“Should I invest my student loans?”

28 Comments

Zach emails about his student loan money:

Now for the most part all of that money will be used to do things like pay rent, and buy groceries, but when I’ve calculated it out, there’s around $1000 left per semester minimum, and more if I can be frugal about how I spend it.

My questions was, do you think it would be smart to turn around and pay off part of my loans with the extra cash, or could you recommend me a direction to maybe take this extra money that I have, and invest it to make a return? I know right now that I could either drop it in my ING savings account which is at 4.5% or put it into a money market account at my bank which is about 4.5% also. Other than that I wouldn’t know where to begin.

The problem with investing money in the short term is that it’s dumb. Sure, you could make a few percentage points — or you could lose most of it. Short-term volatility is very high, while time (and good investing choices with low fees) smooth out short-term volatility. As I’ve written before, time pressure=bad decisions. For example, I remember when I was a sophomore, we hosted this prospective freshman in our room for Admit Weekend. This guy left our room with a single decree: “Guys,” he said, “I’m not coming back until I hook up with a hot girl tonight.” My roommate and I looked at each other and laughed and laughed. Then we told him to just pack his stuff and take it with him — he wouldn’t be coming back, and it was nice to meet him. When he sheepishly came back around 3am, alone, I believe that moment of happiness will rival even the birth of my children. Setting a rapid timetable for getting ass, it turns out, is difficult.

Back to student loans. Do you want to invest your student-loan money for the possibility of making just $7.50/month (9% returns) but possibly losing some/most/all of it in the short-term? “But Ramit,” you might say, “I’ll just invest it in something safe so I can’t lose it.” Lower risk = lower rewards, so if you invest it in a safe government bond, you’ll earn about 5% — basically your savings rate. You need time and more capital to grow your money, not $1,000 and a few months. That’s the domain of get-rich-quick quacks, something I hate. Remember, the first thing I ask when someone wants to know about investing is, “When do you need this money?”

Ultimately, it comes down to risk and reward. This is why I find those 0% credit-card games so moronic. These are the ones where people get 0% interest money from their credit cards and transfer it around to earn interest on relatively large sums of money. Sure, you can make a hundred bucks a year, or maybe even a few hundred, but the risks of time, mismanaging the process, and screwing up your credit score just aren’t worth it to me. Plus, I’d rather do something useful and sustainable instead of spending a year getting $200 band-aid.

If it were a college student and I had some money left over from my student-loan account, I’d put it in a high-yield savings account like ING or HSBC and let it get about 4.5%. (Note that this would earn you about $4/month in interest, just about enough to buy Sisqo’s greatest hits on iTunes.) Separately, the most profitable thing I could do would be to learn about investing, asset allocation, and building an infrastructure to manage my personal finances.

The basic messages here are:
Risk and reward. Before you get overly excited about something, ask yourself if it’s worth it. You might make $200 in a year, with the possibility of messing up your credit for doing those stupid balance-transfer games? Not worth it.
Sexy vs. rich: Making it sustaintable. Are you building a long-term infrastructure or are you doing something short-term and dumb to distract yourself from the hard work of learning about real banking, budgeting, saving, and investing? Do you have a savings account? A Roth IRA? An investment account with proper asset allocation? Have you bought even one personal-finance book? (Here are 50 books I recommend.)

Learning and building a system may not seem as sexy as INVESTING IN DERIVATIVES AND SHORT-TERM SECURITIES!!!!11*#! but it’ll damn sure make you richer over the long term.

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28 Comments

 
  1. Ultimately, what it comes down to, is doing this could result in a jail term.

    http://banking.about.com/od/loans/a/loanuses.htm

    The funding from a student loan, according to the contract (which you read, right?), *must* be used to finance education expenses, which include tuition, textbooks, room and board, et cetera. It does not include exterior investment. That’s not an education expense. Do not invest money obtained from a student loan.

  2. Or here’s an idea…..pay the extra money back on the loan….and don’t take out student loans for rent and groceries!! This is coming from someone who took out a reasonable amount in student loans and just finished busting my butt paying them off. I think it’s incredibly irresponsible and stupid to take out student loans for living expenses (uh, get a job!) and even stupider to keep an overage and debate how to invest it! Student loans will GREATLY impact you ability to get a mortgage later in life, especially as lenders are tightening up on who they’ll lend to. They also GREATLY affect your freedom once you graduate. Student loans are a real pain to have to pay on every month and they really decreased my choices after graduation. You never think about it when you’re in school…but you have to pay those puppies back. Work harder now, take out fewer loans and you will be rewarded when you graduate and you aren’t having to pay on the stupid things.

    Sheesh!

  3. Ramit, I am in love. If my parents weren’t so small minded (wrong kind of Indian… Even in this day and age, i know…) I would marry you tomorrow. Love your site. There is a lot of useful information here and I have learned a lot. It doesn’t hurt when you call people morons, either. heh.

    My question is this: Is is worth it to contribute to a company RRSP (I’m Canadian) if there is no company match? Are there any downsides to doing this? Also, what would you consider to be a high Investment Management Fee? Ok, that’s more than one question…

    Thanks for your help. Sorry, I know this isn’t related to the student loans post…

  4. The guy mentioned about putting it in a savings account. If this is legal and he is disciplined it could make sense. When he graduates, if he is short of money he’ll have access to this cheap source of credit to help get established. I didn’t think about investing in anything riskier till I had $10-20k.

  5. If you have money sitting around, about $1000 in a totally safe bank account is not a bad thing. If you are NOT working to pay for school while in school (and even if you are, but it is lots harder), then you should be busting your butt to get out in as little time as possible – I finished my BS in 3 years.. That reduces the total of your living expenses. In some majors that is more possible than in some others. If you have parents willing and able to help you in an emergency (a real emergency – having spent your rent money on beer does not entitle you to this kind of help) then you can pay anything beyond that initial cushion back towards the loan.

    When you graduate, buying fancy living room furniture is not a good use of left over funds. Pay them back to the loans, and get your aunt’s old sofa to start with.

    Getting a little farther afield – placing well on AP tests can cut your time-to-BS. So can taking courses at the local college while you are in high school if that option is offered – they count as high school and college credit (at discount or paid for by your high school), that can go toward cutting your undergraduate time. Parents, take note.

  6. Great post, Ramit. I would say one other thing Zach might want to consider would be how good he is at leaving his savings alone. If he puts it in an ING/HSBC/Etc account and it is earning him an extra couple of dollars a month, that’s an extra few dollars to put towards the loan at some future time. However, if he has a propensity to dip into his savings, he might be better off putting the money on the loan right away. As you said, looking at risk vs reward is important. For those that are good at leaving their savings alone, there is very little risk in letting it sit and accrue interest. But for those that tend to “borrow” from their savings, the risk is much higher that they won’t have that money to apply to the loan later on.

  7. While you are in school, just have fun. Spend your money on beer, dates, and movies. Don’t take extra loans out but if it happens enjoy it.

  8. Punam,

    As a Canadian, RRSPs are a great idea… but there is no reason to do it through your company unless they have some sort of incentive (matching is very rare in RRSPs, whereas it is pretty common in pensions).

    The reason they are useful is because they act as a form of income smoothing – don’t think about them as a way to retire but as a way to shelter your money from taxes, both for investment purposes and against your current income. When your income sinks (say, you do start your own business, you get laid off, etc) you can withdraw the money – you pay tax in the year you withdraw, which you can time to be less than when you put in.

    You need to plan for how you will use your RRSPs for them to be effective… but using them makes a gigantic difference (for me- 5 years working, roughly 33,000 in cash for me, although that was directed towards my mortgage, meaning 20,000 is an IOU to the RRSP, meaning 13,000 clear I just wouldn’t have otherwise).

    And of course, you don’t pay taxes on the investments in the RRSP, which would allow you some diversification into bonds/income if you care about that stuff (eliminates the drawback of high taxation).

    Forget about the MER if you are just starting up your RRSPs – you don’t have as much flexibility as the Americans do. Just go to the bank and have it set up, go over the options with a decent advisor (if they don’t bring up self-directed RRSPs, find another bank). Once you have enough money (ie: 20k+) you can worry about buying into a better fund.

  9. I might be mistaken – as it’s only an excerpt – but it seems you overreacted to the question. As far as I can tell, the person was asking if he should just put his extra money in an interest bearing savings account without even the mention of riskier investments.

    You went on a rant about risk / reward and then said he should do what he was asking. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the intention of the article, it just doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the quoted email.

  10. Take out the risks and just pay off the student loans

  11. I would tuck the money away in ING and request that much less the next year. Like someone else said this won’t work if you don’t have discipline to leave it alone. In that case, pay it back now.

  12. I have to assume we’re talking about a federally subsidized loan, otherwise you’re still losing by putting the money in an ING account, since you’ll be earning 4.5% on money that’s costing you at least 5% (http://www.finaid.org/loans/studentloan.phtml). If it’s unsubsidized, pay it off immediately.

    If it’s subsidized, stick it all in a CD that will mature prior to graduation, and don’t touch it (easy since there are penalties for doing so with a CD).

  13. For Punam:
    The benefits of setting up your RRSP through your company are these:

    1) The company pays for the administrative costs (if you did it through a financial advisor you would be charged an annual fee)
    2) You can set up automatic deposits from your paycheque, before taxes, saving you a little in the long term.

    If these don’t really make a difference to you then I would suggest finding yourself a good advisor and get something set up. Regular contributions even if they’re only $50 or so are the way to go while you’re young, then increase them as you can afford to. Like Ramit always says, it’s not sexy, but it will work.

    As for the investment management fee, you probably want to aim for $150 or less per year, though this may depend on your advisor relationship and investment preferences.

    Myself, I have an excellent advisor taking care of my RRSP and other accounts. I decided the $130/year was worth it for what he does for me.

  14. I don’t understand what the profro’s hookup promise had to do with this post. I read it 3 times. I’m so confused.

  15. Oops, I updated that paragraph to be clearer. Thanks, Katie.

  16. You’re right on the money. I wouldn’t risk the chances, just pay it off. Nice post :)

  17. [...] Will Teach You To Be Rich answers a reader’s question on whether the leftover from student loan should be invested. If the loan interest is low enough, I don’t see why the money can’t be invested, as [...]

  18. Ouch. Moronic? As you said, it is all about risk and reward. The credit card “games” are a fair way to earn a bit of extra cash with little risk if you are disciplined.

    As for the person with the question, I think they should keep only $1,000 – $2,000 total in a safe savings account not to earn interest but to have a relatively cheap emergency fund. Make sure the loans are subsidized though or you will be paying more than you are making!

  19. Punam, Lisa, Finn:

    1. Investment Management Fee: Lisa, you are confusing this with the RRSP Administration Fee associated with Self-Directed RRSP’s. A directed RRSP account does not have this annual fee (Usually $125/year plus tax) and can be setup at your local bank branch or proprietary mutual fund distributor (like Investors Group)

    2. MER’s are a big concern. While the effect is smaller when your portfolio is smaller, over time they can really add up. Just so you know that I’m not trying to plug Investors Group – they have amongst the highest MER’s you can find – many funds are in the 3% range.

    3. You can setup an automatic contribution plan to your RRSP without being a part of the company’s Group RRSP plan – you can even enjoy the immediate tax savings by filling out a form with HR that indicates how much you contribute – they will withhold less tax at source for you.

    4. Many company Group RRSPs DO offer employer matching, usually in the 50% range. The limitations I would point out with Group RRSP’s is the limited product shelf and higher MER’s, although you are right in that the administrative costs are lower.

    5. What is a high investment management fee? MER’s are much higher in Canada than in the States, but you also need to look at what kind of mutual fund you are investing in – if it is a fixed income fund the MER is high if it’s over 1.5%, if it’s a balanced fund it is high if it is over 2% and if it is an equity fund it is high if it is over 2.4%, and if it is an equity fund with international exposure than it is high if it is over 2.7% – these are rough guidelines – but don’t pull your hair out looking at MER’s when you are getting started – focus more on picking good investment mandates and constructing a proper portfolio – you may need help from a friend with experience or a referral to a trusted advisor.

  20. What’s the interest rate on the student loan?

    If it’s not too less than the best savings account or 1yr-2yr CD (I believe about 5.30% APY and 5.45% APY, respectively), there is no point in *investing* it in those options.

    Plus, taxes are going to eat into whatever interest you earn over the year.

    @ Balance transfers: When you say “Not worth it” – I believe you are speaking for yourself. Everyone has a different perception of risk-reward balance. Managing credit cards in time might be stressful to you, but for some people it takes less than 5 minutes a month… and probably 5 additional minutes for applying for a card or two every year. I don’t understand why this should *distract* anyone from doing something sustainable.

    Of course, do something sustainable that adds value over the long term, but that does not mean that you should call everything else a hogwash – especially if you haven’t tried it. :)

  21. Pay off your loan so you have less debt when you graduate! Yes, student loans are “good” debt, or as good as debt can be, but you still want to minimize the amount of debt that you will have to pay off. Why would you borrow more than you need? This is not “extra money sitting around”, it is debt!

    And I agree with the previous poster who said student loans should not be used for things like groceries – you should be working to pay for that. The exception is if you are in a really rigorous program like law school or medical school where you literally may not have time to work. Loans should be for tuition, books – maybe rent or student housing if you really can’t swing it without the loan. I worked 10-20 hours a week throughout undergrad to pay for food, utilities, spending money, and some of my rent and graduated with a 3.5 GPA.

    Take it from someone who is still dealing with lots of student loan debt – take out as little as you can!

  22. First of all, this was one of your most enjoyable and well-written posts in a while (not that I don’t like the blog in general quite a bit; I just felt like the writing in this one deserved a shout-out because I really liked it). Kudos.

    That said, the first commenter said what I was going to. You mention that risking something as (relatively) minor as loss of $1,000 in capital isn’t worth an outside shot at $100-200/year. And you’re right. So if that $100 isn’t worth losing a good chunk of Zach’s original grand, then it’s damn sure not worth committing a crime for, and abusing student loan payments is indeed a crime.

    Now, there’s one obvious solution Zach omitted. And it’s a solution so obvious any bonehead could figure it out. Zach needs to go to Vegas right away, without wasting another potentially-profitable minute, take his entire $1,000, and run (not walk) to the roulette table. Once there, needs to bet the entire deal on 23.

    It’s just what Warren Buffett would do. If Warren Buffett was actually Warren G (and, for the record, I wish he was).

  23. I think its a rather fine line with investing monies on loan for education. If there is overage or you receive the funds and you place those funds in your savings account and collect interest waiting for a bill, where is the line drawn with you buying a growth mutual fund instead of a savings account? Say you hold the funds in an interest checking account?

    I think the best bet, not knowing the exact loan repercussions, would be to either return the excess if it’s not needed or “invest” the excess in a non-volatile fund and use the money strictly to pay for the loan after you graduate and you are required to begin payments.

    So if you get $1750 extra your 2nd semester of your senior year, maybe the best bet is to hold onto to it as almost an emergency account and use those funds strictly for repayment while you look for a job. So when you get your monthly repayment booklet, send off 6-months worth of payments so you can get some breathing room while you are welcomed to the real world.

    Would love to hear where I went overboard, if I did. :o)

  24. I don’t think it’s a terrible idea. As moom says above, it’s potentially a great source of cheap credit later in life. As for me (i’m in the UK) I got the maximum possible loan amount for my first couple of years of uni and put it in a savings account paying around 5.5% APR (the interest rate on the loan was not much above the rate of inflation). When I graduated and started working, I then used this money to buy my car and the rest went towards the deposit for my mortgage.

    I also agree with Nicole… don’t use student loans to pay rent/living expenses unless you absolutely have to. get a job, lazy swine.

  25. [...] Ramit, from I Will Teach You To Be Rich, looks at whether or not it’s a good idea to invest any excess money from your student loans in an article titled, “Should I Invest My Student Loans?“ [...]

  26. Besides being illegal, the price of student loans today is well above the return on any “high-yielding” savings account. Does it make sense to borrow a 8.5% student loan and putting it in a savings account with a 4.5% return? no.

  27. Nicole
    Your knowledge of human life rivals only the amoeba. What if David can’t have a job? What if someone enters college and has no financial knowledge? How can you suggest that someone work harder?! Money isn’t made by working harder it’s made by working smarter. http://www.futilitycloset.com/2007/11/05/work-smarter-not-harder/

  28. how i can teac to my student