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Post-MBA Guide: 10 Steps to Refinancing Your Student Loan

CommonBond - MBA Loan Refinancing

CommonBond – MBA Loan Refinancing

After graduating with a MBA, I started to look into refinancing my student loans. My financial situation wasn’t terrible, but not amazing either. Over $100K in loans, little cash on hand, and close to 7% (fixed) interest rate from FedLoan Servicing. (Note: links to SoFi and CommonBond include my referral code – if you find this post useful, I appreciate the click. As I remember, each services gives a referral bonuses to you – $100 to $200 – and to me)

Here’s what I did to narrow the gap down to 3.5% (fixed) over 5 years. Note, some of the later steps will likely apply only to those with a good credit score of 725+, US nationality, and a reasonable track record of credit history:

  1. Research Providers: I started the process by searching Google, but also looking at Reddit, Credible, and Student Loan Hero.
  2. Get Baseline Estimates: I looked through a list of services that offered refinancing, looking for the top filter of lowest rates (both fixed and variable), using Credible to get early estimates on what I might get offered.
  3. Set a Goal: I preferred fixed if I could get it low enough (4% was my target based on what services were offering “as low as” for rates and what I felt my credit history justified)
  4. Short-List Your Applications: I decided to focus on Earnest, SoFi, and CommonBond for my actual applications.
  5. Look for Ways to Improve Your Credit: My initial offer from SoFi was 4.5%. This was a bit depressing. I asked SoFi if there was anything I could add to help make the case for a better rate. I also looked at Credit Karma to see if there was anything significant affecting my credit score. It turns out, there was, and I was able to make a quick fix on it.
  6. Work with Companies to See How You Can Help Them Make a Better Decision: I don’t know if that fix helped with the financing companies, but a week later, my credit score went up by 40 points.
  7. Use Competing Offers to Negotiate Among Providers: Around this time, offers from the two other companies came in, one of which was pleasantly lower than SoFi. I then used that offer with the other companies, and asked if they could offer a better rate. After a few iterations of this easy (for me) negotiation, I ended up with a final rate of 3.5%, lower than I had hoped. I chose CommonBond.
  8. Complete the Paperwork: After the paperwork was completed, the loan was refinanced in a little over a week. The entire process from initial contact to disbursement took about six weeks.
  9. Be Happy!
  10. Handle Your Monthly Payments

Overall, I was happy dealing with all 3 companies, no issues in my interactions. In addition, do keep in mind that federal (government) loans have special provisions for debt forgiveness that you will not have when you go private.

However, I plan (and want) to pay off my loans in full, and many private loans providers are good about understanding and working with you if you ever do lose your job and must delay payments for a little time. Firms like SoFi even help you find a new job if you find yourself out of work.

The Post-MBA Guide to Buying a Used CPO Car

So you’ve earned your MBA and now it’s time to start working. Especially if you’re an international MBA, you probably don’t have a car and want to get good value for your dollar. After all, you need to look good, but you have to pay off your student loans too.

That’s what I’m here for: I’ll show you how to buy a certified pre-owned car and get the most bang for your buck.

Why Certified Pre-Owned (CPO)?

Manufacturer CPO vehicles are fairly new (within last 3-4 years) and in very good condition. Manufacturers will add additional warranty on top of what a car may currently have, and because of this, they are incentivized to carefully inspect a car before they certify it in order to end up profiting from the extra fee the customer is charged for this peace of mind. For you the customer, you want peace of mind because you’re going to be working so many hours in your new job, you don’t have time to be worrying if your car is going die out on you as you are stuck in rush hour traffic. Thus, unless you consider yourself a car expert who feels he can rate the internals of a car himself, CPO is a great way to go.

Sound good? Let’s get started.

For more about CPO programs and understanding which manufacturers offer good ones, see this article from Edmunds.

  1. Start with CarGurus. CarGurus can tell you how good the price of a car is relative to the area and similar vehicles. It’s a very good starting point for understanding whether something is a good deal. The only thing where it may lead you astray is if the listing on CarGurus is different from the official dealer listing – for example, CarGurus thinks there are a couple of options that are not in fact, in the car. Just double check. Also double check that the car is in fact manufacturer CPO – dealer listing is the official listing. A used BMW car cannot be sold by a Mazda dealer as CPO. It may be CPO by the individual dealer, but you only want manufacturer-CPO. A BMW manufacturer CPO means that warranty is covered by BMW as a whole and you can go to any BMW dealer for repairs.
  2. Here’s an example search I made for a friend who was looking for Mazda and Subaru crossovers. Here’s a starting link for you to enter in your own information. Remember to select “Dealer” as Seller Type and “Certified” under Condition. All cars that are filtered should be manufacturer-CPO.
  3. Before you begin, filter out (check the box) all the options under Photos in the left column. You do not want to see listings with frame damage or simply don’t have a photo.
  4. You want to focus on the Good and Great Deals. I pay attention to anything $1,500 below Market Value. Depending on urgency and how picky you are in terms of options, you may have to be more amenable to lesser deals.
  5. If you like what the car offers, call the dealer and book a time (ASAP) to see the car. Research the car in advance just so you know what you’re getting in terms of reliability, CPO terms, etc. A test drive really isn’t about seeing if you like the car – it’s pretty hard to judge a car on a 5 mile drive that you will probably drive conservatively. If you see a car you love and it’s a Great Deal, don’t waste time and put it off until a convenient time (weekend, holiday). Odds are it will sell quickly. There’s less dealer foot traffic in the middle of a week, so there’s an advantage.
  6. For the most part, don’t expect to really negotiate unless you have leverage (exact same car within 50 miles, similar miles and options). Most dealers now are on automated pricing in which they have enough inventory in enough areas to understand what they can sell at. The system regulates the pricing.
  7. If the car is listed as a Great Deal, it may already be under dealer cost, so no discount possible – also look up a car under NADAguides to better understand the value of a car. Another thing to look into is the Costco Auto Program. The program guarantees you an easy no-negotiation price for a new or used car. Costco will have partnerships with dealers in your local area. You may not get the absolute best price from Costco, but you will always get a very good price with no work or hassle – Costco is very emphatic about protecting its members from typical dealer BS.
  8. Do check out any student offers (usually a cash rebate from the car manufacturer, not the dealer – it does not affect dealer profits) for new graduates. This may be around $500-$750. You can see a rundown of discounts per manufacturer on CarsDirect.
  9. You’ll need insurance, a copy of your job offer (or pay stubs), and a copy of your MBA degree to finalize the purchase assuming you want financing and the student discount. For F1 Visa MBAs, some car financing units may to offer financing to F1 Visas – check in advance. Toyota does, BMW does not.
  10. You’re more than likely better off not buying any additional insurance / wheels / maintenance coverage. Those are always priced to be profitable (of course). You could negotiate it (there may be tips online) if you want to see how low they can go. Expect the car purchase to take 5 hours if everything goes smoothly – most of that is due to financing.

If you’re wondering, I followed these guidelines myself and purchased a 2013 BMW (F30) 328i sedan for $21,500 in the Spring.

My 2013 BMW 328i F30

More details:

  • Original MSRP: $42,000
  • Purchased with 25,000 miles, and with CPO Warranty, the car had warranty for nearly 3 more years or 75,000 miles at time of purchase. Free maintenance was active for an additional 10 months. For reference, a new BMW has a 4 year / 50,000 mile warranty.
  • $1,500 recent student graduate manufacturer rebate from BMW for CPO vehicles.
  • Price was listed at $22.9K. Before the student rebate, the car was shown as over $3,000 below market value, according to CarGurus.
  • Received 2% financing for 5 years, another BMW promotion.
  • No Costco discount – the salesman said, this is already below our dealer cost.
  • NADAguides listed the CPO pricing for a similar (mileage, condition, etc.) vehicle at $27,075, with the “Clean Trade-In” value, or what a dealer would pay if a customer traded in the car to buy another at, at $22,375. This latter value doesn’t include the cost for the dealer to actually inspect the vehicle, recondition any problem issues (for ex, my floor mats were replaced with new ones), and add warranty onto it.

Secret Pro Tips for International MBA Students who Want to Work in the United States

(image borrowed from: https://journeytobschool.wordpress.com/)As a former Northwestern Kellogg MMM (MBA + Masters in Design Innovation), I’ll tell you something that you want to know but that no one at Kellogg will ever tell you:

Secret Pro Tip:

If you’re an international student who REALLY wants to work (and  / stay) in the United States (USA) after graduation, invest in the MMM program.

Here’s why:

  • As an international MBA student in the US, you will be on a F-1 Student Visa for full-time students (if you are an exchange student, you will be on J-1). You are allowed to work up to 1 year in the USA on OPT period (Optional Practical Training), given that you find a job no later than 3 months after graduation.
  • In the unfortunate situation you have not found a job three months after graduation, you must leave the United States.
  • If you find a job with a company that is willing to sponsor your H1B Visa, you enter a one-time lottery for the H1B Visa. The probability of winning this year (2016) was just 40% for those holding a Master’s degree from the US. The odds were lower if you only held a Bachelor’s degree. Generally, this percentage becomes lower with each passing year due to increases in demand (from people like you who are reading this).
  • If you lose the lottery (odds are you will), you go back home.
  • Now, with MMM, the M.S. in Design Innovation is an engineering degree (that does NOT require an engineering background) from the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern. This engineering degree allows you to stay in the US an extra two years (3 total) and participate in the lottery a total of 3 times.

It can be said that the MS DI program is not really an engineering program, in the way that most people think about engineering (hardcore math & science). Nonetheless, it’s classified as an engineering program.

Beyond that are the more traditional reasons to be part of Kellogg: long-time elite business school brand, the amazing new all-glass lakefront building, rise in the rankings, leading percentages for diversity in gender and internationality, continued emphasis on tech, and my articles on the experience). Plus the MS in Design Innovation offers a great core of classes that will help you understand problems from bottom up (“what is the user/customer thinking?), rather than just top-down (“well, it’s clear from the financials, we have too many employees, let’s just fire them”).

All that sounds sound great, but let’s be real. The reason you go to business school is to fulfill your professional goals. If your goal is to be in the United States long term, apply for Kellogg MMM.

The simple math: at today’s acceptance rates, you have a 60% chance of getting rejected and having to leave the country after one year. With MMM, you can stay at least three years and the chances you will end up having to leave the US without a Visa is only 21.6%.

Is this worth an extra quarter of tuition? Of course it is.

After Millions of Dollars, Microsoft Bing is Just as Smart as…Las Vegas [When Data Fails]

At Kellogg, we learned that people in aggregate tend to be quite correct (for example, say you have a random amount of jelly beans inside a big jar. Ask people to guess the amount of beans. When you average all the guesses, it will come out quite close to the real number, even if the real number is large and random, like 1,724).

According to How Microsoft got so good at predicting who will win NFL games, Microsoft Bing is an awesome prediction guru of human intelligence, machine learning, and big data:

Bing Predicts is run by a team of about a half dozen people out of Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington headquarters. It uses machine learning and analyses big data on the web to predict the outcomes of reality TV shows, elections, sporting events, and more.

How Microsoft got so good at predicting who will win NFL games

In 2014, Bing was 67% accurate predicting NFL winners.

In all, the Bing Predicts model considers hundreds of these different signals, or data points, for each event, like an election or game, Sun said.

So far this year[2015 to game three], Bing is about 60% accurate in predicting NFL matchups.

Sounds great, right? However, my first thought was, who cares about winners? I can’t bet on winners, this is why the spread exists, to create (theoretical) 50/50 bets that bookies can make stable revenue from.

My next question is, in this awesome model built from millions of dollars in labor and computing power, are the prediction results better, hopefully at a statistically significant (p = .05) level, than information I could get free from a public resource? How little can I spend to get reasonably close results to aid in my for-profit wagering?

Let’s look at Las Vegas betting spreads.

Booking Odds

According to Inpredictable.com and its 2013 article Is the NFL Betting Market Getting More Efficient?, the answer is NO, Bing’s modeling is no better than me looking at the latest odds online.

From 1989 to 2013, Las Vegas favorites were correct 66.8% of the time. With a sample size of 15 years, and looking at the chart above, I can say that Vegas is pretty good.

1 signal – Vegas odds – versus hundreds of signals – Microsoft Bing = the same result.

Great work, Microsoft.

The Kellogg Student’s Food Guide to Impressing Your Friends in Chicago

Visits in ChicagoWhether you are visiting friends, or have friends / family visiting you in Chicago, I have done the work (food, dessert, hang out) so you can have a place to recommend and go.

As a big fan of sites like The Wirecutter, which chooses the very best item in a product category (ex. what is the best TV for me?), I wanted to create a similar guide for Kellogg students traveling into Chicago.

All the places below are those that I have personally eaten at over the last year (vast vast majority over the summer of 2015). There is also at special bonus Hanging Out guide at the very end of this post.

Some things to keep in mind: I am no food expert, and for the most part, I cannot tell good food apart. To me, it’s all just good. However, I will try my best to pick winners (denoted in bold, the first place mentioned in any category) in each category, though I likely have biases towards food that just tastes different and stands out to me. In terms of what to actually order at each, I will make notes when I remember something noteworthy, but for the most part, refer back to Yelp or explore!

How I chose places: I researched information from (mostly) Yelp, friend referrals, The Chicago Reader, and TripAdvisor, as well as guides like the Thrillist and just…Google search for “best of…”. Everything place here will be $25 per person or less unless explicitly mentioned. I preferred going to places that were less than $15 per person ($$ on Yelp).

Meals

BBQ / Ribs / Brisket

Smoque BBQ is the considered the best (including by Kellogg MMM and BBQ expert KJ Plank) by the general public. In addition, it’s cheaper than most places but conversely, it is not easy to reach by public transportation. I like the ribs here a lot, but not the brisket so much. Blackwood BBQ, on the other hand, offers tremendous brisket for a great price – you can even pick the fat level of the meat (I choose maximum), but that is all they sell. The location I visited in the Loop is only open for lunch, but there is another location that is open for dinner. Ha (my wife)’s favorite place in the category is Blackwood. Chicago Q sells all the BBQ meats you expect but is a bit expensive and the venue is a bit on the fancy side. Green Street Smoked Meats is a solid BBQ place in the West Randolph area, and while it has solid brisket, it is not the best option for any specific item. Twin Anchors Restaurant & Tavern (Old Town) is my wild card. It is actually quite famous and has a long history in Chicago. It does not look particularly fancy, and is where where Two Face shoots Officer Wurtz in The Dark Knight. Ha and I enjoyed our ribs (great sauce) at the bar and it was great thinking about that scene just a few feet away.

Breakfast

Wildberry Pancakes and Café is definitely our favorite for pancakes. It’s next to Millenium Park on Randolph, and if you try to get there after 9AM on a weekend, you will definitely wait over an hour (no reservations allowed). I really liked the Fat Elvis Waffles (peanut butter, er.. butter and banana) at Little Goat in West Randolph and the The Local Chicago is more of a standard, but good quality place that is a block away from the John Hancock Center.

Burgers / Hot Dogs

There are many burger options in Chicago, and adding an egg on top seems like the cultural must-have for any burger nowadays. If you want a true expert’s opinion, do ask Ray Su of Kellogg MMM, but my favorite is bopNGrill. People seem to love Au Cheval in West Randolph, and I have had it twice to confirm my suspicions. The burger there is good, but I think of it as the best possible version of a Big Mac (without the middle layer of bread). If you do go to Au Cheval, remember that the single burger is actually two patties. Ha’s favorite burger is the SmokeShack from Shake Shack in River North (opposite of Eataly). I felt that 25 Degrees’ burger was pretty standard, despite the reviews.

As for Hot Dogs, Chicago-style ones are served all over, but the one that I remember going to for that and its famous Italian Meat sandwich is Portillo’s Hot Dogs & Barnelli’s Salad Bowl. I have learned that I am not a fan of either Chicago-style Hot Dogs or the sandwich. The sandwich is served very wet and is thus, hard to grab onto and eat.

Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for you, I did go to the famous Hot Doug’s before it closed last year.

Chicken Wings

Usually when I see a place crown itself as best something, I think it is BS. However, Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap in Downtown Chicago really does have great wings. I was pleasantly surprised from my waiter’s recommendation. However, both Crisp (Lakeview, shown below) and Dak make excellent Korean-style wings, and you will not be unhappy with any of these three picks.

Chinese / Dim Sum

MingHin Cuisine (Chinatown) is generally considered the best reasonably affordable dim sum in the city; expect a 30 minute wait during peak times on the weekends. Its regular menu is perfectly fine as well. Furama Restaurant (Argyle) is closer to Evanston but not particularly good and despite strong reviews for Sun Wah Bar-B-Que (also Argyle), I did not like it at all (Ha disagrees). Lao Sze Chuan on Michigan Ave is the same place that exists in Evanston – great Sze Chuan (approved by Kellogg MMM and Sze Chuan / Sichuan province native Daniel Xu) cuisine.

Diner

Do people ever say, “I really want diner food today?” I am not sure, but Dove’s Luncheonette (the Fried Chicken is fantastic – it’s more like a fried chicken steak than a KFC bucket piece) is a great option in Wicker Park. The previously mentioned Little Goat is a good option as well.

Fried Chicken

I love fried chicken. There are plenty of places to get it, but I am actually fond of supermarket fried chicken, such as at Jewel Osco. 8 pieces for 7.99. But for a real establishment, check out The Roost Carolina Kitchen in Irving Park. There is also the Harold’s Chicken Shack chain throughout the Chicago area, which Derrick Rose loves. I have heard quality is inconsistent by location, which happens with any fast-food chain. The one I went to was just okay.

For those in Evanston who never venture outside the Downtown area, make sure to check out Chicken Shack before you leave Kellogg.

Indian / Nepalese

Cumin in Wicker Park has great food, but I also liked Ghareeb Nawaz. The former option is great for a night out, while the latter is great for no-frills, very cheap food. Bombay Wraps is a solid, fast-food style option in Downtown.

Italian

Picking Eataly Chicago in Downtown (opposite Shake Shack) is a bit of a cheat. It has a number of places within to choose from. While he preferred the NYC location, Italian (and Kellogg Exchange Student from IE Business School) Valerio Patrizi vouches for Eataly’s authenticity. For more of a sit-down restaurant, Ha and I enjoyed Quartino, which is also Downtown.

Japanese / Ramen / Other

Go to Wasabi in Logan Square if you like some serious Ramen. Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ in Downtown is a great option for cook-it-yourself BBQ, but gets quite expensive for dinner. Ha and I took advantage of its lunch deal.

Japanese / Sushi

While not a sit-down place, Osaka Sushi Express & Fresh Fruit Smoothies is Ha’s pick – it has the best cost / quality value proposition and is located near Grant Park, Downtown. For more of a true social dinner experience, Sunda in Downtown is a great alternative, but will get pricey. Ha and I could only do the lunch special there. Kabuki Japanese Restaurant in Lincoln Park was just ok for me, but is BYOB (Bring Your Own Beer).

Korean

Gogi is the winner in this category by default (although I guess I could have included Dak and Crisp from the chicken wings section), but it is an excellent choice for Korean BBQ, having tried it myself and with it frequently visited by my Kellogg KWESTIE Jihyung Kim.

Mexican / Tacos / Burritos

L’ Patron Tacos is my favorite Taco place in the city – its taste really stood out for me. La Pasadita is a Chicago tradition and was well regarded in Five Thirty Eight’s Best Burrito in the United States competition, but I wasn’t a big fan – I felt the burrito was a bit salty. Ha loves Big & Little’s Restaurant (Belmont) for its fusion tacos and soft-shell crab Po’Boy (below), and also likes Taco Joint, especially for its Chile Mango Margarita.

Middle Eastern / Mediterranean

Sultan’s Market (Wicker Park) is fantastic and cheap; Alhambra Palace, however on West Randolph, is the opposite – students went there during our first week at Kellogg, CIM Week.

Other

Here are some other places that I cannot quite categorize, but want to mention anyway, good and bad. The ones I recommend are in BOLD.

  • Beatrix – a good “American” restaurant. I do not know how else to describe the food, but very solid.
  • Bruges Brothers – despite the commotion and long lines over its Duck Fat fries during Taste of Chicago, I was not particularly impressed.
  • Dia De Los Tamales – tried a tamales during Taste of Chicago, nothing special.
  • Feed (Southern) – great roasted chicken.
  • Cafecito (Cuban Sandwiches, Downtown)
  • The Purple Pig – this place is very, very, popular, but I think it’s overrated and a bit expensive ($30 per person before drinks). Everyone loves the bone marrow here, but I suspect that these are people who did not grow up eating much bone marrow. I did, however, thus $15 for a bit of bone marrow seems excessive.
  • Garrett Popcorn Shops – shops are all over Downtown, very good popcorn, a Chicago treat!
  • Pierogi Heaven (Polish, Downtown) – Ha really liked this. I am more neutral but would give it another try.
  • Chick-fil-A / McDonald’s – I do not think I need to comment much on these. You likely have an opinion already.

Pizza

Although we seem to be in the minority on this, Giordano’s is both Ha and my favorite deep dish pizza. You do not need to go to Chicago for this, of course, as both Giordano’s and Lou Malnatti’s have locations in Evanston. The Art of Pizza is another good option, and for thin crust pizza, Ha and I are big fans of Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza, which again, has a location in Evanston.

Thai

Kellogg friends Nancy Lee and Matt Shin introduced us to Aroy Thai Restaurant and even after trying out other city favorites in Opart Thai House Restaurant and Sticky Rice, I feel Aroy Thai to be the best.

Vietnamese

I should know Vietnamese food well, having grown up in a Vietnamese household and spending over 7 years as an adult in the country, but I cannot really recommend any specific Vietnamese place for Pho. They are all pretty similar to me, and not necessarily better or as good as anything in Vietnam or in Vietnamese-dense areas like San Jose. That said, I really like Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi) and che (dessert dish) at Ba Le Bakery. Other places I have tried for various dishes include:  Little Vietnam, Le’s Pho, Tank Noodle Restaurant (Tank is the most well known place, with a great corner location), Little Vietnam, New Asia, Pho Viet, and Nha Hang Viet Nam. Ha is a Pho-elite, able to break down how different Pho broths are made and feels that most of the Pho’s in Chicago have too much MSG.

Desserts / Sweets

Cupcakes

Molly’s Cupcakes in Lincoln Park is definitely the favorite in the city, while Ha LOVES the Passion Passion Passion cupcake at More Cupcakes (Downtown). We enjoyed Ms Tittle‘s Cupcakes at The Taste of Chicago, and Sprinkles Cupcakes is known for its cupcake ATM machine, but is not unique to Chicago.

Donuts

Finding the best donuts became my personal passion over the summer, with Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken winning as my personal pick. Do-Rite also makes a highly regarded fried chicken sandwich. Glazed & Infused Doughnuts / Glazed & Infused Doughnuts and The Doughnut Vault are great options that I liked, but The Doughnut Vault almost always runs out before 12PM. Stan’s Donuts & Coffee is a popular stop around Chicago, but I did not like it as much as the others.

Ice Cream / Other Desserts

I liked the unique flavors at Black Dog Gelato (ex. Goat cheese cashew caramel), but Mindy’s Hot Chocolate is where to go if you are “MBA rich” and really want to have high-end dessert. Worth trying at least once. Other good options are Margie’s Candies / Margie’s Candies (there’s two) and Lickity Split Frozen Custard.

Hanging Out

This is a bonus section, as after all, after you eat, there should be something to do! I am not a big bar or club person, thus this section is a bit weak, but I do want to mention two places that I enjoyed, beer arcades, where you can play games and have a drink (without the juvenile experience at Dave and Buster’s).

Both Logan Arcade and Headquarters Beercade River North are highly recommended. Logan Arcade has Killer Queen, of which less than 10 machines exist in the world. It’s a 5 on 5 (required, not optional) team battle game that is hard to describe but easy to pick up. Only .25 cents to play and the community around the game is great. I came with a bunch of friends (not quite 5), and the other players were generous about teaching us the game and letting us play for free. It is very addictive.

Beercade, on the other hand, is Downtown and most of its arcade and pinball games are free. Thus, you can buy a drink and just relax and play whatever you want. Ha loves Pinball and can handle very little alcohol, thus she became a very cheap date here.

If you have questions about any of these places or would like to add your own recommendations, let me know in the comments below. Otherwise, enjoy and I hope this guide helps!