Wake up to the truth about ‘dream schools’

The college admissions scandal — which recently led to a 14-day prison sentence for actress Felicity Huffman — exposed a group of wealthy parents’ obsession with getting their kids into the “right” school. Prosecutors say the families paid bribes, faked test results and pretended their kids were athletes to get them into selective colleges.

Unfortunately, many less affluent families also fall for the delusion that some schools offer golden tickets for their children’s futures, says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution.” Whether it’s an Ivy League college or a high-priced “dream school,” too many people believe certain educations are worth endless effort, stress — and debt.

In my latest for the Associated Press, the most important facts to know as you navigate the college admissions process and decide how much to spend.

Q&A: How to keep a loan to family from turning into a problem

Dear Liz: My husband and I have saved close to $2 million. He is 58, and I am 59. Our son is a hardworking, bright young man awaiting responses to medical school applications. My husband wants to loan him $200,000 to $500,000 to reduce his debt from interest on loans. I want to help too, but I think $200,000 should be the limit.

I want a legal contract to determine when it will be paid back, how much interest we will charge, and so on. My concern is that we are unsure how to set this up and I don’t want a nice gesture to end up causing problems with our son down the road. My husband is still working and has a nominal pension from military retirement.

Answer: The first rule of friends-and-family loans is to offer only what you can afford to lose. Even with all the proper documents, many loans turn into inadvertent gifts when the borrower can’t or won’t make the payments.

So your first stop should be a fee-only financial planner, who can review your entire financial situation, including your retirement plans, and let you know how much you can afford to lend your son.

The exact amount will depend on when your husband plans to stop working, how much you anticipate spending and how much you expect to receive from the pension and from Social Security, among other issues.

The planner also can tell you what interest rate you’ll need to charge to avoid having to file gift tax returns with the IRS.

Once you have that information, you and your husband can work together to determine the size of the loan and the interest rate. You can find promissory note templates online, or you can hire an attorney to draft the actual agreement.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Will a summer job burn your financial aid for college? Also in the news: 4 cool-down summer escapes you can book with points, new tools that can help turn your retirement savings into a steady paycheck, and how how to find out if you’re eligible for a $20,000 payment from Equifax data breach.

Will a Summer Job Burn Your Financial Aid for College?
The unexpected impact.

4 Cool-Down Summer Escapes You Can Book With Points
Beating the heat with reward points.

New tools can help turn your retirement savings into a steady paycheck
Personalized tools to create best-case scenarios.

Are you eligible for a $20,000 payment from Equifax data breach?
Don’t get too excited.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Teach your teens about college costs long before they apply. Also in the news: Haggling for vacation souvenirs, getting cheap car insurance for new drivers, and what to do with unexpected money.

Teach Your Teens About College Costs Long Before They Apply
Prepare them for reality.

Save Money on Souvenirs: Learn to Haggle
Make a plan and stick to it.

Getting Cheap Car Insurance for New Drivers
Discounts can add up over time.

What to Do With Unexpected Money
Be methodical.

Teach your teen about college costs starting now

Many families struggle to pay college expenses for one or two kids. Certified financial planner Sarah Carlson, mother of two sets of twins, will soon have all four of her children in college at the same time.

The older twins are already there, to be joined soon by the younger two. But years ago, Carlson started teaching her children how to get an affordable education. One of the first steps was making clear what she would contribute.

“I let them know early on what I was comfortable spending and what I wasn’t,” says Carlson, who’s based in Spokane, Washington.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why you need to teach your teen about college costs long before the first application essay is written.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: The lowdown on new tools to jump-start your credit. Also in the news: The new credit card that pays cash-back rewards for on-time payments, tuition discounts grow at private colleges and universities, and what to do in your 20s and 30s to be set in your 60s and 70s.

The Lowdown on New Tools to Jump-Start Your Credit
Learn how they work and if you should use them.

No credit history? This new credit card pays cash-back rewards for on-time bill payments
Introducing Petal.

Tuition discounting grows at private colleges and universities
Tuition costs are dropping.

What to do in your 20s and 30s to be set in your 60s and 70s
It’s never too early to prepare.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why your financial aid may plummet after freshman year. Also in the news: 3 tricks to help you shop less, how FICA tax and other withholding taxes work on your paycheck, and why you should plan to retire even if you don’t plan on retiring.

Why Your Financial Aid May Plummet After Freshman Year
Preparing yourself.

These 3 Tricks Can Help You Shop Less
Curbing an expensive habit.

How FICA Tax and Other Withholding Taxes Work on Your Paycheck
What they are and how you can change them.

Plan to Retire Even If You Don’t Plan to Retire
Plans have a way of changing.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: More parents are putting limits on college help. Also in the news: Mastercard’s new rule will make some “free” trials more transparent, what you need to know about SIPC insurance, and why you should be wary of new tricks for raising your credit score.

More Parents Are Putting Limits on College Help
Limiting contributions.

Mastercard’s New Rule Will Make Some ‘Free’ Trials More Transparent
Reminding you when the trial is up.

SIPC Insurance: What It Does and Does Not Protect
Covering your brokerage.

Be Wary of New ‘Tricks’ for Raising Your Credit Score
They could end up doing the opposite.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Having the talk about college costs with your teen. Also in the news: How the new tax law affects vacation homes, what to do when an airline loses your bag, and thinking twice before paying for accident forgiveness.

Having ‘The Talk’ About College Costs With Your Teen
Managing expectations.

How the new tax law affects vacation-home owners
It gets complicated.

What to Do When an Airline Loses Your Bag
Don’t panic.

Think Twice Before Paying for Accident Forgiveness
Premium increases vs. the cost of forgiveness

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to pay for college when you haven’t saved enough. Also in the news: How credit cards are fueling bigger gas savings, how to see the world in your 20s without racking up debt, and what rising mortgage rates will cost you if you’re looking to buy a home.

How to Pay for College When You Haven’t Saved Enough
All hope is not lost.

How Credit Cards Are Fueling Bigger Gas Savings
Savings at the pump.

How to See the World in Your 20s Without Racking Up Debt
The trip of a lifetime without a lifetime of debt.

Buying a home? Here’s what rising mortgage rates will cost you
State-by-state findings.