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After the TSP, I invest my money in Betterment and Vanguard. I track all of my investments with Personal Capital. I also wrote a short, 2 hour book summarizing this site. You can buy it here.

I applied for the USAA Career Starter Loan in November 2008. At the time, I was a junior in college and about 18 months from commissioning. It was quite the rush to see $25,000 deposited into my checking account. From start to finish it took about a week to complete the loan application and have the cash deposited into my USAA checking account. I moved the money into a savings account within a day or two, and then began to think about what I wanted to do with the money.

I knew I wanted to invest most of it. At 2.99% interest, I was convinced that I could use the low interest rate to profit from arbitrage. I researched for a few days and then went into action.

My first step was to create a CD ladder. A CD ladder allows you to have greater access to your money while also maximizing your interest rate. I structured mine so that I would receive a payment every year for the next five years. All the CDs were purchased through USAA and ING Direct in November of 2008, when interest rates were much higher (500%!) than today. I invested $2000 into each CD and received the following returns:

1 Year CD – 4.25%
2 Year CD – 4.25%
3 Year CD – 4.5%
4 Year CD – 4.75%
5 Year CD – 5%
$10,000 total invested in CDs

As you can see, I was already making money off my 2.99% loan. At most I was making 2%, which barely covers inflation in even the lowest inflation years, so I wanted to increase my return on investment.

I waited until Jan 1, 2009 to start phase 2 of my plan. I took the remaining $15,000 I had from the loan and invested it in:

$3000 International Stock Mutual Fund
$6000 US Stock Mutual Fund
$3000 US Bond Mutual Fund.

I held on to the funds for 14 months. As I approached my college graduation and realized how much debt I was about to graduate with, I sold the funds for $17,000 and made about a 10% after taxes and paying the interest on my USAA loan. I was able to pay off my Department of Education Direct Ed loans and knocked out nearly a quarter of my student loan debt before I even started working. These loans were over 6% interest as well, so paying them off with a 2.99% loan makes perfect sense.

My CD ladder has paid me $2000 + interest for 3 years running now, every November. I still have two more CDs maturing this year and next year. Since I can access the money and only give up a small portion of accumulated interest, I consider them the foundation of my emergency fund. As each CD matures, I simply deposit the cash into a savings account, and so my liquid emergency fund grows every year. To be a true CD ladder I should reinvest the money into a new 5 year CD each time the CD matures, but rates as so low right now I’d rather just have immediate access to the cash.

Looking back on my experience with the career starter loan, I don’t know if I would have taken it. On the one hand, having access to $25,000 cash at 3% is an excellent deal. On the other, making $471 payments every 15th of the month sucks. Two years after I’ve commissioned I’ve whittled down the loan to $13,000. Still halfway to go!

With today’s very low CD and saving accounts rates, the arbitrage I described is no longer possible. If you have any kind of loan with an interest rate over 3%, it absolutely makes sense to take out this loan. If you don’t, I think it would be best to just put your $471 (or just round it up to $500) every month in your emergency fund until it’s topped off to 6 months of your expenses. Or, if you’re not putting away money in your Roth IRA, you can max it out every year ($5000 a year max) by simply depositing $416.66 a month in your account. This is very easy to do in MyPay, look for instructions in a forthcoming post.

2 Websites I Use to Achieve Financial Independence

The best way I know to achieve financial independence is to keep your investments simple, diversified, automatic, and low-cost. Costs eat into your returns like you wouldn't believe! A 1% difference in expense ratios can mean $100,000s lost to fees over a lifetime of investing.

Even if you're a DIY (do-it-yourself) investor like I am, you need to check out Betterment. You can read my full review here, but the bottom line is for only $250 per $100,000 invested (0.25% expense ratio) you get simple, diversified, and automated investing. In addition every account now gets free Tax Loss Harvesting+ features, which should increase returns for the average investor more than the minuscule management fee.

If you're not a DIY investor or are just getting started with investing, then you definitely need to check out Betterment. It's what I recommend to my family and friends who aren't strong investors or don't care to learn about asset allocations, diversification, or rebalancing.

I have investment accounts all over the place. To keep track of all of them in one place I use Personal Capital. It combines all of my accounts, shows me where I may be overpaying in fees, and provides beautiful charts showing my overall asset allocation and performance.

I use Personal Capital to track my Roth and Traditional TSP, Vanguard IRAs, banking accounts, SDP, and my Betterment taxable account, all in one place. It's free, secure and presents me with a one-stop dashboard so I can see all my money on one site.

Read my full review of Personal Capital and see how easy it can be to manage your investments in one place. Trust me, once you try it, you'll love it.

P.S. - If you have over $100,000 of assets and a 401k, you really need to run the Personal Capital 401k Fee Analyzer.

How I Used My USAA Career Starter Loan

10 thoughts on “How I Used My USAA Career Starter Loan

  • September 7, 2012 at 14:13
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    I’m glad I saw Nord’s link to your site. Best of luck with your blogging and your goal to be financially independent at 40. The military makes that entirely possible and I wish I would’ve thought about it a little more carefully myself at 25! I’ll be sure to follow your work…

    Reply
    • September 10, 2012 at 23:56
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      Thanks Mike, I’ll be sure to check out your site soon too!

      Reply
  • Pingback: Guest Post Wednesday: How to Smartly Use the USAA Career Starter Loan

  • September 1, 2013 at 18:01
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    Hey Spencer…I have never heard of this loan until now. However, I commissioned in May 2012, is there any way to still get the loan? Thanks and keep up the good work!

    Reply
    • September 1, 2013 at 19:11
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      Hey Bill…the loan is sometimes offered up to 18 months after commissioning and sometimes only 12 months. If you’re interested in the loan, I’d get in touch with USAA ASAP. However, I’d really caution you on taking out the loan. Read everything I’ve written about the loan on this site. Unless you’re in a special situation (like higher interest loans), stay away from this debt trap. Thanks for the question, stay safe out there!

      Reply
  • September 3, 2013 at 10:44
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    Thanks Spencer…they told me that it has to be 12 months…do you know of any other options as I have student loans I would like to consolidate. Thanks for the help

    Reply
    • September 8, 2013 at 09:45
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      You may want to look at Lending Club as a place to consolidate your debt into lower interest rates. Remember that under the provisions of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, your interest much be capped at 6% for loans acquired before you enter an active duty status.

      Reply
    • September 20, 2013 at 12:11
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      @Bill, AAFMAA has a career starter loan up to $4k at 1.5% and if you are a Marine or Sailor, NavyMutual also has $5k loan at 1.5% available. You do have to have Life Insurance with them, but their policies are very affordable and without war or aviation clauses.

      Reply
  • May 25, 2014 at 21:39
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    How about taking the 25k and then bump up my allotment to ROTH TSP 2,000k for 12 months?

    Reply
    • June 5, 2014 at 14:25
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      I’m not sure I understand the situation. In today’s low guaranteed rate environment, I don’t think it makes sense to borrow the Career Starter Loan unless your paying off higher interest rate debt. Things were different 6 years ago when I took out the loan and could make easy money on arbritage. Now, not so much.

      Reply

What are your thoughts?