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Life and money with Helaine: How best to pay for law school

Dear Helaine: My wife has been accepted into law school. It's a private university — a fancy, highly ranked one that costs a lot. A lot! I'm in my 40s and she's in her mid-30s. We have investment savings, and our IRAs are on par with what is expected of folks gearing up to retire in their early 60s. We also just sold our house in San Francisco, which left us with a tidy nest egg — enough to pay for her to attend the school, with a chunk of change left over.

My question: What should we do in terms of taking out loans versus spending our savings? My wife wants to use her law degree for political advocacy work for the underdog, so it's not likely we'll have a high salary from her degree. While she is in school, my salary will support both of us, but not leave much to contribute to any kind of savings. Do we take out loans, ones that will accumulate interest while she's studying? Or do we spend our cash on her schooling? — Legal Loans or Savings

Dear Legal Loans or Savings: There's a lot to unravel in this deceptively simple letter. A "fancy" law school that costs "a lot" is not necessarily synonymous with quality or future job placement outcomes. I would urge both of you, if you have not already done so, to look at law school job placement stats and determine how many people graduate with a law job in hand, or obtain one shortly after graduation, and how many of those people work in the nonprofit or advocacy sector in some way. Is there a less-expensive public university that would offer an equivalent or better outcome?

But let's say the school passes all these questions with flying colors. My advice: Use the cash set aside to pay for law school, and don't take out loans if you can help it. This will give the two of you the most financial freedom in the long run. Many people say they want to work for the nonprofit sector, but find their loan payments so fiscally constraining, they end up taking higher-paying positions (read: corporate law) they don't really want to pursue, simply because they need the larger salary to pay their student loan tab. Do you really want to put your wife in that position?

At the same time, there is nothing stopping your wife from getting a direct, unsubsidized loan from the federal government if your family circumstances change in the future — say, you lose the job that's supporting the family while she's in law school. One thing I wouldn't factor in to the decision: public service debt forgiveness offered by the government. It's not simply that it's not working as intended, and few recipients are receiving the forgiveness they were led to expect — a scandal in itself. It's that plans change, and if your wife decides she ultimately doesn't want to do advocacy for a nonprofit, she won't receive the debt forgiveness.

To ask Helaine a question, email her at askhelaine@gmail.com.

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