An Easy Way to Make College Affordable

Paying for college is a concern of many parents, and well it should be.  College debt is a concern of many graduates, and well it should be.  An issue is that the children of parents who decide to do something about paying for college by saving up money and doing without some things so that they will have at least some of the money needed for room and tuition end up with about the same amount of debt as those whose parents save nothing.  This is because colleges just raise the tuition for those children whose parents have saved.  OK, they actually reduce the tuition for those whose parents have not saved, but it is really the same thing.  Go into college with $50,000 in a college savings account and the college will figure that you can pay $50,000 more than someone without a savings account.
Now if the child with the $50,000 account came from parents who made $250,000 per year while the child without anything came from a family making $30,000 per year, the difference in tuition is understandable.  But often both families may make $80,000 per year.  One family just choose to maybe drive older cars or vacation locally so that they could put a few thousand dollars away each year into an Educational IRA, while the other family was trading in cars every few years and vacationing at Club Med, living for today and figuring that they would worry about college later.


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The issue with this system is that it encourages exactly the kind of behavior you don’t want.  It encourages spending and penalizes savings.  This means that more people show up at the financial aid office with no savings.  People are not foolish — they will find ways to go to college for less or for free if they can.  Why save up if there is no advantage?  As a result, not only do only children from poor backgrounds show up with nothing to contribute.  Many children of middle-class families who could have paid a significant portion of their own tuition and room-and-board show up as well without any savings.

Because colleges need to provide a lot of grants (as does the Federal Government) to prevent their colleges from being full of only the children of the wealthy who can float the tuition with their yearly income, they raise the base tuition so that those who can pay, pay more.  This provides more money for grants and scholarships, so long as people don’t decide it isn’t worth the cost and as long as all colleges do the same thing.  Because the cost is higher, however, it means fewer people are able to pay full tuition from income, which means more student debt and less people saving up since when the amount they can saved is dwarfed by the cost, they figure, “Why bother?”

So what is the easy solution to fix his issue?  Simple – stop using college savings when determining eligibility for tuition reductions and other grants.  Instead, base tuition rates purely on income.  Children who come from families with little income would still find a lower tuition bill that they can afford, but those from a family with a higher income will need to put away more money, use more of that income to cover tuition, and/or take out student loans.  Because tuition would be lower for everyone (since the colleges would be giving out less tuition aid because more people would be paying most or all of their bill), the cost would actually be lower for everyone.

Several colleges could also band together and establish a birth-to-college saving plan where parents could contribute an amount each year based on their income as their children grow with the guarantee that tuition and a certain portion of room-and-board would be covered for any of the colleges in the network.  This would eliminate the uncertainty we currently see when it comes to college tuition and also means that everyone will be paying what they can.  Parents whose children decide not to attend college could have their money returned with a reasonable interest rate applied.

So what do you think?  Would it work?  Do you have a better idea?  Let’s hear it!

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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.

The Beauty of the US – Everyone Has an Equal Chance

I was thinking the other day about what it would be like to go out on your own, a few hundred dollars in your pocket, and try to make it in the world.  Thinking about trying to find a place to live, find a job, buy clothes, food, and other necessities.  One thought was that it would be difficult for someone who came from an impoverished background, with both parents on welfare because of medical conditions or lifestyle choices, to get a decent job because such an individual would not be able to get the education needed to move into better paying jobs.  It seemed like they would be at a great disadvantage to someone from an upper-class or middle-class background.

But then it occurred to me – those in the US whose parents are poor have an equal ability to pay for college, even at elite school, as those who come from wealthier backgrounds.  If anything, they are in better shape than the typical middle-class family.  How so?

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There is an enormous amount of educational welfare available, coming from both the Federal Government and the schools themselves, that really make the ability to pay for school equal for all, or even to the advantage of those from poor backgrounds.  A student whose parents make $150,000 per year will probably pay something like $25,000 per year to go to Duke University or Harvard.  If that same student’s parents also had a couple of million dollars in the bank, even if they made $80,000 per year instead of $150,000 per year in salary, they would probably pay most of all of the $45,000 per year it costs to attend Duke or Harvard, including room and board.

Someone whose parents make nothing and have nothing saved up would pay nothing to go to those same schools.  They could go to a community college, a state school, or even an elite private university and pay nothing to do so!  Between the reductions or eliminations in tuition that these schools provide to students who show financial need and the grants given out by the federal government, which do not need to be paid back, students from poor backgrounds see little if any cost for going to college.  So there is really no financial reason for a student not being able to leave home and gain the education needed to make very good money in the US even if his/her parents didn’t make more than $10,000 per year their whole lives.

So the first lesson for those reading this article from poor backgrounds:

There is no financial reason that you cannot learn the skills to increase your income.

Now it is totally different for someone whose parents do make decent money, but are not willing to support their children financially for college.  In this case, the schools and the federal government will look at your parent’s wealth and income and expect them to support a portion of your educational costs based on what they could fund if they wanted to, even if they choose not to do so.  This is really unfortunate since there are parents out there who do cut their children off when they leave home even if the schools and the government expect them to provide support.  It is understandable from the school’s prospective, however, since if colleges just took your word for it, virtually everyone would not give any money to their children for college so that they could go for free.  (Boggles the mind to see that people who would never take charity for other things see nothing wrong with having others fund their children’s education when they could do so themselves, but apparently there’s no taboo when it comes to accepting college financial aid.)  So this is a lesson for parents of middle-class or upper-class background:

Your children will likely get little in terms of financial aid, regardless of whether or not you have saved up money for their college education, so start saving early and plan on footing at least part of the bill to keep them from being buried in student loans.

There are some ways out get out from under this cloud, including waiting until you are 23 or older to go to college, or getting married right out of high school.  Some of the other criteria for not needing to include your parent’s information on financial aid forms are listed here.  There are also a lot of scholarships out there that can help cover college costs that don’t require showing financial need.  These might be an option if you generally have good grades and have been involved in various activities to show you are well-rounded.

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Now, there are other factors that keep children from impoverished families from going to college and raising their income.  Many don’t have good grades while they are in grade and high school, which is understandable if they have no one at home pushing them at all, or even have a home life that makes it difficult for them to perform well in school.  But again, there are still ways to make a better life for yourself than a series of dead-end, low-pay jobs.

Community colleges:  If you are able make it into a community college, which again could be free for you if you come from a poor family background, you have another chance to change your destiny.  If you concentrate on your studies and get good grades at a community college, many universities would then accept you into their schools.  If you are fortunate enough to get in, spend at least two hours per week doing homework and studying for your classes for every credit hour you are taking.  For example, someone taking 12 hours should be doing 24 hours of work outside of class, for a total of 36 hours per week.  Also, go to office hours for help if you don’t understand something, and spend time getting to know your professors since you will need them for references when you apply to the university.

Trades:  Jobs in the trades pay a lot of money.  If you can do electrical work, plumbing, carpentry, computer repairs, and other similar jobs, you can make a lot more than you will working in retail or at a fast food job.  Many jobs in these areas are earned through experience with a professional in the industry.  If you are willing to be a good worker, showing up on time, being willing to work hard and get the job done, and are willing to learn all that you can while you are on the job, you can get a job with a trade professional and learn what you need to eventually do work on your own.

A final issue for those from poor backgrounds is that their families may continue to drag them down.  Someone whose parents have serious drug or health issues may feel an obligation to take care of siblings still in the home or their parents after they leave the house.  Realize, however, that you can’t save someone from drowning if you yourself are barely keeping your head above water.  It can be better for you and for them if you work to get yourself on firm financial footing first and then help where possible instead of trying to support siblings and parents by working a low-pay job and giving them what you can.  You might also be preventing them from getting welfare because you cause the income of their household to be too high to qualify for food stamps and housing assistance.

While it is difficult, the best option may be to cut financial ties temporally and concentrate on getting through school and raising your income, and then helping them out.  Encouraging your siblings to do what they can, such as getting a job while still in high school and/or working hard at school to get the grades needed to qualify for college is also better than trying to support a family on a minimum wage salary.  Two, three, or four people can do more than a single person can do alone.  Remember that anyone who has health has substantial wealth, even if they have no money in their bank accounts.

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

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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.

Are Your Parents Likely to Move In? If So, How Should You Prepare?

Don’t look now, but if your parents are in their late fifties or sixties, chances are pretty good that they’ll be moving back home – to your home – in ten to fifteen years.  They’ll still be healthy.  The issue will be that they’ll be out of money since many people in their late fifties and even early sixties have just a fraction of the amount of money needed to make it through a 20-30 year retirement.  Many just have enough to make it five years or less.

There are a couple of things you could do.  You could just ignore the issue and believe it won’t happen.  You could move away and leave no forwarding address, hoping to hide somewhere.  Or you could take on the issue head-on, figuring out if you are likely to need to take your parents in, perhaps help them take steps to delay the inevitable, and make choices now to be ready when the day arrives.  Here are some steps to take:

Have the talk

People say that the two conversations parents and children find most difficult are those about sex and money.  But if your parents are heading into retirement in the next ten or twenty years, now is the time to get a gage on how they are doing.  You may not be able to get them to talk about specific numbers, but maybe you can find out things like 1)Do they have a pension plan at work or a 401k?   2) If they have a 401k, have they been putting away 10% or more right along (if not, suggest they start putting away 15% now) 3)If they have they have a 401k, have they let it build up their whole career or have they pulled money out?  4)Are they planning to stay in their home in retirement or downsize and use the savings for living expenses?  5)Have they talked to a financial planner about their readiness for retirement?

Hopefully, they have a pension plan or they have been regularly contributing to their 401k with no withdrawals.  If they are planning to sell their home and downsize, they may be able to stretch their retirement savings a bit.  If they have gone to a financial planner, hopefully he/she has started to help them realize whether or not they have saved enough.  If from the answers to these questions it does not look like they have done much planning, brace yourself for the worst.  At the very least, see if you can set up a meeting with a financial planner to discuss their status and look at options.

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If you do get specific numbers, you can calculate the amount they have total in retirement accounts and other savings/investments (their net worth) to determine how much money they have available to generate income for retirement.  (Do not count their home value in the total unless they plan to sell.)  Once you have their net worth, subtract $400,000 for a couple or $250,000 for a single from the total to account for medical expenses in retirement, then divide by 25.  That is the yearly amount they’ll have available to withdraw each year to fund their retirement and probably make it through without running out-of-money.

For example, if they have $500,000 saved:

Yearly Amount = ($500,000 – $400,000)/25 = $4000/year

In the case above, they would be able to generate about $4,000 per year before starting to deplete their savings.  Add that to maybe $12,000 from Social Security, and they would have about $16,000 per year to spend.  That would not be a good lifestyle for most people and they would need help with bills and expenses.

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Set a Target

If you figure out that they need to be saving more, figure out how much they will need to pay for yearly expenses, and then figure out how much they need to save up to reach that target.  Assuming they’ll receive $12,000 per year from Social Security, here’s how much they would need to save up to generate different yearly income levels:

Monthly Income Yearly Income Single Account Value Couple Account Value
$2,500.00 $30,000 $700,000.00 $850,000.00
$3,333.33 $40,000 $950,000.00 $1,100,000.00
$4,166.67 $50,000 $1,200,000.00 $1,350,000.00
$5,000.00 $60,000 $1,450,000.00 $1,600,000.00
$5,833.33 $70,000 $1,700,000.00 $1,850,000.00
$6,666.67 $80,000 $1,950,000.00 $2,100,000.00
$7,500.00 $90,000 $2,200,000.00 $2,350,000.00
$8,333.33 $100,000 $2,450,000.00 $2,600,000.00

Realize that without the expenses of work clothes, maintaining a car for work, and things like professional dues and meals out, the amount needed in retirement will be less than their income while they are working.  If they pay off their home and cars, this will lower the amount needed even more.  They might therefore be able to set their retirement income target at 70% of their current take-home pay or so.  Of course, setting the target high reduces their risk in retirement.

Encourage them to save/invest if needed

If it looks like your parents aren’t ready, you’ll need to help them get into the best position they can.  Have them pull together a budget using the income you expect them to have in retirement if things don’t change.  Perhaps seeing what their life will be like if they head into retirement with $50,000 will cause them to decide to get passionate about saving.

You can then help them develop a savings plan to reach their goal.  If they are five years or less away from retirement, just subtract the amount they have from what they need, then divide by the number of years they have left until retirement to determine how much they need to put away per year.  Divide that number by 12 to determine how much they need to put away each month.

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 If they have more than five years until retirement, Multiply their monthly savings rate by the factor from the table below to estimate how much they’ll need to save each month since they’ll be able to invest to enhance their savings.

Years to Retirement Multiply Monthly Amount by
5 0.9
10 0.81
15 0.4
20 0.27

So, for example, if you calculate that they’ll need to raise about $2,000 per month to reach their goal and they have ten years until they will retire, they will actually only need to put away $2,000 x 0.81 = $1620 per month.  This assumes that they invest the money in a diversified set of stock and bond mutual funds or a target date fund appropriate for their retirement date.

Note that they will only need to save 27% as much if they start 20 years early – their investments will make up the rest.  If they are only five years away, they’ll need to raise about 90% of the difference through hard work and saving.  There is good reason to start saving early.  It may be too late for your parents, but you still have a chance.

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Encourage them to work longer

If they don’t have enough saved up and it is clear that they will not be able to do so before their expected retirement date, encourage them to think about working longer.  Not only will this allow them to pile up more money, but it will also reduce the number of years they’ll be drawing an income from their savings, reducing the amount they will need to have.  As long as they are healthy and don’t have enough saved up to live comfortably, they should continue to work, even if it is only part-time near the end.

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Have a question?  Please leave it in a comment.  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.