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Archive for the ‘Paying for College’ Category

College costs continue to escalate.  The burden on families grows every year.

Even before the Great Recession trying to balance the competing and emotional needs of paying for college while trying to save for retirement was a struggle. Let’s face it: Paying for college is as much a retirement planning issue as anything else.  Don’t ever forget that.

So how much is a college education worth to you? The average price keeps going up and is the only part of the economy not showing any slowdown in price increases (besides gas prices of course).

  • Average public 4-year school tuition is now $16,000 per year
  • Private colleges are at $32,000 per year
  • Elite private colleges are near $50,000 per year

And this doesn’t include tuition, room, board, fees and “extras.”

Again, how much is this worth to you? Will you be satisfied eating Mac and Cheese or working as a Wal-Mart greeter during your “Golden Years” knowing that your child got the most expensive education that money could buy?

If the answer to that is “hell no,” then you’re at the right place.

Become an Informed Buyer of Education

Welcome to my latest blog where I will endeavor to bring you insightful and creative tips on how to be an informed consumer of higher education.

Trying to get a handle on what to do is difficult.  Let’s face it:  Unless you’re Octa-mom or do this everyday, you’re flying blind when it comes to figuring out how to manage paying for college. Have you actually seen a FAFSA form lately? Do you really want to?

Sure, if you have a couple of kids within a couple of years of each other, the rules might be the same.  Sure, you can rely on what your neighbors did for their kids who graduated a few years ago.

Or you can have a plan tailored to your situation.

Look, just like tax laws, financial aid rules and how college admissions officers work their magic change every year.

So you may as well have a plan and be a part of making it happen.

This blog and my website are here to help.

Stop by and let me know your thoughts.  Shoot me a question.  And feel free to try out the exclusive college planning service website on your own. And then let me know when you’re ready to get serious about this by calling me directly at 978-388-0020.

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There are so many choices and ways to pay for college.

Let’s look at an overview.

In general in comes down to this.  Find a school and a program that fits your needs and learning style.  Do whatever you can to limit the amount of time you need to stay on campus. Take advantage of every opportunity to work, get financial aid or qualify for scholarships.

You can reduce the time you’re enrolled by getting advanced placement credit for some courses.  You can do this through testing while still in high school or you can apply for classes at the local college that can possibly transfer to the school you enter.  You should also consider taking classes during summer break to accelerate your graduation date.

For financing, consider this:

  1. Choose a school that offers a great financial aid package: There are database search tools that will provide you with a comparison of the kinds of aid packages available.  You can access one of these tools through the Clear View website here.
  2. Consider a state school: Tuition is lower for instate resident students allowing you to save a bundle. If you like a school’s program but you live out-of-state, consider finding a way to qualify for in state residency.
  3. Work during school and more during the off-season: By working an average of 20 hours per week you can earn enough to cover most books, fees and equipment as well as pizza and beer.
  4. Find scholarships:  Getting someone else to pay for school is a real bonanza. So don’t underestimate the value of searching out scholarships.  Many go unclaimed each year.  You can start your free search at www.scholarships.com or www.collegeboard.com under the “Fund Finder” section.
  5. Consider post-college service programs:  By joining certain community service programs some or all of your student loans may be forgiven.  So consider working in an inner city neighborhood program like CityYear or teach.
  6. Borrow if you have to:  While Shakespeare said “neither a borrower nor lender be,” sometimes you can’t avoid it. So here your options are many and varied.  Over 71% of college aid comes in the form of loans.  To navigate your way through this contact a qualified financial planner who can help.

If you follow these steps, you can minimize the amount of debt you or your student will be burdened by.  And your retirement nest egg will remain intact as well.

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Let me offer the classic unsatisfying answer:  It depends.

Before you offer your John Hancock you should understand the risks involved.

Just like any other financial decision, it’s best to try to do this without the emotion, drama and angst that can complicate a relationship.  Easier said than done, I know.

But like your investments, you should do your own due diligence and follow your own values.

Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to get a cosigner for a loan, credit card or apartment lease.  The best terms are offered to those with the lowest credit risks.  A credit card issuer, mortgage lender or landlord will rightly offer someone with an established good credit history and deeper pockets a whole lot better set of terms than a newly minted college grad or someone with a bunch of blemishes on their credit report.

I remember a favorite uncle of mine.  He was single, very responsible with money, a great saver.  He once went to buy a car but needed a younger nephew to consign for him for the auto loan because our uncle had no established credit.  He had paid cash for everything all his life making him an invisible man to a loan underwriter.

I also remember once walking across campus and a friend stopping me as I passed the financial aid office.  He asked me for a favor.  He needed a cosigner for his student loan and it was my lucky day to be the guy to help him.  Don’t worry about a thing, he told me.  I’m good for it, he had said.

Luckily he was but that’s not always the case.  The FTC reports that three out of four cosigners are asked to pay because the primary borrower hasn’t.

Know the Risks

There are risks in life and in every decision we make.  It’s not a matter of avoiding all risks but managing them, understanding them. Don’t just think that you can walk away once you’re on the hook for the loan.  Just because your signature may not appear first doesn’t mean that you won’t be the person they turn to collect the debt.

Landlords typically require a parent to cosign on an apartment for a child.  They know if the kid skips or the keg party gets too wild that Mom and Dad will not want to risk their good credit and will be there to cover the bill.

Remember that each loan or credit card you have will have an impact on your own credit score.  The payment history and amount utilized compared to the maximum line of credit can have a potential adverse impact on your own credit score.

And the amount of the debt will be counted as if it were your own.  This may make it difficult or impossible to get a loan when you need one.  I had a client who had cosigned for a car loan for her adult son.  The son has made every payment on time.  But when his mom applied for a home equity line of credit the car loan fixed payment was included in calculating the underwriter’s debt ratios.  Combined with her other debts it was enough to push her over the maximum qualifying debt ratio allowed resulting in a loan decline.

Put Yourself in the Lender’s Shoes

If you treat this like an investment or a loan, you should be prepared to ask questions.

You should be asking the same sort of questions that any would.  Why do they need the money?  What’s the default risk? Can they afford the debt?  How will they manage to pay it back?

Curb Your Enthusiasm … Set Limits

Like all financial decisions, consider the risk and find ways to limit it.

For a credit card you can request that the limit be set low so that the card can only be used for emergencies and not big ticket discretionary purchases that will leave you on the hook.

For apartment leases with roommates, make sure that all the parents are also listed on the lease so you’re not the only one that the landlord will call when there’s a problem.

For other large ticket items requiring a loan, consider being listed on the title for the car for example.  If there is a default, you’ll have the right to sell the car.

At the very least you can ask to receive duplicate statements so that you can monitor that payments are being made as promised.

For larger loans like a mortgage, you may even want to consider offer your help in the form of an intra-family loan.  There are services that will manage the payment processing so that it avoids getting ugly if there ever is a payment problem.  Just remember that if you choose to lend a hand to someone to buy a home in this way, they will need to declare it on the application as a debt and they’ll have to qualify for the new loan with this payment as well.


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As noted in previous articles and posts, whether or not your student qualifies for federal financial aid for college will depend on the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) calculation.

Typically, almost all assets and income are included in this calculation by financial aid officers.  There are exceptions to all rules and in this case, federal aid formulas (under the “Federal Methodology”) exclude home or family farm equity, money accumulated in tax-deferred retirement accounts and cash value built up in a life insurance policy.  The cash values of fixed and variable annuities are also excluded.

Since these assets are not counted in determining aid, some families may be tempted to consider “asset shifting” strategies.  With such techniques, a countable asset like savings or investments through a brokerage account are used to acquire one or more of these other non-countable asset types.

Friends and clients have attended financial aid workshops sponsored by college aid planners or insurance agents who recommend purchasing annuities or life insurance.  Sometimes these strategies involve doing a “cash out” refinance or drawing on a home equity line of credit. Tapping home equity to fund a deposit into an insurance or annuity vehicle may benefit a mortgage banker and insurance agent but is it in your best interests?

Asset Shifting to Qualify for More Financial Aid: Is it worth it?

Well, that depends on what side of the table you’re sitting on.

Yes, it’s true that anything you can do to reduce your expected family contribution may help boost the amount and type of aid your student may receive.

On the other hand, remember these points:

  • Family assets are counted at a low contribution rate of 5.6% above the asset-protection allowance calculated for your family circumstances.
  • If you put money into a tax-deferred account, it’s locked up.  Access to the funds before age 59 1/2 results in early withdrawal penalties in most cases.
  • You may have to pay to borrow your own money.

Granted, socking away money into tax-deferred vehicles may make sense for you.  And as I’ve noted before, paying for college is as much a retirement problem as anything else so anything you can do to provide for your Golden Years can be a good thing.

But don’t get tempted into long-term commitments to cover short-term financing issues.

By shifting assets you lose access and flexibility for the cash.  If employing such a strategy reduces your emergency cash reserve, then you’ve increased your risk to handle unexpected cash needs.

Cash Value Life Insurance and the Bank of You

Cash value life insurance accumulates its value over time.  Starting a policy within a couple of years of your student’s college enrollment is not going to help you.  During the initial years of such a policy very little cash is built up as insurance expenses and first-year commissions paid out by the insurer to the agent are very high which limit the amount of paid premiums that are actually invested for growth.

But consider this:  For some who have existing policies or are looking for a way to build cash over time that offers guarantees and is potentially tax-free, then by all means use life insurance.  There are strategies commonly referred to as the Infinite Banking Concept or the Bank of You which champion life insurance as a way to build and access your own pot of money available to you to borrow for almost any purpose.

There are many attributes to life insurance that make these concepts useful

  • Tax-free dividends,
  • Access to money without credit or income qualifications or delays from a traditional bank,
  • Guarantees on the cash value from the insurer.

But one downside is the cash flow needed to actually build up a pot big enough to tap into for buying a car much less paying school tuition.  You would in all likelihood need to divert all other available cash and stop funding any other tax-deferred plans to build up the cash.  And then there is the time line needed.  To effectively build up the cash, you really need to bank on at least 5 years before you have a Bank of You to tap. This is why such a solution is not recommended for those with students about to enter college.

Bottom Line:

Don’t let the financial aid tail wag the retirement planning dog here.  Only use these tactics after consultation with a qualified financial professional, preferably one who has no vested interest in whether or not you purchase a particular product.

 

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It’s never too early or even too late to start planning for ways to pay for college or post-graduate school.

Myths

There are a number of myths out there that can adversely impact your planning efforts:

1.) There’s not enough aid available;

2.) Only students with good grades get aid;

3.) My family makes too much money to qualify.

Reality

In reality, both “self-help” aid like loans and “gift” aid like grants and scholarships are available.  To increase your odds for getting your share there are a number of education-oriented and tax-oriented strategies you can use.

Some Tips When Applying for Financial Aid:

  • Fund Your Retirement— “Federal method” for calculating need usually does not consider retirement assets so put as much as you can into these accounts.
  • Reduce Assets Held in the Student’s Name—Parental assets are assessed at a lower rat: So buy the computer, dorm furniture or car in the base year (the year before filing the FAFSA) out of your student’s savings accounts.
  • Avoid Cash Gifts to Students—It’s Better for Grandma to Pay the School Directly: If you’re not qualifying for aid, at least it may help out her tax planning.  Better yet, take out the loans which are deferred until graduation and then let grandma help pay them.  This way you maximize your student aid without having grandma’s help count against the student.
  • Employ Your Child in Your Business and Use the Income to Fund a Roth IRA. The earnings won’t be subject to some of the typical payroll taxes because you’re employing family (restrictions apply) and by stashing it into the Roth, you’re building up a pot of money that can be withdrawn without tax penalty when used for qualified education expenses as long as the account has been open 5 years.

 

For more tips and help, consider using a qualified College Aid Planner like a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER (TM) professional.

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I would suggest something that can be added to over time by you and other friends or relatives. In this category, that would include the following:

  • UGMA/UTMA accounts
  • 529 Savings Accounts
  • Zero-Coupon Bonds
  • EE Savings Bonds
  • Individual Corporate or US Treasury Bonds
  • Dividend Reinvestment Plan (DRiP)

1.) UGMA/UTMA accounts that can invest in a diversified fund(s) or use proceeds to buy shares of some large diversified companies – Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway would work here;

2.) 529 savings account with maybe a target date allocation (tied to when the child is 18 y.o.);

3.) Zero-coupon bond (target face amount could be equal to part of an expected year of college tuition expense for example);

4.) EE Savings Bonds (as mentioned before, the taxes are zero when used for education and you can always buy more of them in reasonable denominations);

5.) Specific company or US Government bonds would have maturities that are close to the time frames you noted.

6.) Participate in a company-sponsored dividend reinvestment program (DRiP) by buying a single share of stock.  When the company issues its dividends, the proceeds will be used to buy shares (even fractional shares) in the company.  Over time, this is a cost effective way to build a stock position.  And since most companies that offer such plans are ones with brand names that children may know, it’s a great way to help kids gain an interest in savings and investing.

On a separate note for longer range thinking, you may also want to consider contributing to a Roth IRA once the child gets older and starts earning his own money from odd jobs, paper routes or the local grocery. If the rules don’t change and the child has earned income, he can contribute some of his earnings (or parents can consider it as long as it doesn’t exceed the total earnings).

Roth IRA proceeds can be tapped to pay toward college or toward a house down payment and if not used can at least be great seed money for retirement. (Yes, the rules could change but something to keep on the radar screen for when the time comes).

Now consider that as a way for a gift to really have a long term impact.

CAUTION: Giving the funds to a child when they reach a certain age without any strings could backfire. That’s why others here have mentioned things like the 529 or a UGMA account. Short of paying for a trust at least these structures allow you to place some restrictions on the use of the funds for the benefit of the child or for education specifically in the case of a 529. So if opening up any type of mutual fund direct with a fund family or even a brokerage account to hold the stocks or bonds suggested, consider having it titled in one of these forms.

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