Is It Possible to Save for College?


About 16 years ago I sat down and predicted the growth of my son’s college savings account.  I was planning to put away $2,000 each year into an Educational Savings Account (ESA).  Using an investment calculator, and using an estimate of a 12% return (about the average return for the stock markets), I predicted I’d have about $140,000 by the time my son was ready to go to college.  With in-state tuition at about $12,000 per year, plus money for food and housing, I was figuring a cost of about $30,000 per year, so the ESA would at least get him through undergraduate school.  He could then do research/teaching/etc. to help fund grad school if he went, and hopefully get out debt-free or fairly close.  That was the plan.

              

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Unfortunately, then came the 2001-2003 stock market, where returns were low or negative.  Things finally picked up after the 2003 tax cuts (yes, tax cuts do spur the economy, despite what some Liberal pundits will tell you), but then stocks fell during the 2008 housing market crash.  Since that point things grew at a modest pace, until Trump was elected, from which point on things have been on fire.  Despite the fairly good markets from 2009 – 2016, and the great market over the last 10 months, my annualized rate-of-return has been around 3.5% instead of 12%.

So, sitting here with about two years until the first tuition bills come in, my son’s account has a little over $52,000 in it today, instead of the $108,000 I predicted.  This is enough to pay for about two years’-worth of college expenses, but not four.  Alternatively, it is enough to pay for tuition, but not for room-and-board.  This has left me with a big dilemma:

How should I invest for the next couple of years, if at all?

With less than two years remaining, if I really need the money in two years, I should really put it all into bank CDs.  I cannot predict what the markets will do over such a short period of time, and they have about a 1/3 chance of being lower in two years than they are today,  There is a small chance, maybe one in ten, that they will be 25% lower or more, meaning I may only have around $39,000.  Then again, if we do see some great returns over the next couple of years, for example if Trump is able to pass big tax cuts and spur the economy, I could get 20% returns and have almost $75,000 when the first tuition bill arrives.  Note that my original predictions assumed I stayed fully invested in stocks the whole time, which was probably a bad assumption due to the risk of doing so during the last couple of years.

Another question this raises, however, is

Is it possible for a middle-class family to really save up and pay for college?

Granted, perhaps we should have been putting $4,000 or $5,000 away each year, with $2,000 in an ESA and then the rest in taxable accounts or a 529 plan after we maxed out the ESA.   But I don’t see how most families who don’t make $150,000 per year could afford that.  I mean, we have been very disciplined compared to many people our age.  Despite having an income far less than $150,000 per year, we paid off our home about six or seven years ago, leaving a lot of free cash flow available that many families who keep a constant mortgage don’t have.  Frankly, I don’t know how families who keep a mortgage are able to pay for the things they buy.  (Maybe they don’t, since the median amount of debt families who have a credit card balance is $17,000, according to Nerdwallet.)  Paying for everything and not using credit, including the things that come up like medical bills and auto repairs, I’m really glad we don’t have that $1,000 or $1500 mortgage payment each month.

I do think that many families should be able to get their children through college debt-free or close to it, but saving up everything ahead of time may not be possible.  Once our son gets into college, we could direct some of our regular income towards his room-and-board.  He is also likely to get scholarships that will cover most or all of his tuition.  If he also gets a part-time job and makes $500 per month, that would cover about half of his room and board.  Still, it does make you wonder why college prices are so high that many people need to get loans to get through.

Luckily in our case (and good planning and hard work create luck), we have some resources beyond the ESA to help pay for college.  Because of this, I will probably keep the ESA fully invested in stocks, hoping that we’ll see a couple of good years to boost the account balance.  If we see a drop in the next couple of years, we can cover costs with other funds for the first year or two while we wait for the ESA to recover a bit.  Really we don’t need to assume we’ll need to tap the account right away.

So what do you think?  Is it possible for families making $80,000 per year to save up for college?  Are tuition costs worth the value of the product they provide?  Is it worth it to run up loans to pay for college?

Follow me on Twitter to get news about new articles and find out what I’m investing in. @SmallIvy_SI

Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to give financial planning or tax advice.  It gives general information on investment strategy, picking stocks, and generally managing money to build wealth. It is not a solicitation to buy or sell stocks or any security. Financial planning advice should be sought from a certified financial planner, which the author is not. Tax advice should be sought from a CPA.  All investments involve risk and the reader as urged to consider risks carefully and seek the advice of experts if needed before investing.

Starting a Teenager’s IRA


My son has started to earn a bit of money through odd jobs, and I’ve convinced him that it would be a smart thing to start an IRA account rather than just blow all of his money on cars and stuff.  The reason is the effect of compounding.  Basically, for every six years that you have to invest in a wide basket of growth stocks (such as in a diversified mutual fund), you double your money.  This means that you’ll make twice as much starting at 16 than you will at 22.  How significant is this?  Well, a 16-year old who starts and IRA and puts in $2,000, then never touches it, will have about  $1.2 M at age 70.  To get the same result, he would need to put in $4,000 at age 22, $8,000 at age 28, and $16,000 at age  34.

In order to put money into an IRA, you need to have earned income, meaning money that was earned through a job or through starting a business, rather than money that is given to you or money that you earn through investing.  All of the money needs to be earned in the year it is put into the IRA, although you actually have until April 15th of the following year to send in the money.  So if you earned $2,000 in 2017, you could start an IRA with $2,000 and send in the money until April 15th of 2018.


One issue with a child starting an IRA is that many places have minimum amounts to start the account and minimum amounts that can be invested in a fund.  Many of these fund companies require minimum investments of $3,000 or more, which can be difficult for a minor to earn, let alone part with at the end of the year.  I found that he could start one with Vanguard with a $1,000 minimum investment, and that he would have two funds to choose from.  These would be the Vanguard Star fund and the Vanguard Target Date Retirement funds.

An issue he is having, however, is that even earning $1,000 will be difficult.  You see, his summer break is only 2 months long because we have a “modified year-round” schedule where   they only get two months off in the summer, then they get a two-week fall and spring break.  Add a family vacation and maybe a camp in there, plus he starts with the marching band a couple of weeks before school starts, and he doesn’t have very long to work a job.  He could work during the school year, but he has quite a bit of homework each night, so his grades would probably suffer.

Luckily, my son is something of an entrepreneur.  Seeing a need for regular chips and other good-tasting snacks due to the restrictions placed on the school lunch program by Michelle Obama’s initiatives, my son started a covert chip business where he sells chips to his classmates (and sometimes a teacher) between classes.  He claims that there is nothing in the school rules against selling snacks out of his jacket, and we’ve checked as well.  He has even started using an ice pack to keep chocolate bars from melting so he has added Hershey bars to the product mix.  (He says that girls almost exclusively buy the chocolate, where guys tend to buy chips.)  He is learning about running a business since he needs to keep a careful inventory of his expenses and sales so that he can file taxes and start an IRA.

Unfortunately, with his business he was only able to earn about $300 last year and is unsure if he’ll be able to continue this year or not.  I checked to see if there was a way he could start an IRA with less money.  I found that he could actually start a custodial IRA with as little as $100 at Schwab.  We will probably open his account this week with the $300 he has earned so far and then add to it as the year progresses.  I’ll provide reports later on what we invest in and on how his IRA is doing in future posts.  Stay tuned!

Anyone out there start a custodial IRA?  What has been your experience?

Have a burning investing question you’d like answered?  Please send to vtsioriginal@yahoo.com or leave in a comment.

Follow on Twitter to get news about new articles.  @SmallIvy_SI

Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to give financial planning or tax advice.  It gives general information on investment strategy, picking stocks, and generally managing money to build wealth. It is not a solicitation to buy or sell stocks or any security. Financial planning advice should be sought from a certified financial planner, which the author is not. Tax advice should be sought from a CPA.  All investments involve risk and the reader as urged to consider risks carefully and seek the advice of experts if needed before investing.

Empty Nest Insurance- Start Your Kids with a Nest Egg


Today the news is full of stories of children returning home to stay after college.  The recession has certainly made it difficult for some to find jobs.  In some cases parents may also be making their homes a little too comfortable. With few rules, no expenses and no responsibility, who wouldn’t want to stay?

By starting children out early learning about saving and investing, and by giving them a little nest egg with which to start, you can dramatically reduce the chances that they will be knocking on your door, duffel bag in hand after college.

Starting an investment fund can be very quick and easy.  It simply takes a couple thousand dollars and some mutual funds.  If you start a fund about the time they are born, and add to it as they get those checks from relatives early on, and then match their contributions once they start to earn their own money, you can build up a substantial fund by the time they leave the house.  This is money they can then use when they have the unexpected expenses that always occur instead of running up credit card debt.
              

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The first step is to find a fund family with a low enough minimum.  I personally like Vanguard because their funds have very low expenses and the minimums for many of them are only a couple of thousand dollars.

You are looking for a fund that invests in a large number of stocks over a broad range of the market.  Good choices would be a largecap fund such as an S&P500 fund or a midcap or smallcap fund.  Selecting specific sector funds or ETFs is probably not a good idea since you want something you can hold for years rather than needing to move in and out of it, incurring capital gains taxes.


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Once you have selected a fund, simply create a custodial account in the child’s name and send in a check.  (Warning:  When your kids go to college, the college may see the custodial account and expect it to be used for tuition before they’ll kick in financial aid.  If you’re worried about this, keep the money in your name and then gift it to your child over a period of a year or two, staying below the gift tax exemption, when they are near graduation.)  As time passes, add extra money to the fund.  You should avoid the temptation to make many if any changes – you want to minimize expenses and taxes.  Just let it grow with the economy.  If you need to do something, wait for dips and buy more shares.

Once the fund has grown large enough, you should consider selling part and using the proceeds to buy another fund in a different sector of the market.  For example, if you’ve amassed $15,000 in a largecap fund, you may want to sell half and buy a smallcap fund.  This diversification will reduce the risk of losses and smooth out the fluctuations that occur.  In general, different sectors of the market do well at different times.


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Note that capital gains and dividends will be tax-free below a threshold amount, but be sure to check with your accountant on what those minimums are in any given year.  They are generally less for investment income than earned income.  You may also need to file tax returns in some years if the income is large enough even when they haven’t made enough to pay taxes.  Payment of quarterly estimates may also be required.  Minimization of trading, and thereby the realization of gains, will delay the time at which you will need to start preparing tax returns for their accounts.

Once the child reaches 18, the money will be theirs (you have no say over this).  You therefore should have been teaching them all along that the money is there to help them in emergencies, such as when the car breaks down, and not just for day-to-day expenses.  You should also be teaching them to leave the principle alone and just spend the interest/dividends.  In that way, even though they may waste some, hopefully there will be enough remaining when they are older and wiser to help secure their financial security.

By giving your children a nest egg with which to start their lives, you can help keep them out of debt, help them have a down payment for a house when they are ready, and be able to stay out on their own between jobs and other issues. You will also give them an extra source of income that they can use throughout their lives.

 

Follow me on Twitter to get news about new articles and find out what I’m investing in.  @SmallIvy_SI

Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to give financial planning or tax advice.  It gives general information on investment strategy, picking stocks, and generally managing money to build wealth. It is not a solicitation to buy or sell stocks or any security. Financial planning advice should be sought from a certified financial planner, which the author is not. Tax advice should be sought from a CPA.  All investments involve risk and the reader as urged to consider risks carefully and seek the advice of experts if needed before investing.

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