Rhode Island’s New CollegeBound Saver is Great!

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Editor's Note: While I usually try to write for a national audience, today's topic is more fitting for residents of my state, Rhode Island. However if you stick around until the end, you might have a chance at some free money.

It's good to be back to work after a week's vacation. We just got back from a trip that was very similar to last year's when we traveled from Rhode Island to kids' parks in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Last year the stops included: Sesame Place, Hershey Park, Please Touch Museum, and the Crayola Experience.

This year we kept Hershey and Please Touch on the itinerary. We substituted out Sesame Place and Crayola for Diggerland and Knoebel's Theme Park. This article isn't about my vacation, but I do want to mention a couple of quick things. We should have waited until our boys were 5-7 for Diggerland as they weren't tall enough to do much. Knoebel's was much better than I anticipated, but we got a really hot day and it was last on the trip, so we couldn't really give it the fair shake it deserved.

When we got home yesterday, I noticed that the mail contained the new program description of CollegeBound Saver, Rhode Island's 529 plan. Rhode Island decided to change the management group of the 529 plan from CollegeBound Fund by AllianceBernstein to the new "Saver" by Ascensus. We were finally getting details about what the new program was about.

I knew much of the program wouldn't change. There are laws in place that govern the general details of the state's 529 plan. My biggest concern was that we'd have to leave the sweet, sweet, low expenses of the Vanguard funds at AllianceBernstein.

I'm a skeptic by nature and figured that because we were being thrust into this new system with no vote that it wouldn't be good.

I was wrong.

I found the CollegeBound Saver program description a little confusing. I think it was because it was designed to introduce people who are new to 529 plans and saving for college in general. The book is 80 pages long with some information about unrelated programs like Coverdells.

The "meat" of what I was interested in was the investing options. The new CollegeBound Saver program has three core "goals" which are each broken down into smaller investing options. There are target date portfolios, target risk portfolios, and individual portfolios. I can target 2030, an aggressive mix, or just choose the funds that I want.

I like to choose my funds, so that's the option I focused on. The CollgeBound Saver individual portfolios have names like "U.S. Stock Portfolio" and "Bond Portfolio." These are mapped to underlying funds such as Vanguard's Total Stock Market Index Fund and Vanguard's Total Bond Market Index.

It took a little digging, but I finally found what I was looking for. My assets were moved from my previous Vanguard Total Stock Index funds to the new Vanguard Total Market Index. I'm investing in the same thing!

The big change is that the expenses are estimated to be 0.04% which is the lowest I recall seeing outside of my wife's Thrift Savings Plan. The book includes a chart of hypothetical $10,000 investment cost chart. The easy math shows that I'll be spending a whopping $4 a year in management costs a year. In 10 years, it will be $51 total. The other investment options are also very low for the most part.

Years of reading personal finance magazine have drilled the following in my head: Control expenses, because you can't control the market and expenses add up over time. The new 529 plan has two funds with expenses over 0.16%: a 0.37% stable value option and a 0.61% Invesco Global Sustainable Equity option. As long as investors steer clear of those, the expenses mean almost nothing over the 15 years (give or take) that the money is going to be invested.

Now for that chance at free money. Later on this week, I'm going to be sending out my VIP email newsletter. It's free to join (of course). You can join it here. Readers of the newsletter will have a chance to win $25 (payable in Paypal or Amazon gift card, I haven't decided yet). I know it isn't life-changing money, but I will easy for even the laziest of people.

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Posted on July 25, 2016.

Happy 529 Day!

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May is known for one of the best date puns ever created.

No, it isn't that silly May the Fourth Star Wars day.

Star Wars day is extremely unlikely to put a dollar in your pocket. (Unless you are a Disney investor like a few of my friends.)

The best date pun in May is 529 day... which is today: 5/29.

Regular readers of personal finance blogs like this one know that 529 refers to Section 529 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code that allows for a tax-advantage when investing for qualified education expenses (usually college).

That means that parents can at least get a small break when dealing with enormous, exploding college tuition prices.

It's also a well-timed reminder that now that tax season is over, it can be a wise move to start putting money into a 529 Plan. I started a 529 plan around 2007 or 2008 for my niece and nephew and one for each of my own children in 2012 and 2014.

It wasn't exactly easy picking the best plan either time. In fact, it reminds me of the NFL playoff rules where you get to the Nth tie-breaker and it's literally a coin flip that decides a team's entire fate.

To help people pick the best 529 Plan, I wrote this guide: 529 Plans: How Do you Choose?

Since 529 Plans are very state-specific, that should at least be a good place to start. Some of the specific data on plans are a little dated, but the concepts stand strong today.

Hopefully, today, you are enjoying a hamburger, hot dog, or whatever it is you like when you get to take a little time off of work. Let's put in a coupe of extra minutes to chew on the financial future of our children as well.

And certainly, please don't take my 529 Plan away.

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Posted on May 29, 2016.

Rants: Coverdells, Paper, Faxes, USAA, Fidelity, and TD Ameritrade

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Ever have one of those tasks that seems like it should be simple and then turns into a mess that eats up hours and days of your time? For the last month, I've been trying to do something really simple...

... open a Coverdell account for my oldest son.

Opening one for my youngest son took my wife under an hour with USAA. They have exactly the same circumstances, just different names and Social Security numbers. So you'd think you could simply say, "Open one for the oldest son too."

For some unknown reason USAA's system got stuck in the application process. We reached a screen where we supposed to have a drop-down of the oldest's and the youngest's name. However, it displayed a blank entry and the youngest's name. After hours and three calls into USAA, they admitted there was a problem, but they weren't able to fix it. We could probably have spent many more hours and many more calls getting it fixed, but it seemed easier to just move to a different bank. After all we were able to get the youngest set up in an hour with USAA... another bank should be as efficient.

My wife next went to a local Navy Federal which can set them up. Unfortunately the Coverdell person only works one day a week and we were busy that day. We didn't want to lose another week as we have to get the account set up before tax day to make the contributions for the 2015 tax year.

I told my wife that I'd take the task over. (In hindsight, it might not have been my best idea.)

My first thought was to go to Fidelity. I already have a Solo 401k with them and as one of the biggest banks, they seemed like the best bet. A Coverdell isn't very common nowadays. In most cases, a 529 plan is a better option. Well, it seems that Fidelity believes that Coverdells are completely useless, because they no longer offer them.

Fortunately, as a personal finance blogger, I know what sites I can trust and Jonathan from My Money Blog has a list of best brokers for Coverdells. I noticed TD Ameritrade on the list. Since I have a Roth IRA with them dating back to 2002 when they bought Datek, I figured I'd give them a shot.

I went to the website and followed all the prompts to open a new Coverdell. I was expecting it to work like USAA where I'd open it all online, especially since I'm an existing customer. Unfortunately, TD Ameritrade seems to work by creating a PDF form that you have send to them. While they claimed that they could pre-fill my application from my existing information, they could only produce a blank PDF application.

I spent an hour filling out the application. It's a typical application except for the page on trading options. Trading options in a Coverdell seems weird to me. The contributions are limited to $2000 a year and the purpose, to fund an education, does seem to lend itself to making such speculative investments. It really doesn't seem like it should be a significant portion of the application, but it was. I think they should assume that people don't want to trade options unless they specifically choose to fill out additional paperwork and send that in.

I printed out the application, wrote a check (with an additional contribution form), and put it in something called an envelope with "postage" for it to be delivered very slowly to TD Ameritrade for their review.

I was happy to finally cross it off my list because I was going on vacation (which is why you didn't too many posts from me last week).

Halfway through the vacation I got notice from TD Ameritrade that it wasn't able to open the account due to a missing signature. I think I signed everything, but there's a chance that I only signed the options agreement and not the main application. That's my fault, but honestly I'm surprised that's the only error they found as it was an extensive application with no error checking that you'd get if they simply did it online like USAA.

While on vacation, I didn't have easy access to printing documents like I do at home. I was away from the hotel for about 16 hours of the day which would have been a natural solution (albeit at a likely high expense).

I tried to convince TD Ameritrade to process it since they at least had my signature in one place, but they wouldn't budge. You'd think that in 2016, we'd have a digital signature solution that very big financial companies could use... especially if you already have an account with that very big financial company.

I decided to wait until I got back from vacation. Today is the first business day since I've been back, so it was time to pick it up and give it another shot.

Fortunately, I had saved the PDF with all the information, so it was just a matter of printing it, signing it, and faxing it. Mailing isn't really an option, because we're now down to one week until the tax day deadline. I've never been able to get faxing to work with our VOIP phone. I decided it would be easiest to go to the local Kinko's FedEx Office and use their fax. TD Ameritrade's fax is toll-free so it doesn't cost anything other than overhead for FedEx to send it. They really don't need an employee since I'd be doing the faxing myself.

Unfortunately the cost was about $1.50 a page. I'm sure some people would have paid the $12 just to the end this headache, but I couldn't support that pricing on principle. One page was just fine print and I would have been tempted to save the $1.50 to leave it off, but I couldn't risk wasting $10.50 for an incomplete application only to have TD Amertitrade tell me that I need to fax the complete thing again.

I left and went home to look for other options. I was able to scan the signed as a PDF and use a free service from MyFax.com to send it. They needed my email address which probably means that I'll be spammed forever (I used my junk email account), but it got the job done...

... or at least I think it did. We'll see if TD Ameritrade will finally open the account and deposit the check that I sent now nearly two weeks ago.

Why a Coverdell?

Some of you might be asking why I would open a Coverdell in the first place. Coverdells can be used for a wider variety of educational expenses such as computers. Also, they can be used for private high school where 529s can not. Who knows if that's in the cards for our kids... they are only 2 and 3 years old. However, it seems like smart idea to have the option. We can always use it for college if that doesn't pan out.

If you are still reading this rant, you are some kind of saint. I usually don't like to complain, but I had to get this out of my system. I'm allowed a few financial rants a year, right?

I'll write about Coverdells more in the future. If this had gone smoothly, I would have been writing about them today.

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Posted on April 11, 2016.

Student Loan Refinancing: Is It Worth It?

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Student loans have become a huge problem and a topic of much debate in our nation lately. In fact, 7 out of 10 graduates are graduating with a diploma in one hand and a bag of student loan debt in the other. If you are one of these people and have been looking for ways to save money on your repayment, you may come across refinancing. Before you jump in, make sure that you have considered the pros, cons, and other options that are available. The following sections will go over what student loan refinancing is, the pros, and the cons.

What Is Refinancing?

Refinancing your student loan is just like refinancing your house or car. In short, a private lender and gives you a new one with different terms. Typically, the new loan will have either a lower interest rate or lower monthly payments. Eligibility for refinancing is based on credit worthiness, and lenders typically have strict requirements. Most require at least a minimum FICO credit score of 660, but many are higher.

Pros of Student Loan Refinancing

Lower Interest Rates

When you refinance your student loans, you often receive a lower interest rate than the one you are currently paying. After you graduate and have secured a well-paying job, you are seen as more financially trustworthy to the lenders, so they are able to offer appealing rates. Though your rate may only drop by a few percentage points, when you are dealing with tens of thousands of dollars, the savings add up fast.

Shorter Repayment Terms

Though you may end up paying more per month, you can also refinance to shorten the repayment length. This means that instead of being on a 10-year plan, you may be on a 2-year or 5-year repayment plan. If you have the finances to do it and it makes sense for you, it is a great option. If you pay off your loans faster, less interest accrues overtime and less will capitalize, saving you a considerable amount of money in the long run.

Reduction in the Monthly Payment

While you can choose to shorten the length of the loan, refinancing sometimes allows you to lengthen the repayment period, resulting in a lower monthly payment. Some people may find themselves struggling to meet the minimum monthly payments and desire to pay less. It is important to note that extending your repayment over a longer period of time will usually result in paying more over the life of the loan.

Switch to a Fixed Interest Rate

When you refinance your student loans, you have the option to decide between variable and fixed interest rates. Because fixed rates are guaranteed to stay the same over the life of the loan, many people prefer them to variable rates. Refinancing is a smart option for those who fear that they will end up paying more with their variable rates, especially with the Federal Reserve’s recent announcement that they would be raising interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade.

Consolidate Multiple Loans Into One

Another great benefit of refinancing student loans is the opportunity to consolidate multiple loans into one. Private lenders will refinance both federal and private loans into one new private loan. This not only saves you money, but also makes repayment much more manageable.

Cons of Student Loan Refinancing

Losing Eligibility for Forgiveness

When you refinance your student loans, you are no longer eligible for the government’s forgiveness programs. In these programs, people working in certain occupations can have their loans forgiven after a certain amount of qualifying payments are made. If you are working toward forgiveness, you may be better off remaining where you are and working with your federal loan servicer to work out a better payment plan. The reason behind this is because you usually need to make 120 payments before forgiveness kicks in and if you refinance, you automatically disqualify yourself. It should be noted, however, that many of these programs have very strict eligibility requirements and most borrowers will not qualify.

Losing Federal Protections

The next thing to consider when it comes to refinancing is that there is not much protection for you and your family in the event of unexpected disability of discharge. The government will discharge your debt in these cases, but not all private lenders offer the same protections.

Losing Eligibility for Federal Repayment Plans

When you refinance with a private lender, you also are no longer able to switch to the federal repayment plans designed to help those struggling with debt. These Income-Driven Repayment Plans base your monthly payments on your discretionary income, ensuring that you have enough to meet the minimum standard of living. Many private lenders do, however, have similar programs in place to help those struggling with repayment.

Final Thoughts on Student Loan Refinancing

Before you refinance your student loans, you want to make sure that you are consider your financial situation and think about what you may be giving up. It is also important to shop around with different lenders to see where you can get the cheapest rate. Many people are unaware that they can refinance their student loans and are, in turn, leaving thousands of dollars on the table. If you have a solid credit history and a secure job, refinancing may be a great option for you!

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Last updated on February 10, 2016.

Get an ROI in College

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Over the last year, I've been collecting little snippets from the web on colleges and getting your money's worth. I may have collected too much information, because my brain is swirling trying to figure out how to organize it all.

Let's start with student debt

Most of this is a summary of the insights I heard from Mark Cuban on student debt, but it makes sense. Americans have 1.2 trillion dollars in student debt. That's a number so large that it drags on the economy. This debt causes young adults to delay buying houses, cars, and investing in their retirement.

In short, instead of creating jobs by consuming or securing their future, they are funneling money back to schools. That wouldn't be a problem if schools are spending it well. As Mark Cuban points out, they aren't. They build new buildings when they don't need because they have to compete with other schools. In fact, it turns out that research says, colleges are likely to gain applicants by spending more on amenities than academics.

This might be why we are seeing lazy rivers, steakhouses, and ski reports at colleges. Yes, it's true.

For-Profit Colleges

It occurred to me that maybe John Oliver did a bit on student debt on his HBO show Last Week Tonight. It felt like the huge topic that he'd cover in depth. I was half-right. He did cover student debt, but most of his rant was at the particular evils of for-profit colleges:

That was quite a learning experience, right? Rather than beat that dead horse, let's just assume that we're going to eliminate any for-profit colleges from any discussion of getting an ROI on college. I realize it is a blanket statement, and maybe there's a good one out there, but for the sake of narrowing down this long list, we'll have to concede any potential one as collateral damage.

My Take on Student Debt

Access to money has gotten too easy for colleges. It seems to be a never-ending cycle. Raise tuition to build awesome stuff to recruit students. Students get bigger loans to cover tuition. Student debt grows and grows.

It seems like the housing bubble to me. Let's create a way to allow people to borrow more and more money, even if they can't afford it. Let's push people to interest-only loans and 50-year fixed loans so that they can buy even more house. We'll all show off our nice homes to our friends the way colleges show off their lazy rivers.

The whole thing is bananas and it isn't going to end well, but that should be obvious by now.

So what can we do about it?

Get Value for Your College Dollar

When I was choosing a college in 1993, there seemed to be one or two lists. They were the top 25 schools in the country. They were only helpful if you were in the position of trying to decide between MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford. Then you could decide to put Berkeley, Brown, or Dartmouth as your safety schools. It was ridiculous.

I've noticed that the lists are not as much about the top schools as they are about the top values. Perhaps that's in direct response to the aforementioned mounting student debt problem.

I've bookmarked 4 lists over the last few months:

Kiplinger's and Money magazine seem to list a good mix of top schools (Princeton, Harvard), while mixing in some lesser known schools as values (Babson, Haverford). Princeton Review's seem to focus on how awesome Massachusetts schools are, which is something I won't argue (Boston Strong!). You have to be careful with Princeton Review's list as the top few colleges are "Featured", which I think is a way of saying that the position was paid for and not part of the natural ranking (I could be wrong). I think I like PayScale's list the best, it fits with what I would have imagined if someone asked me.

Each list processes a bunch of statistics to help them come up with value. You can read their methodology and use tools to tailor it to your situation.

I can't tell you which school is the best value for you. I ended up going to a school that was top 15 on at least one list. If I had to do it again, I'd probably shoot for Stanford and MIT, but have Babson and a few of the under-the-radar ones as back-ups. I know these lists have made me curious to see what's so great about Harvey Mudd. I know nothing about the school except that it turns up time and again.

I wouldn't use these lists as a definitive source of where to go college, but as a way to generate some ideas and narrow down the field.

It's Not the School. It's the Study

As I've been writing this article, my wife has been on my mind. I know that's nothing unusual, but it's actually relevant to college ROI. She went to a state school to get her Pharm. D. That's the champion of all college ROI moves. Pharmacy pays very well and state school is generally a lot cheaper than private school. The end result was a small student loan debt that melted away quickly.

With that in mind, I want to present you another set of lists. This is also from PayScale. It allows you to find the best school based on your major. See PayScale's ROI by Major.

You might not know what your major is when you choose college. Even if you don't, this data is useful. If you click on the art majors you'll see that the 20-year ROI is less than $450,000 for the top school. It quickly drops under $400,000. In computer science and math, the same 20-year ROI is $1.6M and drops down to under $1,200,000. The ROI over 20 years is roughly 3x more for computer science than for art.

That might not be a surprise, but it is worth emphasizing. If you are art major outside of top 105 schools, college has a negative 20-year ROI. After the the top 105 schools for computer science, you'd still handily do better than the very best art school.

These are extremes and there are clearly many majors in the middle. The point is that going to Harvard might not necessary be the best college ROI choice even though it at the top of several lists.

You have to know how to get the most of the school you are choosing.

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Posted on August 17, 2015.

529 Plans: How Do you Choose?

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[Happy May 29th... or 5/29... or 529 Day! Get it? I originally wrote this article in 2007 after days of reading about to best gift money for my nephew's college. Eight years later, the specifics of the plans may have changed, but the overall lessons and logic remain the same. This is exactly how it was published in 2007, mistakes and all.]

I mentioned yesterday that I'm looking to give my newborn nephew a head start in his education savings. Having gone through a number of options, I decided that a 529 Plan was my best option. Unfortunately, a lot of research may be necessary to decide on the right state's 529 Plan for you. Here are the steps I took to determine which state will receive my money. Remember that I'm looking to give $500 initially and $100 a year after that.

Check your own state first
My home state is California. I thought it would be very easy to see if there was a tax benefit for my state. However, states don't often advertise that your invest is NOT tax-deductible. They are in the business of getting you to invest with them, so it doesn't serve their cause to advertise a fact that could be construed as a negative. When the originating source isn't helpful, I suggest looking for a third party. Kiplinger.com came to the rescue with a list of states that offer a 529 Plan tax deduction. It's not the most recent list, but the best I could find. If your state is on that list, chances are your best option is to invest in your own state's 529 Plan and take the tax deduction. The exception is if your own state has a significant reason to reject them, such as the ones below. If your state, like mine, isn't on that list, there's no particular advantage that I could find for going with that state. In fact, you may be better off looking at another state's for a variety of reasons that we will cover now.

How is a state's 529 Plan sold?
There are two basic ways to invest in a 529 Plan. The plans are sold directly or through an advisor. Some states may offer either one or both options. The direct sales is the do-it-yourself method and the advisor option is for people that wish to have a little more guidance. If you've been reading my writing for any length of time, you know that I'm a direct kind of guy. I hate paying fees when I can do the research myself, so I eliminated any plans that didn't have a direct sales option.

How do I know if a state's plan is any good?
Put simply, this is the biggest question for those that are looking outside their own state. With 50 states and some having multiple plans, you could spend a week reading about each of them. I typically find this stuff fun, but it has it's limits. I spent a lot of time researching various articles that listed 4 or 5 good states, but none of them gave me anything to compare or went into detail on why they are good. I finally stumbled upon Saving for College's 5 Cap Rating System. With their list you can pretty quickly scan through and weed out quite a few sub-par states. In my research, I only looked at plans that had 4.5 Caps for the out-of-state and had a direct sale option. This left me with just a handful to consider. I still needed to narrow it down which required me to reject some plans.

Reasons to Reject a state's plan:

  • Minimum Investment
    Since I intend to invest only $500, any plans that required more than that had to be excluded. I came across a few that were $1000 to start and some that seemed to require automatic deposits of $25 a month. After eliminating those I was left with about 4 or 5 different options.
  • Maintenance Fees
    Some states charge $25 a year if you don't have $25,000 in assets with them. We are expecting to contribute $100 a year in addition to our initial deposit. Those maintenance fees would be 25% of each year's investment. This eliminated Utah for me despite the fact that it's one of the best state plans according to most reviews.
  • Expenses
    Like mutual funds, 529 Plans have expenses. Like you and me, the financial folks have to make their living. There are numerous reports on how index funds often outperform the managed funds, so I prefer to go with them. They typically have very low expenses since they aren't out visiting companies to research their investments. So I looked at the expenses of the remaining choices. I was happy to stumble upon two states with expenses as low as 0.30% that matched all the above criteria.
  • Investment Options
    I might be getting a little picky here as most plans offer the basics - age-based plans, equity plans, balanced plans, etc... However, a few plans go above and beyond and offer more choice. Other plans offer fund families you might already know and trust.

The Winner
Ohio passed all the tests with flying colors. I don't have the beneficiaries social security number, so I haven't signed up yet. Maybe during the final review there will be some kind of gotcha, but right now all systems are go. They seem to have put together a best of breed program. There are no fees, no significant minimums (just $15 per investment option). Their expenses are amongst the lowest I found (except for you lucky folks who live in Louisiana) as long as you go with their Vanguard option. I've read that you can mix and match a few different Vanguard funds, which, if true, is going to be icing on the cake. If it's not true, then I'll go with the Aggressive Growth option as it's 85% Vanguard Total Stock Market Index and 15% Vanguard Institutional Developed Markets Index Fund. I love the way that Vanguard has handled my ETF portfolio, so I'm excited to give them a little more money to work with.

The Runner-up
Michigan almost had it all - it really was a photo-finish. The only differences I could find were in the investment options. TIAA-CREF is a great organization, but I don't know them like I do Vanguard. They also had only three static investment options and it didn't seem like you could build a portfolio from them at all. Though their all equity option was tempting, I'm passing Michigan for more choice.

Have you invested out-of-state 529 Plan? If so, I'd love to read in the comments what factors influenced your decision.

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Posted on May 29, 2015.

Can You Manage Your Finances for More College Financial Aid?

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I've been a believer in using 529 plans to save for college for years. Many years ago, I wrote an extensive article on how to choose a 529 plan. My reasons for investing in them were the small state tax savings and bookkeeping.

It wasn't until recently, when reading about Obama’s 529 taxation plan that it hit me that the money comes out the 529 plan without paying taxes on gains. Typically one has to pay long or short-term capital gains. 529 plans offer a way around that, which can save some significant money.

If I were to put $20,000 in a plan for my two kids now, that may appreciate to $80,000 by the time they are ready to go to college in around 15 years. If I didn't have that money in a 529 plan, I might have to pay 15% or 20% long-term capital gains tax on the $60,000 of gains. That's a tax bill of somewhere between $9,000 and $12,000. I'd rather have that cash go to my kids education.

All of this steered me to an interesting article: Save for retirement now, get more college aid later.

I had always known that it's better to save for own retirement than your children's college. They can get loans to fund their education. You can not get loans to fund your retirement (at least not typically).

However, I had never thought about managing my finances in a way to maximize financial aid for college. I was blessed a full-scholarship, so I've never had to navigate the muddy waters of financial aid. This article makes the point that assets in retirement accounts are shielded from financial aid calculations.

Additionally it appears that assets in a company may be shielded from that calculation. However, investment property in our names are likely to not be shielded. I've long thought about putting our real estate investment properties into a corporate structure, but this would be the kick in the pants to get me to act on it. Of course, this assumes that it really is this easy to shield such assets. It's something that I have to look into more.

Obviously income is going to be an important factor. I have to consult our tax advisor, but maybe there is a way, I could invest in growing my business and purposely keep my income low for a short time. It's an idea, not sure how practical it is. Unfortunately, I "only" have 15 years to figure it out.

I suppose my first step would be to look at the financial aid calculations and understand what factors are weighed and how much they are weighed. There appears to be a good Expected Family Contribution (EFC) calculator here.

Anyone else go down this road of research? If so, please share anything you have to add in the comments.

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Last updated on February 17, 2015.

Let’s Discuss Obama’s 529 Taxation Plan

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I've been reading a number of articles on President Barack Obama's proposal for 529 plans. Some of the articles I've read include: The Slate, Vox, and Market Watch.

I watched the State of Union in part to hear from the horse's mouth what this was all about. Unfortunately, the address was so general covering so many topics that it wasn't specifically addressed.

The proposal, as best I can tell, is the following:

Currently, savings for college in 529 plans are not taxed when they are withdrawn. The proposal is to tax 529 plan withdrawals as income as using that money to provide free community college. I understand that this taxation was the way it used to be in the past. In that respect, I can't say it is a new tax. However, it feels new to me, because I was too young to know or care about it the first time around.

The Slate article thinks this is a great idea. The reasoning was that the "47 percent of families that had [these college savings plans] earned more than $150,000 per year." The author concludes, "I generally don't think that our higher education policy should be geared toward helping families that earned $150,000 or more send their kid to the most expensive possible school."

I thought that was an interesting way to spin it. There's nothing anywhere in 529 Plans that discuss the most expensive possible school. I'm not sure that anyone would use that logic in choosing a school. I would imagine that people who make $150,000 or more are fairly intelligent and would put more thought into college education than just, "What is the most expensive possible school? That's where junior is going!"

So let's look at this logically for a minute.

Studies show that 36% of Americans have less than $1000 in savings. Let's presume that they aren't socking money away for college. These people for whatever reason (either hardship or just their own spending habits) don't appear to be savers.

Next up you have the people maxing out their retirement accounts. Personal finance experts correctly point out that you can't get a loan for retirement, so it wisest to always save money there first. Student loans will be an option for children. Presumably a large number of people make the smart choice here and funnel money towards retirement.

So who are the 529 Plan savers going to be? They are most likely to be the educated people who have already maxed out their retirement tax benefits. That's likely to people who have higher incomes. I point this out, because it shouldn't be a surprise that many of the people saving in these plans have more income. It's the nature of the beast when it comes to saving for college.

Here's the thing that really irks me though... the change to tax withdrawals at ordinary income sends the message to people, "Don't save money for college." It would kill 529 Plans. Why would anyone put after tax money into an account that is subject to withdrawal penalties and taxation at ordinary income in withdrawal? I could open an account with any brokerage and put after tax money into a balanced fund and withdraw it at a (very likely) cheaper long-term capital gains rate.

A 529 Plan would offer worse taxation and the potential of penalties. Some states have tax incentives, but most of them are very minor and certainly wouldn't match with the negatives.

The other thing that irks me is that it feels like a penalty to those who do right thing and live within their means, plan ahead, and utilize a tax-benefit that can help them give their children something they didn't have. It might take away the chance for those blue collar workers to send their kid to Princeton. Meanwhile, the high income people are going to have no problem affording it. Thus the rich get richer by being able to send them to the best schools and the lower class loses an avenue to rise up.

I don't think the 529 Plan is the biggest tax break in the world. It essentially puts saving for college on same footing as the Roth IRA when it comes to saving retirement. Changing the 529 Plan taxation to fund community college for all feels like changing the Roth IRA taxation to fund Social Security. I'm not against community college for all or Social Security. I'm for incentivizing people to save money for college and retirement.

I'm not one to just complain, so I'll take a crack at a solution. How about a Free Federal Accredited Online College (FFAOC)? Why can't the government make a University of Phoenix Online and offer classes and curriculum to everyone free of charge? Instead of trying to come up with the money to physically send tens of millions of kids to thousands and thousands of different college for two years, do what scales. Build and maintain one system that can support tens of millions students.

Please don't give any Obamacare technology jokes, hundreds, maybe thousands of companies in Silicon Valley scale at this level. The most question I can think of is whether companies would take the FFAOC degree. That can easily be answered by having a grading system to go with the degree, just like we have now with graduating Harvard Cum Laude. The classes could be as easy as any community college or as difficult as Stanford depending on how the government designs the curriculum. Personally, I'd like to see people have all options.

Is this a perfect solution? Of course not. People shouldn't spend all time learning in front of a computer. It clearly wouldn't duplicate the experience of an on-campus university. However, let's remember that this is a free option. It's a way for anyone with a computer and an internet connection to get a college-level degree in their spare time. If you want to go to community college, you can still pay for it. If you want to go public or private 4-year schools you can pay for that too.

If the government did create a FFAOC, I think many might prefer that over traditional colleges. When I was in high school, I was given the opportunity to take a class for real credit at a local university. I jumped on the opportunity. I would hope that if my sons have the same option to take some free college classes online and get credit they jump all over it as well. It would be a really interesting way to solve the student debt problem in the country. A majority of students might find that the FFAOC fulfills all their needs. Others might find that the FFAOC can give them some credits so that they can get a degree from MIT in 2 or 3 years.

So let's create a system that scales and boosts the education for every American who wants to do the work... and let's keep incentives in place for those who want to save money to pay for premium education.

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Posted on January 21, 2015.

Mark Cuban on Student Debt

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Last week, my wife was flipping through cable channels and stopped on CNBC. I'd say that 999 out of 1000 times, she'd just continue on. However, CNBC was just starting a phone call with Mark Cuban. We are big Shark Tank fans here, so Mr. Cuban gets the clicker stopped.

Rightfully so.

It's pretty rare that I disagree with him. On Shark Tank, I sometimes thinks he abandons good ideas and products too quickly, but more often than not, he doesn't want to work with that entrepreneur due to a personality conflict. To some degree, I can understand it, but if I were him, I'd just be funneling the people I don't like to qualified associates and still get in the product (assuming it is good).

Today's topic on CNBC was student debt. Here's the call with Cuban, so you can play it as you read (I'm going to test your multitasking skills today):

I often don't write about student debt, because I was blessed enough to get a scholarship. I don't know all the details and researching those details aren't of interest to me.

However, what Cuban said struck a cord with me. The 1.2 trillion dollars of student debt held by Americans is amazing. It's not surprising that if even half of this was put back in the general economy it could do wonders. How many students aren't able to spend on cars, restaurants, and any of thousands of consumer goods, because they have to instead pay back debt.

It would be one thing if the debt was justified. However, Cuban makes a great point that colleges and universities are building new buildings when they don't need to. They are paying administrators outrageous salaries. College tuition has far outpaced inflation for years, because it can... they simply saddle the students with more student loans.

Fortunately Cuban also has a pretty good answer. Create a cap of how much students can get in government loans and dial it back over time. As the "easy money" from the students is no longer available, the universities have to get... gasp... frugal and spend the money responsibly. The end result is that the students graduate with less debt and can spend money on housing, cars, clothes, tacos, etc.

I'm sure that colleges and universities are creating jobs with new construction of buildings and such, but I think I'd rather have that money in the students' hands spreading it through the general economy as a whole.

That's one of the things that I love about Mark Cuban. In 3 minutes he identified a huge problem with the economy... and he came up with a solution. I'm sure that it isn't perfect. No one expects to have all the "i"s dotted and "t"s crossed in such a quick phone call.

However, it's good enough to get started on... if only the people in politics would stop fighting each other and start working towards solutions.

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Last updated on October 14, 2014.

Why College Saving is Like Buying a House

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This blog post idea is brought to you by T. Rowe Price, but it is not sponsored. At the annual financial blogger this past week, they gave away little plastic eggs with blog post ideas.

Imagine the poor T. Rowe employee folding hundreds of pieces of paper and stuffing them in hundreds and hundreds of egg. It reminds me of a cartoon character scrubbing a tremendous mountain of potatoes. I would wager that over 97% of them got thrown out without a second glance. I hope that employee sees this and thinks, "It was all worth it!"

Enough introduction. Let's dig in. The full blog post idea was, "Think down payment: Why College is Like Buying a House." I'd like to write an article about why that is so ridiculous, but the more I think about it, the more like it. College and homes may be the two biggest expenses you'll ever have. (Perhaps transportation, food, health care, and even general "retirement" round out other big ones?) College education and houses typically financed over the long term. Both of them tend to fall in the category of good debt.

That are differences though. I'm not an expert at financing college, but I think you can do it with minimal down payment. It may not be easy and there might be some fairly tough loans if you do it that way, but it can be done. Getting a mortgage without a down payment, well, I wish you luck on that. If you are able to pull it off, you have found the black swan of lenders.

Other than the down payment minimums, there is a difference in the timing. Within a small margin of error, I can plan for my sons going to college in 16 and 17 years respectively. Well, let's hope I can. If I don't have the money to buy a home today, there is always three months down the road.

Finally, there's the difference that one is "more optional" than the other. Shelter is a basic need. education is higher up Maslow's hierarchy. That said, you don't need to buy a house to satisfy the shelter requirement.

Going back to the original premise, I really like the idea of saving a "down payment" for college. It feels a lot less overwhelming than trying to save $150,000 or so, plus whatever that inflates to over the next nearly two decades. If you want something even scarier take the number and multiple by the number of children you have and whoa! (assuming you have more than 1) that's a ton of money.

Perhaps if it isn't so overwhelming people will be more apt to do it? Is that too much like behavioral finance?

This post deals with: ... and focuses on:

College, Real Estate

Posted on September 22, 2014.

 
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