Planning Ahead for College Finances

Forbidden Drive
Forbidden Drive

I would like to supplement our 529 college savings accounts by opening an account – either investment or Roth IRA – in order to diversify savings vehicles for our kids to use for education or anything else, but I was concerned that having money in their names would limit their chances to qualify for financial aid. So, this question has been bouncing around in my head for a while: who’s name should the kids assets be under? Parent or child?

The answer: parents.

FAFSA FAFSA FAFSA

It’s recommended that all parents with kids in college complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form every year to determine eligibility for financial aid. In this process, all parent and student assets are taken into account and magically calculated to determine your EFC: Estimated Family Contribution. The game here is to get your EFC as low as possible. 

Looking at assets, they are weighted differently. Assets in the child’s name — including a savings account, trust fund, or brokerage account — will count more heavily against the financial aid award than assets in a parent’s name.

Here’s a summary of how a family’s assets are weighted in calculating the Estimated Family Contribution.

FAFSA Chart.png

  • Student assets: 20%; these include savings and investment accounts and real estate
  • Student income: 50% (don’t work too hard, kids!)
  • Parents’ assets: 2.6% – 5.6%; these include savings and investment accounts, real estate, etc., and is based on a sliding scale
  • Parents’ income: 22-47%; based on a sliding scale

*Not included here is gifts used towards tuition – these can count for 50% – 100%.

Student Income and Assets

A student’s savings account can have a big impact on the EFC, but there is an income protection allowance of $6400 (as of this writing in May 2019).

It is advised to have a parent as the owner of a child’s 529 account with the child as the beneficiary so the account is considered a parent’s asset (weighted up to 5.6% vs student asset at 20%) and therefore more favorable in the eyes of FAFSA. There are other nuances around using 529s that should be considered, like what defines education-related expenses, accounts owned by grandparents, etc.

Parents’ Income and Assets 

The biggest impact in the financial aid equation is parents’ income. While no one typically wants to lower their income intentionally,  here are a few things you can do to limit it during college tuition payment times:

  • Avoid large dividends, capital gains, distributions from a mutual fund or withdrawals from a retirement account – any income reported on Form 1040
  • Defer your work bonus (if you can)

Your income is calculated based on your two years of income before the start of the academic year, so start minimizing your income after January 1 of your child’s sophomore year of high school.

As for typical assets in the FAFSA equation:

  • Home equity in a primary home does not count as an asset, but equity in a second home or investment property does count
  • The cash values of whole life insurance policies and annuities are not considered in the FAFSA calculation
  • The value of a family business is not counted on FAFSA if more than 50% is owned and controlled by your family and has less than 100 full-time employees.
  • Parents’ 401(k), Roth IRA and traditional IRAs are not counted in calculating your EFC. (You can withdraw from a Roth IRA penalty-free to pay for college, but the amount you withdraw is considered untaxed income on the FAFSA.)

In Summary

There are quite a few resources out there with more detail and tips on reducing your EFC, like on Road2College. This is also discussed in the context of post-retirement income and FAFSA in this ChooseFI interview with Root of Good.

Separately, the College Scholarship Service (CSS) form is used to determine your eligibility for non-government financial aid, such as a school scholarship and grants. The considerations for CSS differ from FAFSA.

With this, we realized that our two 529 accounts were already set-up in our names with each individual child as the beneficiary (my father-in-law set these up and is way ahead of me here), so we’re set there and will continue to contribute to these accounts to take advantage of the tax savings.

We have also opened Vanguard investment accounts for each child for the occasional deposit when their traditional savings accounts reach a certain threshold. Soon enough, these will be invested in VTSAX.

I hope that compiling what I’ve learned here has helped demystify this a bit – it’s helped us to dig in and learn more about this even though we’re still seven years away. It’s good just to keep the rules of the game in mind as we continue to save and invest.

Calculating Our Savings Rate

ski shadow family

I’ve been meaning to calculate my savings rate and finally got down to it: 29%. Eh. I thought it would be more, but I’m maxing my 401k and the kids college will be funded by real estate.
I haven’t yet calculated my husbands, but I anticipate his is about the same but with a few differences, like funding our HSA. 
We’re working to pay down debt, so our savings rate will remain flat for the foreseeable future (three mortgages!).

Here’s the breakdown:

  • 401k: 15% (*just reduced to 13% due to bonus)
  • Employee Stock Purchase Program: 8%
  • FSA: 4.4%
  • 529: 1% – this is just sad
  • Roth IRA: 1%

I wonder what our debt paying rate is? I’m not sure what that’ll tell me, but it will be interesting to calculate. It also varies based on other household spends like kids activities and household repairs. And skiing.

2018 FIRE Goals

Building on the strong foundation we set in 2017, here are our goals for 2018:

#1: Debt reduction. We made some great strides in 2017 by simply organizing our finances and recognizing that we need to be more aggressive and focused on debt reduction. This will, of course, continue …

Hawaii, 2015

#2: Travel. We haven’t traveled much lately and we NEED to! This is a no brainer: open a Chase rewards card. Actually, I already got mine and my husband will get his soon. We went with the Chase Sapphire. I’m not sure yet if we’ll get as aggressive as the chase gauntlet just yet. We’re thinking a family vacation to the Bahamas … perhaps that’s because it’s freezing cold right now.

​#3: Max out all pre-tax contributions (401k, HSA, FSA).

#4: Increase college savings. Keep 529s at $100 per month and contribute an additional $100 per month into another, separate investment account or Roth IRA for each child.

#5: Save (more) on wireless phone bills. Change DH from Verizon to a Monthly Shared plan with Total Wireless for $60 per month, saving $67 per month. That’s over $800 per year. Cha-ching!

The debt reduction is the biggest nut: credit cards, HELOC, two car loans and three mortgages. It’s daunting, but it’s there and we’re going to make it disappear. POOF!

Better Late Than Never

Sunset & The Moon at Golden Gardens

A colleague mentioned she was inspired by a financial independence book. Intrigued, I did some searching and found the FI community. Wow. I am encouraged and determined by this community and I have so much to learn. I wish I would have found this 20 years ago (I’m in my 40s) rather than doing what’s expected: college, debt, work 40+ hours/week, retire at 65. No, thank you!

My husband and I are committed to achieving this and sharing this journey and knowledge with our two kids (under 10). I’m still trying to work out our timeline: the point we don’t have to work. We’re about one month into this new mindset and just analyzing our budget, fully understanding where we spend and making short- and long-term plans has really jumpstarted this for us.

Our journey begins with 3 tools: education, debt reduction and saving more.

  1. EDUCATION: It didn’t take much to get my husband on board, as I’m typically the spender for unnecessary stuff. There are so many great tools and resources. I started with the ChooseFI podcast – their Pillars of FI (episode 21) is the gateway drug. These guys are an amazing resource and have provided me with the resources I need to start on the path to FIRE.
  2. DEBT REDUCTION: Armed with little financial knowledge, we’re starting with what we know we can do – it’s common sense – debt reduction. Between job changes, cross-country moves and buying (and filling) a new house, we’ve managed to rack up an embarrassing amount of credit card debt over the last decade and just haven’t focused on getting rid of it. It’s stupid, we know … so we’re getting rid of it ASAP. Based on the debt reduction tracker worksheet I found through Choose FI, we’re looking to have our credit card debt paid off by May 2019. That sounds so far away, but at least we have a plan and end date now. I’m 99% sure that we are underestimating how much we can pay each month and I’m certain that we will be getting all that paid off months sooner.
  3. ​SAVING: Vanguard. It’s all over the FI community. I had no idea that I should be looking at fees or expense ratios. I already have 529s for both kids into which we contribute monthly and I opened an IRA into which I rolled over a Fidelity IRA, keeping a 401k with Fidelity. We’re going to keep our monthly IRA contributions low until we have the debt paid off. Then we’ll max it.
    HSAs … this little gem! I already had one and didn’t take full advantage. I’ve increased my contribution, lowering my income while socking away pre-tax earnings into an investment account. No brainer!

NEXT 3 GOALS:

  1. Transfer both our Wells Fargo IRAs into Vanguard.
  2. Better understand maxing out the retirement savings – I’m not clear on limits. I think its $5500 per year. Is that for IRA and 401k? I’m assuming that doesn’t include employee contributions.
  3. Set realistic goals for 529 savings and our FIRE date.