One of the most common questions I get is whether or not a person should cosign on someone else’s loan – a car loan, a student loan, or so on.
I have a single response that I always give to this type of question:
You should only co-sign a loan that you’re perfectly happy paying off yourself.
If you would be unhappy with being forced to pay for the loan yourself, then you should not be cosigning that loan.
First, the reason a lender wants a cosigner on a loan is because they believe that the person they’re lending to has a high likelihood of not paying back the loan. Usually, a person that needs a co-signer is a person with poor credit or, in some cases, a person with no credit history at all. This means that either they’ve never dealt with the ins and outs of paying a loan back before or they’ve attempted it and failed to pay back their obligations.
Second, if that person who the bank has deemed untrustworthy proves the bank to be correct, you’re left holding the bag. Co-signing isn’t just a way to help a friend. It essentially means that you’re hung with the debt if the primary signer decides not to go through with actually repaying the debt.
Third, when you turn a personal relationship into a financial one, you introduce a lot of strain in the personal relationship. If they default on this loan, what will that do to your relationship? It will be very, very hard for the two of you to be as close as you once were.
These three things together make for a dangerous mix. They put your finances at significant risk without any direct benefit to you. You’re betting that someone is reliable when someone else who is not involved has looked at the evidence without emotions clouding their judgment and came to the opposite conclusion.
To put it simply, you’re saying, “Sure, I’ll take on more risk than the bank.” You know, those paragons of financial stability who were quite willing to hand out adjustable rate mortgages like candy and almost tanked the United States economy.
“But I really want to help!” This is often the reason that people use to talk themselves into such large amounts of risk. The person asking for their help is someone who they genuinely want to help and so they let their emotions cloud their judgment and sign away.
Here’s the thing: you can usually help quite a lot without signing on the dotted line.
Offer resources that you can give them. If you want to financially help someone, don’t do it in a way that puts you at risk and don’t enter into a financial arrangement with them that could damage your relationship. Instead, make it a gift. Give them some cash to buy a beater to get back and forth to work or to put a deposit on an apartment. Let them live in your spare room for a few months. If they want to pay you back, let them, but make it clear that you don’t expect repayment.
Offer intangibles. Invest your time in them by driving them to job interviews or taking them around to buy a car. Invest your contacts in them by calling someone you know who can help them get a job. Listen to what they’re talking about and going through and offer your advice and whatever else you can offer.
In other words, offer all the help you can without introducing unnecessary risk into your life. Don’t co-sign, but offer help in every other way you can.
From my perspective, there is one exception to this. I think that the intangibles related to a parent co-signing on a student loan for their freshly graduated child likely add up to more than the risk of signing such loans. In that case, a parent is often a fairly good judge of the situation and if they view the risk of co-signing in this situation as acceptable, it seems to me to simply be an extension of the risks of parenthood.