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‘I’m paycheck to paycheck.’ I make $350K a year, but have $88K in student loans, $170K in car loans and a mortgage I pay $4,500 a month on. Do I need professional help?

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Alisa Wolfson

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Question: By the end of 2022, I will have made $350,000 before taxes as the sole breadwinner and head of household. This is a great starting point and I’m very aware how blessed we are to be in this position, but I’m always looking ahead on how to improve. I currently have $88K left in student loans (originally close to $150K) and very little credit card debt (less than $2K with more than $25K available). I have two auto loans totaling $170K for two electric vehicles at 5% interest.

I’ve recently been offered a $200K HELOC at 9%, which would help me bring down some of my monthly payments and do some small home repairs and improvements, but I want to make the right moves. And I’ve also been presented with a few long-term real estate investment opportunities that are rental properties out of state and are currently bringing it 10-12% ROI.  But my biggest concern is that after taxes, 401(k) contributions, bills, savings and mortgage ($4,500), on paper I’m paycheck to paycheck. I’d like to use this HELOC to consolidate debt while also participating in some of these investment opportunities. I’m the first of my generation to own a home and the first to earn this much annually and don’t want to mess this up. How, specifically, can a financial adviser help me? ( Looking for a new financial adviser too? This tool can help match you with an adviser who might meet your needs. )

Answer: You have a few questions to tackle here, so let’s go one by one. The first being the HELOC. Yes, HELOCs can be a good way to consolidate debt, but the rate you’re being offered isn’t favorable, as average HELOC rates are a little over 6%. “I would ask if 9% is the best rate you can get, because it appears a bit high,” says Chris Chen, certified financial planner at Insight Financial Strategists. What’s more, “I would like you to consider the potential impact that our Fed policy and inflation are having on interest rates, as HELOCs usually have variable interest rates and we’re in an environment with rising rates. You may start at 9% and end up significantly higher,” says Chen. 

What’s more, your student loans, car loans and mortgage are all likely less than 9%, so it’s not likely that consolidation via a HELOC would save you money. “You may want to start somewhere different, like the snowball method, where you focus on one loan, usually the smallest one, and direct all of your resources to pay off that loan while maintaining payments on the others,” says Chen. This method could work to finish off your student loans and maybe one of your car loans, to start with. 

Have an issue with your financial adviser or have questions about hiring a new one? Email picks@marketwatch.com.

As for those real estate investments, what do you really know about those returns? “With regards to real estate investments, I assume that the 10% to 12% ROI you speak of is the income that you would be getting from the investment. If so, that’s very high and often when you get a return that is significantly higher than the norm, there’s something else that makes the investment less desirable. Be careful,” says Chen. ( Looking for a new financial adviser too? This tool can help match you with an adviser who might meet your needs. )

Certified financial planner Kaleb Paddock says you may actually want to work with a money coach before you work with a financial adviser. Whereas a financial adviser assists with developing investment strategies and long-term financial plans, a money coach offers a more educational experience and focuses on shorter term goals for money management. “A money coach will help you with paying off all of your debts, maximize your cash flow and help you create systems and processes to direct your money proactively,” says Paddock. 

While having a high income is great, there’s a concept called Parkinson’s Law, which essentially states that your spending will always rise to meet your income no matter how high that income rises, explains Paddock. “Working with a money coach will help you defeat Parkinson’s Law, eliminate your debt and then enable you to supercharge your investing and life planning with a financial adviser,” says Paddock.

A financial adviser could help too, and Danielle Harrison, certified financial planner at Harrison Financial Planning, says to look for one who does comprehensive financial planning and can help you create a more holistic plan for your money. “They can assist you in the creation of both short and long-term goals and then help you by giving guidance on the financial decisions and opportunities you are presented with,” says Harrison.

A financial adviser would also help you take a long-term approach to your money and help you create a spending plan where you don’t feel like you’re living paycheck to paycheck on a $350,000 salary. “Everyone has blind spots when it comes to their finances, so finding a competent financial partner can be invaluable,” says Harrison. ( Looking for a new financial adviser too? This tool can help match you with an adviser who might meet your needs. )

Have an issue with your financial adviser or have questions about hiring a new one? Email picks@marketwatch.com.

* Questions edited for brevity and clarity.

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