Q&A: Why you need to pay attention to your credit utilization

Dear Liz: Recently my granddaughter gave birth to twins. I’d like to put $500 into a trust for each of them to mature when they are 18. I’m hesitant to set up an education fund in case they decide not to go on to college. I would like something that includes growth and safety, the least amount of cost and minimal tax consequences. Is there something you could recommend?

Answer: A trust would be overkill, given the relatively modest amount you have to contribute. Consider instead setting up 529 college savings plans, which provide the benefits you’re seeking, including some flexibility in how the money is spent.

The money you contribute can be invested to grow tax-deferred. Withdrawals are tax-free when used for qualified education expenses, which include costs at vocational and technical schools as well as colleges and universities. In addition, up to $10,000 per year can be used for private school tuition for kindergarten through 12th grade. If a beneficiary doesn’t use the money in their account, the balance can be transferred to another close relative. The account owner (you) also can withdraw the money at any time. You would pay taxes on any earnings plus a relatively modest 10% penalty.

Legislation passed at the end of last year offers another option: Money that’s not needed for education can be transferred to a Roth IRA, starting in 2024. After an account has been open at least 15 years, the beneficiary can start rolling money into a Roth. The amount rolled over can’t exceed the annual contribution limit (which in 2023 is $6,500), and the lifetime limit for rollovers is $35,000.

These plans are offered by the states and operated by various investment companies. You can learn more at the College Savings Plan Network.

Q&A: Retirement accounts for teenagers

Dear Liz: My 16-year-old grandson has a job stocking shelves at a large grocery chain. His parents opened a low-cost minors investment account, which he has now funded to the max of $6,000. Is there anywhere else he can invest his earnings?

Answer: It sounds like what your grandson funded was an IRA or a Roth IRA. These retirement accounts have an annual $6,000 contribution limit for people under 50. (People 50 and older can make an additional $1,000 “catch up” contribution.) The Roth IRA has income limits, but your grandson won’t have to worry about those until he earns more than six figures.

Starting to save so young for retirement is a marvelous idea, since all those decades of compounded returns will really add up. Let’s assume two people save $6,000 a year and earn a 7% average annual return. The person who starts saving at age 36 would accumulate about $650,000 at age 66. The person who starts at age 16, by contrast, would have about $2.5 million.

Your grandson’s parents were smart to open a low-cost account, presumably at a discount brokerage. Next to starting early and investing as much as possible, keeping fees low is the best way to maximize how much he ultimately accumulates.

The simplest way to start investing would be to choose a low-cost target date mutual fund. He would choose one with a date closest to his likely retirement age, so one that’s labeled something like “Target Date 2070.” If you want to encourage him to learn more, consider buying him a book about investing, such as “O.M.G.: Official Money Guide for Teenagers” by Susan and Michael Beacham.

Q&A: Setting up nieces and nephews for success

Dear Liz: This is a little unorthodox, but I’m hoping you can help. I have six nieces and nephews from my various brothers and sisters. They range in age from babies to teenagers. When they get older, I want to be able to assist them with therapy sessions — not because I think their parents will mess them up, but because I believe mental health is important to success. I imagine telling them about this fund when they are about 18 or so, so I’d need money I can access in five to 10 years. How should I start saving for this? What accounts should I use? Should I open one account for each of them, and how can I manage this the best way for my taxes?

Answer: Custodial accounts could save money on taxes, but the money would become entirely theirs at a certain point (typically age 18 or 21) and you would lose control over what they did with it. You could hire an attorney to draft trusts that would have more restrictions, but that will cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to set up and administer.

The simplest solution would be to set up one or more accounts in your own name that you’ve earmarked for this purpose. You would pay taxes on any interest, dividends and capital gains accrued, but you would maintain control of the money and it wouldn’t affect the children’s ability to get financial aid in college.

Keeping control also gives you the flexibility to use the money for another purpose, in case your young relatives don’t need or want therapy. Mental health challenges — although widespread — aren’t universal. A survey funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found 46% of adults had a psychiatric disorder at some time in the past, and one-quarter had experienced a problem in the previous year. The most common disorders were major depression (17%), alcohol abuse (13%) and social anxiety disorder (12%).

If you’re concerned about their success and want to help with money they’re even more likely to need, consider funding 529 college savings plans. The money can grow tax-deferred and be used tax-free at virtually any post-secondary school in the U.S., as well as some abroad. You can maintain control and have the flexibility to move money to other beneficiaries, or to withdraw it at any time (although you’d pay penalties and taxes on any earnings).

Q&A: This son’s failure to launch is hurting his parent’s finances

Dear Liz: I have a 24-year-old son who has been trying to get through college for nearly seven years. I have helped him with direct gifts and by co-signing loans, but I am pretty tapped out. He tells me he has one year left but has no way to pay for it. He is disorganized and not particularly motivated, although he does talk about things he’s learning and I think is at least somewhat committed to school (he maintains about a B to C average at the state school he attends). He has moved back home to save money and is working full time but had gone many months without a job in the last year. He accumulated credit card debt and generally is a financial disaster.

Do I take out a second mortgage or co-sign another loan, which would be a stretch for me, or do I watch him drop out of school, which seems a really harsh life lesson? I know he might be able to take a year off and then go back, but let’s be honest — if he takes a break, it becomes less likely that he’ll ever return.

Answer: You sound like you’re more than tapped out. You already may be overextended because those private education loans you co-signed are just as much your responsibility as his — and he doesn’t sound like a terrific credit risk, at least at this point. Doubling down by borrowing more money doesn’t seem like the wisest choice for either of you.

Taking a break from school could increase the chances he won’t get his degree, but it also could give him time to get his financial life in better shape and perhaps tackle some of the issues impeding his progress. His disorganization and slow pace through school could point to an underlying problem such as a learning disability or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). His college may have a counseling center that could connect him with resources to help, or you could ask your family physician for a referral.

Q&A: Saving and investing for a child

Dear Liz: I recently got a court judgment for my daughter’s father to pay me child support. She is 1 year old, and it will be about $1,500 a month. I would like this money to be a gift for her when she is older. I’m told not to put it in her name now, as it may hurt her chance for financial aid for college later. How do you recommend I save and invest it for her? I’d like her to have it when she is a young adult.

Answer: This could be quite a gift for a young woman. If the money earned a 5% average annual return over time, you could be presenting her with a check for half a million dollars.

Consider putting at least some of the money in a 529 college savings plan. Withdrawals from these plans are tax-free when used to pay qualified college expenses. College savings plans receive favorable treatment in financial aid formulas because they’re considered an asset of the contributor (typically the parent), rather than the child.

Q&A: Best savings vehicle for a baby

Dear Liz: I recently gave birth to a little boy. I am wondering about the best savings vehicle that would offer flexibility for when family gives him money. I don’t want to tie it up in a 529 college savings plan in case he doesn’t want to go to college or has other needs.

Answer: If you want your child to have a reasonable shot at a middle-class lifestyle in the future, some kind of post-secondary education will be necessary. It may not be a four-year degree; it could be a one- or two-year training program, and a 529 college savings plan can help pay for that. Money contributed to a 529 plan grows tax-deferred and can be used tax-free at nearly all colleges, universities and community colleges as well as many career and technical schools.

You will remain in control of the account and can withdraw money for other purposes if necessary, although you would owe income taxes and a 10% federal penalty on any gains.

If you really can’t accept any limitations on how the money is used, then you can open a brokerage account in your own name and invest the money there. Putting the money in his name could hurt his chances for financial aid if he does decide to go to college.

Q&A: More on teens and cars

Dear Liz: Your answer to the parent wanting to purchase a convertible for his son reminded me of something that happened long ago. When I graduated from high school in 1966, a friend’s wealthy parents bought him a brand-new Lamborghini Miura as a graduation present. Two days after he got the car, he missed a curve in the mountains and rolled the vehicle. By a miracle he was not badly hurt, but the car was scrap. You gave good advice. Giving your teenage son the keys to a high-performance car is like handing him a live grenade. Kids often want things that they should not have.

Answer: These stories are legion at affluent schools where parents are so focused on indulging their children, or flaunting their wealth, that they don’t fully consider the risks involved. Sometimes the children aren’t as lucky as your friend was.

Parents can still make an ostentatious display by buying their children new four-cylinder luxury sedans, replete with air bags and other safety features, and replacing them when they’re inevitably totaled. But everyone involved would be better off if parents avoided high-horsepower vehicles, new or used, that tempt their kids to test their driving limits.

Q&A: Living like a student after graduation

Dear Liz: Regarding your recent column advising recent college grads to keep living like students: I helped my three children do just that. I had them live at home rent-free for six months after graduation and told them to save money like crazy.

Then when they rented an apartment, they would have the rental deposit saved as well as money for utilities, food and so on. I taught them to cook simple nutritional meals. We had already given each kid a car senior year and covered the insurance. I took home equity lines of credit to pay college tuitions, room and board, so they had no debts and six months to transition to serious responsibilities.

Answer: You’ve given your children a good head start in life at a time when so many others are starting out deeply in debt. Hopefully you didn’t do so at the expense of your own finances.
Home equity lines of credit may seem like cheap money, but the rates are variable and could spike if interest rates rise. If the debt is relatively small and can be paid off in a few years, that’s one thing.

If the debt is large and you can’t pay it off quickly, though, you may have put your home (and your retirement) at risk.

Baby coming? What to consider before you quit

Dear Liz: My husband and I have decided that next year we want to have a baby. So we have at minimum a year and nine months to make sure we’re financially prepared. I did some cursory Googling and I’m already a bit overwhelmed. I’m not sure where to start.

I know I should figure out how much the medical costs will be, but how do I figure out how much everything else costs? Do you have a checklist of things we should be aware of and consider? One thing I could use some guidance on is whether I should stay home or put our baby in daycare so I don’t miss out on work benefits like healthcare and 401(k) matching. I like my job and bosses, and if I leave I will have to find a new job that may not be as good when I decide to reenter the workforce. But if we decide to have a second child, I’m worried that childcare costs will be too much for two young children. Know of any good books on this subject?

Answer: By leaving work you wouldn’t be missing out only on benefits. Research by economist Stephen J. Rose and Heidi I. Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, found that women’s average annual earnings decline 20% if they stay out of the workforce for one year and 30% if the absence stretches to two or three years. Many find it tough to rejoin the workforce after extended absences.

Quitting work is the right choice for some parents, but you shouldn’t do so simply because you fear childcare costs. For a few years, those costs might eat up most or all of your paycheck, but such expenses decline over time. If you continue to work, your earning power and retirement contributions will continue to grow.

Meanwhile, some parents find they can reduce childcare costs by staggering their work schedules, tapping family members or sharing a nanny. Research the childcare options in your area so you have an idea of what’s available and the costs.

You can continue your research into budgeting for a child with the excellent, constantly updated book “Baby Bargains” by Denise and Alan Fields. This field guide offers product reviews and realistic assessments of what you actually need to buy for your child and what you don’t.

Another good resource is financial writer Kimberly Palmer’s “Baby Planner,” available on Etsy.

With all your planning, keep in mind that parenting always presents surprises. You may decide to stop after one child or keep going until you have a houseful. The important thing is to remain flexible and don’t assume you know how your future self will choose to live.

One of the best pieces of advice in Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book, “Lean In,” is that women not cut themselves off from career opportunities because of how hard they think combining work and child-rearing will be. “What I am arguing is that the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives — not before, and certainly not years in advance,” she writes.

Elderly parent wants to help unemployed sons

Dear Liz: Both of our sons, ages 63 and 59, are currently unemployed. We are 93 and self-supporting with Social Security and my retirement benefits. We live in our own home and are able to handle all our expenses, even though my wife requires a companion for 12 hours each day.

I believe we should financially aid both sons, to the limit of our ability, but my wife disagrees.

They are the two main beneficiaries of our estate. Each one is scheduled to receive about $40,000 upon our deaths. How should we proceed?

Answer: If your estates won’t amount to much more than $80,000 at your deaths, it doesn’t sound as if you have the financial wiggle room to help your sons. Your wife already requires significant care and may need more in the future. Plus, she’s likely to outlive you, which would mean getting by on less (certainly a smaller Social Security benefit, and perhaps a smaller pension amount as well). Any money you give them, in other words, is likely to be to her detriment.