Monday’s need-to-know money news

seniorslaptopToday’s top story: Why getting pre-approved for a mortgage is important if you live in these cities. Also in the news: How couples can master the financial balancing act, overcoming income shocks, and how 529 plans can now be used for college supplies.

Get Preapproved for a Mortgage — Especially if You Live in These Cities
Where real estate inventory is moving fast.

How Couples Can Master the Financial Balancing Act
Creating an equitable balance,

How to Overcome ‘Income Shocks’ that Wreck Retirement Security
Coping with unexpected surprises.

Now 529 plans can be used for college supplies
Getting your freshman the computer she needs.

Four 529 college savings traps to avoid

imagesPutting money into a 529 college savings plan is relatively easy. Getting it out can be tricky.

This may come as a surprise to the families who have piled money into accounts, hoping to reap tax and financial aid benefits.

“People get tripped up and don’t realize it until it’s too late,” said consultant Deborah Fox of Fox College Funding in San Diego.

Assets in the plans topped $224 billion at the end of 2014, according to research firm Strategic Insight, up from about $13 billion in 2001.

In my column for Reuters, I list the four 529 traps to avoid in order to get the most from your account.

Q&A: Investing vs Saving for college tuition

Dear Liz: We recently inherited some money. We’ve never had much. We want to invest our inheritance for our kids’ college education.

We asked around to find investment firms that people have had a good experience with. But how do we know they are honest and make sound investment decisions? How do we know if the rates they are charging are fair and reasonable? (For example, one charges a percentage of the value of the account. How do I know if their rate is a fair amount?)

Answer: If you want to invest the money for college education, you don’t need to consult an advisor at all. You simply can use a 529 college savings plan. These plans allow you to invest money that grows tax-deferred and can be used tax free for qualified college expenses nationwide.

These plans are sponsored by the states and run by investment firms. You might want to stick with your own state’s plan if you get a tax break for doing so (check http://www.savingforcollege.com for the details of each plan).

If not, consider choosing one of the plans singled out by research firm Morningstar as the best in 2014: the Maryland College Investment Plan, Alaska’s T. Rowe Price College Savings Plan, the Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan in Nevada and the Utah Educational Savings Plan.

College savings plans typically offer several investment choices, but you can make it easy by choosing the “age weighted” option, which invests your contributions according to your child’s age, getting more conservative as college draws nearer.

If you still want to talk to an advisor — which isn’t a bad idea when dealing with a windfall — you’ll want to choose carefully.

Relying on friends and family isn’t necessarily the best approach. Many of the people who invested with Bernie Madoff were introduced to him by people they knew.

Most advisors aren’t crooks, but they also don’t have to put your interests ahead of their own. That means they can steer you into expensive investment products that pay them larger commissions.

If you want an advisor who puts you first, you’ll want to find one who agrees to be a fiduciary for you, and who is willing to put that in writing.

Here are three sources for fiduciary advice:

•The Financial Planning Assn. at http://www.plannersearch.org

•The Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com

•The National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors at http://www.napfa.org.

Garrett planners charge by the hour with no minimums. Expect to pay around $150 an hour.

NAPFA planners often charge a percentage of assets — typically about 1%.

FPA members charge for advice in a variety of ways, including fees, commissions and a combination of the two.

Any planner should provide you with clear information about how he or she gets paid.

You’ll want to check the advisor’s credentials as well. The gold standard for financial planners is the CFP, which stands for Certified Financial Planner.

An equivalent designation for CPAs is the PFS, which stands for Personal Financial Specialist. People with these designations have received a broad education in comprehensive financial planning, have met minimum experience requirements and agree to uphold certain ethical standards.

Each of the organizations listed above has more tips for choosing a plan on its website.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

22856641_SAToday’s top story: The comeback of the 529 plans. Also in the news: Who’s to blame for the TurboTax scam, how to pay off student debt, and the top cities for identity theft.

529 Plans Make a Money-Saving Comeback
The college savings plan is back from the brink.

Who’s to blame when fraudsters use TurboTax to steal refunds?
It’s been a rough year for TurboTax customers.

Planning Key to Paying Off Student Debt
Tackling a long-term debt.

10 Cities Where Identity Theft Is a Huge Problem
Did yours make the list?

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to pick a credit card when your options are limited. Also in the news: Reducing your taxable income, rescuing your retirement plans, and why shopping from your couch on Black Friday could save you the most money.Credit card background

How to Pick a Credit Card When You Have Few Options
Pay close attention to astronomical fees.

2014 Tax Tips: 3 Ways to Cut Your Taxable Income
401(k) contributions could help come tax time.

How to rescue your retirement at 55
It’s not too late to save your retirement.

12 ways Black Friday 2013 will be different
The best deals could be found from the comfort of your sofa.

The Perfect Gift for the Kid Who Has Everything: A College Savings Account
While not as cool as a PS4, it’s a gift with huge rewards.

How much college savings is enough?

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.

Using a Roth for college: hazards and benefits

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.

It’s National 529 Day!

College studentWho 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.

Learn more by reading “The best and worst 529 plans” and this primer on Motley Fool.

Tax breaks for helping grandchildren

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.

Income matters more than assets in financial aid formulas

Dear Liz: You write about it not being a good idea in many cases to pay off your mortgage, but does it make sense to do so to reduce savings so that we can be in a better position to help our high school junior get financial aid for college in a year? We also have a 529 and some investments and are savers.

Answer: Your income matters far more to financial aid calculations than your savings, said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price (2nd Edition).” Another important factor is how many children you have in college at the same time. If you have a high income and only one child in college, you may not get much or any help, regardless of how your assets are arranged.

Many schools ignore home equity when figuring financial need, however, so it might be worth running some numbers. You can do that by using the net price calculators included on every college website. Pick the schools your junior might want to attend and run two scenarios on each calculator: one with your current financial situation and another in which you’ve paid off your mortgage with your savings.

Many parents are overly worried about how their savings will affect potential aid, O’Shaughnessy said. Parental assets, including 529 accounts, receive favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. Your retirement assets aren’t included in the federal formula at all, and your non-retirement assets are somewhat shielded as well thanks to an “asset protection allowance.” The older you are, the more of an asset protection allowance you get. The allowance will be somewhere around $45,000 for a married couple in their late 40s, the typical age for college parents. For those over 65, the allowance is $71,000. Beyond that, you’re typically asked to contribute less than 6% of eligible assets toward your offspring’s education each year.