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If you want to see what’s wrong with many financial aid letters today, check out the one that Georgia Institute of Technology has so helpfully posted on its Web site under the rather ironic headline “Understanding the Letter.

Screenshot 2014-04-08 09.24.21The school does a few things right. Not all colleges include the total cost of attendance on their financial aid letters, and many don’t include the “expected family contribution”–what the family is expected to pay according to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. Subtracting the expected family contribution from the total cost results in the family’s need. In this case, the need is $31,787.

The total award figure of $41,690 seems dazzlingly generous compared to the family’s need. It’s not.

Like many schools, GIT lumps together gift aid (scholarships and grants) with loans and work study.

In this case, the gift aid is just $8,242, which includes a $2,000 scholarship the student won on his own.

The vast majority of the “aid”–$27,548–are parent PLUS loans. PLUS loans are designed to help the family pay its expected contribution, which in this case is $11,903. PLUS loans don’t reduce the family’s $31,787 need.

This award that seems so generous actually meets a quarter of the family’s actual need with gift aid. When work study and the student’s loans are included, the percentage of need met is only about half.

Too many financial aid letters are even more obscure, as I write in this week’s Reuters column, “Don’t get fooled by financial aid letters.” Some don’t include any cost information, while others list partial information. Some don’t spell out what’s a loan and what’s not. Fewer than half of schools use the federal “Shopping Sheet,” which was designed to help stop misleading financial aid letters and allow families to compare aid offers. You can find the sheet here, and using it to parse letters like this can really help you understand how generous–or not–a college is actually being.

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Independent contractor clarity

Apr 07, 2014 | | Comments (3)

Dear Liz: I was taken aback by your answer to the receptionist whose employer was paying her as an independent contractor although she should have been paid as a W-2 employee. I believe your response was to lie on her tax returns and hide the fact that her employer was doing something illegal. I cannot say in how many ways that is wrong. As a human resources professional, I would advise this person to contact regulators under her state’s whistle-blower protections and let them know what has happened and take the advice that they give. If the writer has been given a 1099, you can be assured that others in the company have too. Her name remains anonymous. Even if her employer finds out it was her, she has recourse if she’s fired. I’ve always enjoyed your column and look forward to reading it each Sunday, but this response was totally off the charts.

Answer: Actually, the advice was exactly the opposite. Tax pro Eva Rosenberg recommended telling the truth by filing new forms, which would alert the IRS to the employer’s deception. Rosenberg said that it probably would take the tax agency a couple of years to get around to auditing the employer, which would give the receptionist time to find a new job.

Also, not all states have laws protecting whistle-blowers, and some of those that do apply only to public employees. No one should assume she is protected by such a law without during further research.

Categories : Q&A, Taxes
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Dear Liz: I am trying to increase my credit scores so I can buy a house in a couple of years. My scores are pretty bad, but I do have a car loan that I have never been delinquent on. I have recently obtained a secured credit card with a $300 limit. Will a credit card with such a small limit help improve my credit score?

Answer: Yes, but you may need longer than two years to get your scores up to snuff, depending on how bad they are.

Regaining points always takes much longer than losing them, so you should make sure to pay all your bills on time and use your new credit card lightly but regularly. Charge less than $100 a month and pay the balance in full, because there’s no advantage to carrying a balance.

After six months or so of regular payments, consider adding another card to the mix. In a year or two, you may qualify for a regular credit card that will continue to enhance your scores.
Also, make sure you’re looking at your FICO scores, because those are the credit scores most mortgage lenders use. Other scores may be offered for free or sold by the credit bureaus, but they typically aren’t FICOs.

Categories : Credit & Debt, Q&A
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Love and money

Apr 07, 2014 | | Comments (4)

Dear Liz: I am in a new relationship with a great woman. I’ve talked a little bit about money and retirement with her (she’s 30). I am trying to let her know that it would be wise to contribute at least enough to her company’s retirement program to get the full match. What are some books or articles that would show her the importance of saving for retirement? I like her, but this can be a deal breaker for me. What is the best way to introduce her to personal finances without scaring her?

Answer: You could start by hopping down from that high horse you’re riding.

The fact that she’s not saving for retirement is unfortunate but hardly unusual. Many people her age have trouble understanding the need to start saving young for retirement. Even those who do may have trouble investing their money, thanks to the 2008 market crash and subsequent recession. A recent survey by MFS Investment Management of people with $100,000 or more in investable assets found nearly half of adults under 34 say they would never be comfortable investing in stocks.

Of course, millennials need to get comfortable with the idea of stock market investing, because otherwise they’re unlikely to grow their wealth enough to afford a decent retirement. Some books that can help them understand the principles of investing — and the importance of scooping up those free company matches — include:

•”Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back,” by Kimberly Palmer.

•”Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties,” by Beth Kobliner.

•”On My Own Two Feet: A Modern Girl’s Guide to Personal Finance,” by Manisha Thakor and Sharon Kedar.

As you talk to your girlfriend, remember that few couples are on exactly the same page financially. Everyone has different family cultures and experiences growing up that inform how we deal with money. Asking her to talk about her background with money and taking the time to understand her perspective is a great place to start your conversations about finances. It’s certainly better than issuing ultimatums at this early stage.

Categories : Q&A, Saving Money
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Internet shopping by cell phone - concept illustrationWhen I heard last month that AT&T was dropping prices for its wireless plans, I thought our family could save a little money. I was startled to find we can save a whopping $60 a month and get a plan with twice as much data.

AT&T cut its prices to compete with T-Mobile and the pay-as-you-go companies that have been offering a lot more data for a lot less. But AT&T isn’t going to foist the savings on you–you have to seek them out. Fortunately, that’s as easy as going online to check your account (a savings offer should show up on your screen) or you can just call the carrier from your phone and ask how you can save.

I try to make it a point to call our communications providers once or twice a year to see if we can get a better deal. I wished I’d called this one a little earlier, because I was only able to backdate the changes to the beginning of last week (the start of our current billing cycle).

Changing plans does not extend your service term or add any additional termination fees, an AT&T rep assured me. So if you’re under contract to AT&T, go save some money!

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