Q&A: Best way to pay for college

Dear Liz: We have two children in college, both entering their junior years. We have two more in high school. The two currently in college need additional financial assistance, as they’ve tapped out their federal student loans.

We are middle class, grossing about $125,000 a year, so we don’t qualify for much financial aid. We’re considering a cash-out refinancing of our home, but we feel as though we can do it only once, since each time we refinance it will cost us some fees, plus interest rates are likely to start edging up soon.

However, if we take out a big chunk of cash that could last us for the next two years for the first two children, and possibly some for the other two, we’re concerned that having that much cash sitting in the bank will reduce the amount of financial aid we receive, which would be counterproductive.

Is there a way to earmark the extra cash clearly for education expenses so that it doesn’t count negatively on our Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)? Or do we just need to take this year’s cash out now, and refinance again each year (which seems crazy)?

As an aside, now that we have a little experience with this college thing, we will guide the two younger ones to community college or living at home while attending a less expensive public college, or something along those lines.

The first two just sort of went — without a lot of financial forethought.

Answer: The chunk of cash from such a refinance would be counted as a parental asset, provided the savings account is in your names and not those of your child.

So a maximum of 5.64% of the total would be included in any financial aid calculations. That’s not a big bite, but if you’re not getting much financial aid it could offset or erase the small amount you’re getting.

The bigger danger is that you’re taking on debt for something that won’t increase your own wealth or earning power. If you should suffer a severe-enough financial setback, such as a layoff, you could wind up losing your home.

In general, parents shouldn’t borrow more for their children’s college educations than they can afford to pay back before retirement — or within 10 years, whichever is less.

This rule of thumb assumes that you’re already saving adequately for retirement and will continue to do so while paying back the debt. If that’s not the case, you shouldn’t borrow at all.

If you’re going to borrow and can pay the money back quickly, a home equity line of credit may be a better option than a refinance. Interest rates on lines of credit aren’t fixed, but the costs are significantly less and you can withdraw money as needed.

Yet another option: parent PLUS loans, which currently offer a fixed rate of 6.84%. Approach these loans cautiously. It’s easy to borrow too much, since the program doesn’t consider your ability to repay. And like federal student loans, this debt typically can’t be erased in Bankruptcy Court.

Q&A: Understanding Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I need a clarification because I’m getting conflicting answers from Social Security.

I know if you start Social Security benefits early, you get them at a reduced rate. When your spouse dies, is your survivor benefit reduced as well? My friend’s mother never worked, but started collecting spousal benefits at 62. Does she get reduced or full benefit when her husband dies?

Answer: Her survivor’s benefit is not reduced because she started spousal benefits early. It may be reduced, however, if her husband started retirement benefits early or if she starts survivor’s benefits before her own full retirement age.

Survivor’s checks are based on what the husband either was receiving or had earned. If the husband starts retirement benefits before his own full retirement age (currently 66), his checks are reduced, which also reduces what his widow could receive as a survivor.

If he delays retirement past 66, he earns 8% annual “delayed retirement credits” — an increase both would get.

If he dies before full retirement age without starting benefits, the survivor benefit would be based on what he would have received at full retirement age. If he dies after full retirement age without starting benefits, the survivor check is based on the larger amount he had earned (in other words, his benefit at full retirement age, plus any delayed retirement credits).

How much of the husband’s benefit his widow would get depends on when she starts claiming her survivor’s benefit.

If she starts at the earliest possible age of 60 (or 50 if she’s disabled, or any age if there are children under 16), her survivor’s benefit will be reduced to reflect the early start.

If she waits until her full retirement age, by contrast, the survivor’s benefit would be equal to what her husband was receiving or had earned. Waiting to start survivor benefits until after her full retirement age doesn’t increase her check, however.

Q&A: Tuition gifts and tax breaks

Dear Liz: You recently answered questions about tax breaks for college education expenses. We are contributing $20,000 to our grandson’s college education yearly. He is not our dependent. We are senior citizens with a gross income of about $110,000. Is there any deduction for this expenditure that we might qualify for?

Answer: Your grandson is a lucky young man. Since he’s not your dependent, though, you can’t take any of the available education tax credits or deductions.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry about filing gift tax returns. Each person is allowed to give any other person up to a certain limit each year without triggering the need to file such returns.

This amount, called the annual gift exclusion, is $14,000 this year. Together, you and your spouse could gift up to $30,000 to one person. You wouldn’t actually owe gift taxes until the amounts exceeding this annual exclusion totaled $10.86 million as a couple.

Even if you were giving more than $30,000, there would be a way to avoid filing gift tax returns, and that’s to pay the college directly. Amounts you pay directly to a college or to medical provider are exempt from the limits.

Q&A: Divorce and Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: My ex-wife and I were married for 12 years. She is 55. I am 64 and collecting Social Security. At what age can she apply for spousal benefits?

Answer: If she doesn’t remarry, she can apply for spousal benefits as early as age 62. If she applies early, though, she would lose the option to switch to her own benefit later if it’s larger.

To preserve that option, she would need to wait until her own full retirement age, which is 67 for those born in 1960 and later.

Dear Liz: My husband is 68 and I am 59. My husband is deferring his Social Security to age 70 to get the largest amount. If he predeceases me, at what age would I be eligible for 100% of my husband’s current Social Security benefit? Would I have to wait to age 66 for that benefit?

Answer: If your husband should die, you could apply for survivor’s benefits as early as age 60 (or 50 if you are disabled). Your benefit would be reduced to reflect the early start. To get 100% of your husband’s benefit, you typically would have to wait until your own full retirement age. If you were born in 1956, that would be 66 and four months.

There’s a wrinkle here, though. By waiting to start his benefit, your husband is earning what are known as delayed retirement credits that increase his benefit by 8% annually (or two-thirds of 1% each month). Your survivor’s benefit would be based on the benefit he’s earned, including the delayed retirement credits, even if he should die before age 70. So at least some of the effect of your early start would be offset by the fact that he delayed benefits.

If your husband had started benefits early, by contrast, your survivor’s benefit would have been based on that permanently reduced amount. By waiting, your husband is ensuring that you will get the largest survivor benefit possible while increasing the odds that you as a couple will get the most out of Social Security.

Q&A: The value of associate degrees

Dear Liz: Please continue to encourage people to look into two-year technical degrees. I got my associate’s degree in mechanical engineering and in my first job earned more than my father.

Later I worked for a company that made touch-screen point-of-sale terminals. Time and time again, I trained waiters who had bachelor’s or master’s degrees but couldn’t find better jobs. I now work for a large computer company and have folks sitting around me with those same higher degrees.

Answer: On average, people with two-year degrees are paid less than the average four-year degree holder. One in four people with associate’s degrees, however, earns more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These jobs are often in the technical and health fields. Four of the BLS’ 30 fastest-growing job categories require two-year degrees. Those positions include dental hygienist (median annual earnings of $70,210), diagnostic medical sonographers ($65,860), occupational therapy assistants ($53,240) and physical therapist assistant ($52,160).

Other well-paying jobs with good growth prospects requiring two-year degrees include funeral service managers ($66,720), Web developers ($62,500), electrical and electronics drafters ($55,700), nuclear technicians ($69,060), radiation therapists ($77,560), respiratory therapists ($55,870), registered nurses ($65,470), cardiovascular technologists and technicians ($52,070), radiologic technologists ($54,620) and magnetic resonance imaging technologists ($65,360).

Q&A: Co-pays and collections

Dear Liz: My primary care physician referred me to a gynecologist for a medical issue. I called the office three times and asked that the appointment be made as an annual exam.
During the appointment, the doctor was rude and critical of my body and lifestyle. (I am obese.) I left the appointment in tears before it was over.

Five months later, I got a $160 bill for the appointment. My insurance denied the claim twice, saying the doctor was double charging, but the office fought back, saying the charge was for the referral, not the annual exam.

I have tried to work with the doctor’s office and my insurance, but now the bill has gone to collections. It’s knocked my FICO score from 780 to 680 in a matter of months.

Part of me does not want to pay the bill because of the abuse I received from the doctor. However, this is affecting my finances. Would it help my FICO score if I negotiated with the bill collector and then repaid a part of the bill? What are my options?

Answer: Your best option is to ask the doctor’s office, politely, to take back the collection account in exchange for your paying the bill in full.

The doctor should not have been rude to you. But you shouldn’t have tried to get a referral for a medical issue treated as an annual exam. You were probably trying to avoid a co-pay, because health plans typically cover this type of preventive care, but that’s not why you were there.

You could ask whether the bill collector will delete the account from your credit reports. You would almost certainly have to pay the bill in full to win this concession, and even then the odds are against it.

That’s why it’s better to ask the medical provider to take back the account. In many cases, medical providers place accounts with collectors on assignment and have the ability to pull them back if they want.

The latest version of the FICO credit scoring formula ignores paid collections and treats unpaid medical collections less harshly than other collections. But that formula is just starting to be adopted, and the more commonly used previous version, FICO 8, ignores only collections worth less than $100.

As you’ve seen, even one dispute can lead to a big drop in your scores. If you feel an issue is worth pursuing, it often makes sense to pay the disputed bill and then seek justice in Small Claims court.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits and divorce

Dear Liz: My former husband is 11 years older than I, and we were married for 15 years. I am 54 and have not remarried.

When I turn 62, can I claim a spousal benefit based on his Social Security record because he’s already reached full retirement? Or do I have to be at my own full retirement age of 67 before I can claim the divorced benefit?

I was thinking that I could start claiming a spousal benefit at 62 and then wait until I am 70 to see which benefit is larger — half of his or mine with three years of 8% annual delayed retirement credits added in. If mine is more at that point, I could switch.

Is that possible or is that double dipping? He has made much more money than I have through the years, but he has also been unemployed off and on. I have made less money, but have been employed consistently throughout my life, so I’m not sure whose will be more when it all shakes out.

Answer: If you start spousal benefits or divorced spousal benefits early, your check will be permanently reduced and you’ll lose the option to switch later — even if your own benefit would have been larger.

When you apply for Social Security benefits before your full retirement age, you’ll be “deemed” to be applying for both your own benefit and any spousal benefits to which you’re entitled. If your spousal benefit is larger, you’ll be given your own benefit plus an amount to make up the difference. Once you start your benefit, it stops growing except for cost-of-living increases.

It’s only if you wait until your full retirement age to file that you have the option of filing a “restricted” application for spousal benefits only. Then you’ll preserve the option of switching to your own benefit later if it’s larger.

Q&A: IRA contributions and tax deductions

Dear Liz: I am changing jobs because of a layoff. I contributed to my former employer’s 401(k) to the extent possible. My new employer also offers a 401(k), but I won’t be eligible for a year.

I want to use an IRA in the meantime. I do not understand how I should answer the question on the tax form about whether my employer offers a retirement plan when I am determining how much of my IRA contribution I can deduct. My employer does, obviously, but I can’t participate yet. Advice, please?

Answer: You’re smart to continue your retirement savings while you wait to become eligible for the new employer’s 401(k). Missing even one year of contributions could cost you tens of thousands of dollars in lost retirement income.

When you’re not covered by an employer plan, all of your contribution to an IRA is typically deductible.

When you are covered, your contribution’s deductibility is subject to income limits. In 2015, the ability to deduct an IRA contribution phases out between modified adjusted gross incomes of $61,000 to $71,000 for singles and $98,000 to $118,000 for married couples filing jointly.

To be considered covered by an employer plan, you have to be an active participant, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. That means money has to be put into your account by you or your employer or both.

Here’s the twist: You’re considered covered for the whole tax year if you participated in a plan during any part of that year. So the IRS will consider you an active participant for 2015 because you were contributing to your former employer’s plan for part of this year.

If you start contributing to your new employer’s plan when you become eligible next year, you’ll be considered covered for 2016 as well.

You could decide not to contribute to the new employer’s plan until 2017 to preserve your IRA’s deductibility, but it probably makes more sense to start contributing to the new plan to get both the tax break and any match.

If your contribution to an IRA isn’t deductible, consider making a contribution to a Roth IRA instead.

In retirement, withdrawals from a regular IRA will be subject to income taxes while withdrawals from a Roth IRA will be tax free. In 2015, your ability to contribute to a Roth phases out between modified gross incomes of $116,000 to $131,000 if you’re single and $183,000 to $193,000 if you’re married.

Q&A: Credit score changes

Dear Liz: My Discover card started including a complimentary credit score with my statement. My first report was 840. Each month since has been lower.

Two months ago it was 812 and the last one was 800. I have not applied for any new loans, cards or other credit. My limit on this card is $4,000, and I never charge more than $500 each month, which is paid in full. Why does my number keep dropping when I’m doing nothing different?

Answer: You may not be doing anything different, but the underlying information used to create your credit scores changes all the time.

The company that creates the leading credit scoring formula, FICO, says 8 of 10 people experience changes to their FICO scores by up to 20 points from month to month.

One factor that typically changes: the balances reported by your creditors. The fact that you pay your credit card in full is wise, but irrelevant to your scores.

The balances transmitted to the credit bureaus and used to calculate your scores may be the balances from your last statement, or from a random date in the previous month. If you have other credit accounts and loans, the balances from those factor into your scores as well.

Other things can also change. For example, an old, closed account may “fall off” your credit report, which could affect your credit utilization (how much of your available credit you’re using) as well as the average age of your credit accounts.

Also, every month your active accounts get older, which is typically a positive factor.

So you’ll see changes even when you’re looking at the same type of score from the same credit bureau.

You would see even more variation if you could see all your scores, since lenders use various formulas and pull scores from three credit bureaus.

Although the FICO score is the leading formula, that doesn’t mean the FICO you’re seeing is the FICO a particular lender is using. The lender may use a newer or older version of the formula — or one tweaked to the auto lending or credit card industry, for example.

You don’t have much to worry about, in any case. Scores over 800 indicate that you’re quite unlikely to default, so lenders should give you their best rates and terms if you do decide to apply for credit.

Q&A: Paying off student loans vs saving for retirement

Dear Liz: I’m engaged to be married and need your advice on getting started in the world of shared finances.

My fiance is 43, I’m 31. He’s debt free, with a savings account but no retirement fund. I have $34,000 in student loans (consolidated at 4.25%) and it weighs heavily on my mind as I’m desperate to become debt free. I’m debt free otherwise with $10,000 in savings.

We both make good money but my income as a freelancer is sporadic, while his is steady with periodic bursts of additional income.

We want to be debt free as a couple, save up a solid emergency fund and start making up for lost time on retirement savings, all while being aware that a family and a house might not be far away.

He’s very supportive and wants to pay off my student loans. Should I let him and pay “us” back to the emergency fund or maybe a house down-payment fund? What’s our best course of action to start on a solid financial footing?

Answer: You’re already behind on retirement savings, which should have started with your first job. Your fiance is even farther behind.

Don’t let your zeal to repay your debt blind you to the very real risk that you might not be able to save enough for a comfortable retirement if you don’t get started now.

If your education debt consists of federal student loans, then your low rate is fixed. The interest probably is tax deductible, which means the effective rate you’re paying is just a little over the inflation rate. It isn’t quite free money, but it’s pretty cheap.

You don’t need to be in a rush to pay it off, particularly with all your other financial priorities looming.

Instead, get going on some retirement accounts. Your fiance should take advantage of his workplace plan, if he has access to one.

Most employer-sponsored workplace plans have company matches, which really is free money you shouldn’t leave on the table. An individual retirement account or Roth IRA can supplement the plan or be a substitute if he doesn’t have access to a workplace plan.

As a freelancer, you have numerous options for setting aside money for retirement, including Simplified Employee Pensions (SEP), Savings Incentive Match for Employees (SIMPLE) and solo 401(k)s that would allow you to contribute more than the standard $5,500 annual limit for an IRA.

Ideally, you would be saving around 15% of your income and your fiance 20% or more.

If you can’t hit those targets just yet, start saving what you can and increase your contributions regularly. Work your other goals around the primary goal of being able to afford a decent retirement.