Archive for ‘saving for college’

May 20, 2015

How much to save each year for college

by Grace

How much do you need to save each year to pay for your child’s college?

NerdWallet calculated the amounts based on average costs of college and expected increase in annual costs.

Do you want to fund 50% of your child’s college costs?  If your child is ten years old, then you’ll have to save almost $6,000 a year to pay half his costs to attend an in-state school.

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If you’d like to fine tune your calculations, try using the World’s Simplest College Cost Calculator from SavingForCollege.

May 7, 2015

Life insurance is usually not a good choice for college savings

by Grace

Sometimes life insurance is marketed as a college savings vehicle, primarily based on the fact that it is “typically not counted in the formula used to determine financial aid eligibility”.  But it’s usually better to avoid it since it is a relative high-cost option, and withdrawals to pay for college can be problematic.

“First, parents will have to pay income tax on the difference amount if they withdraw more money than the premium they paid, as well as a potential 10 percent penalty if they are under age 59 1/2,” says Joyce Garner, an insurance broker with Zimmerman & Ray Associates in Roseville, California.

Lessard says that there are also issues if parents decide to take a loan against their policy, as opposed to a straight withdrawal, as policy loans charge interest and require a payback schedule. There’s also the fact that, if a parent takes a large sum of cash from the policy and still needs the death benefit, the policy may lapse from the lack of cash.

It’s usually better to stick with 529 plans or other savings options that lend themselves to the logistics of making withdrawals over the time a student is attending college.

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Andrea Williams, “3 Reasons to Avoid Life Insurance Policies for College Savings”, U.S. News & World Report, April 3, 2015.

April 20, 2015

Pros and cons of 529 plans

by Grace

While a 529 plan is commonly considered the “best college savings vehicle”, this option does have some downsides.


Reasons to use a 529 plan:

Investments in 529 plans grow tax-deferred and withdrawals are tax-free when used for qualified college expenses.  Also, most states offer income tax deductions on contributions.  Even if funds are not needed for the intended beneficiary, there are other options that let the owner escape tax penalties.


Reasons against using a 529 plan:

•  The earnings portion of withdrawals not used for qualified expenses is subject to ordinary income taxes and a 10% penalty.

•  It’s not  for the short term.

… one instance where the benefits of a 529 college-savings plan may not have time to accrue is for those that are looking at very short investment horizons—such as one year—before beginning to take withdrawals. The benefit of tax-free growth is very limited over such a short period of time in low-return, no-risk investments, and could be offset by investment expenses or plan fees in the short run.

•  Requires extra research.

Plans will vary from state to state, which is a little more challenging for families. Therefore, you need to do your due diligence on the sales charges, fees, and investment choices by the plan administrator.

•  Limited investment options and higher fees.

•  Restrictions in moving funds between accounts.

 

Some families may simply prefer to maintain more flexibility and control over their college savings, and therefore are willing to forego the tax benefits that 529 plans offer.  There are no absolute right or wrong choices since investing is a highly personalized undertaking.  Here’s a good resource for learning more about 529 plans:

Understanding 529 Plans

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“The Experts: Are 529 Plans the Right Choice for All Families Saving to Send Their Kids to College?”, Wall Street Journal,  June 5, 2013.

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February 9, 2015

Poor timing of 529 withdrawals can cancel tax benefits

by Grace

529 funds must be withdrawn and used within the same year that expenses are incurred to preserve tax benefits.

Question: My daughter’s college is offering a discount if you prepay in year one for all four years. Can we use 529 funds to pay all of her tuition up front even though she’ll still be in school for another few years?

Answer: In general, 529 distributions must be used to cover qualified college expenses incurred in the same tax year in which the distribution is made; otherwise, taxes and a penalty apply. The scenario you describe falls into something of a gray area given that you would be using 529 assets to pay for tuition–a qualified expense–but paying for services to be provided not only during the current tax year but in future tax years as well.

Such a scenario isn’t specifically addressed in the IRS rules governing 529 expenditures, but Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the college-planning siteEdvisors.com, says the way the rules are written suggests that it is not just when qualified expenses are paid that matters but when those expenses are incurred. “In general, the IRS interprets tax law as applying to income and expenses during the tax year except if explicitly stated otherwise,” Kantrowitz says.

The bottom line is you’d be wise to consult a tax professional before prepaying all four years. Even if he or she recommends only counting the current year’s tuition payment as a qualified expense, you could still pay all four years at once to take advantage of the discount. Just keep in mind that if doing so requires using additional 529 funds, you may end up owing taxes on the earnings portion of any nonqualified distributions plus a 10% penalty, and those costs could eat into–or erode entirely–the prepayment discount.

Morningstar offers more advice about avoiding the pitfalls in timing your 529 withdrawals.

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Adam Zoll, “529 Owners, You Must Remember This”, Morningstar, February 3, 2015.

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February 2, 2015

How the ‘middle class’ saved 529 plans

by Grace

Why did President Obama do such a quick about-face on 529 plans, first proposing to eliminate them and then a few days later dropping that proposal?  Although it was widely believed that this initiative had zero chance of getting through Congress, it appears Obama’s actions were due to the efforts of the elusive “middle class”.

Several news sources have pointed out how poorly this proposal polled, notably with Democratic voters.  It seems the administration could have predicted this reaction, but apparently they were blindsided.  Obama’s proposal would have penalized wealthy families the most, since 70% of 529 “tax benefits go to households earning more than $200,000″.  As such, “middle class” families would not be seriously hurt by this change.  But here’s the rub.  The vast majority of Americans consider themselves middle class, including many with household incomes well into the six-figure range.

Don’t tax me, tax that rich guy over there.

The first rule of modern tax policy is raise taxes only on the rich. The second rule is that your family isn’t rich, even if you make a lot of money.

President Obama’s State of the Union proposal to end the tax benefits for college savings accounts ran afoul of these rules, which is why he abandoned it, under intense pressure from both political parties, within a week.

Tax-free college savings accounts, like the mortgage interest deduction and the state and local tax deduction, principally benefit people who range from affluent to wealthy. In pushing its proposal, the White House pointed to Federal Reserve data showing that 70 percent of balances in the college accounts were held by families making at least $200,000 a year. In theory, tax reform is supposed to be built around cutting back preferences like these, in order to pay for some combination of lower tax rates and tax preferences aimed at people with lower incomes.

Politicians have met with strong resistance to increasing taxes on the “merely affluent”.

But in practice, politicians from both parties have made a point of holding the group you might call the “merely affluent” harmless from tax increases. If you make $150,000 to $225,000, you make about two to three times the national median income for a married couple. The list of occupations that can get you into this income bracket — government official, academic, lobbyist, journalist — can sometimes make it hard for people in political circles to remember that 92 percent of American married couples make less than $200,000 a year.

A lot of people in this category don’t think of themselves as rich, and they benefit from tax provisions like college savings accounts.

So how can politicians raise more tax revenue?  It’s a challenge.

… If you can’t go after tax provisions for the merely affluent, you are exempting almost everyone from tax increases. And if you can’t broaden the tax base, then you are very limited in how much you can finance tax reform.

Where else can they find the money?

Raising taxes on the very rich won’t raise enough revenue to balance the budget, and the bottom 50% of income earners — who only pay about 2% of all federal taxes — are not a likely source.

Peter Suderman of Reason believes the 529 debacle shows that the “existing welfare state is unaffordable”.  On the other hand, Reihan Salam of Slate laments that the upper middle class is ruining all that is great about America.  In essence, both may be saying the same thing.  It’s hard to finance expansive government programs because “eventually you run out of other people’s money”.

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Josh Barro, “A ‘Rich’ Person Is Someone Who Makes 50 Percent More Than You”, New York Times, January 29, 2015.

May 27, 2014

What is the maximum 529 plan contribution limit?

by Grace

So you want to contribute the maximum amount to your child’s 529 plan?  Maybe you received a generous inheritance, and want to set aside enough funds to assure your child will be able to attend any college he chooses.

Here’s what the IRS says:

Q. Are there contribution limits?

A. Yes. Contributions can not exceed the amount necessary to provide for the qualified education expenses of the beneficiary. If you contribute to a 529 plan, however, be aware that there may be gift tax consequences if your contributions, plus any other gifts, to a particular beneficiary exceed $14,000 during the year. For information on a special rule that applies to contributions to 529 plans, see the instructions for Form 709, United States Gift (and Generation-Skipping Transfer) Tax Return.

In practice, “the amount necessary” varies and is determined by each state-sponsored plan, with amounts ranging from about $335,000 to $400,000.  Check out Savingforcollege.com for a complete list of state maximum amounts.

Here is how the New York 529 Advisor-Guided College Savings Plan explains the maximum contribution.

How much can I contribute to my account?

You can contribute on behalf of a beneficiary until the total balance of all Program accounts held for the same beneficiary reaches an aggregate maximum balance, currently $375,000. If there’s more than one account owner contributing for the beneficiary, this is the total for all accounts. Once this limit is reached, you can no longer make additional contributions, but you can continue to accumulate earnings.

Gift and estate tax implications

Since a 529 contribution is treated as a gift to the beneficiary for tax purposes, another consideration for donors is to understand how amounts greater than $14,000 could trigger tax liabilities.

… your contribution qualifies for the $14,000 annual gift tax exclusion and so most people can make fairly large contributions without incurring the gift tax.

For contributions greater than $14,000, 529 plans offer a unique gift-tax exclusion feature.

… Specifically, you can make a lump-sum contribution to a 529 plan of up to $70,000, elect to spread the gift evenly over five years, and completely avoid federal gift tax, provided no other gifts are made to the same beneficiary during the five-year period. A married couple can gift up to $140,000.

A good explanation of the details on how this works can be found at the Ameriprise website.

Related:  “Most families are not taking advantage of 529 plans for college savings” (Cost of College)

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April 28, 2014

Pay for college every time you gas up the car

by Grace

College rewards programs are used by one in five families to help pay for college.  The dollar amounts may not be huge, but these programs are easy to use.

FinAid gives us an overview of college rewards programs, also known as loyalty programs.

Loyalty programs, also known as affinity programs, provide a rebate to the consumer in exchange for shopping at particular retailers or purchasing particular products or services. This section of FinAid provides information about loyalty programs that provide a reward in the form of tuition benefits, such as credits to a section 529 plan for your children. They are similar in nature to airline frequent flyer programs.

Typically, such programs do not require you to show a membership card to get the rebates. Instead, you register your credit cards with them and they track the purchases you make at participating merchants using the cards. You can also earn rebates by shopping online through the company web sites. This makes the programs a painless way to earn a little extra money for college.

Affinity programs with a college savings emphasis include:

Upromise is probably the most widely used program.

… The Upromise credit card enables people to earn cash back for everyday purchases. With the credit card, members get 5% cash back on all purchases and 10% cash back when they buy things in the Upromise shopping portal, explains Condon. Members can have the cash earned deposited directly in a Upromise 529 college savings account, in a Sallie Mae savings account or request a check whenever they are ready to cash in.

Small amounts can add up.

The amount saved is a small percentage of the amount spent, but with the magic of compound interest, small amounts grow exponentially larger over the years. For instance, if you spend $1,500 a month for 30 years and receive 1 percent back on your purchases, you would have more than $18,000 if you averaged a 7 percent return per year.

“I wouldn’t use this as a substitute for having a good investment strategy, but it might be a substitute for having to transfer $100 to your investment account every month,” says financial adviser Will Ertel, president of Tassel Capital Management in Matthews, N.C. “It can be a way to supplement or create some savings you aren’t otherwise building.”

Cash generated by any rewards program can also be designated to pay for college costs.  It seems like a no-brainer,  unless you rely on credit card reward points to defray the cost of vacations or other purchases.

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Donna Fuscaldo, “Last-Minute College Savings Tips”, FOXBusiness, March 20, 2014.

April 23, 2014

Most families are not taking advantage of 529 plans for college savings

by Grace

Only 29% of families choose 529 plans for college savings.

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A 529 plan is the “best college savings vehicle”.

… By far the most popular college savings vehicle is the general savings account (nearly half of families with children under 18 use this to save for college). But Foss says that the best college savings vehicle is the 529 plan (less than one-third of parents are using this to save). “There aren’t many reasons not to use it,” she says. One of the major reasons these plans are better than general savings accounts is that your investments in 529 plans grow tax-deferred and distributions come out tax-free on the federal level; plus 34 states and Washington, D.C. offer state income-tax deductions, so there’s a “double tax advantage” in these cases.

Furthermore, you can transfer the funds in these accounts to another child if one of your kids opts out of school and 529 plans are treated favorably with colleges’ financial aid offices. General savings accounts can’t compete with the benefits of the 529 when it comes to saving for college, Foss says. However, if you do not use the 529 plan for college expenses, you will likely have to pay a 10% penalty and income tax on the earnings when you withdraw the money.

Related: What you may not know about 529 plans (Cost of College)

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Catey Hill, Parents: “You’re saving for college all wrong”, MarketWatch, April 12, 2014.

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October 25, 2013

‘passively managed index funds outperform almost all actively managed funds’

by Grace

Economics professor Mark J. Perry shared some investment facts on the occasion of “Eugene Fama winning the Nobel Prize of Economics, largely for his path-breaking academic finance research on market efficiency that ultimately led to the introduction of low-cost mutual funds by Vanguard and others that pursue a passive investment strategy of buying and holding portfolios of stocks that track an index like the S&P 500″.

Here’s one fact that should get every investor’s attention.

Empirical evidence shows that passively managed index funds outperform almost all actively managed funds over long holding periods, adjusted for risk, taxes and expenses.

I used to work for a mutual fund company with a winning fund manager who consistently outperformed the market over more than 30 years, but he was the exception.  These days I’m a fan of index funds for most of my investing.

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May 31, 2013

A special day to remind us about the benefits of 529 plans

by Grace

Darn! I missed 529 day.

The College Savings Plans Network sponsored National 529 College Savings Day this past Wednesday, 5/29/13.  Many states sponsored promotions for their 529 plans, with some offering special incentives that are still in effect.

Florida, for instance, is waiving the $50 enrollment fee for plans opened from May 20 through June 30.

You can check out individual states’ events and promotions by clicking on this map.

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In general, 529 plans are college savings and investment accounts sponsored by state governments. Money deposited in the accounts grows tax free, as long as the funds are used for educational purposes when withdrawn. You don’t have to be a resident of a particular state to use its plan, although some states offer additional tax benefits to in-state plan participants.

Most 529s are designed as traditional savings-and-investment vehicles, but some states offer prepaid 529 plans, which allow savers to pay tuition at certain schools in advance at current rates.

Related:  What you may not know about 529 plans (Cost of College)

 

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