-Deferred Options

Now despite the allure of being debt-free, there are some rare occasions that your bottom line will be better served by contributing to your tax-deferred savings.  Quite simply, if your company matches your tax-deferred account at 50% or better, you may be better off contributing to that account.  This is of course only true up to the amount that they match. Do not contribute more than they match until your debts are all paid off.

For example, if my company will match up to 3% of my salary in my 401(k) at 100%, I am possibly better off making this contribution instead of paying off my debts.  I will make 100% return on that money put into my 401(k), while I will probably be charged 20% on the debts I leave unpaid.

Generally speaking however, unless your debt is relatively small compared to your income, or you are very secure that your income will continue, you are probably still better off just paying the debt.

Step Four: Pay Off Your Debts

There is no sense investing in anything when you have the option of paying off your debts.  The only debt you may want to carry is a house or a car, and even those are questionable.  Even beyond the dangers of high-interest debt, it simply provides a security blanket to have your debt cleared.  There are various approaches to paying off your debt, but get it done before you start investing your money elsewhere.  Moreover, when in doubt: pay off your debts sooner than later.