If poor financial advice were currency, we could get rid of the dollar and just trade copies of The Money Class in exchange for all goods and services. A couple of months ago, I took exception to Suze Orman's statements that homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages need to simply "walk away" in a strategic default.
Yesterday, Orman was featured on Marlo Thomas's blog on AOL and once again, I am encouraging readers not to follow at least one of her money tips. Yesterday's AOL page featured six tips from Orman about money management. Some of these are innocuous--for instance, Orman's advice to live below your means so that you are consistently spending quite a bit less than you earn. But her tip about which debt to pay first is another piece of extremely bad financial advice from a woman whose financial views appear to line up closely with the Progressives in this country who don't care whether we as a society pay any of our bills as long as we make sure that the government always gets its share first.
Orman's advice was that the first debt we should always pay off is student loans. In the letter from a viewer that Marlo Thomas read on the video program, the writer said that his credit card has a 2.99% interest rate and his student loan has a 6% interest rate, and he wondered which one he should pay first. Orman replied that he should pay the student loan first, and not just because in this example the student loan carried the higher interest rate. Even if the student loan carried a lower interest rate than the credit card, viewers should still pay the student loan first. Why? Student loans are government-backed loans which cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, while the credit card is unsecured debt which can be discharged in bankruptcy. If you don't pay the credit card, says Orman, it's really not that big a deal. "What can they really do?"
Really? It is appalling to me that we have sunk to a level in our society where one of our leading financial experts constantly preaches the joys of defaulting on credit obligations. Following Orman's logic, we should never pay for anything. The fact that we knowingly took out a loan and that by refusing to pay it, we are actually stealing from the creditor is unimportant. Morality is not an issue. Nor, it appears, is just good old-fashioned common sense.
The reality is that typically student loans carry lower interest rates than credit cards. With the Card Act of 2009 and now the Durbin Amendment which is part of Dodd Frank, we can all look for the interest rates on our credit cards to continue to rise regardless of our payment history. My brother, who has spotless credit, was complaining last week when he was visiting that after the Card Act passed, all of his credit cards saw huge interest rate hikes. When he called to complain since he has a perfect pay history, the representatives told him that the interest rates are going up because of new legislation. In other words, if credit card companies can no longer price higher-risk borrowers according to their pay history, they will make up their lost revenues by charging more to everybody. So this whole concept of the cheaper interest rate on the credit card than on the student loan is disingenuous to start.
Second, student loans offer extremely favorable terms. Not only are the rates low, but they offer fixed payments for a set period of time. So if you pay their student loans on schedule, at the end of the fixed term the loans will be paid in full. Since loan payment is often deferred until six months after you finish school, you have a chance to find a job and start working before repayment begins. And since many student loans offer an interest-only feature for up to two years after payments commence, you ease into the payment.
Credit card balances, on the other hand, are revolving balances. Without making a concerted effort to pay them off, a credit card holder will be carrying that balance forever. For that reason, the traditional logic has always been to put extra cash toward paying off the revolving debt--the credit cards--first and then concentrating on fixed, lower interest rate installment debt.
But Orman does not encourage us to spend years struggling to pay off our credit cards slowly. Instead, she quips that the cards can be discharged in a bankruptcy. The implication is that since the creditor does not have collateral to back up the debt, we can walk away from this obligation unscathed.
That may sound nice, but it flies in the face of some basic facts. Fact # 1: A bankruptcy stays on a credit report for up to 10 years. Ten years is a long time to have to explain why you were unable or unwilling to pay your debts. Fact #2: Bankruptcy ruins your credit, and in today's world, your credit determines much of your life.
I realize that in Orman's world, nobody needs credit because we are not going to be using credit--we all live below our means so we don't buy anything except what we have the cash to pay for. But a good credit rating is useful for more than just getting a flat screen with a surround sound system. Many employers do routine credit checks as part of the hiring process. This is particularly true in federal government jobs and many corporate jobs where an applicant's ability to successfully manage his own financial affairs is considered an indicator of his overall integrity and competence. In a society where high unemployment is a serious issue, filing bankruptcy so that you don't have to pay Visa can lock you out of a job that you would have otherwise gotten.
Lousy credit costs money on so many different levels. Low credit scores cause insurance premiums to be higher than they would have otherwise been. And it can cause a financial institution to deny someone wanting to open a bank account. Credit is tied to character in our society--poor credit makes a person a bad financial risk for all types of financial products--not just loans.
Your credit rating also determines the cost of all of your future credit. And, yes, Orman's advice aside, someday you will probably want to have future credit. For example, under the new qualified residential mortgages which have been proposed and are about to be implemented, a 60 day delinquency can prevent you from qualifying for a low interest rate mortgage. Without pristine credit, you will be forced to go into a mortgage that will be approximately 3 times more expensive than the prime mortgages. Again, I realize that in Orman's world everybody is supposed to be happy renting a home forever, but in America most people eventually want to own their own place.
Working in financial services for 13 years, I saw so many people who were victims of the same cavalier mindset toward credit that Orman teaches. A few of them had a huge debt or collection that they could not pay due to a catastrophic circumstance--an illness, loss of a business, etc. But many more had pages and pages of bad credit reflecting dozens of small decisions not to pay their bills. I saw a lot of people whose credit was terrible because they owed a lot of money that they had not repaid, but normally they did not owe a great deal to any one creditor. What was more common was the borrower who owed lots of small amounts of money to many creditors and had let all of it go into collections. They had the $35.00 collection from the video store because they never bothered to return the DVD and the $50.00 bounced check to the local chain restaurant. They usually had a number of small bills (under $200.00) for the portion of the doctor's visit that the insurance didn't cover. And they had the collection account to the satellite TV company and the mobile phone company for using their services and never paying the first bill. Somewhere, years ago, these people embraced the idea that it was all unsecured debt and the creditors "couldn't do anything about it anyway."
Because they chose not to pay any of these bills, which in most cases they could have paid by doing a little budgeting, they paid more for everything else. They paid higher interest rates on their mortgages, their cars and their insurance. Because they had learned early in life that "nobody could make them pay" they went through life paying substantially more than they would have otherwise had to for almost every product and service they used. And they dragged their bad financial decisions around behind them like Jacob Marley's chain--every year their credit defaults became a little heavier and more ponderous.
That is the reason that Orman's advice bothers me so much. Even if today you do not file bankruptcy--if you just simply allow your credit cards to go into collection--you will be living with that decision for many years. Collection agencies sell collection accounts as the accounts get old and every time they sell your account, your credit report updates as if it were a new collection. Collections follow you around for up to seven years--even without a bankruptcy to formalize your refusal to pay. And if later you decide to settle the balance with the collection agency so that you can get a loan, or a better rate on your car insurance, the difference between what you owe the creditor and what you agreed to pay becomes subject to federal income tax as taxable income. So while you may get by with paying $1000 on a bill that was originally $2500.00, as far as Uncle Sam is concerned the remaining $1500 that you failed to pay is income and subject to taxation. When you decide to "stick it to the man" you look up in a few years to find out that you were the one who got stuck.
One thing Orman is right about--student loans must be paid. The government has powerful collection tools including the ability to garnish wages. But they are not the only debt that needs to be paid. And to say that they need to paid first before everything else is ridiculous. Pay them as scheduled and pay them off. That should leave funds to deal with your other debt. When you purchase on credit, implied in the contract with the creditor is your promise to pay. And unless you are willing to keep that promise whenever possible by paying your bills, you can never have any genuine financial success.
For books by Alexandra Swann visit her website at http://www.frontier2000.net/