Debt Reduces Academic Performance

Scrabble LoanDaniel Pink  pointed to this research paper which suggests:

Those paying for college with loans perform significantly worse than students receiving other forms of aid.

Why is this? It may be because of increased financial pressures, or stress about the future, perhaps debt is a trailing indicator of some other instability, or it may be caused by many factors.

We don’t need to know the ‘why’ to understand that if we’re headed toward large volumes of debt we need to pump the breaks and really calculate if it is worth it. As educational institutions, we need to dig deeper to provide alternatives to debt.

First Steps

hobbitWhen I’m faced with a huge task, I’m likely just to never start. That must be true not only of me but for others as well – there is even an old saying about it:

The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

Interestingly, it seems like one thing God does is hide the size of the elephant and just asks us to start with a single bite.

I’m in the process of reading The Hobbit to my kids right now, and Tolkien’s tale illustrates this point in a wonderful way. The story opens with Bilbo Baggins very much enjoying his life as status quo. Between first and second breakfasts, the wizard Gandalf tricks Bilbo into hosting a party of dwarves. Through the first chapter, Gandalf ropes him into ‘an unexpected journey’ one step at a time without letting him know how big the party is going to be, his role in the adventure, what to pack, or when they are leaving. As you might imagine, before long Bilbo is locked into the quest of a lifetime.

This theme is found throughout scripture as well. From Abram setting off with an unknown destination to God sending Moses back into Egypt to Jesus disciples being asked ‘follow me’, God sends us forth in life without knowing the scale and scope of the adventure.

I can’t imagine this is an accident.

What elephants seem overwhelming to you right now? Three years of Graduate School? Your debt? Finding a job? Buying a house? Eighteen years of raising children? Becoming a good spouse? Losing weight? Kicking an addiction? Reading the Bible in a year? Running a marathon? Writing a book? Starting an organization?

These are great things in life and they don’t just seem overwhelming, they ARE overwhelming. But don’t let that keep you from starting on the journey.

Year End Reporting

$2 bill logoThis post is a quick thank you and recap of 2015. It was my first full year of blogging. I first wrote a brief personal blog in 2007 or so, but really haven’t done anything close to this much writing in my career before.

This year I published 43 blog posts. That is right on my goal of once per week (minus breaks due to travel). My written goal is 45 posts in 2016.

We had 1,420 total unique visitors in 2016 with 1,867 views. This has very slowly and gradually been increasing.

We have had gradually increasing unique visitors every month since June.

This has been my most popular post, because there have been a few people that bumped into it through a google search related to the main story of the post.

I have some big goals for 2016. I think writing is really a skill that’s developed by writing thousands of words – nobody is born with the ‘writing gene’. I really have two main objectives:

  • I hope I’ll continue to improve my writing by developing a voice that is increasingly relevant to the reader. I’m building some feedback loops and I hope I’ll continue to hone this craft.
  • I’ll work on creative delivery solutions for this content. I’m work-shopping several ideas that should be live by summer, and I’m really excited about those.

Thank you for your readership. I appreciate it. I hope I can continue to serve you this year.

If there are topics you’d like me to research and see covered, please email me at dan.macleay@denverseminary.edu

Flexibility: Why Debt Hurts Your Income

ball-and-chainIn addition to my original post on Loan Forgiveness, last week I reviewed the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.

I wanted to blow out one additional thought on the PSLF – but this really applies to all debt, any government program, and your ability to negotiate a higher salary for the rest of your life.

The value of flexibility

The human brain is really poorly equipped to understand opportunity cost.  Opportunity cost – basically the idea that when you do “A”, you forgo the opportunity to also do “B”. For example, if you are a full time student, you forgo the opportunity to work for that year. It’s hard to compare/contrast the value of a degree and a year of formal education versus a year of income and experience. It’s REALLY hard to evaluate today’s opportunity value over the next 20, 30, 40 years.  For example, if you saved $6,000 in that year and it earned 10% over the next 40 years it would be worth $322,000.  Is that more or less valuable than a year of education?

One of the underrated problems of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan is that it lock’s you into one job. While it may seem amazing to have $75,000 of debt forgiven, if you really break it out that’s $840 a month or $10,000 a year (including interest). Is it possible through hard work and diligent looking to find a job or alternative stream of income where you can earn an additional $10k a year? Absolutely.

When you find an additional stream of income or develop a skill that serves the community in a way where they are willing to pay you for it, you own that. It transfers with you into new geographic or employment futures. It’s additional financial flexibility provides leverage in the type of jobs you choose to take.

This commitment to flexibility is why one financial guru dislikes home ownership. James Altucher is a secular, contrarian, pot-stirrer that tries to reshape our financial perspectives. Note the reason for his position against home ownership:

You’re trapped. Lets spell out very clearly why the myth of homeownership became religion in the United States. Its because corporations didn’t want their employees to have many job choices. So they encouraged them to own homes. So they can’t move away and get new jobs. Job salaries is a function of supply and demand. If you can’t move, then your supply of jobs  is low. You can’t argue the reverse, since new adults are always competing with you. (source)

His point (among others in the article) is: the Opportunity Cost of homeownership is that the illiquidity of your house prohibits your ability to take a different job outside a very limited geographic area.

Think about that point in the context of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan. If your employer knows you have a large student debt burden does that give you more leverage in salary negotiations? Of course not – they know you need a job. Once you have the job, does it put downward pressure on your future income? Sure – they know you are locked in. If your employer knows you need 120 consecutive payments from a qualified 501c3 or you fall out of the PSLF, does that give them additional leverage?

Your employer shouldn’t have that leverage. Even if they know you could go earn $10k-$20k MORE in the non-501c3 market, if you’ve been in the PSLF for four, five, or six years they are pretty confident you won’t leave.

The first rule of negotiating: Whoever has the most ability to walk-away has the leverage.

 

 

 

 

BiVO Articles

dweck_mindsetLast week I attended a conference on bi-vocational ministry held here at Denver Seminary. It was a great education on income options as well as thought provoking information on the future of occupational ministry jobs.

I also just read this article from the Atlantic. It discusses the realities of dwindling church attendance leading to fewer occupational ministry positions and the possibilities of a bi-vocational future.

It also includes this quote:

…Barringer loves his part-time job at the Methodist church, and he’s thankful that his nonprofit job allows him to minister to the homeless, even if he’s given up on the idea of paying back his six-figure debt.

“Though I will likely not be able to pay off my loans, I am blessed that I found another job that connects so well with my work at the church and my passions, so I didn’t have to take up work in an entirely different field,” he says.

A couple quick personal thoughts:

  1. There are a number of false narratives – cultural, institutional, and personal. “You don’t have a ‘good’ job, so you can’t….”, “There are fewer of these jobs, so you won’t be able to….”, “I don’t have the job I want, so I won’t be able to….”
  2. Nobody should ever graduate from anything with ‘six-figure debt’. Not even doctors.
  3. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has written a wonderful book on the idea of a Fixed vs. Growth Mindset. I always bristle when I hear people connect negative pasts/presents (“I didn’t/I can’t”) with negative futures (“I won’t”). This assumes a Fixed Mindset in which our “character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way”.

We are not fixed beings. It’s ok to work in a different field for a time. It’s ok to work bi-vocationally in two unrelated fields. It’s ok to use a Seminary degree for non-paying ministry work. It’s ok to learn another trade. It’s ok to work 70 hours a week for a season to pay off debt. It’s ok to move to a different city/state/country where your degree and skills are more valued. It’s ok if God opens doors we didn’t see coming. It’s ok to live very frugally for a season. It’s ok to be in ministry and financially stable. It’s ok to work outside your passion. It’s ok to work sacrificially just to meet the needs of your family. It’s ok to change.

Serious Issues require serious solutions

Hot DogsThis might be the nerdiest thing I’ve ever said, but….I had a dream last night about how we’re teaching personal finance. Aside from how Ridiculous that is, I woke up with a very clear impression. Here is the dream and impression:

I had a dream about a prep-style rally encouraging students to save money and knock out debt. It culminated with a white middle age lady in a pant suit going into a freestyle rap on the importance of fiscal prudence.

I’m sure that scene bubbled up from the recesses of my subconscious as a result of this article I read a couple weeks ago in which Indiana University representatives will at random times jump on a bus (painted with a caricature of a pig swinging on a wrecking ball a la Miley Cyrus) and hand out gift cards as rewards for correct answers to personal finance questions.

Here is (in my opinion) the problem with the strategy that Indiana University’s and other institutions who try to address financial issues with frivolity and merriment. Financial issues aren’t a light matter. While we can use humor to bring humanity to serious matters, the solutions aren’t any lighter than the core issues. This is my favorite clip of 2015. A hot dog eating contest is the perfect stage for outrageousness, but I fear that if you try to draw people into a heavy issue with a light hearted entree, they won’t stick.

I understand this makes me sound incredibly boring and old – believe me when I tell you nobody loves irreverent humor more than I do. But from my experience working in financial services for 15 years: You want your financial planner to take your money seriously. Your Realtor can wear flip flops (looking at houses is fun), but you want your mortgage banker to wear a blazer. I want my CPA to be so introverted he gets nervous looking at my shoes when we talk.

We respect ourselves more when we make respectable decisions. I want to be the type of person who takes my financial future seriously. Serious problems require serious solutions.

Donald Miller on Personal Change

DonMillerFantastic author Donald Miller (www.storylineblog.com) has a great 20 page paper on how to change your life. If you don’t follow Donald, he delivers this advice from experience – his books chronicle his life journey over the years from the child of a broken home through weight issues, career success, struggling for meaning, and broken relationships toward a destination of a healthy adult.

His manifesto on change can be found here:

(LINK)

Click to access start-life-over.pdf

Read it as he walks through the five keys to ACTUAL change:

  1. You were designed to change.
  2. You are in a relationship with yourself – make it a healthy one.
  3. It’s ok to quit.
  4. You become like the people you hang out with.
  5. You can only do 3 big things a year. That’s it.

His advice really relates to all of life, but in the context of this blog its especially useful as a blueprint on how to change your financial future.

We are all born with and raised into tremendous impactful financial worldviews. If you were raised rich or poor, by spenders or misers, by over-talkers or hiders, by nerds or free spirits, by planners or panics – we are all carrying biases that impact our spending decisions. If you are willing to see them, own them, and embrace the first principle, you can own your future.

Second, Don makes the fantastic point that you respect yourself more if you make respectful decisions. This sounds obvious in retrospect but it never really clicked with me until he articulated it this clearly (Isn’t that what great authors do.). Build a habit of making decisions that you can be proud of.

Third, Miller gives an example of Bob Goff who tries to quit something every week. This can be a great speed bump that helps you change financial behavior. Can I cut up a credit card? Can I buy packets of oatmeal and give up eating out at breakfast? Can I quit watching TV 1 day a week and do a part time job? Can I quit procrastinating and write a check to a Scotrade account? Do one thing, no matter how small, each Thursday that leads toward a healthier financial future.

Fourth, hang around financially healthy people. Unhealthy financial people spread subconscious lies about money. “Only the rich can win nowadays”, “It takes money to make money”, “I’ll never be able to be debt free”, “I’ll be paying on these student loans the rest of my life”. These attitudes are contagious.

Lastly, don’t try to change your entire life this year. Let’s just focus on one financial decision that will change your entire future. Maybe decide to live on a written budget this year. Maybe decide to make it one year in school without taking out student loans. Maybe sign up for the 401k at work.

I broke my thumb around the time I graduated college and I didn’t have health insurance. I was able to skillfully avoid all the surgery and medical bill collectors for a couple years but eventually I made one big decision. I pulled my credit report, called all the collection agencies and started negotiating payoffs I had been avoiding for years. It took another 6 months or a year to get them paid, but that one decision paved a path for me to buy a home, start saving, start paying off student loans, and start living without guilt. I began to look at myself as someone who could handle complex problems, was responsible with money, and was willing to confront stressful situations.

That story illustrates those five points and I encourage you to read Donald Millers manifesto and take some time to think about practical applications.

HOUSING for Grad Students

Dollar houseFor the majority of human beings, housing is our biggest expense. On the hierarchy of needs, shelter is one of the essentials and where/how we live truly shapes our lives. Unfortunately, for a graduate student living in an inexpensive one bedroom apartment in Denver, rental rates have climbed over $800 a month, or around $10,000 a year.

There are creative ways to reduce this expense, and they can dramatically change your financial future. I’ve put some thought into it – asked around – and gathered some alternatives to traditional housing that can save significant amounts of money.

NON-PROFIT OPTIONS

There are a number of great non-profits around Denver that offer free housing for young adults who are willing to donate some of their time in service. Here are a few that I’m aware of:

  • Open Door Ministries. ODM owns 7 homes that offer long term transitional housing for folks moving toward long term sustainability. There are a couple of options (when open) to live in one of the houses and provide leadership.
  • Providence Network. Similar model to ODM, they offer reduced or no cost housing for leaders willing to lead a home.
  • Young Life. I believe Young Life in the greater Denver area has had several homes donated to them that they use for staff. I believe this is an option for staff only, but it may be worth looking into.
  • Denver Rescue Mission. This organization offers room and board for those willing to donate a set number of hours each week.
  • Downing House. A really cool old property that houses 12 men and 12 women. Residents have to donate hours each week to ministry.

I’m sure that there are other options that are not on my radar – feel free to email those to me (dan.macleay@denverseminary.edu). These can be a fantastic way to both serve and meet your housing needs.

LIVING WITH AN OLDER COUPLE

Many people I know have used a variation of this model with fantastic results. Over and over I hear stories of people – on both sides of the relationship – who were blessed by this arrangement. Here are a couple of variations of this model:

  • Snow Birds. Homeowners may choose to live in a warm climate city for 4-6 months a year. They often pay someone to keep an eye on their house. A graduate student living in their home can be a fantastic blessing to both parties.
  • House Sitting. I know a friend who was able to live rent-free for a full year while her host family moved overseas for a period of time.
  • Empty Nesters. The average square feet of a single family home has grown dramatically over the past 50 years, and most of those homes are owned by families with the children transitioning out of the home. This is a ripe opportunity for ministry in both directions. Mature couples can speak into the lives of younger peoples about their life experiences, and young people bring life, energy, and excitement into a home.
  • There are many opportunities for live-in help with families of all sizes. A seminary student is a fantastic candidate because of their maturity, faith, and season of life.
  • Basement Apartments. Many homes have a ‘mother in-law suite’ or mini apartment. Sometimes these can be rented at a significant discount. I know of several of these that are built into a walkout basement and have their own entrance. Most people forget that living in this type of situation saves money on the other expenses that are attached to housing: Utilities, TV, WIFI, water, decorating, etc.

ROOMMATES

I spent my entire life between leaving home and getting married with roommates. I found this to be a really rewarding season of life. Even if you’re an introvert, living in community is a fantastic way to meet new people, be exposed to new ideas, and develop a support structure. There are a number of ways to meet new roommates, but here are some suggestions:

  • Connect with Incoming Students. About 55% of Denver Seminary students come from outside the Front Range. If you’re moving to Denver, this is a fantastic time to connect with someone similar.
  • This Facebook page Connecting Christian Roommates.
  • Network through your local church.. Your church community is the best context for many of these strategies. Check with a local young adult’s pastor to see if they know other people similar to you with whom you might connect.
  • Alumni Groups. I suggest connecting both with your undergraduate institution and through Denver Seminary’s Alumni These can be great starting points for connecting with a roommate or finding a church home. .
  • Off-campus housing. This web page lists many options for off-campus housing at reasonable rates.

ON CAMPUS

Denver Seminary has just over 90 housing units on campus, and they are priced about 20% under current market rates. You can choose to live with or without roommates. Living on campus is also a fantastic way to save money on transportation (most people’s second largest expense). Here is a link to that info: Denver Seminary Student Housing.

In conclusion, one of the most important things to remember is that this is for a season of life. One seminary graduate I know lived in a small studio apartment above a barn in the Midwest. She and her husband could hear the horses moving around at night, but the owner let them live there for under $100 a month including free WIFI! By living this lifestyle, they saved thousands of dollars over their time in school and now look back on that season of life with great fondness.

Reducing housing expenses will likely require sacrifice – a long commute, a lack of privacy, small square footage, or hours given in service, but remember that these small sacrifices will create great memories. They are only for a season, and your financial rewards will be reaped for decades to come.

Abundance vs. Scarcity

abundanceMany of us struggle with putting words around attitudes and ideas we bring into life. One concept that makes sense to me is having an attitude of ‘abundance vs. scarcity’. We all bring a variety of mental and emotional baggage to the world and a lot of us bring an attitude of scarcity.

The roots of this are many. Secular anthropologists or psychologists trace this back to more primitive times and say the roots of this are wired into our brains from generations of limited resources. There is true to this – the material abundance we see today in much of the developed world is unprecedented. But a student of the scriptures knows that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and also as someone ‘thinketh in his heart so is he’, so we know that our actions are dictated by our thoughts which are dictated by the condition of our heart. Thus an attitude of scarcity is a condition of the heart or spirit.

The student of the scriptures also can trace this back to throughout human history and the scriptures to the very first two humans born on earth. Able had an attitude of abundance that changed his thinking which changed his very actions. “Able brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering”. His brother went the other direction.

I see this in those that feel called to go to seminary, but don’t know how they are going to do it. I risk painting with too broad a brush, but one way I see this played out is in our attitudes towards debt. An attitude of scarcity says ‘there isn’t enough money’ or ‘I don’t have enough (money, resources, time, intelligence, etc.)’, or a defeatist attitude like “I’m going to have to take out a lot of debt”, “My family isn’t going to get any of my time”, or “I won’t be able to learn Hebrew”.

The truth is that “The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it.” You can go to seminary and do it in a way that doesn’t handicap you and your family financially for years to come. You can take a full load of classes and still be a great husband, wife or parent. You can work in a local church and be critical part of a vibrant local ministry while going to classes.

The tools and resources you need are available, but it begins with an attitude of abundance. My hope is that God will supply all my needs (time, talent and treasure) according to his goodness and glory in Christ Jesus, and so I take a step (evidence) toward what I hope for being certain of what I do not see.