MONEY Out of the Red

Have You Conquered Debt? Tell Us Your Story

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With patience, you can pay off large amounts of debt and improve your credit. MONEY wants to hear how you're doing it.

Have you gotten rid of a big IOU on your balance sheet, or at least made significant progress toward that end? MONEY wants to hear your digging-out-of-debt stories, to share with and inspire our readers who might be in similar situations.

Use the confidential form below to tell us about it. What kind of debt did you have, and how much? How did you erase it—or what are you currently doing? What advice do you have for other people in your situation? We’re interested in stories about all kinds of debt, from student loans to credit cards to car loans to mortgages.

Read the first story in our series, about a Marine and mother of three who paid off more than $158,169 in debt:

My kids have been understanding. Now I teach them about needs and wants. The other day, I was coming home from work, and I said, “Do you need anything from the store?” My son said, “We don’t need anything, but we’d like some candy.” If they want a video game, they know they need to save their money to get that video game—and that means there’s something else they won’t be able to get. They understand if you have a big house, that means you have to pay big electricity and water bills. I’m teaching them to live within their means and not just get, get, get to try to impress people.

Do you have a story about conquering debt? Share it with us. Please also let us know where you’re from, what you do for a living, and how old you are. We won’t use your story unless we speak with you first.

MONEY Out of the Red

How I Paid Off $158,169 in Debt

G. McDowell Photography

Think there's no way to get out from under your obligations? This first in a series of profiles of people getting "Out of the Red" proves that it's possible.

Rachel Gause just wanted to give her three kids more than she had growing up. So, though she was receiving a secure income along with child support, she found herself living beyond her means every month—eventually racking up six figures in debt. With a whole lot of determination and almost a decade’s worth of belt-tightening, she’s climbed most of the way out. This is her story, as told to MONEY reporter Kara Brandeisky.

Rachel Gause
Jacksonville, N.C.
Occupation: Master Sergeant, United States Marine Corps
Initial debt: $179,625
Amount left: $21,456
When she started paying it down: 2006
When she hopes to be debt-free: November 2015

How I got into trouble

“I was just trying to keep up with everybody else. I’m a single parent to three kids, ages 10, 14, and 16. I was always spending extra on Christmas and on birthdays. Also, growing up, I didn’t have new clothes and new shoes at the start of every school year. But I wanted to make sure my kids always did.

Looking back, I wish I would have known not to rely on credit cards. I wish I would have known that it’s okay to keep your car for four or more years, as long as you maintain it.

I started going into debt when my first daughter was born, 16 years ago. I remember I had to get a furniture loan. By 2006, I had $55,848 in credit card debt and $76,711 in car loans. Then there were the personal loans. I had a consolidation loan that I used to pay off my credit cards. Altogether, it came out to $179,625.”

My “uh-oh” moment

“I wasn’t aware of how much debt I was in. The turning point for me was when I hit the 10-year point in the Marines, and I saw other people around me retiring. I wanted to sit down and see where I was at. And that’s when I realized I didn’t want to retire in debt. I didn’t want to be that person.

At the time, I had a Toyota Sequoia, and I couldn’t make payments on it. I knew I was in way over my head.

Even though I had three kids, we didn’t need that big truck. It was going to put my family at a financial challenge. So I spoke to a lady at my church, and I said, ‘I have this truck, and I’m going to trade it in for something smaller.’ And she said, ‘I always wanted a Toyota Sequoia.’ I sold it to her and got into a Corolla instead.

I realized buying that truck was a bad choice, and I knew I needed to develop better habits from there. That was my first step forward.

How I’m getting out from under

Now I put roughly $2,100 a month toward my debt.

For the rest of my income, I use the envelope system. Before I get paid, I do my budget. Then I have 13 envelopes—one for groceries, one for clothes and shoes, one for charity, one for dining out, one for gas, and so on. I go to the bank, take the money out, and divide it between the envelopes.

I don’t spend anything that doesn’t come out of those envelopes. Debit cards are nice, but swiping is less emotional. Cash makes me more aware of what I’m spending my money on. If I run out of money for something that month, I don’t buy it. But I’ve never run out of money for something important—now I’m more aware of how much I’m spending.

That’s because I also got a small composition book from Dollar General to track my spending. Every time I spend money, I write it in that book. Then I compare that to what I’m supposed to be spending, according to my budget.

I also do a quarterly audit on myself to make sure I’m not spending too much more on my cable or cell phone bills.

But it’s not all deprivation. We have a chart that we color in every time we reach a milestone, and we treat ourselves to something nice. For example, recently I went on a trip with my high school classmates to Atlanta—funded totally in cash.

My kids have been understanding about our debt-free journey. They know that mommy has made some bad financial decisions in the past. Now I teach them about needs and wants.

The other day, I was coming home from work, and I said, “Do you need anything from the store?” My son said, “We don’t need anything, but we’d like some candy.”

If they want a video game, they know they need to save their money to get that video game—and that means there’s something else they won’t be able to get. They understand if you have a big house, that means you have to pay big electricity and water bills. I’m teaching them to live within their means and not just get, get, get to try to impress people.

What I’ve learned that could help someone else

My advice would be to sit down, see where you’re at—first, you have to know how much debt you’re in—and then create a spending plan. (Some people are scared of the word “budget.”) You have to tell your money where to go, or it’s going to tell you where to go.

The numbers may scare you in the beginning. It takes two or three months before you can get the budget right.

And you have to be consistent. If you don’t put 100% into it, it’s not going to work. You can’t be half, ‘I’m trying to get out of debt,’ and half, ‘I still want to spend money.’ You have to sacrifice.

My hopes for the future

Once I become debt-free, I plan to build up my emergency fund and then start actively investing and saving for retirement.

Then I hope to get my kids off to a better start.

My daughter will go to college soon. We’ve talked about student loans.

The main reason I joined the military was to obtain my college degree for free. I earned my degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington last year. But while I was there, I saw so many kids taking courses for a second and third time because they were failing and they weren’t going to class.

So I told my daughter, you’ll pay for that first year, and we’ll see how you manage. Then I’ll assist you with your second, third and fourth years. But first, I need to make sure you’re dedicated.

After I retire from the military, I want to become a certified financial counselor so I can help people break the vicious cycle of being in debt and dying in debt. My passion is to put together financial classes for non-profit organizations like women’s shelters, churches, and organizations for military service members. There aren’t that many in this area, and I see a real need. I see so many people struggling to survive, living paycheck to paycheck.

I’ve already started counseling some people who ask for help.

Every now and then, I get a message on Facebook from someone I helped that says, ‘I just paid off another credit card’ or ‘I paid off my car.’ That’s my motivation now. I don’t want to stop – the need is out there.

Are you climbing out of debt? Share your story of getting Out of the Red.

Check out Money 101 for more resources:

MONEY Ask the Expert

One of the Most Important Retirement Decisions You Need to Make

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My wife is 62 and I am 65. She has a small pension of $21,000 and can take it as a lump sum or an annuity of $154 a month. We also have a credit card with $17,000 at 8% and two car loans of $17,000 at 8%. Should we use the money to pay off debt or roll it into an IRA? – Joe Skovira, Cheshire, Conn.

A: Choosing the right way to handle a pension payout is critical to your retirement success. It’s all too tempting to use that money to pay off debts, when your other sources of cash run short. But raiding your pension could be a mistake. “You should pay off the debt but don’t sacrifice the pension to do it,” says Rich Paul, a certified financial planner and president of Richard W. Paul & Associates.

Even though the pension income is small, that $154 monthly check adds up $1,800 a year, or a 9% payout. It would be hard to generate that consistent income on your own in an IRA. “Those are guaranteed dollars that you’ll receive for the rest of your life—you can’t get that kind of return with conservative investments,” says Paul.

There are also taxes to consider. If you take the pension as a lump sum, and don’t roll it over into an IRA, you’ll likely owe capital gains or income taxes. Moreover, the income from that lump sum might push you into a higher tax bracket, further eroding its value.

As for your debts, they’re clearly a drain on your cash flow. So look for ways to free up cash to pay off those bills by cutting your spending. For strategies on getting on top of that debt, see here and here.

It also makes sense to prioritize your credit card debt over the car loans, says Paul. That way, if you ever need extra cash, you’ll have a bigger credit line to tap. You could even use the $154 to step up payments on the credit card.

“It all comes down to cash flow. You’ll feel a lot more comfortable in retirement with more guaranteed income and less debt,” says Paul.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

Related:

Should I save or pay off debt?

What debts should I pay off first?

Should I take my pension as a lump sum or as monthly payments?

MONEY retirement planning

3 Ways to Feather Your (Empty) Nest

Birds in nest throwing money in the air
Sebastien Thibault

Just because the kids are gone doesn't mean it's time to splurge. Here are some ways to treat yourself well without compromising your comfort in retirement.

The phrase “empty nest” may sound sad and lonely. But—shh!—don’t let the kids know that when they clear out, Mom and Dad have fun. Often too much fun. A study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that empty-nesters spend 51% more than they did when their children were home. “We have clients who go out to lunch and dinner every day,” notes Cincinnati financial planner John Evans.

Certainly after surviving Little League, teenage attitude, and the colossal cost of college, you ­deserve to splurge. But you also don’t want to compromise your finances as you begin the final sprint to retirement. Here are three ways to keep feathering your nest while still enjoying your freedom.

First, Keep Your Spending in Check

  • Rerun your numbers. While you can likely afford to let loose a bit, make sure your retirement plan is in order before you go wild. “You should save a bare minimum of 10% a year, really more like 15%—and if you’re behind you may need to save 20% to 30%,” says Boca Raton, Fla., financial planner Mari Adam. Use T. Rowe Price’s retirement income calculator to see what you need to put away to get your desired income.
  • Make a payoff plan. Erasing your debts before retirement will require sacrifice now—but will take pressure off your nest egg and allow you to have more fun later. Figure out how to do it with the debt calculator at CreditKarma.com.
  • Plug the kid leak. One in four affluent parents ages 50 to 70 surveyed recently by Ameriprise said that supporting adult children has put them off track for retirement. Lesson: Get your priorities (retirement and debt elimination) straight first, and build gifts into your annual budget proactively vs. giving willy-nilly.

Second, Free Up Even More Cash to Stash

  • Downsize. Convert Junior’s room into a better tomorrow: Moving from a $250,000 house to a $150,000 one could boost your investment income by $3,000 a year while reducing maintenance and taxes by $3,250, the Center for Retirement Research found.
  • Cut your coverage. If your kids are working, you may not need life insurance to protect them. You may be able to take them off health and auto policies too.
  • Moonlight. Besides increasing your income and helping you establish a second act, “self-employment makes a huge difference in what you can do on your taxes,” says Tony Novak, a Philadelphia-area CPA. That’s especially valuable in these peak earning years when you’ve lost the kid write-offs.

Finally, Supercharge Tax-Efficient Savings

  • Catch up on your 401(k) and IRA. Once you hit 50, you can sock away $5,500 more in your 401(k) this year, for a total of $23,000, and an extra $1,000 in your IRA, for a total of $6,500. In 2015, you’ll be able to put an extra $6,000 in your 401(k), for a total of $24,000; IRA caps remain unchanged. If you start moonlighting, as suggested above, you can shelter more money in a SEP-IRA—the lesser of 25% of earnings or $52,000.
  • Shovel cash into that HSA. Got a high-deductible health plan? Families can contribute $6,550 ($7,550 if you’re 55-plus) to a health savings account. Contributions are pretax, money grows tax-free, and you don’t pay taxes on withdrawals for medical expenses. If you can pay your deductible from other savings, let your HSA grow for retirement, Novak says.

Sources: Employee Benefit Research Institute, PulteGroup, MONEY calculations­

TIME

This Is the Most Depressing Number in Personal Finance

Money
Getty Images

It's the shocking amount we spend to be in debt

How much do you think you’ll spend servicing the cost of borrowing on credit over the course of your life? A few thousand dollars? Maybe 10 or 20 grand? The real amount will floor you.

How about almost $280,000 ($279,002, to be exact). In many parts of the country, that’s enough to buy you a house and a car. It’s more than the $245,340 the government estimates it will cost to raise a child born in 2013. And this is for people with middle-of-the-road credit scores. If medical bills or a job loss torched your credit, you could be paying much more for the privilege of borrowing money.

A lot of people only think about their debt in monthly terms — how much their mortgage or car payment is, or how much they need to pay to make the minimum payment on their credit cards. But a new tool from Credit.com pulls back the curtain and shows how much we’re really paying over time.

The penalty for having poor credit is steeper than the benefit that comes from having good credit. “If you have really bad credit, you’re at a definite disadvantage,” says Gerri Detweiler, president of consumer education at Credit.com.

According to Credit.com, somebody with top-notch credit would pay $209,590 in interest, while people with bad credit would be on the hook for $369,054, on average. “However, this is over an entire lifetime and everyone has the opportunity for a fresh start,” Detweiler says. Even bankruptcies come off your credit file after 10 years, and most other negative information doesn’t last that long.

Those figures are national averages; the calculator lets you add in where you live, what range your credit score falls in and details about your debts. Playing around with the variables can show you, for instance, how much you might be able to save in interest payments if you hang onto your car for a few more years, put a little extra towards your mortgage principal or credit card balance every month, or take steps to pull your credit into a better tier.

One thing the tool doesn’t do, though, is factor in the enormous amount of student loan debt many Americans today carry. For the more than seven in 10 students who graduated with an average of $29,400 in debt in 2012, according to The Institute for College Access and Success, that amount can inflate quickly if loans are deferred or put into forbearance.

“For some students, their student loan is like their mortgage,” Detweiler says.

MONEY Student Loans

6 Ways for New Grads to Tackle Their Student Loans

clock about to strike
Jamie Grill&;mdash;Getty Images

You have to start repaying your college debts six months after you graduate. For the class of 2014, that deadline is approaching fast. Here's how to get ready.

The six-month grace period for many student loans is about to expire for new college graduates. If the past is any guide, many people will miss their first payment and some will end up defaulting on their loans—even though there’s usually no good reason for that to happen.

The stakes are high: even a single missed payment on a credit account can damage an individual’s credit scores, although many loan servicers don’t report delinquencies until borrowers are 90 days or more overdue. Borrowers who default—failing to pay for nine months or more—face having some of their wages and all of their tax refunds seized by the government.

Yet many borrowers may have already lost track of what they owe, and their lenders may have lost track of them because of address or email changes.

That’s still no excuse for not paying.

Borrowers shouldn’t wait to get a bill before making plans to repay the debt. Instead, here’s how new graduates should tackle their student loans:

1. Know what you owe

The typical borrower with student loan debt has four loans, according to a recent Experian study, and it’s not unusual to accumulate far more.

A borrower’s first task is to make a list of every loan, including the balance owed, the type of loan (federal or private), the date the first payment is due and the servicer, or the company designated to take your payments.

Borrowers should check the National Student Loan Data System for any federal loans they may have forgotten or for which they need more information. To uncover private loans, borrowers should get copies of their credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com.

Recent federal loans have names that include Direct, Perkins, Stafford, PLUS, or Grad PLUS. Older loans include Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL). Private loans are typically issued by banks, credit unions, colleges, or non-profits.

2. Reach out for help

Borrowers typically can get access to their loan accounts online, and doing so can make managing multiple loans easier. Graduates should take the time to update their addresses and emails with the loan servicers so that they don’t miss critical communications.

3. Explore payment options

Income-based repayment plans, along with generous deferral and forbearance options that offer payment relief for up to three years, can keep the vast majority of federal student loan borrowers from defaulting, says Reyna Gobel, author of the book CliffsNotes Graduation Debt.

Private student loans offer fewer options for strapped borrowers. But some forbearance or deferral is typically available for those who are unemployed or facing other economic setbacks.

Even graduates who can manage their first payments should investigate alternatives.

Pay as You Earn, a federal income-based program, could lower payments to less than 10% of the borrower’s income—and those who work in public service jobs could be eligible for forgiveness of any remaining balances after 10 years of payments. (Those who work in non-public service jobs can get forgiveness after 20 to 25 years, depending on when the debt was incurred.)

If you’re unemployed or not earning much, Pay as You Earn can lower your payment to zero—while still keeping you out of default. Extended and graduated payment programs also can make payments more manageable. For more information, check the Department of Education’s student aid site and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Repay Student Debt tool.

4. Research consolidation

Consolidation used to be a way to lower interest rates on federal debt and make one payment instead of several. Today, federal student loans offer fixed rates, and consolidation merely offers a weighted average of those rates.

Plus, many borrowers now have just one servicer even if they have several federal loans, so they may already have the convenience of a single payment. The best reason to consolidate may be to opt for lower payments by choosing a longer payback period—15, 20, or 30 years instead of the typical 10 years, for example. But that increases the total cost of the loan.

The Student Loan Borrowers Assistance site has information about the pros and cons of consolidation.

One good reason for taking longer to pay back federal loans is to free up more money to pay off private loans, which typically have variable interest rates and few consumer protections.

Private loans cannot be included in a federal student loan consolidation. A few lenders offer private consolidation or refinancing that can include federal student loans, but borrowers could lose critical protections if they turn federal debt into private debt.

5. Rethink aggressive payment plans

Borrowers with decent incomes may be tempted to throw every available dollar at their debt. While this may decrease the interest they pay, they could be poorer in the long run if they don’t take advantage of opportunities to save.

Another problem with rapid debt repayment is a potential loss of financial flexibility. Money paid to student lenders is gone for good, unlike money accumulated in savings. A layoff or other economic setback could leave the borrower scrambling for cash.

6. Know where to find help

Borrowers should first contact their loan servicers to try to resolve any disputes. If that doesn’t work, borrowers can contact the Federal Student Aid Ombudsman for help with federal loans. For private loans or problems with servicers, complaints can be lodged with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

MONEY Love + Money

5 Super Easy Online Tools that Can Help Couples Feel More Financially Secure

hearts made out of money
iStock

Can't seem to get on the same page with your partner when it comes to money? Help has arrived.

In order to achieve common goals, getting on the same financial page with your romantic partner is critical—but it’s also challenging.

As our own MONEY survey recently revealed, a majority of married couples (70%) argue about money. Financial spats are, in fact, more frequent than disagreements over chores, sex and what’s for dinner.

The Internet can offer some strategic intervention. From budgeting to paying off debt, saving to credit awareness, these five online financial tools can help everyone—and, in particular, couples—get a better handle on their money.

The best part: They’re free.

1. For help reaching a goal: SmartyPig

SmartyPig is an FDIC-insured online savings account that—besides paying a top-of-the-heap 1% interest rate—is designed to help consumers systematically save up for specific purchases using categorized accounts like “college savings,” “summer vacation” or “new car.” Couples can link their existing bank accounts to one shared SmartyPig account and open up as many goal-oriented funds as they desire. You see exactly where you stand in terms of reaching your goals, which can motivate you to keep saving.

Additionally, SmartyPig has a social sharing tool that lets customers invite friends and family to contribute to their savings missions. Don’t want people to bring gifts to your child’s next birthday? In lieu of toys, you can suggest a ‘contribution’ to his SmartyPig music-lessons fund and provide the link to where they can transfer money.

2. For help boosting your credit scores: Credit.com

If you and your partner need to improve one—or both—of your credit scores and seek clarity on how, Credit.com can help. The Web site offers a free credit report card that assigns letter grades to each of the main factors that make up your score: payment history, debt usage, credit age, account mix and credit inquiries.

A side-by-side comparison of each person’s credit report card can—even if the scores are roughly the same—actually reveal that one spouse scored, say, a D for account inquiries, while the other has a C- under debt usage. From there you can tell what, specifically, each person needs to improve upon. “It may lead to some friendly competition,” says Gerri Detweiler, Director of Consumer Education at Credit.com.

3. For help tracking your expenses: Level Money

Called the “Mint for Millennials,” Level Money is a cash-flow-management mobile app that automatically updates your credit, debt and banking transactions and gives a simple, real-time overview of your finances. It includes a “money meter” that shows how much you have left to spend for the remainder of the day, week and month.

A spokesperson tells me that couples with completely combined finances can share a Level Money account and see all bank and credit card accounts in one place. They can get insight into when either partner spends money and how that affects cash flow. The company says it’s continuing to build out tools for couples.

4. For help eliminating debt: ReadyForZero

If you and your partner need some nudging to get out of credit card debt once and for all, ReadyForZero may be of service. Launched three years ago, it’s an online financial tool that aims to help people pay off debt faster and protect their credit. The free membership gets you a personalized debt-reduction plan with suggested payments. The site tracks your progress so you can see how well—or how poorly—you’re doing and regularly posts “success stories” on its site to motivate users. You also get access to the ReadyForZero mobile app which sends you push notifications suggesting an extra payment towards your balance if you just placed a larger than normal deposit in savings or checking.

For couples, the tool can help one or both partners to stop living in denial and to come to terms with their financial obligations. Says CEO Rod Ebrahimi, “it demystifies the debt.”

5. For help syncing up generally: Cozi

When I asked attendees at the annual Financial Bloggers Conference last month about what sites, apps and online tools they like to use to keep their finances in check in their relationships, a few pointed to the website and app Cozi. It’s not a financial tool per se, but Cozi helps households stay organized, informed and in sync with master calendars and household to-do’s like food and meal planning, shopping and appointments.

Want to schedule a meeting to talk about holiday gifting and how much to spend? Put in in Cozi. Want to plan meals for the week so you’ll know exactly what to buy at the market and not be tempted to order in? Tap Cozi to make a list.

Ashley Barnett who runs the blog MoneyTalksCoaching.com says she and her husband have been using Cozi for years. “My favorite part is that the calendar syncs across all devices, so when I enter an event into the calendar, my husband will also have it on his,” she says. Cozi’s actually gone so far as helping the couple minimize childcare costs. “Before Cozi, if I accidentally booked a meeting on a night my husband was working late, I had to either pay a sitter or reschedule the client, which is unprofessional and hurts my business,” says Barnett. “Now when I pull up my calendar I see his work schedule as well. No more surprise sitters needed!”

[Editor's Note: Cozi was recently acquired by Time Inc., the company that owns MONEY and TIME.]

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at Money Magazine and the author of the new book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. She blogs at www.farnoosh.tv

MONEY Millennials

How Millennials Stalled the Housing Market Recovery

Wrecking ball hitting brick wall
Steve Bronstein—Getty Images

Millennials already have to deal with hefty debt from college, an iffy job market, and growing up in an era where MTV no longer plays music videos, but now they’re being blamed for holding back the real estate boom. Homebuilder adviser John Burns Consulting published details from a study earlier this month concluding that student loan payments will cost the housing industry 414,000 transactions this year that would have totaled $83 billion in sales.

Ouch. The ivory tower is crumbling at the foundation.

It’s been widely assumed that mounting student debt is eating away at this otherwise buoyant housing market recovery. John Burns Consulting’s study — boiled down to a free one-pager for those that aren’t paying customers that got the more thorough report — attempts to quantify the impact.

How did the adviser arrive at $83 billion? Well, we start with the 5.9 million households under the age of 40 that are paying at least $250 in student loan debt, nearly triple the 2.2 million leveraged college grads in the same predicament back in 2005. We then get to the assumption that $250 earmarked for student loan debt every month reduces the buying power of a potential homebuyer by $44,000. That’s bad, and it’s naturally worse depending on how much more than $250 a month some of these indebted students have taken on to pay back. That’s less money they can commit to a mortgage. John Burns Consulting offers up that most households paying at least $750 a month in student loan have priced themselves out of the housing market entirely.

It gets worse

The study only looked at folks between the ages of 20-40. That’s a pretty sizable lot, especially since 35% of all households in that age bracket have at least $250 a month in student debt. However, even John Burns Consulting concedes that there’s “a big chunk of households over age 40 who have student debt” as well. It’s not likely to be as bad, naturally, but it’s all incremental at this point.

This report also happens to come at a time when the housing industry is starting to flinch after a couple of years of boom and bounce. Right now everything seems great. New home sales data released this past week showed the industry’s highest monthly growth rate in more than six years. However, the near-term outlook is starting to get hazy.

Shares of KB Home KB HOME KBH -0.4944% shed more than 5% of their value on Wednesday after reporting uninspiring quarterly results. Revenue and earnings fell short of expectations, and the same can be said about its number of closings and order growth. Earlier this month it was luxury bellwether Toll Brothers TOLL BROTHERS TOL 0.5943% setting an uneasy tone after posting a year-over-year decline in the number of contracts it signed during the period and an uptick in the cancellation rate for existing home orders.

It gets better

The student debt crisis is real, and the skyrocketing costs of obtaining a postsecondary education naturally open up the debate of its necessity. However, it’s also important to remember that university grads are earning far more than those that don’t attend college.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). The Condition of Education 2014 (NCES 2014-083), Annual Earnings of Young Adults.

The median of annual earnings for young adults in 2012 was $46,900 for those with a bachelor’s degree, $30,000 for those with just a high school degree or credential and $22,900 for those who did not complete high school. Those going on to grad school for advanced degrees — and that’s where student loans can really start to pile up — are at $59,600 a year.

In other words, most college grads, and especially grad school graduates, are typically better off than those that didn’t pursue higher education, even with the student loan albatross around their white-collared necks. The housing industry would be better off if colleges were cheaper or if student debt levels were lower, but the same can be said about purchasing power in general. At the end of the day, debt-saddled or not, the housing industry needs its college graduates.

MONEY College

Choosing a College Major by Age 16 Pays Off. Here’s Why

Forget the old thinking that kids could wait until college to decide a major. Today, they really ought to be making this decision before their junior year of high school.

I know what you’re thinking: How can I suggest such a thing? Why would we put that kind of pressure on high school students? Shouldn’t they be allowed to explore their interests in college first before having to declare a major?

But what’s the alternative?

By the time most students lock down their major, they’re halfway through their college career or nearly out the door. By some estimates, 80% will change their course of study at least once before graduation. And, we’re telling them not to worry about it. Just take your time, explore your interests and get your diploma.

But with students’ future financial health on the line, discussions around major choice and career path are just happening too late.

Delaying these important decisions could leave a student needing more than four years to complete the class requirements necessary to get a degree, and additional semesters or years add to the already burdensome cost of an education. For bachelor’s degree grads in the class of 2013, average education debt was almost $38,000, according to a report by Edvisors.com.

Additionally, what if a student ultimately ends up choosing a major that leads them into a low-paying field after they’ve already decided on a high-cost school and taken on substantial amounts of student loan debt?

Income-driven repayment plans from the federal government may offer some help for those that choose less lucrative career paths, but these plans do extend the repayment period from the typical 10 years to 20 to 25 years. This could mean that in the years when your children should be thinking about saving for retirement or for their own kids’ education, they’ll still be paying off their student loans. And, these plans won’t apply to any private loans used to fund college.

Major choice, and ultimately career path, should help guide your child’s choices around where to attend college and how much education debt they can afford in the long run. These choices have far-reaching implications. Here at PayScale, we just released data on salary potential for 121 associate degree majors and 207 bachelor degree majors as part of our annual College Salary Report. Understanding earning potential should be a pre-requisite to signing any student loan documents.

Big life decisions are scary, but mountains of debt (and the prospect of your college grad moving into your basement) are much scarier. Twenty-eight percent of Millennials have had to move home with their parents after college due to financial hardship. You’re not doing your son or daughter any favors by advising him or her to delay the decision on a major.

It’s not all on you as the parent either. High school curriculum should be helping students understand real-world applications for what they’re learning and guiding them into career paths for which they’re well-suited. “Career day” doesn’t cut it anymore.

And, I bet if you asked the average 10th grader which careers will have to use algebra on a regular basis, they couldn’t tell you. We need to be showing them why the subjects they’re studying matter and how they apply to careers they may be interested in pursuing. We need to expose them to careers they might not even realize exist.

Even if your kid doesn’t definitively choose a major by the time they graduate high school, starting these conversations early can only benefit them.

Lydia Frank is editorial director at PayScale.com, a site that provides on-demand compensation data and software to employees and employers.

TIME Argentina

Judge Holds Argentina in Contempt of Court

The South American country's showdown with the U.S. court continues

A U.S. judge found Argentina to be in civil contempt of court as it continues to defy his rulings that the country repay some $1.6 billion to holdout creditors–largely American hedge funds–before it pays other bondholders, Bloomberg reports.

Most recently, the country has moved to shift control of its structured debt payments to Buenos Aires from New York, despite the judge’s rulings.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa in Manhattan said that move is “illegal and cannot be carried out.”

Griesa did not rule on a penalty, but the holdout creditors have asked him to fine Argentina $50,000 a day until it complies.

Argentina’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday that the contempt ruling undermines “the dignity of foreign states,” according to Bloomberg. “The decision by Judge Griesa has no practical effects beyond providing new elements in the defamation campaign being waged against Argentina by vulture funds.”

[Bloomberg]

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