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Money Talk: Oct. 13, 2013

Dear Liz: I am almost finished with my associate degree at my local community college and will be starting my undergraduate degree in January. I have been lucky enough to accrue no college debt so far but know I will when I start my bachelor’s degree. I am considering taking out a home equity loan to cover this cost, borrowing around $10,000. I got a great deal on my house, and it continues to grow in value even with this economy. Your thoughts on this?

Answer: Home equity loans are actually more expensive than most federal student loans. Home equity loan rates for people with good credit range from 7 percent to 9 percent in many areas, while the current rate for direct, unsubsidized federal student loans is 5.41 percent. Furthermore, home equity loans aren’t as flexible and have fewer consumer protections than federal student loans.

You may initially get a lower rate on a home equity line of credit, but these variable-rate loans easily could get more expensive as interest rates rise.

Not only do federal student loans offer fixed rates, but they provide many affordable repayment options plus deferrals or forbearance if you should lose your job or run into other economic setbacks. You don’t have to demonstrate financial need to get federal student loans, although people with such needs can get subsidized loans with a lower interest rate. Your college’s financial aid office can help you apply.

Dear Liz: I just turned 65 and had planned to wait until 70 to retire. I love the actual work I do, but my boss is very challenging. I’m starting to question whether working here another five years is really how I want to spend my days at this point in my life. I have about $175,000 in my 401(k), about $35,000 in an IRA and $1,500 in a single stock that’s not in a retirement account. I have two years left on my primary mortgage and a $17,000 balance on my second mortgage, plus I owe $3,500 on a line of credit and $2,000 on credit cards.

I was starting to take money out of my IRA to pay down my mortgage early, but the taxes at the end of the year were so much that I stopped that distribution. (I still owe $500 to the state tax agency.) I have also had trouble keeping up with my property taxes and owe about $3,500.

I live in a 900-square-foot home, which I love and live a fairly simple life. I’m wondering about cashing in the stock and some of my IRA to pay down my debt, then using my 401(k) for living expenses until I actually draw from Social Security. As I’m typing this out I’m thinking, “Are you crazy?” I’d love your thoughts.

Answer: One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.

Tapping your IRA incurred a big tax bill that you’ve yet to fully repay. You also lost all the future tax-deferred gains that money could have earned. Why would you consider doing that again?

You may long for retirement, but it’s pretty clear you aren’t ready. You don’t have a lot of savings, given how long retirement can last, and you’re dragging a lot of debt. The type of debt you have — second mortgages, credit lines, credit cards — is an indicator you’re regularly spending beyond your means.

If you can’t live within your income now, you’ll have a terrible time when it drops in retirement.

So instead of bailing on work, take retirement for a test drive instead. Figure out how much you’d get from Social Security at your full retirement age next year (you can get an estimate at www.ssa.gov/estimator/). Add $700 a month to that figure, since that’s what you could withdraw from your current retirement account balances without too great a risk of running out of money. Once you figure out how to live on that amount, you can put the rest of your income toward paying off debt (starting with your overdue taxes), building up your retirement accounts and creating an emergency fund. It’s OK to cash out the stock to pay off debt, since it’s not in a retirement account, but make sure you set aside enough of the proceeds to cover the resulting tax bill.

Don’t forget to budget for medical expenses, including Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs. Fidelity estimates a typical couple retiring in 2013 should have $220,000 to pay out-of-pocket medical expenses that aren’t covered by Medicare.

That doesn’t include long-term-care costs. Your costs may be lower, but you’ll want to budget conservatively. Spend some time with the Nolo Press book “Social Security, Medicare & Government Pensions: Get the Most out of Your Retirement & Medical Benefits.”

You’ll be ready to retire when you’re debt-free and able to live on your expected income without leaning on credit.

Liz Weston is the author of The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy . Questions for possible inclusion in her column may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, Calif. 91604, or by email at liz@lizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.