College Savings Category
Dear Liz: I am almost finished with my associate degree at my local community college and will be starting my undergraduate degree in January. I have been lucky enough to accrue no college debt so far but know I will when I start my bachelor’s degree. I am considering taking out a home equity loan to cover this cost, borrowing around $10,000. I got a great deal on my house and it continues to grow in value even with this economy. Your thoughts on this?
Answer: Home equity loans are actually more expensive than most federal student loans. Home equity loan rates for people with good credit range from 7% to 9% in many areas, while the current rate for direct, unsubsidized federal student loans is 5.41%. Furthermore, home equity loans aren’t as flexible and have fewer consumer protections than federal student loans.
You may initially get a lower rate on a home equity line of credit, but these variable-rate loans easily could get more expensive as interest rates rise.
Not only do federal student loans offer fixed rates, but they provide many affordable repayment options plus deferrals or forbearance if you should lose your job or run into other economic setbacks. You don’t have to demonstrate financial need to get federal student loans, although people with such needs can get subsidized loans with a lower interest rate. Your college’s financial aid office can help you apply.
Dear Liz: My husband and I have three children, two in elementary school and one in middle school. Through saving and investing, we have amassed enough money to pay for each of them to go to a four-year college. In addition, we have invested 15% of our income every year toward retirement, have six months’ worth of emergency funds and have no debt aside from our mortgage and one car loan that will be paid off in a year. Considering that we have all the money we will need for college, should we move this money out of an investment fund and into something very low risk or continue to invest it, since we still have five years to go until our oldest goes to college and we can potentially make more money off of it?
Answer: Any time you’re within five years of a goal, you’d be smart to start taking money off the table — in other words, investing it more conservatively so you don’t risk a market downturn wiping you out just when you need the cash. The same is true when you have all the money you need for a goal. Why continue to shoulder risk if it’s not necessary?
You should question, though, whether you actually do have all the money your kids will need for college. College expenses can vary widely, from an average estimated student budget of $22,261 for an in-state, four-year public college to $43,289 for a private four-year institution, according to the College Board. Elite schools can cost even more, with a sticker price of $60,000 a year or more.
Another factor to consider is that it may take your children more than four years to complete their educations, particularly if they attend public schools where cutbacks have made it harder for students to get required courses in less than five years, and sometimes six.
So while you might want to start moving the oldest child’s college money into safer territory and dial back on the risks you’re taking with the younger children’s funds, you probably don’t want to exit the stock market entirely. A 50-50 mix of stocks and short-term bonds or cash could allow the younger children’s money some growth while offering a cushion against stock market swings.
A session with a fee-only financial planner could give you personalized advice for how to deploy this money.
Dear Liz: My husband and I have been putting 5% and 6%, respectively, into our 401(k) accounts to get our full company matches. We’re also maxing out our Roth IRAs.
The CPA who does our taxes recommended that we put more money into our 401(k)s even if that would mean putting less into our Roth IRAs. We’re also expecting our first child, and our CPA said he doesn’t like 529 plans.
What’s your opinion on us increasing our 401(k)s by the amount we’d intended to put into a 529, while still maxing out our Roths, and then using our Roth contributions (not earnings) to pay for our child’s college (assuming he goes on to higher education)?
Our CPA liked that idea, but I can’t find anything online that says anyone else is doing things this way. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a catch.
Answer: Other people are indeed doing this, and there’s a big catch: You’d be using money for college that may do you a lot more good in retirement.
Contributions to Roth IRAs are, as you know, not tax deductible, but you can withdraw your contributions at any time without paying taxes or penalties. In retirement, your gains can be withdrawn tax free. Having money in tax-free as well as taxable and tax-deferred accounts gives you greater ability to control your tax bill in retirement.
Also, unlike other retirement accounts, you’re not required to start distributions after age 70 1/2. If you don’t need the money, you can continue to let it grow tax free and leave the whole thing to your heirs, if you want.
That’s a lot of flexibility to give up, and sucking out your contributions early will stunt how much more the accounts can grow.
You’d also miss out on the chance to let future returns help increase your college fund.
Let’s say you contribute $11,000 a year to your Roths ($5,500 each, the current limit). If you withdraw all your contributions after 18 years, you’d have $198,000 (any investment gains would stay in the account to avoid early-withdrawal fees).
Impressive, yes, but if you’d invested that money instead in a 529 and got 6% average annual returns, you could have $339,000. At 8%, the total is $411,000. That may be far more than you need — or it may not be, if you have more than one child or want to help with graduate school. With elite colleges costing $60,000 a year now and likely much more in the future, you may want all the growth you can get.
You didn’t say why your CPA doesn’t like 529s, but they’re a pretty good way for most families to save for college. Withdrawals are tax free when used for higher education and there is a huge array of plans to choose from, since every state except Wyoming offers at least one of these programs and most have multiple investment options.
Clearly, this is complicated, and you probably should run it past a certified financial planner or a CPA who has the personal financial specialist designation. Your CPA may be a great guy, but unless he’s had training in financial planning, he may not be a great choice for comprehensive financial advice.
Who doesn’t love obscure commemorative/promotional days? But this one is worthwhile since it brings attention to the state-run college savings plans that can help you pay for your children’s future education.
Here are the most important facts you need to know about college savings:
If you can save for college, you probably should. The higher your income, the more the financial aid formulas will expect you to have saved for college–even if you haven’t actually saved a dime. Even people who consider themselves middle class are often shocked by how much schools expect them to contribute toward the cost of education. (By the way, it’s the parents’ assets and income that determine financial aid, so if you don’t help your kid with college costs, he or she could be really screwed–no money for school and perhaps no hope of need-based financial aid.)
More savings=less debt. Most financial aid is in the form of loans these days, so your saving now will reduce your kid’s debt later. (A CFP once told me to substitute the words “massive debt” when I see “financial aid.” So when you say, “I want my child to get the most financial aid possible,” I hear: “I want my child to get the most massive debt possible.”
529 plans get favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. These accounts are presumed owned by the parent, so less you’re expected to spend less than 6% of the total each year–compared to 35% of student-owned assets.
A few months ago I gave a verbal spanking to a woman who equated college loans with handouts. She wondered why people didn’t just delay college for a year and earn enough money to pay for their entire education, as she did back in the day.
I pointed out that there weren’t many jobs available to newly-minted high school graduates that paid $60,000, which is about the minimum you’d need to pay for a four-year degree today.
Apparently my reader isn’t the only one having trouble keeping up with the times. A recent New York Times story quoted Virginia Foxx, a Congresswoman from North Carolina who heads a House subcommittee on higher education and work force training, saying she was bewildered why people went into debt instead of working their way through school the way she did.
Here’s what Times writer Ron Lieber pointed out:
But students nowadays who try to work their way through college without parental support or loans face a financial challenge of a different order than the one that Ms. Foxx, 69, confronted as a University of North Carolina undergraduate more than 40 years ago. Today, a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State, the largest university in her district, can easily cost $80,000 for a state resident, including tuition, room, board and other costs. Back in her day, the total was about $550 a year. Even with inflation, that would translate to just over $4,000 for each year it takes to earn a degree.
A plucky, lucky few manage to get through college with no loans or parental support. But many of those who try wind up dropping out, unable to balance the work hours required with the demands of school.
If you’re one of those who may be stuck trying to pay your own way, Zac Bissonnette’s book “Debt Free U” can provide helpful guidance. If you’re a parent or a policymaker, however, you should check your views about the viability of kids’ working their way through college with today’s realities.
I’m hearing too many older people espouse the view that college degrees aren’t as valuable these days because more people have them. They need an Econ 101 review. It’s true that the price or value of something may drop if the supply increases—but only if the demand for that thing does not increase as well.
In the case of college degrees, demand has risen dramatically. Part of that is because so many jobs that didn’t require degrees have been made obsolete by technology or been outsourced overseas. (When Grandpa says he knows lots of people who made good livings without post-high-school training, ask him what they did—and if those factories and union jobs still exist.)
But employers are pickier as well, using college degrees as a screening device for jobs that in the past didn’t require them.
It’s true that incomes for college graduates dropped during recent economic hard times and unemployment rose. But the situation was a lot worse for folks without a college degree, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report released yesterday.
Back to supply and demand: The demand for post-secondary educations helped push up the net cost of college during the 2000s. The College Board says the net price of college tuition (the sticker price minus financial aid) rose 75% between 2002 and 2011.
But now demand seems to be softening, according to a Moody’s Investor Service report, thanks to a tough economy and a smaller pool of high school students. As a result, more schools are freezing tuition costs or at least holding down the increases and offering more financial aid. That’s good news for those heading off to college in coming years.
None of this means a college degree is worth any price. Too many families are overdosing on debt to get educations they really can’t afford. Getting a good value also requires college students to pick their majors carefully, since some degrees are worth a lot more than others.
But college degrees are and will remain all but essential in the 21st century if you want to get ahead financial, or even just remain in the middle class. That wasn’t true in Grandpa’s day, but it’s true now.
Dear Liz: We have a family member who recently was approved by Social Security for a complete disability claim. This person will never work again but has an outstanding student loan. The lender has a formal mechanism to apply for loan forgiveness, but is refusing to accept medical documentation of the disability. What appeal process is there and how can we force them to act? Do we need to retain legal counsel and incur additional expense to enforce a legal process and achieve loan forgiveness?
Answer: Federal student loans offer a “total and permanent disability discharge” that forgives outstanding education debt. You can find the rules and an application at DisabilityDischarge.com.
The rules for private student loans, however, vary by lender. Four lenders — Sallie Mae, New York Higher Education Services Corp., Discover and Wells Fargo — offer a discharge for total and permanent disability that is similar to the federal one, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid.org and FastWeb.com financial aid sites. The Sallie Mae discharge is also provided on loans made through lenders that market the Sallie Mae loans, such as Commerce Bank, Fifth Third Bank and Regions Bank, Kantrowitz said.
Other lenders do not offer such a discharge, but all have a compassionate review process for their private student loans, he said.
“Borrowers in a difficult financial situation, or their family or other representatives, should contact the lender that holds the loan directly,” Kantrowitz said. “The call center staff are not always familiar with the compassionate review process.”
Lenders are generally more likely to cancel some or all of the debt, or at least reduce the interest rate, in a situation that permanently affects the borrower’s ability to repay, Kantrowitz said. They are less likely to make an adjustment when the loan was cosigned and the cosigner is capable of repaying the debt.
“But it varies,” Kantrowitz said. “I’ve seen some cases in which the borrower was military and killed in action where the lender forgave the loans even though the cosigners were capable of repaying the debt. Another example involved a mother whose daughter dropped dead on an athletic field and the mother’s anguish was palpable in the letter to the lender.”
Debt cancellation comes with another issue: taxes. Forgiven debt is typically treated as taxable income by the IRS. Your family member may be able to avoid the taxes if he or she is insolvent, but a tax professional should be consulted.
Dear Liz: Thank you for your response to the reader who complained that college students who received student loans were getting a handout. You did a great job of highlighting the challenges today’s students face, but you didn’t talk about the main underlying cause. This is the defunding of state universities by state governments. In Oregon, for example, the state has gone from funding over 50% of the costs to current funding of 6%. The difference has been made up by tuition hikes and increasing the proportion of out-of-state (and foreign) students who pay much higher tuition. This is part of the reason that students are crowded out of classes. In Oregon, the medical school found it was better off giving up all state aid and going it alone. Other universities in Oregon are considering taking the same action. Schools founded with state money and supported for years with tax money will no longer be operated for Oregon students. They will be more like private schools, perhaps moving out of the reach of middle-class students. So the answer to the reader is that she did get government help to get through school, help that is now curtailed so students have to finance it themselves.
Answer: The reader didn’t specify what type of college she attended. But the withdrawal of state government funding in recent years has definitely made public college educations more expensive for many students. Meanwhile, many private schools have expanded their financial and merit aid budgets so that some students can attend a private college at a lower net cost than what they would pay for a public school.
Dear Liz: I’m in my 50s. My kids have college loan debts that might total more than $200,000. I allowed them to take out loans because I expected to inherit $300,000 to help them pay off the debt. Now that inheritance will not happen.
I have $250,000 saved for retirement. When I’m 58 1/2 years old, I would like to pull that money out and pay some or all of these debts. Or use home equity. I’ve recently been downsized in employment, but I am looking to increase my income so I can help with their debt. Advice?
Answer: If your goal is to impoverish yourself so your kids will have to take care of you in your old age, by all means proceed with your plan. Otherwise, you need to rethink this.
You’ve been laid off in the middle of what should be your peak earning years. Older workers often have a tougher time than younger ones finding replacement jobs, even in a better economy than this one. You may not be able to replace your former income, which means you may not be able to add much to the amount you’ve already saved. You should be conserving your resources, including your home equity, and not squandering it repaying debts that aren’t yours.
And “squandering” is the right word. You may be able to avoid paying federal and state tax penalties on withdrawals under certain conditions; distributions made after age 59 1/2 avoid the penalties, as do those made if you’re “separated from service” if the job termination occurred in or after the year you turn 55. But you’ll still owe income taxes on the withdrawal, and those can be considerable.
Your children are the ones who will benefit from their educations. Those educations should allow them to earn incomes to repay these loans. The amount of debt they’ve accrued might be excessive — you didn’t specify how many kids, or whether this debt is being incurred pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees. Ultimately, though, they will be in a better position to pay the debt than you are.
If you promised them help you can’t deliver, sit down with them now to break the bad news and strategize on how they can finish their educations without incurring substantially more debt.
Your story also should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone counting on an inheritance to pay future bills. Until the money is in your bank account, it’s not yours and shouldn’t be part of your financial planning.
Dear Liz: I am grandmother to two girls ages 10 and 14. I contribute to their Section 529 college funds and pay for expenses such as dental bills, dance lessons and so on. Is there a way I can deduct these contributions from my income tax?
Answer: Most states offer at least a partial tax deduction for 529 college plan contributions, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the financial aid sites FinAid and FastWeb. The exceptions are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee, which have state income taxes but no deduction; and Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming, which don’t have state income taxes.
To get a deduction, you typically have to contribute to the plan offered by your home state rather than ones offered by other states. For more details, visit www.finaid.org/savings/state529deductions.phtml.
In general, you can’t take deductions for other expenses paid on behalf of your grandchildren. (If they’re your dependents — they live with you and you provide more than half their support — you could claim exemptions and possibly tax credits, but that doesn’t sound like the case here.) However, any medical or tuition expenses you pay directly on their behalf don’t count toward your annual gift tax exclusion, as discussed here last week.