Ask An Ex-Banker: Use Savings Or Debt To Pay For School?

Note: An ex-student of mine reached out to ask a question many face… Is it best to use savings and investments for graduate school, or to take out loans?

Dear Banker, 

I saw you answered  a question from a former student about paying down debt and being unemployed on your blog. So I thought I would give it a shot! I am going back to school in January for 1  year accelerated program that will cost 40k-50k, I am not quite sure yet.
Side note: I thankfully do not have loans from undergrad. 
So I will have to take out student loans but I am unsure if I should take out the whole 40k-50k or use some of my assets to have less debt after I finish.  
I currently have $9,000 in and individual investments with Capital One, $12,000 in Mairs and Power mutual fund that my parents put money in since I was a child. I also have $3,000 dollars in my savings account. I know I shouldn’t use all the money I’ve invested and saved but I was thinking maybe $10,000 dollars to have less students loans to pay back? I’m not sure what is a better decision financially. What would you suggest?
As well, I am going back to school to be a nurse so I can assume that my salary will be around 50k-60k a year. According to this website
I saw your blog on Facebook and thought I would ask!
M.C. (San Antonio, TX)

Hi MC,

Thanks for your question and for thinking of me. I’d like to think a few of the things we talked about in class were helpful.

I hope post-College life is treating you well. Congrats on having real savings and investments at this point…this is really commendable. Plus, no undergrad debt is also a blessing. A good place to be! About your future decision to use savings vs. take out debt for a nursing degree:

I don’t think there’s a single obvious solution. You could approach this various ways and still be making the ‘right’ choice. Also, I’d probably need more info on your situation to give more confident advice. But, here’s the principles I would keep in mind:

1. Student loans – especially for a professional upgrade in skills – are not “bad debt.” Mostly they have low interest rates, with generous payback terms. If they help you achieve a good salary and life-satisfaction, they are “good debt.” $50K of nursing school debt is a lot, but manageable in the long run. The fact that you’ve got some savings and investments already also suggests that you are able to live below your means, which bodes well for your ability to pay back debt over time after you get training and when you are earning money again.

2. If any of your Betterment, Capital One, or Mairs & Power accounts investments are in retirement accounts –  tax advantaged accounts like an IRA – don’t take any money out of there to spend now. You might pay taxes and penalties to extract the money, so its better to leave those for the next 40 years to accumulate compound returns.

3. For invested money not in retirement accounts, its ok to take the money out and spend some on a worthy project like a professional upgrade. BUT…if you’re able to resist taking money out, it’s better for you in the long run. It’s so very difficult to actually accumulate savings and investments – especially when you’re in your twenties – that I think you should try extremely hard to preserve it, invested in the markets. This will mean more debt (and therefore more risk) but it seems justifiable, at least to me.

4. Leaving money invested in stocks/ mutual funds is tax efficient (meaning, every time you sell you’ll owe taxes on the gains.).

5. It’s also slightly riskier (stocks/mutual funds can lose value). But the longer you can leave them alone untouched, the better your prospects for building wealth with that money.

6. I think, psychologically, its easier to save and invest if you already have something saved, rather than zero. So I wouldn’t want you to go to zero on your investments.

Those are my thoughts. Feel free to write back or call if you want to discuss/clarify/argue about any of this.


By the way, how do you like Betterment? I haven’t really explored it but it seems like the targeted solution for your demographic. I’ve been enjoying an app called Acorns which I quite like. I wrote about it here:


MC’s response:

Thanks so much for getting back to me! I’m sorry it took me a while to respond I went away for a week right when you wrote me back. 
I was thinking that it would be better in the long run to not touch my investments but taking out such a big loan does make me nauseous when I think about it. However, I think I will stick with that strategy because I know if I leave nursing school with no savings I won’t feel good about that either.  Thanks for going through the pros and cons its way more helpful then my internet searches have been!
I don’t have an IRA right now but I know I should set up a Roth IRA soon but I wasn’t sure yet if I wanted to use that money for school.
As for Betterment, I really like it! I started an account in August 2011 and just give about 60 dollars a month. According to my performance chart my return rate is 37% with an allocation of 100% in stocks. If I had 80% stock and 20% bonds it would be 44% right now. My original allocation was actually 70% stocks and 30% bonds but after your class I decided to try 100% stocks which, just like Acorns, Betterment refers to as ‘aggressive”. The majority of the investments are in different Vanguard funds and iShares. I like that part of it as well because if I’m not mistaken to open these account individually sometimes you need 1,000 or up to 3,000 dollars. I think Betterment is great for people my age! I always tell my friends to sign up who don’t know anything about investing. 
Thanks again for responding and teaching a great class I think all students should be required to take it!
MC, Ok good luck! You’re going to do great, because you’ve already done the hard part, which is to begin saving and investing in your early 20s.

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I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

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