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6 Financially Savvy Ways to Use Your Federal Tax Refund

January 7, 2017

The tax season is soon approaching, and if the federal tax refund figures are similar to 2016, over 100 million U.S. residents could see a tax refund! In fact, according to the IRS’s figures compiled after the late filing deadline in October 2016, the average total refund was $2,777 — a 1.8% increase from 2015. We have our fingers crossed that those amounts keep rising! If you are lucky enough to receive a tax refund, there are undoubtedly some exciting ways to use it — vacations, shopping sprees, and more. However, you may want to explore more financially prudent avenues to put your tax refund dollars to work. To help guide you, here are our top 6 financially responsible ways to use your tax refund dollars:

  1. Make a Larger Payment on Your Student Loans or Other Debt

Use your extra funds to pay off or pay down any outstanding student loans or other debts like credit cards, car loans, or home mortgages. Doing so can reduce the total amount of interest you pay over the life of your loan(s). For the most effective repayment plan, focus your efforts on the loan(s) with the highest interest rates. However, before you start committing extra funds to one particular loan, find out if you can refinance and consolidate any of them — such as student loans and home mortgages – into a new loan package that offers more favorable rates. If you do this ahead of time, you will know exactly which loan(s) will continue to have the highest interest rate(s) and where to focus your extra tax refund dollars.

  1. Create a Savings Account/Emergency Fund

Most financial experts suggest saving at least six months’ worth of your monthly expenses as an emergency fund. For example, if you need $4,000 a month to pay for your living expense bills and to buy food, then you will need to have at least $24,000 in your savings account. These funds can come in handy during a period of unemployment or other financially challenging moments in life. If that amount seems too far out of reach, start with a modest initial emergency savings goal of $1,000, which should cover many basic car or home repair costs and help you avoid accumulating additional debt. You can read more about budgeting strategies and percentages on Investopedia. Need more help creating a budget? Check out our blog, “Creating a Monthly Budget,” as well as other related topics on the Education Loan Finance blog.

  1. Set Up a Retirement Account

Next, consider saving for your future — that is, your retirement account. Creating a Roth account, whether it is a traditional or Roth IRA, contributing to a 401(k), or setting aside funds in some other retirement plan is a great way to ensure that you will be financially comfortable later in life. Most financial experts suggest setting aside 20 percent of your income towards your retirement.

  1. Start Investing

If you already have a great plan in place for savings, retirement, and financial emergencies, then you might want to consider using your tax refund dollars for other financial goals, like investments. That way you can earn additional income that ideally earns more than your savings account. Want some investing tips? Try starting with these financial gurus.

  1. Donate to a Charity

Charitable giving is a great way to use your federal tax refund dollars in a profound way. The financially savvy benefit? If you play your cards right and make a tax-deductible donation to an eligible organization, you may be able to write off your charitable contribution on your tax returns. Not only could you help increase the amount of your tax refund, but you will likely feel great about giving to a deserving cause. 

  1. Invest in Yourself

We call this worthy section a personal investment in yourself because rather than going on a shopping spree, it is a great idea to consider using your federal tax refund money for personal growth. Take a class in something you are passionate about. Travel somewhere that will supplement your life, your career, your self-employed business, your craft, or your trade. Furthermore, if you really just need a re-energizing vacation, and your personal finances are in great shape, go for it!  

There you have it: our top 6 financially savvy ways to use your tax refund dollars. We hope that your tax refund is just what you expect it to be — and possibly more! That way, you can use your extra funds to help get the new year off to a great start or to supplement a financially stable future. For more great tips on finances and using your tax refund dollars, visit Mint’s “10 Smart Ways to Use Your Tax Refund” and the Education Loan Finance blog.

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2019-12-11
Holiday Budgeting: Gift Ideas That Last Into the New Year

Unless you’re one of those people who had their holiday shopping done by December 1, you’re like the rest of us who spend 25 days scrambling around, balancing holiday parties, school finals, baking cookies, traveling, and shopping for gifts. Gift-giving is one of most festive-feeling and most stressful of holiday traditions. It’s also likely what brought you to this blog. As a recent college graduate, with an entry-level paycheck and mountain of student loan debt, it’s difficult to gift well without destroying your monthly budget. Check out our list of possible presents that are money-conscious and aren’t likely to get returned (or thrown out with the wrapping paper).

 

Give Experiences

It’s no secret the U.S. is a country of “stuff.” We fill our homes, garages, and eventually, storage units with items that we just know we’ll use again someday. While the newest iPhone® or New York Times® Bestseller might make your family and friend’s faces light up this December, once the next model comes out or the last page is read, those gifts become obsolete. 

 

 So instead of blowing your hard-earned income and monthly budget on more “stuff,” consider giving experiences: concert tickets, zoo memberships, or woodworking classes that your recipient will remember longer than they will the plot of that over-rated biopic. What’s even better: you can experience these things together. If you’re looking for more experiences to gift this holiday season, check out Huffington Post’s article, 21 Gift Ideas For People Who Value Experiences More Than Things. You can find a more holistic approach to experiential gift-giving for the mind, body, and soul in this ELFI blog.

 

Give Savings 

While not the most glamorous gift, receiving a contribution towards your student loan debt really is the gift that keeps on giving. Helping put a dent in student loan debt is more thoughtful than cash or a gift card snagged while checking out at the grocery store, and it can help you pay off those student loans faster. 

 

If your parents, grandparents or significant other made a student loan payment in your honor for the next two-three years for the holidays and your birthday, thousands of dollars could be shaved off of your student loans. Getting out from under student loan debt faster also means more fun money in your checking account to boost that monthly budget and buy the gifts you really want to give. 

 

If you’re like the many students who took out multiple federal and private student loans over the course of college, it may be a good time to consolidate and refinance student loans into one singular loan. Besides possibly scoring a better repayment term and interest rate, seeing the family contributions to paying off the debt could really jumpstart your 2020 goal of getting more financially fit. 

 

REgive Gifts

Re-gifting gets a bad wrap for being the lazy person’s way of shedding the unwanted junk in their house. However, with a little extra thought, re-gifting can be a fulfilling experience. Look past the junky toaster on your kitchen counter or clothes you hate and consider items that are in good condition, but no longer bring you joy or serve a purpose in your home. Maybe it’s an old CD that you and your dad listened to before you left for college. Maybe it’s an Instant Pot® that you really thought you’d use more of in 2017. Or maybe it’s a necklace your friend always compliments. Whatever it is, clean them up, wrap them nicely, and—whatever you do—be sure your friend or family member didn’t give you the item first. The secret to successfully re-gifting is to be upfront and honest about the gift being from your own personal department store and share why you did it.

 

Give Time

The holiday spirit is all about being with the ones you love and being generous to those in need. If you or your family are feeling stressed to maintain monthly budgets this year, consider scrapping gifting (in the traditional sense) altogether. There are countless organizations that take volunteers throughout the holiday season to distribute presents in hospitals, cook meals for the homeless, and even shovel snow or hang Christmas lights for the elderly. By giving time, you make connections in your community, spread cheer, and build karma for the new year. 

 

If you’re still feeling stressed about ruining your perfectly planned monthly budget this holiday season, consider student loan refinancing. Recent graduates have reported saving an average of $309 every month after their student loan refinance with ELFI*, which averages out to $20,936 in total savings.¹ And because this is the busy time of year, you can see your potential savings and see if you are prequalified for a student loan refinance in minutes. Happiest of holidays to you and yours!

 
 

*Subject to credit approval. Terms and conditions apply.

 

¹Average savings calculations are based on information provided by SouthEast Bank/ Education Loan Finance customers who refinanced their student loans between 8/16/2016 and 10/25/2018. While these amounts represent reported average amounts saved, actual amounts saved will vary depending upon a number of factors.

 

Notice About Third Party Websites: Education Loan Finance by SouthEast Bank is not responsible for and has no control over the subject matter, content, information, or graphics of the websites that have links here. The portal and news features are being provided by an outside source – the bank is not responsible for the content. Please contact us with any concerns or comments.

2019-12-10
Student Loan Repayment: Debt Snowball vs. Debt Avalanche

By Kat Tretina

Kat Tretina is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Florida. Her work has been featured in publications like The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, and more. She is focused on helping people pay down their debt and boost their income.

 

To cope with the high cost of college, you likely took out several different student loans. According to Saving For College, the average 2019 graduate left school with eight to 12 different student loans.

 

With so much debt and so many different individual loans, you may be overwhelmed and can’t decide where to start with your repayment. If you want to pay off your loans ahead of schedule, there are two main strategies that financial experts recommend: the debt avalanche and the debt snowball.

 

Here’s how each of these strategies work and how to decide which approach is right for you.

 

The difference between the debt snowball and debt avalanche strategies

Both the debt avalanche and debt snowball methods are strategies for paying off your debt early. However, how they work is quite different.

 

Debt avalanche

With the debt avalanche method, you list all of your student loans from the one with the highest interest rate to the one with the lowest interest rate. You continue making the minimum payments on all of your loans. However, you put any extra money you have toward the loan with the highest interest rate.

 

Under the debt avalanche, you keep making extra payments toward the debt with the highest interest rate. Once that loan is paid off, you roll over that loan’s monthly payment and pay it toward the loan with the next highest interest rate.

 

For example, let’s say you had the following loans:

  • $10,000 Private student loan at 7% interest
  • $15,000 Private student loan at 6.5% interest
  • $5,000 Direct Loan at 4.45% interest
 

In this scenario, you would make extra payments toward the private student loan at 7% interest first with the debt avalanche method. Once that loan was paid off, you’d make extra payments toward the private student loan at 6.5% interest, and then finally you’d tackle the Unsubsidized Direct Loan.

 

Debt snowball

The debt snowball method is more focused on quick wins. With this approach, you list all of your student loans according to their balance, rather than their interest rate. You continue making the minimum payments on all of them, but you put extra money toward the loan with the smallest balance first.

 

Once the smallest loan is paid off, you roll your payment toward the loan with the next lowest balance. You continue this process until all of your debt is paid off.

 

If you had the same loans as in the above example and followed the debt snowball method, you’d pay off the Direct Loan with the $5,000 balance first since it’s the smallest loan. Once that loan was paid off, you’d make extra payments toward the $10,000 private loan, and then you’d pay off the $15,000 private loan.

 

Pros and cons of the debt avalanche method

The debt avalanche strategy has several benefits and drawbacks:

 

Pros

  • You save more in interest: By tackling the highest-interest debt first, you’ll save more money in interest charges over the length of your loan. Compared to the debt snowball method, using the debt avalanche method can help you save hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
  • You’ll pay off the loans faster: Because you’re addressing the highest-interest debt first, there’s less time for interest to accrue on the loan. With less interest building, you can pay off your loans much earlier.
 

Cons

  • You don’t see results as quickly: Because you’re tackling the debt with the highest interest rate rather than the smallest balance, it can take longer before you can pay off a loan.
  • You may lose focus: It takes longer to pay off each loan, so it’s easier to lose motivation.
 

Pros and cons of the debt snowball method

The debt snowball method has the following pros and cons:

 

Pros

  • You get results quickly: Since you’re targeting the loan with the lowest balance first, you’ll pay off individual loans quicker than you would with the debt avalanche method.
  • Frees up money to pay down the next loan: You’ll be able to pay off loans quickly and roll the payments toward the next loan, helping you stay focused on your goals.
 

Cons

  • You’ll pay more in interest fees: By paying extra toward the loan with the smallest balance rather than the highest interest rate, you’ll pay more in interest fees than you would if you followed the debt avalanche method.
  • It could take longer to pay off your debt: Because you aren’t targeting the loans with the highest interest rate first, more interest can accrue over the length of the loan. The added interest means it will take longer to pay off your loans.
 

Which strategy is best for paying off student loans?

So which strategy is best for paying off student loans: the debt avalanche or the debt snowball? If your goal is to save as much money as possible and pay off your loans as quickly as you can, the debt avalanche method makes the most financial sense.

 

Psychologically, the debt snowball may have the advantage. According to a study from the Harvard Business Review, the debt snowball method is the most effective approach over the long-term, as borrowers are more likely to stick to their repayment strategy. However, which strategy is best for you is dependent on your mindset, motivation level, and your determination to pay off your debt.

 

Managing your student loan debt

Regardless of which repayment strategy you choose, you could save even more money or pay off your loans earlier by refinancing your student loans. When you refinance student loans, you apply for a loan from a private lender for the amount of your current student loans, including both private and federal loans.

 

The new loan has completely different repayment terms than your old ones, including interest rate, repayment term, and monthly payment. Even better, you’ll only have one student loan with one monthly payment to remember.

 

Use ELFI’s Find My Rate tool to get a rate quote without affecting your credit score.*

 
 

*Subject to credit approval. Terms and conditions apply.

 

Notice About Third Party Websites: Education Loan Finance by SouthEast Bank is not responsible for and has no control over the subject matter, content, information, or graphics of the websites that have links here. The portal and news features are being provided by an outside source – the bank is not responsible for the content. Please contact us with any concerns or comments.

2019-12-04
Tips for Starting Your Student Loan Repayment Journey

Once you graduate from college, leave college, or drop below half-time enrollment, it’s time to start thinking about when your student loan repayment period kicks in. Understanding the repayment process for your student loans is very important for a number of reasons – for one, if you don’t pay, your interest will accrue. Second, if you don’t pay, it will affect your credit score, which can hinder your ability to buy a home, buy a car, qualify for credit cards, take out a personal loan, or refinance your student loans.   If you graduated this past spring, your student loan repayment period will likely start around this time of year (if they haven’t kicked in already). Follow these tips to master student loan repayment and get yourself to a strong financial start after college.  

Know How to Access Your Loan Information

A good first step is to acquire your loan information. This can typically be accessed via an online login. Monitoring your loan information will be essential during the course of repayment. If you took out Federal Student Loans, you can likely access your info at https://myfedloan.org/. If you took out private student loans, check with your lender for how to access your information. Tracking your loans will give you a gage on the status of each loan, the balance you owe, as well as interest rates for each loan. By understanding the status of your loans, you can make more informed decisions about how you want to prioritize repayment, what type of repayment plan you want to choose, or even whether you want to consolidate or refinance your student loans.   

Know When Your Payments Start

Immediately following graduation, you’ll likely have a grace period, or a period of time before your first payment is due. This can vary depending on the type of loan you have, and they can be different for each loan. Subsidized and Unsubsidized Federal loans have a six-month grace period. Perkins loans have a nine-month grace period. There is no grace period for PLUS loans; however, if you are a graduate or professional student PLUS borrower, you do not have to make any payments while you are enrolled at least half time and (for Direct PLUS loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2008) for an additional 6 months after you graduate or drop below half-time enrollment. Private student loans will have differing grace periods so contact your loan servicer for more details. Knowing when your loan will be due is imperative to starting off on the right foot when it comes to your student loans.  

Weigh Repayment Options

When you take out federal student loans and your grace period is complete, you will automatically enter the Standard Repayment Plan. This plan allows you to pay off your debt within 10 years, with the monthly payment remaining the same over the life of the loan. If standard repayment doesn’t work for your budget, you may want to consider some other options, or perhaps even refinance your student loans. The federal student loan program offers the following Income-Based Repayment plans: 
  • Graduated Repayment Plan – Gives you a smaller payment amount in the beginning and gradually increases the payment amount every two years.
  • Extended Repayment Plan – Allows you to pay the least possible amount per month for 10 to 25 years.
  • Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan or REPAYE Plan – Bases the monthly payment on you (and spouse’s) adjusted gross income, family size, and state of residence.
  • Pay As You Earn or PAYE – Monthly payments are based on your adjusted gross income and family size. You must be experiencing a financial hardship to qualify. You must also be considered a “new borrower” as of 10/1/2007 or after, or be someone who received an eligible Direct Loan disbursement on 10/1/2011 or after.
  • Income-Based Repayment or IBR – Monthly payments based on your adjusted gross income and family size. Must be experiencing a financial hardship to qualify.
  • Income-Contingent Repayment or ICR – Based on your monthly adjusted gross income and family size. Typically chosen if an individual can’t qualify for the Pay As You Earn Plan or Income-Based Repayment.Any changes to your income or your spouse’s income will affect your student loan payment. For example, if your salary increases, your student loan payment will as well. If you are married, both your income and your partner’s income are combined. Two combined incomes will increase your total income, likely increasing your monthly payment. 
  Keep in mind that each repayment option will have positives, negatives, as well as eligibility requirements. Research each option before making a decision, and consider contacting your loan servicer if you have questions or need more information.   

Automate Your Payments (If you can)

Setting up automatic payments will make student loan repayment less of a hassle, will avoid late payments, and may even score you an interest rate reduction. Just be sure you have enough money in your account month-to-month to endure the payments without overdrawing.   

Make Extra Payments

When you make your monthly payment, it will first apply to any late fees you have, then it will apply to interest. After these items are covered, the remaining payment will go toward your principal loan balance (the amount you actually borrowed). By paying down the principal, you reduce the amount of interest that you pay over the life of the loan. Applying extra income by making larger payments or double payments will reduce the total amount you’ll end up paying.   

Reach Out for Help if Necessary

If you’re having trouble making your monthly payments, particularly on your federal student loans, contact your loan servicer. They will work with you to find a repayment plan you can manage or help determine your eligibility for deferment or forbearance. If you stop making payments without getting a deferment or forbearance, you risk your loan going into default, which can have serious consequences to your credit.   

Weigh Refinancing & Consolidation Options

If you have multiple student loans that are all accruing interest at different rates, you may want to consider student loan refinancing or consolidation to make repayment more manageable. The federal student loan program offers student loan consolidation, in which they combine your loans into one loan with a weighted average interest rate, rounded up to the nearest 1/8th percent. You can also consolidate your federal and/or private student loan with a private lender through the process of refinancing. Refinancing your student loans is much like consolidation, however it offers the opportunity to start new repayment terms and possibly lower your interest rate. Keep in mind that refinancing with a private lender may cause you to lose access to certain federal student loan repayment options that are listed above.   

Look Into Loan Forgiveness

If you work in a public service position or for a non-profit, you may want to consider the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program or another loan forgiveness program offered by the federal government. Other options exist for volunteers, military recruits, medical personnel, etc. Some state, school, and private programs also offer loan forgiveness. Check with your school or loan servicer to see if you may qualify for student loan forgiveness.  

Earn Your Tax Benefits

If you are paying your student loans, you may be able to deduct the interest you pay on your student loans when filing your taxes. Deductions reduce your tax liability, saving you money and serving as a nice tradeoff for having to pay interest on your student loans.    Repayment of student loans can be a long, difficult journey – but by taking advantage of your resources and staying determined to pay off your debt, it is manageable. If you need more information on paying back your student loans or the options that are available to you, contact your loan servicer.  
  Notice About Third Party Websites: Education Loan Finance by SouthEast Bank is not responsible for and has no control over the subject matter, content, information, or graphics of the websites that have links here. The portal and news features are being provided by an outside source – the bank is not responsible for the content. Please contact us with any concerns or comments.