Tuesday, February 03, 2009

In which I help bridge New York's budget shortfall

This is one of the simplest tax years I've had in ages: one W-2 for me, one W-2 for David, some charity deductions (we don't have a mortgage, but we pay so much in state & local taxes that we do an itemized return anyway), and that's it. I had a 1098-E form for my student loan interest, but didn't get to deduct it this time around -- I seem to have capped out on that.

The 1098-E was a bit eye-opening. It reported that I've paid $1,407 in interest on my student loans this year. Considering that I paid about $2,600 total toward my loans this year, that sounded like a hell of a lot of interest. And my loans are at reasonable rates! I have two, one consolidated at 4.7% and one fixed about a point higher. So how on earth did I end up spending more than half my payments on interest when my rates are single digits?

... and then, with the help of my trusty 12C, I finally got it. What is, or should be, blazingly apparent to anyone who pays a mortgage. A single-digit percentage of a Giant!Sum is still a Large!Sum, and interest isn't a proportion of your payments. Whoever is loaning you the cash is making sure to get their interest payments first, in full and up front, each year on the total debt. The only way to make progress paying down the principal is to a) pay extra specifically toward it each month, or b) get the total due down to a small enough figure that your monthly payments equate to a significant chunk of it.

When I finally did that depressing math, I realized it'll be years before I make any significant headway paying down my student loan debts, unless I allocate extra cash to paying them down each month. (I've always rounded up just to make the budgeting simple and paid $20 or so extra each month, specifically marked on the online payment form as "allocate toward principal, not toward next month's payment," but clearly, that $20 isn't going very far.) Kids: When your parents gripe about ever-rising tuition costs, listen to them. I did my final year of undergraduate college credits 10 years after I did the first three -- and I had to borrow twice as much to cover that final year as I had left on my loans for all of the first three. Ow.

Still, since my loan rates are reasonable, I think saving for an apartment downpayment trumps paying down extra loan debt. So, it lives on with me, for about 8.5 more years.

Also new this year: We owed New York money. Back in college (the first time, lo that decade-plus ago), I remember ending up owing New York money every year. It wasn't much, usually $50 or so, but it was still irritating. I always took 0 allowances; how did I end up owing? New York just seems rigged like that. Thinking back on recent years, I have a vague recollection that my tuition and loan debts were all that got us from the owing-money territory and into refundland.

Fortunately, the Feds owe us way more than we owe New York (that whole 0-allowances thing), so doing taxes was still a happy experience overall. Still, I grumped a bit* when I read the quote this morning in Reuters from New York budget spokesman Jeffrey Gordon that, unlike California, New York "is not 'running on fumes' and revenues are coming in every day."

As I IM'd a friend: "Yes, revenues are coming in every day, and today, $151 of them came from me!"

*(I am generally ok with paying taxes in exchange for the happy civic things my tax cash buys. David is even more so. None of his tax-and-spend liberal sentiments were harmed in the making of this post.)