Money rules of thumb: College savings edition

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailA college degree today is what a high school diploma was 60 years ago, a college consultant told me. Meaning: the bare minimum for staying in the middle class.

There will be exceptions, of course, but your kid is unlikely to be one of them. So here, in my ongoing “rules of thumb” series (previous editions include retirement and cars), are a few guidelines about saving for college:

So here, in my continuing “Rules of thumb” series, are three guidelines regarding cars: – See more at: http://asklizweston.com/page/3/#sthash.BwXsoYOC.dpuf

Save yourself first. No one’s going to lend you money for retirement, so that has to remain your top priority–hard as that is for parents to hear. Think of it this way: by saving for yourself first, you’re reducing the odds that you’ll have to move in with your kid in old age. Trust me, she’ll appreciate that someday.

But save something. Even if it’s just $25 or $50 a month to start, putting something away for college helps solidify it as a goal–and anything you can save will reduce your child’s future debt load (since most financial aid is actually loans, not grants or scholarships).

Use a good 529 plan. Money saved in 529s is tax free when used for college education costs, and most of these state-run plans are pretty good these days, thanks to better investment options and lower fees. Morningstar runs an annual list of the best and worst plans.

The more you make, the more you’re expected to save. Federal financial aid formulas aren’t adjusted for regional differences in cost of living. There’s no exception made for families that have experienced hard financial times in the past. The higher your income, the more the formula expects you will have saved…to the point where someone with an income over $100,000 could be expected to fork over a third of it for college costs. There are ways to reduce college costs, but knowing the reality of financial aid formulas will help you to understand the maxim that “if you CAN save for college, you probably SHOULD.”

 

Should you hide assets to get more financial aid?

Dear Liz: We have a son who is a high school junior and who is planning on going to college. We met with a college financial planner who suggest we put money in a whole life insurance policy as a way to help get more financial aid. Is that a good idea?

Answer: Your “college financial planner” is actually an insurance salesperson who hopes to make a big commission by talking you into an expensive policy you probably don’t need.

The salesperson is correct that buying a cash-value life insurance policy is one way to hide assets from college financial planning formulas. Some would question the ethics of trying to look poorer to get more aid, but the bottom line is that for most families, there are better ways to get an affordable education.

First, you should understand that assets owned by parents get favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. Some assets, such as retirement accounts and home equity, aren’t counted at all by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. Parents also get to exempt a certain amount of assets based on their age. The closer the parents are to retirement, the greater the amount of non-retirement assets they’re able to shield.

Consider using the “expected family contribution calculator” at FinAid.org and the net cost calculators posted on the Web sites of the colleges your son is considering. Do the calculations with and without the money you’re trying to hide to see what difference the money really makes.

Most families don’t have enough “countable” assets to worry about their effect on financial aid formulas, said college aid expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution.” Those that do have substantial assets have several options to reduce their potential impact, including spending down any custodial accounts, paying off debt and maxing out retirement plan contributions in the years before applying for college.

Another thing to consider is that most financial aid these days comes as loans that need to be repaid, rather than as scholarships or grants that don’t. So boosting your financial aid eligibility could just mean getting into more debt.

Meanwhile, it’s generally not a good idea to buy life insurance if you don’t need life insurance. The policy could wind up costing you a lot more than you’d save on financial aid.

If you’re still considering this policy, run the scheme past a fee-only financial planner—one who doesn’t stand to benefit financially from the investment—for an objective second opinion.

Should you bail on your 529 plan?

Education savingsLong-time readers know I’m a big fan of using state-run 529 college plans to save for higher education expenses. (Remember the mantra: if you can save for college, you should!) Money in these plans grows tax-free when used for qualified college costs and doesn’t have much impact on financial aid (which is going to be mostly loans, anyway).

But the plans aren’t created equal–in fact, they’re so diverse it’s kind of daunting to track and compare them. Investment research firm Morningstar does just that, though, and every year creates a list of the best (and worst) plans. That list gives us 529 investors a chance to compare our plans against a gold standard and consider whether we need a change.

I’ve changed plans once, from California’s then-middling plan to Nevada’s top-rated one, and was surprised by how easy it was. (We still have some money in California’s plan, which is now higher in Morningstar’s ratings.) Some people are tied to their state’s plan by tax breaks or other incentives, but many aren’t. If you’re not happy with your plan, it’s time to consider a change.

You can read more about it in my Reuters column this week, “Is it time to switch 529 college savings plans?

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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.

Now available: My new book!

Do you have questions about money? Here’s a secret: we all do, and sometimes finding the right answers can be tough. My new book, “There Are No Dumb Questions About Money,” can make it easier for you to figure out your financial world.

I’ve taken your toughest questions about money and answered them in a clear, easy-to-read format. This book can help you manage your spending, improve your credit and find the best way to pay off debt. It can help you make the right choices when you’re investing, paying for your children’s education and prioritizing your financial goals. I’ve also tackled the difficult, emotional side of money: how to get on the same page with your partner, cope with spendthrift children (or parents!) and talk about end-of-life issues that can be so difficult to discuss. (And if you think your family is dysfunctional about money, read Chapter 5…you’ll either find answers to your problems, or be grateful that your situation isn’t as bad as some of the ones described there!)

Interested? You can buy this ebook on iTunes or on Amazon.

Don’t put college savings into custodial accounts

Dear Liz: I opened Uniform Transfers to Minors Act savings accounts for my two boys (now 7 and 10) when they were newborns. I chose not to go with the 529 college savings accounts because I didn’t like the restriction that the money had to be used for education. It has always been my intention to use these funds for college, but if they choose not to go to college, then it could be used to help them purchase their first homes, for example.

I’ve been squirreling away a couple hundred dollars each month in each account, but I read a few of your previous pieces and think maybe the UTMA accounts were not the best vehicle for this. Could they one day just demand the money and do with it whatever they want?

Answer: The short answer is yes. In most states, the money will become theirs at age 21 to spend however they want, although a few states let them have it at 18.

The other big disadvantage to custodial accounts such as UTMA and UGMA (Uniform Gifts to Minors Act) accounts is that they’re counted as the child’s asset in financial aid calculations. That can substantially reduce the amount of aid they get.

But even more important than the financial details is your attitude. You need to give up this notion that not going to college is a reasonable option for your kids. In the 21st century, some kind of post-secondary education is all but a necessity for a person to remain in the middle class, labor economists tell us. Your sons don’t have to study at a four-year school, but they are likely to need at least some vocational training beyond high school.

If you want to reduce the effect of these accounts on any future financial aid packages, you have a couple of options. One is to spend the money before they get to college, although that’s probably not the route you’ll want to take, given how much money you’ve already saved. If the accounts were smaller, you might just use them to buy a computer, pay for summer camp or cover the cost of tutoring. Such expenditures are allowed as long as the money is spent for the benefit of the child and doesn’t pay for expenses that are your obligation as a parent (food, shelter, clothing, medical care).

Another option is to liquidate the accounts and invest the cash in 529 plans. This would dramatically reduce the money’s effect on financial aid calculations, since it would be considered your asset rather than your child’s. The money could be withdrawn tax free to pay for qualified higher education expenses. If it’s not used for higher education, the contribution portion of the withdrawal won’t be taxed as income, but any earnings will be, plus there will be a 10% federal tax penalty on those earnings.

If you decide to transfer the money, the 529 account should be titled the same way as your UTMA accounts, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the college planning website FinAid. Ownership of the account shifts to the child when he reaches the age the UTMA account would have terminated. That gives him control of the money if it’s not spent on education, but he would have had that anyway. You can read more about the details at http://www.finaid.org/savings/ugma.phtml.