Editor’s Note: Below is an article published first at MarketWatch that was written by Elaine Scoggins, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(TM) and director at Merriman
Early in my career, I knew a wealthy man who took his own life. He left a suicide note saying he was pushed to the breaking point trying to pay back some sizeable business and personal debt.
From the outside, he appeared to have it all: a successful business, a beautiful new luxury home, expensive vacations and a wonderful, loving family. But, like with so many people we’re impressed by, no one knew about the dangerous levels of debt he’d taken on in order to have all those things.
I use this story knowing it is an extreme case. Debt, in the right amounts and at the right times in our lives, can be very beneficial in helping us get ahead. But if you get into a situation where you can’t pay it back, it can turn out to be one of the ugliest nightmares you’ll ever face.
You might think that if the lender says you’re fine to borrow the money, it must be OK to proceed. But there’s one gigantic problem with those income and debt ratios that are commonly used to screen us all before we borrow: They assume nothing in your life is going to change.
Taking the time to honestly answer these five questions could save you from years of misery.
An article in the Wall Street Journal (Debt Hobbles Older Americans, 9/7/11) paints a sobering picture of the impact that rising debt levels have on people’s retirement plans.
Thirty-nine percent of households headed by people aged 60 through 64 had primary mortgages in 2010, up from 22% in 1994. The median value of mortgage and home loan debt, adjusted for inflation, for homeowners aged 60 to 62 also increased, from about $40,000 in 1994 to $80,000 in 2008.
Housing price declines have made it more difficult to pay off these mortgages, forcing people to work longer before retiring.
This article in The New York Times (Lewin, Tamar, “Burden of College Loans on Graduates Grows”, April 12, 2011) speaks about the growing total level of college debt, which is a function of increasing college costs, increasing numbers of students going to college and the increasing numbers of those students who need to borrow to attend school.
The article goes on to state that two-thirds of those who received bachelor degrees graduated with debt in 2008, compared with less than half in 1993. In 2010, the average loan amount for those graduates finishing college with debt was $24,000.
Attending college is great for its own sake, and also leads to substantially higher lifetime earnings and lower unemployment. However, both parents and students should consider the incremental costs and benefits of attending, for example, an expensive out-of-state private university instead of an in-state public university. Both might give the student a fine education, with good prospects for future potential graduate schools and/or jobs.
The private school might have more prestige. The question is whether this is a sufficient inducement to incur large amounts of debt which could negatively impact the retirement plans of the parents or the future lifestyle of the student. There is no right answer to this, but it is certainly something our clients can discuss with their financial advisors.