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Archive for the ‘Paying for College’ Category

As college costs continue to rise, parents continue to search for ways to lower the pain in their wallets from getting a college degree.

What could be better than having the money saved to pay for college?  How about having help from Uncle Sam?  But with so many choices, how can you most effectively accomplish the twin goals of paying for college and saving your retirement nest egg? I discuss many in my College Planning Service.  Here is a little primer on some popular options.

With a qualified tuition plan, like a 529 Plan, you have a tax-free incentive to save for college.  For years the investment industry has promoted the benefits of saving for college using these qualified tuition savings plans.  But are they really the best or most beneficial option for you and your student?

WHAT IS A QUALIFIED TUITION PLAN and CAN IT HELP YOU?

Created under the Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996, qualified tuition savings plans (QTP) include a number of options that provide tax incentive savings for college savings.

The most popular of these options is the 529 Plan (named after the section of the code where they appear).  But there are two varieties of these plans and understanding the differences may help you avoid some costly mistakes.

Generally, a QTP is an investment vehicle that allows someone to set aside money that can be used towards the expenses incurred at an eligible school or college. It can be used to cover the tuition and fees of an undergraduate degree or vocational program.

Two Options

There are two key options:  a prepaid tuition plan or an investment plan.

Prepaid Tuition Program

With this option, you can set aside a predetermined amount that the program manager agrees to use to cover the expenses for a particular time period.  These options are limited to certain schools.  And the school contractually accepts the amount set aside to cover the expense with the funds set aside.  If a participant chooses not to attend, then the market value may be withdrawn (subject to limitations) and used at another school.  But the value of the account may not be enough to cover the actual expense.

College Savings Plan

This is the classic version of a QTP.  Money is invested for a particular beneficiary but can be used at any eligible school or program.  The biggest difference is that the investment burden falls on the shoulders of the participant.

The Upside

Investing in a 529 means that your student-beneficiary can  withdraw the funds tax-free when it comes time to pay college costs.  In some cases states offer a tax deduction for setting money aside (but not in Massachusetts).

Problems to Consider

A common complaint: It limits withdrawals to cover only eligible expenses. The money invested into the account is restricted to “qualified” expenses specific to your education. While this list is broad, certain school-related expenses may not be eligible.

If money from a 529 account is used on something not qualified, the investor is subject to income tax and a ten percent early distribution fee.

  • Limitation on investment choices: You are limited to the plan menu offered by the state sponsor.
  • Limitation on investment changes or rebalancing: You can only switch investments once per year.  Or you can enroll in an auto-rebalancing feature (quarterly, semi-annually or annually) but there may be a cost.
  • Fees and expenses may be high: In addition to the underlying mutual fund expenses (about 1% – 1.5% for actively managed funds), there is an advisor and state management fee. These can run about 1% to 1.5%. (A cheaper alternative involves low-cost Exchange Traded Funds). And in some cases, you may be paying a commission for the purchase of shares.
  • Financial aid eligibility may be impacted:  Assets held in such plans are assessed by financial aid.  If you have a large enough balance, you may reduce your odds for receiving financial aid. The titling of the account can be critical to helping avoid this potential problem.
  • Improper tax planning: If you’re in a low enough tax bracket (marginal rates under 15%), you may not benefit as much compared to the costs of the plan.  These plans are better suited for those in higher tax brackets. And for estate planning purposes, they are ideal for grandparents looking to move large amounts of money out of their estate for the benefit of the living.

 

Need Help Understanding Your Options?

 

Exclusive College Planning Service Helps Parents with Costs

Need Help Financing College? Don’t Just Get a Loan. Get a Plan

 

 

 

COLLEGE HELPLINE:  978-388-0020

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Recently, a blog visitor was searching on the term “EE Savings Bonds,” “Tax Free” and “parochial school.”

Evidently, this visitor has a child in a private elementary or secondary school.  With good planning and generous help from family and friends, he has a number of EE series savings bonds in the child’s name.

Given the tax breaks available for certain higher-education expenses and the increasing costs of private elementary and high schools, it’s a very valid question.

The answer:  No.

Unfortunately, there is no tax advantage for cashing in EE Savings Bonds to pay for private or parochial school tuition and expenses.

The Internal Revenue Code does provide a tax-free incentive to cash in Savings Bonds for qualified higher education expenses subject to certain adjusted gross income limits.  These qualified education expenses are broadly defined and include tuition, fees and certain equipment incurred in pursuing a post-secondary school degree or vocational program. Theses expenses must be incurred at an eligible institution of higher learning which includes virtually all accredited public and private colleges and vocational programs in the US as well as certain participating programs overseas.

Education Savings Bond Programs are described in IRS Publication 970 and can generally be found on page 60 and also on Form 8815 “Exclusion of Interest From Series EE and I US Savings Bonds Issued After 1989.”

The better bet for this parent will be to hold onto the Savings Bonds until after the child is enrolled in college.  Because of certain financial aid requirements it may actually be best not to sell them during the student’s high school senior year because of the base year calculation of the Expected Family Contribution.

For more specific help in developing a tax and financial aid plan, consider my exclusive College Planning Services.

Call the College Planning Helpline at 978-388-0020.

Exclusive College Planning Service Helps Parents with Costs

Need Help Financing College? Don't Just Get a Loan. Get a Plan

 

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If you have two years before your student enters college …

 Test Prep

Every tenth of a point added to a student’s GPA may save thousands of dollars in loans that won’t have to be paid back later because colleges will give preferential aid to good students.  So now’s the time to consider test prep courses for the SAT.

 

Business Interest

Financial aid is based on the parents’ tax return from the base year (the year before the student enters college).

So any strategies (including tax strategies) that can lower the reported family income may help improve odds for financial aid. If you have any interest in running a business on the side or working as an independent contractor (i.e. real estate agent or MLM distributor, for example), now  would be the time to start.  That’s because most businesses will show losses during the first couple (or more) years which can help lower the Adjusted Gross Income and improve odds for financial aid.

 

Real Estate Strategies

Use home equity if you have any.  The possible “triple play advantage” for this option is clear:  1.) in most cases there is a tax deduction for the interest, 2.) you temporarily reduce the equity in your property and lower your asset value which lowers your potential family contribution and 3.) as a secured loan, the interest rate is low compared to other options.

Another late-stage planning technique is to use the proceeds to buy an immediate annuity.  This can shelter the capital and the payout can be used toward the mortgage payment. For details on this strategy, call for a College Cash Flow Planner Model.

 

FOR MORE PERSONAL TIPS, CALL STEVE @ 978-388-0020 or 617-398-7494

Exclusive College Planning Service Helps Parents with Costs

Need Help Financing College? Don't Just Get a Loan. Get a Plan

 

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For most families, paying for college for their kids rivals buying a home as the largest investment that they will ever make.

College is viewed – and rightfully so – as a key to a better future.  Even as the cost of college continues to escalate at a pace almost double the inflation rate (nearly 5% per year compared to the historic average of nearly 3% for CPI), there is still a high and growing demand for higher education services.  The proportion of high school graduates who enroll in a degree program within one year of graduating from high school has grown from 49% in 1976 to 66% in 2006-07 according to the College Boards “Trends in College Pricing 2008” report.

Going to College:  Still Worth It

Generally, it is still worth the investment.  According to the US Census Bureau, those with a college degree on average will earn a median income of nearly twice that of someone with a high school degree. And other research indicates that those with a college degree historically have lower and shorter periods of unemployment.  (This may not seem like it as we go through the ongoing impact of the Great Recession but there is data supporting this).

Colleges know this and as a result price their “product” according to this demand for more educational services. One result is that without consumer pressure the colleges are pricing their “product” at whatever the market will bear.  And that price tag continues to go up. At last count, a four-year degree at a public university was around $16,000 per year for all tuition and fees. For private schools this number falls into the $34,000+ per year category.

To pay for this some parents will do almost anything and make almost any sacrifice sometimes to the detriment of their own financial health. So how do we balance the long-term investment in our children with the long-term investment in our own retirement?

Do you want to pay less for your student’s college education? Do you want to find a better way to balance paying for college without sacrificing your retirement nest egg? Be an informed consumer. Wrong, outdated or misguided information about paying for college or qualifying for financial aid just compound the problem for many families.

Too often families are under the mistaken belief that there is nothing that they can do but suck it up and write the check.  Or there is the dream of the big money athletic scholarship.  Or they mistakenly think that there is no financial aid.

All of these beliefs are dangerous to your family’s financial health. The key is having the right information and help to navigate through the minefield that is college funding and financial aid.

Myths about Financial Aid

1. Not Enough Financial Aid is Available.

During the 2009-2010 academic year, students received about $168 billion in financial aid.  This included the entire spectrum of aid such as grants, scholarships, Work Study, low-interest and government-subsidized loans. The largest proportion of this aid is in the form of loans.  Despite the budget woes in Washington, there is still money available for college through these programs.

2. Only students with good grades get financial aid.

Not true.  Colleges are seeking diversity among their classes.  Admissions officers are looking to have students from every socio-economic demographic represented.  And every student has some special skill to add to the mix. The key here is to match up the right student with the right school.  Is it better to be a big fish in a little pond or a small fish in a big pond?  Someone who is a “B” student but with a particular aptitude in a subject might have better odds of getting into a smaller school and be offered aid than the valedictorian competing with every other valedictorian applying to Harvard.

3. You have to be a minority to get financial aid.

Again, this is false.  Financial aid comes in many forms.  Loans are awarded based on the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) which is influenced by family size, parental income, and number of kids attending college at the same time. Loans are need-based and are color-blind.

4. I won’t need government help.  I’ll get scholarship money.

While you may have a talented student who excels in a particular sport, extracurricular activity or is gifted academically, hope is not a plan.  Consider the fact that National Merit Scholarships are very prestigious but can be  double-edged sword.  A student may receive the scholarship but receive no other aid from the school leaving the parent or student to foot the entire remaining bill.

Remember that College Planning is NOT just saving FOR college. It is not just saving in a 529 Plan.  College Planning is tailored to an individual family’s needs and is focused on SAVING ON the cost of college by using all the strategy tools in the financial aid tool box:  savings, investments, taxes and EFC reporting.

5. I make too much money to qualify for any aid or be able to do anything to lower the cost.

False.  This is the biggest myth of all and the most dangerous.  While a family with significant income may not be eligible for needs-based aid, there are dozens of strategies available that may lower the cost of college.  And even with a short amount of time until school, there are ways to lower the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) before filing a financial aid form.

  • Knowing how and where to hold your assets may help you qualify for more aid.  Hint:  Retirement accounts are a great way to kill two birds with one stone.
  • Checking your ego at the door when completing the FAFSA can help qualify you for more aid.  Be careful how you report the value of home or business equity or your stock portfolio.  Most people overestimate because they don’t know this one tip.

6. I have a child entering college next year and it’s too late to do anything.

Absolute nonsense.  I can literally rattle off at least 12 cost-saving tips including transfer credits, AP testing and proper use of home equity.  There are another dozen ways to lower your EFC and 10 different ways to save in the most tax-efficient way.

For one early retiree I showed him one strategy that netted him more than $9,000 in free, no-strings aid from Babson College for his college freshman son.  For another, I showed him tax strategies that will save him the cost of one year of tuition at Colby College for his soon-to-be freshman.

BOTTOM LINE: The Less You Know, the More You Pay.  The More You Think You Know, the More You Pay. The More You Know, the Less You Really Pay.

Pay Less for College with a Personal College Plan

Saving ON College Starts Here

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June 2011 ViewPoint Newsletter

The current issue of the ViewPoint Newsletter from Steve Stanganelli, CFP(R) and Clear View Wealth Advisors is available for download from the SlideShare.net website.  A copy can also be found at the Clear View website newsletter archive.

In this issue, I focus on the key themes of the newsletter:  Retirement, College, Investing Strategy and Taxes.

  1. Retirement:  Using an “endowment” strategy to sustain withdrawals in retirement
  2. Investing: The value of dividend investing strategies for a total return investor and a discussion of how dividend payouts may predict future stock prices
  3. Taxes:  Real estate owners and especially those going through divorce may find these tips useful.
  4. College Planning:  On Thursday, June 9 there will be another free webinar with this one focused on Paying for College – Debunking Financial Aid Myths.

CLICK BELOW to VIEW the NEWSLETTER

Make Sense of Your Money with the ViewPoint Newsletter

Click Here to Download June 2011 ViewPoint Newsletter

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For college-bound students, funding retirement has to be the farthest thing from their minds. Yet, with a little planning, parents may be able to kill two birds with one stone. Unfortunately, most parents of college-bound kids tend to overlook some obvious ways to lower the cost of college but wisely using the tax code and some retirement planning techniques can help.

It may be a low-priority item, but this strategy can help parents when it comes to planning how to pay for college. How?  By lowering the Expected Family Contribution (or EFC) of the family and sheltering assets in a retirement account, there is the potential for qualifying for more needs-based financial aid.

Roth IRA

Consider using a Roth IRA for any earnings that a student has from part-time work.  For students over 16 they can put away up to $5,000 each year (or up to their total earnings, whichever is less) from all those part-time or summer jobs. Students already in college can also use this same strategy.

A Roth IRA allows any wage earner regardless of age to put money away now and then later withdraw money without paying taxes on the earnings. When you contribute to a Roth IRA, there is no tax deduction as there is with a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA) but there are other advantages.

If a student earns money and the parents leave it commingled in one of their accounts, the balance will potentially be assessed at the student’s higher rate as an asset available for paying for school.  Parents may want to maintain control over funds and have the earnings put into an account in their name but this will show up as a parental asset subject to assessment by the financial aid formulas used by colleges.

On the other hand, funds in a Roth IRA are not counted and will not affect financial aid calculations.

Follow the Road Map

The key to this strategy is following the rules of the road. Any funds placed in the account as a contribution may be withdrawn at any time free of taxes or penalties.

For earnings that may accrue on the account balance, these may be subject to income taxes or penalties but there are exceptions.

Converted Assets

For amounts that were converted from another IRA and recharacterized as a Roth, there are special rules.  For amounts that meet the five-year holding test (from the date the account was first opened) then no income taxes or early withdrawal penalties apply. If a withdrawal is made within five years, then a 10% early withdrawal penalty applies unless it is for a special purpose.  One of the eight special purposes is withdrawals used for higher education expenses.

Withdrawals of Earnings

While income taxes will apply, no 10% early withdrawal penalties apply when the proceeds are used for one of eight special purposes including higher education expenses.

Distribution Rules

For distributions from a Roth IRA you need to note that Roth contributions are always considered to be the first amounts withdrawn.  These are not taxable.  Then any amounts that were converted from other IRAs are considered to be withdrawn second and subject to the time line noted above.  Finally, earnings on the account are considered to be withdrawn last.

Ideal for the Self-Employed Parent

Consider employing your kid in your business and paying them instead of just giving them an allowance.  I write about this on a previous blog found here. This way you can lower the taxable profit from your business which may help you qualify for more financial aid.  And by diverting the wages earned into a Roth IRA as a contribution, your child will not have this asset exposed for the financial aid calculations.

Use It Now or Later

This strategy can be used for late-starters, those who haven’t saved enough for upcoming college bills.

But it can also work very well if you start early.  Since there is a five-year rule in place, open a Roth IRA account even while the child is in middle school and working part-time outside the home or in the family business.  Then by the time the child is ready to enter his third or fourth year of college, he may be able to withdraw some of the earnings to pay for costs without paying any penalties.

By using this strategy, parents can help their students learn to save and the funds can be available in a tax-efficient way during college to pay qualified education expenses.  Or they can skip the withdrawals while in college and use them later for graduate school or to help pay for their first home purchase.

Advantages of This Strategy:

  • Shelters assets from financial aid calculations
  • May help lower family Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
  • Instills value of saving early for goals
  • May help accumulate capital that can be used later for school with tax efficient withdrawals
  • May help save for future home purchase or better yet … retirement

 

For more tips, check out my free webinar offered monthly. For a current schedule visit the Clear View website.

 

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Growing up in a middle class family with parents who worked on the production lines of local factories, it was instilled in me from a very young age that education was the ticket to a better life.  While times have changed parents still want to see a better life for their kids and education is still the key.

American Dream: Worth Believing?

As a new parent myself (my other identity is as Spencer’s Dad), I want the same thing.  I believe that the American Dream is founded on education which brings with it the opportunities for a high quality of life.

I’m not as cynical as my favorite comedian of all time, the late George Carlin, who once said in reference to the “education-industrial” complex: “ It’s not called the The American Dream for nothing, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

But he did make some great points in his monologue:  Our education system is sort of broken and there’s no real incentive to fix it.

Escalating Costs Threaten Future

Let’s face reality here.  The cost of getting a baccalaureate degree even at a public university or college comes with an average price tag of $16,000 per year.  And that’s typically before room and board. Private schools average in the $36,000+ range and elite schools are near $50,000.  That’s per year. More than the cost of my parent’s first or second home.

When I was growing up, I entered the University of Lowell (now University of Massachusetts – Lowell) in the fall of 1982 and the cost for each course was about $400.  When I entered Bentley University for my master’s degree in finance in 1991, the $1600 cost for one course was equal to what 12 credits cost for an entire semester at Lowell.

Since then inflation in higher education has been a given. Despite three stock market corrections in the past decade and a financial crisis that lead to The Great Recession, there has been no let up in the escalation of tuition and fees for school.

This is not good for individuals.  Nor is it good for us as an opportunity society.  This is not meant as a political statement but a recognition of reality.  The wealthiest among us will be able to pay their own way.  The poorest among us will get aid.  But as noted in a recent discussion on NPR’s On Point on May 26 entitled “Affluent Students Dominate Top Colleges,” the reality is that higher education is not as diverse as our society at large.  The consequences of this lack of diversity can be wide reaching impacting not just the individual but his interactions with others as well as developing the talents of people needed to deal with society’s ills and propel us forward in technology, healthcare and business in general.

It contributes to a perceptible widening between the ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-Nots’ and undermines the Middle Class foundation of our society. And when people feel disconnected from society and the glue that binds us dries up, our standard of living and global standing erode.

As someone commented on the On Point blog after the show:

As a community college professor, and the father of a daughter who just graduated from Wake Forest, I would like to have extended this discussion in a couple of ways.  The real middle class (not poor enough to get Pell Grants, etc., nor rich enough to write the big checks) is the group that is really caught in this dilemma.  More needs to be said about this.

The change in the student body at these colleges is very striking to those of us who graduated years ago.  I worked summers and was able to pretty much pay my way through Wake 40 years ago.  Most of my friends were lower middle class guys from small towns in N.C. Today more than half the student body comes from outside the state, and many are very affluent.  My daughter, from a family with two teachers as parents, felt like the poor kid through most of her four years, and she was well taken care of.  The only reason she was able to attend this fine school was my dear departed mother’s money (it took it all), and scholarships (which just seemed to increase the EFC).  That, and being an only child.  But “on point.”  The economic imbalance that now exists on a small liberal arts campus is disturbing, as is the lack of not just racial diversity, but class diversity.

Paying for College – A Real Risk for Retirement, Too

Politics aside, this has been a real financial crisis in the making.  Consider this:  For every dollar that a parent uses to pay for a child’s college, there is one less dollar for that parent’s retirement.  So the crisis in paying for school is also a retirement crisis.

We know that going to get a college degree is a positive financial decision.  The often quoted number is that a college-degree holder earns more than $1 million more over his or her lifetime than someone without a degree.

Students are walking out with an average of $20,000 in student debt. That’s not terribly bad when compared to the lifetime payoff.   (I personally think that it’s higher and the many “for profit” diploma mills that prey on people’s hopes and fears add to this as well. But that’s a discussion for another day).

But the problem is that Middle Class parents are squeezed from competing priorities:  taking care of elder parents, saving to fund a dignified retirement and helping their kids attain the key to their own futures.

Help for Those Stuck in the Middle

Some solutions to this crisis are way above my pay grade.  But to the college professor’s point noted above, the real middle class needs help with this dilemma.

Most financial advisers and even CPAs do a disservice to their clients.  Advisers focus almost exclusively on investing. Accountants generally are looking in the rear view mirror and dealing with tax liability.

For those advisers like myself who recognize the link between college and retirement, we know that there has to be a better way to handle paying for college without having to go broke doing it.

Tips to Paying Less and Getting More

  1. Get a financial plan in place:  There’s no reason to do this alone.  The FAFSA and CSProfile financial aid forms are confusing.  And like taxes, things change from year to year.  Answering questions the wrong way can jeopardize chances to get all the financial aid for which a student may be eligible;
  2. DON’T become a victim:  For late-starter parents there is a temptation to go with the easy fixes that sound good.  Too often folks start getting invitations to “free” seminars which are usually nothing more than pitches to buy insurance.  Yes, certain types of insurance can shelter assets that don’t need to be counted for the purpose of financial aid calculations.  But there is a cost to losing that flexibility.  And the time frame needed to make this strategy viable … well, let’s just say grammar school makes more sense than starting when your little tot is a high school junior.
  3. Don’t pay sticker price:  The truth is that the price you see isn’t the price you need to pay.  And good students who would do well at a particular school sell themselves short by self-selecting out of applying for fear that they can’t afford it.  While that may be true, it’s also true that a financial aid package can be arranged.  Students may actually end up paying less to go to one of their preferred schools than to a “safety” like a public school.  (Let’s face it, even after a recession and the Flash Crash, universities still have endowment money but public schools are being squeezed by state budget concerns).
  4. Lower you Expected Family Contribution: There are a variety of tax-efficient cash flow and income strategies that late-starter parents can use to show lower income or assets that may help lower the EFC and increase eligibility for aid.
  5. Use a Cash Flow Model: Through smart planning a family can devise a plan on which buckets to pull money out of in a tax wise way and still fund their retirement plans.  Believe it or not but it can be done.
  6. Become an educated consumer: Don’t simply rely on what friends and neighbors say.  Get to know the process.  Work with someone who can help show you the way.  Realize that there are two prices for a college education:  The one that everyone pays because they don’t know better or the one for those who know how to navigate through the system.

Exclusive College Planning Service Helps Parents Pay Less for College

To learn more strategies that may lower the out-of-pocket cost for college costs, please join me for one of my free monthly webinars.  The next one is on June 9 at 8 PM. Details can be found on my company website or by clicking here.

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