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The #1 Tool For Getting Help Paying for College

March is nearly here, and the end of the school year is in sight. If you have a high school senior at home, that means you have just a few short months to figure out how you’re going to pay for college.

A little more than half of parents of eighteen year-olds have saved for college. The average savings for those who have it is $28,000, about enough to cover the full cost of one year at a public university. Most students will turn to debt to pay for at least some of their education.

Debt among eighteen to twenty-nine year-olds is at a ten year high, thanks mostly to growing student loan debt. Yet many students are missing out on valuable financial aid because they failed to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

About a third of students who don’t file the FAFSA are eligible for Federal Pell grants, which is financial aid that doesn’t have to be paid back. Of those who would have qualified for the grant, half could have gotten the maximum amount, which was over $6,000 for the 2018-2019 school year.

Nearly half of private student loan borrowers could have qualified for lower cost federal loans had they filed the FAFSA. And the FAFSA isn’t just for federal aid. State and college financial aid programs and many private scholarships rely on information from the FAFSA.

The biggest reason sited for not submitting the FAFSA was that families thought they weren’t eligible for aid. Some form of financial aid is available to anyone with an annual household income of $250,000 or less. Only about 5 percent of American families don’t qualify for any form of financial aid.

And financial aid is available beyond traditional four year institutions. If you have your eye on a community college or certificate program you may still be eligible for financial aid.

Timing is important. Some forms of aid are granted to the eligible that apply first, and when the money is gone, it isn’t available again until the next school year. Some grants and scholarships have early deadlines. But if you haven’t filed your FAFSA yet it isn’t too late. There are still options open.

Applying for financial aid can seem daunting. The FAFSA asks for a lot of information. Often you’ll need to fill out supplementary forms for financial aid or scholarships beyond the aid available from the Federal government. You might think it isn’t worth it.

But if you think in terms of your hourly rate to apply, it might seem more worthwhile. Say you find an opportunity for $1,000 in government or private aid or scholarships. If you put in four hours of work to get it, that’s an hourly rate of $250. Most don’t make that in their professional jobs.

College is too expensive to assume you can’t get some help with it. Fill out the FAFSA annually. If it’s too late to get some forms of aid for this fall, you may still qualify in the following year. Most don’t have the luxury of fully paying for their children’s education, but help is available if you file the form.

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security. It is now available on Amazon.

How Marie Kondo Can Help You Meet Your Financial Goals

The new Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, is getting rave reviews. Marie Kondo is the best selling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The Netflix series brings Kondo into American family homes, where she teaches them the fundamentals of organizing their stuff.

Organizing your stuff and managing your finances have much in common. They both require you to evaluate your situation, think ahead and make choices. The foundation of Kondo’s approach to decluttering is to choose the things that “spark joy”, and jettison the possessions that don’t. This particular focus on the things that make you happy is also a good way to manage how you spend your money.

If you are not making the progress on your goals that you want, you need to change something. To save more, you must spend less. For many, this simple truth keeps them from facing their financial situation and taking a step toward a more secure future. It simply doesn’t seem like any fun to spend less.

Yet many of us spend money on things that are not important to us. Takeout food eaten on the go, clothes that never get worn, TV channels that never get watched are all expenses that do not enrich our lives.

For most, your choice is not between doing what you love and financial security. It’s more about not doing what you don’t love. If you approach freeing up room in your monthly spending to save more with this in mind, you may find that it is a fun challenge to weed out those wasted expenses.

Some friends, Lisa and Candice, asked me to help them get started on a strategy to meet their financial goals. The two love music, and going out to dinner. This type of entertainment really made them happy. But they thought they would have to give it up if they wanted to make progress on their goals.

However, a review of their spending revealed some expenses that were neither necessary or making their lives better. For one, they were subscribed to a home security service, but in fact never actually engaged the alarm system. This is clearly an expense they could avoid. Other expenses that didn’t “spark joy” were daily coffee runs and takeout lunches that they consumed at their desks alone.

It may not be just the small stuff either. Maybe you have an expensive car, where a lower cost model would do just as well. Or you have extra room in your home that doesn’t make you happy just sitting there empty.

It may be that you can’t fully meet your savings goals by getting rid of expenses that don’t bring meaning to your life. You may need to get creative, and perhaps you ultimately do need to cut back on the things you love doing. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop doing them altogether. You won’t be successful long-term if your only tool is to deprive yourself of the things that are important to you.

Short of earning a bigger income, you only have so much money to go around. You have to make choices about what you do with it. Make them intentionally. Choose the things that bring you safety, security and joy, and give up the things that don’t. Make sure saving for your financial goals is one of those you keep.

Photo by Preslie Hirsch on Unsplash

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security. It is now available on Amazon.

How Life on the Average 401(k) Balance Will Look

America’s retirement savings balances continue to be alarming. In a 2014 study, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) estimated that 40 percent of us would not be able to cover basic expenses once we are no longer earning a paycheck. The situation has not improved.

The following table shows average and median retirement savings by age from the Vanguard How America Saves 2018 study.

Age Range Average Balance Median Balance
Less than 25 $4,773 $1,509
25 to 34 $24,728 $9,227
35 to 44 $68,935 $25,800
45 to 54 $129,051 $46,837
55 to 64 $190,505 $71,105
65 and over $209,984 $64,811

Average balances are skewed high by a small number of large accounts. The median balance indicates that half of near retirees have $71,000 or less in savings.

Of course there are issues with these numbers. Vanguard’s study is based on participant balances in Vanguard retirement saving plans. It is possible that participants have balances elsewhere in prior employer savings plans or in individual retirement accounts. Participants who have worked at their jobs longer do tend to have higher balances. But the EBRI’s study indicates missing accounts probably isn’t the primary reason for the low balances.

Using the 4 percent rule, with the average balance for the 55 to 64 set of $190,505, you could reasonably withdraw about $635 per month and have your savings last through your retirement. At the median balance you could withdraw about $216 per month.

Social security will provide some help. The average Social Security check after the recent cost of living increase is $1,461 per month. Between the average savings and the average social security check, you would have just over $2,096 per month to live on. With the median savings you would have $1,677.

If you are a couple, and you are both getting the average Social Security check and you each have the average in retirement savings, your monthly income would be around $4,200. That might be reasonably comfortable if you’ve paid off your mortgage. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator indicates that amount covers basic living expenses in Portland, Oregon, is generous in Cleveland, Ohio, and not nearly enough in San Francisco, California. If you’re both at the median savings, of these three cities, you’d only be OK in Cleveland.

But savings balances for women tend to be only two thirds that of men, and women’s Social Security benefit is also lower on average. Women often work in lower paying jobs, and many have periods with no earnings, because they stayed home to take care of children or other family members. These factors lower both their savings and their benefits. So an average or median couple’s available income may be lower than double the individual average or median.

How do these numbers stack up to what you’re currently spending? According to University of Minnesota data, median household income in 2017 was about $5,167 per month before taxes. At the median savings rate, with Social Security (assuming both you and your spouse have the same savings and Social Security benefit), your retirement income would be about two thirds of your current income.

Of course you are neither average or median. Your situation is unique, but poverty in retirement is becoming more and more common. If your savings are falling short of what you need, what can you do?

The first step is to get a handle on what you have.

  • Understand your total savings balances for retirement and how that stacks up to the cost of your current lifestyle.
  • Find out what your other sources of income will be. You can estimate your Social Security benefit at www.ssa.gov with either their quick calculator or by setting up your own account.

The next step is to develop a strategy for closing any gap you may have.

  • Can you save more money? If you can, you’ve already taken a step closer, because you’ve reduced the cost of your lifestyle.
  • Can you reduce your cost of living in retirement, by making changes in your lifestyle or changing where you live?

The key to ensuring you have a comfortable life when you stop working for pay is to know what you need to do. Even if you have work to do and limited time, your confidence will rise simply by making a plan. There is no time like the present to get started. Wherever you are, you will have the most options for a better future if you start today.

Photo by Matthew Bennett on Unsplash

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security. It is now available on Amazon.

If You Don’t Do This, You Could be Paying on Your Student Loans for Most of Your Career

In my last post, I demonstrated how taking just $5 dollars per day from spending and putting it toward paying down your debt could have you out of debt in a surprisingly short time. One reader wrote back that she would never put extra money toward paying off her student loans. She wasn’t able to break even with her payments, and she felt paying extra on the them was like simply lighting her money on fire.

I could see both the frustration and despair in her words. And it was clear that she couldn’t see how the extra payments could make a difference.
The huge balances some carry can make it seem like you’ll never get out from under your debt.

Student loans are complex, and the myriad of repayment plans can make it harder to make a dent in your balances. In 2007, new student loan repayment plans were introduced on federal loans to help indebted graduates better afford their payments. These plans are based on a percentage of your income, and extend the repayment period. The payments are lower than the standard ten-year repayment term.

But in some cases, these extended payment plans can have you paying less than the total interest that is accruing on your loan. You aren’t making any progress on reducing your loan amount, and interest continues to grow. That was the case with the reader who wrote to me.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that half of student borrowers are in their mid-thirties before they begin repaying their loans and 30 percent are not reducing their balances after five years of payments. Unless you want to make payments on your student loans for much of your working life, you eventually need to be paying enough to cover all the interest and some principal every month.

Debt payments take away your flexibility. You must maintain a larger emergency fund, because your monthly obligations are larger. You may find it difficult to do other important things like save for retirement or college for your own children. Your financial security rides on you getting out of debt.

So it is worthwhile to make extra payments on your student loans. If you can’t afford the payments under the ten-year standard repayment plan, and therefore need a longer repayment schedule, pay as much as you possibly can anyway. Your goal is to cover all the interest and some principal.

With each principal payment the next month’s interest will be lower, and your next payment will include more principal. With more principal covered, the next month’s interest will be lower still. It becomes a virtuous cycle that get’s better with each passing month.

If you can direct windfalls, like a tax refund or bonus from work, to pay down your principal, you can give your repayment plan a boost. If you can increase your extra payments over time as your income increases, you can make even faster progress.

You may be thinking, why bother. These income based repayment plans come with debt forgiveness after twenty years. Why should I make extra payments?

Aside from the advantages of eliminating debt payments from your monthly budget, the forgiven loans will still cost you. While the student loan arm of the government may forgive your debt, the IRS will not. The full outstanding balance will be considered income in the year it is forgiven, and you will owe income taxes on the forgiven amount.

There is one exception to all of this. If you qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, your loan will be fully discharged after ten years with no tax implications regardless of how much principal is remaining. So if you are in this program and can stay in public service for the full ten years, there is no reason to make extra payments on your student loans.

For everyone else? Pay as much as you can. Take drastic measures if you need to, but cover all the interest and at least some principal with each loan payment. Paying extra is not futile, it is necessary. Your financial freedom depends on you getting out of debt.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security. It is now available on Amazon.

The Power of $5

We tend to overlook the power of small steps. We want a magic bullet to somehow make us thinner, richer and more successful. But much of life is simply putting one foot in front of the other in the direction we want to go. If your financial goals seem out of reach, consider what you could do with just $5 a day.

If you could find $5 a day to save instead of spend, by the end of the month you would have $150. By the end of the year, you could have saved $1,800 toward an emergency fund or expenses that would have otherwise gone on your credit card.

If you used your $150 to contribute to your company retirement savings plan, and your employer matches your contribution, you could turn it into $300 a month just like that. In a year you would have contributed a total of $3,600 toward retirement.

A recent CNBC article highlights a survey done by Creditcards.com. In it they found 42 percent of those aged 18 to 37 don’t know when or if they will ever be able to pay off their debt, and 20 percent expect to die with it. The average non-mortgage debt was $36,000.

You could use your $150 to make an extra payment on your debt. If you add $150 to the current minimum payment and make the same payment every month going forward, you could have $36,000 of debt completely paid off in as little as three years, depending on your interest rate. Of course that assumes you stop adding to it.

Once your debt is gone, instead of making payments on it, you could work toward your other financial goals, like saving more for retirement, saving for your children’s education and other things that are important to you. If your $36,000 of debt is credit card debt, the minimum payment is over $800. With your extra payment, it’s $950. That is a lot of money that could be going toward all your other goals.

Where could you find $5? Most of us spend money on things that aren’t important to us. Did you eat take out lunch at your desk? If so, you probably don’t even remember what you had, and you could have saved $5 by bringing your lunch from home.

You might be able to shave $5 a day, or $35 a week, from your grocery bill by changing the store where you shop or shopping more carefully so you have less food waste. There might be a combination of things you could do, like changing your phone plan, getting rid of the gym membership you don’t use, and turning down the heat when you aren’t home.

It doesn’t seem like much money. Just $5 a day. But the impact can be so powerful. You can have more financial security and your big financial goals are within reach. You only have to take the first step, even if its a small one. Whatever you do is progress, and you may be able to do more in the future. It may not be a magic bullet, but it will do the trick.

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security. It is now available on Amazon.

Header photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

How to Clean Up Your Financial Junk Drawer

Today’s post comes from guest writer Aiden White.
Aiden is a San Francisco based writer. Discussion and debates on financial and political subjects are her forte. Being a debt fighter in her personal life, her goal is to share innovative thoughts and knowledge in the debt communities. Get in touch with her at aidenwhitejoe@gmail.com.

What’s in your financial junk drawer? Is it incomplete goals from 2018? Or could it be that you are not coming clean with your partner on some financial issue? Like the junk drawer in your kitchen, you may be reluctant to look at what is lurking in there. But to be successful in reaching your goals you have to sort through it.

Incomplete Financial Goals

It’s easy to say you want to do something, but it’s harder to commit to it. Saving more money or reducing debt are common New Year’s resolutions, but if you weren’t successful in achieving your goals in 2018, it could be that you didn’t put enough specificity around them. Here are a few common goals and how to define them in a way that will motivate you.

Build an emergency fund

An emergency fund is savings that will help you in the event of a personal financial crisis such as the loss of a job, a prolonged illness or an unexpected major expense. Your emergency fund should be enough to cover at least three months of basic living expenses. Yours may need to be bigger depending on your circumstances.

This is your top priority. To help you achieve it, define how much you need to save and determine exactly what you will do to save it. For example, you might decide to get a jump on your savings by dedicating your next bonus or tax refund to it. You might decide to cut out restaurant trips until your emergency fund is in place.

Set milestones. Determine what you will save each month, have saved in six months, etc., and when you will complete your emergency fund. Whatever your strategy, you will be more likely to achieve your goal if you have one.

Get out of debt

Debt creates financial insecurity. With debt, your emergency fund needs to be larger than it otherwise would need to be, and you are more prone to a financial disaster.

Consider consolidating high-interest credit card debt or multiple credit cards to a 0% APR balance transfer card. You may also be able to consolidate other unsecured debt like payday loans, utility bills, medical bills, personal loans, etc.

Once your debt is consolidated and you are down to your lowest interest rate possible, you can pay down your debt using a strategy such as the debt snowball. In this strategy you make only the minimum payment required on all your loans except the smallest one. Pay as much as you can on that one. Once that is paid off, take the full monthly payment you were making on the smallest loan and combine it with the minimum payment on the next smallest loan. Continue through the remaining obligations.

As with your emergency fund, you’ll need a strategy for raising the money to make extra payments on your debt. Determine what you will do differently as part of setting your goal.

Create and follow a budget plan

A recent survey revealed that only 32 percent of people make a proper financial budget. Your budget is your strategy for achieving your goals.

If you need guidelines to get started, experts suggest a 50/20/30 rule. 50 percent of your money should be used for essential spending (rent, transportation, utilities), 20 percent should go towards completing personal financial goals (saving and paying off debt), and the remaining 30 percent could be used for discretionary expenses.

Save for your retirement

Supporting yourself in retirement takes a lot of money. To make it as painless as possible, you need to start saving for it as soon as you can. A recent survey from Provision Living revealed that 43% of millennials have $5,000 or less in savings for retirement.

Start by taking advantage of your employer sponsored retirement plan, especially if they offer to match your contributions. The automatic contributions will make saving easier for you. If your employer doesn’t offer a retirement savings plan, open a Roth IRA. You can make those contributions automatically as well by having your employer make a direct deposit from your pay to your IRA account.

Hidden financial secrets

According to creditcards.com, one in twenty people in a serious relationship have a secret bank or credit card account. Whether you’re embarrassed by a purchase you made or you’re keeping a slush fund so you can spend money without discussing it with your partner, this could be considered financial infidelity.

The problem is that many of us still hesitate to talk about money with anyone, even with the person whom we love the most. Keeping financial secrets can ruin your relationship as well as create grave financial problems. This corner of your junk drawer may be hard to face, but you must for the health of your relationship and your finances.

That financial junk drawer is causing you stress. Unfinished business and unrevealed secrets will stay on your mind until you resolve them. Perhaps this year’s resolution should be to get rid of the junk drawer all together.



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Save Yourself is now available on Amazon




Your Emergency Fund Needs to be Your Number One Goal

The current government shut down highlights a significant problem in the United States. No, I’m not talking about the lack of political will in congress to tackle even the most mundane of tasks, though that certainly is a problem. I’m talking about the pervasive financial fragility of Americans.

Some 800,000 federal employees face at least a delay in getting paid, if not the full loss of at least one paycheck. Many will find it difficult to make ends meet and will struggle to catch up on their bills even after they start getting paid again. Social media posts under #shutdownstories are heartbreaking.

But financial insecurity goes beyond those impacted by the shut down. In a report released last May, the Federal Reserve found that even in our currently strong economy, four in ten Americans would have difficulty coming up with $400 to cover an unexpected expense without resorting to selling something or going into debt. The lack of savings cuts across income brackets.

Anyone who is working for pay is vulnerable to the loss of a paycheck. Even in a good economy, people get laid off, and there is a surprisingly high probability that you will not be able to work due to an injury or illness at some point during your career.

To avoid having one of these setbacks become a financial disaster, you need an emergency fund.

If you do not currently have at least three months of basic living expenses saved outside your retirement plan, building that level of savings needs to be your top priority. It is more important than saving for anything else.

  • If you are currently saving in your retirement plan, but don’t have an emergency fund, stop your contributions now. Even if your employer matches, stop. Focus every extra dollar on building an emergency fund.
  • If you are working on paying down your debt, stop all but the minimum payments. Yes, you will rack up extra interest charges, but once your emergency fund is in place, you will be far less likely to add to your debt in the future.
  • Cut your spending to the bone, and/or consider selling something to get a jump start on your emergency fund. The foundation of your financial security is dependent on you being able to survive a short time out of work.

Once you’ve established a minimum emergency fund, you can resume your progress toward your other financial goals. Your emergency fund is a one and done kind of goal. Once it’s in place you don’t need to keep adding to it, unless you use it for the emergency it’s there for or your basic living expenses increase.

Too many Americans are just the loss of a paycheck away from financial disaster. The government’s shut down illustrates the vulnerability of even those with a supposedly good job. If you don’t have enough money saved to survive a few months without pay, your top priority is to establish an emergency fund.

Save Yourself” is now available on Amazon

Header photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

It’s Here!

Thank you to everyone who has followed my posts for the last few years. I am extremely excited to announce that my book is now available on Amazon!

Save Yourself is a comprehensive guide to saving for retirement and shoring up your financial security so you can do whatever it is you want. Through the stories of real people, it shows you exactly how you can make the changes that will allow you to save for a long and secure retirement so that you don’t need to work for pay. In addition, it covers other aspects of true financial security, giving you peace of mind throughout your life.

Early reviews are very positive. Here’s one that a reader was kind enough to post on Amazon.

The Save Yourself guide to retirement planning justifies the need to take control of your financial security with meticulous statistical research and lays out the step-by-step plan to reduce debt, budget and achieve financial independence. If you are putting planning off, author Grandstaff’s remark that “The monthly savings requirement more than doubles for every ten years you delay” is a sobering statement to prompt action to read her work and get started today.”

Happy reading! Reviews are very important to help other readers find the book, so please post one back at the same Amazon page. Again thank you for your kind attention, and have a wonderful holiday season.

On The First Day of Christmas…

Last year, I posted this financial redo of the classic 12 Days of Christmas. My daughter and I actually sang it in a video, which was fun. This year I’ll spare you that. If you’d like to see it, you can find it in last year’s post. Here’s wishing you love and joy and true financial security!


On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a fund for emergencies

On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me a budget for expenses and a fund for emergencies

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me a maxed out retirement, a budget for expenses and a fund for emergencies

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me a pay-down on my visa, a maxed out retirement, a budget for expenses and a fund for emergencies

On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me a Roth IRA, a pay-down on my visa, a maxed out retirement, a budget for expenses and a fund for emergencies

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me full estate planning, a Roth IRA, a pay-down on my visa, a maxed out retirement, a budget for expenses and a fund for emergencies

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me insurance for disabilities, full estate planning, a Roth IRA, a pay-down on my visa, a maxed out retirement, a budget for expenses and a fund for emergencies

On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me a 529 for my kids, insurance for disabilities, full estate planning, a Roth IRA, a pay-down on my visa, a maxed out retirement, a budget for expenses and a fund for emergencies

On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me a pay-down on my student loans, a 529 for my kids, insurance for disabilities, full estate planning, a Roth IRA, a pay-down on my visa, a maxed out retirement, a budget for expenses and a fund for emergencies

On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me a sound investment strategy, a pay-down on my student loans, a 529 for my kids, insurance for disabilities, full estate planning, a Roth IRA, a pay-down on my visa, a maxed out retirement, a budget for expenses and a fund for emergencies.

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me a long-term care policy, a sound investment strategy, a pay-down on my student loans, a 529 for my kids, insurance for disabilities, full estate planning, a Roth IRA, a pay-down on my visa, a maxed out retirement, a budget for expenses and a fund for emergencies.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a pledge to be mortgage free, a long-term care policy, a sound investment strategy, a pay-down on my student loans, a 529 for my kids, insurance for disabilities, full estate planning, a Roth IRA, a pay-down on my visa, a maxed out retirement, a budget for expenses and a fund for emergencies.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Give the Gift of Education for Christmas

From the archives: Here is an article to help reduce the stress of Christmas and bolster your college savings all at once.

The holidays are upon us. I’ve always thought Christmas was mostly about the kids. There is nothing better than seeing a little face light up at the decorations or the absolute glee in your child when she receives that one thing she wanted most of all. But all the gifts can get out of hand.

With grandparents and aunts and uncles all giving to your children, your kids could be on overload before breakfast Christmas morning. If your kids’ eyes are glazed over before they’re done opening all their presents, consider a different tactic that can cut down on the volume of gifts and help with your children’s future. Ask your relatives to make a contribution to a College 529 plan instead of buying the usual gifts that may be forgotten in a corner before long.

A College 529 plan is a tax advantaged savings program for post high school educational expenses. And now, some states allow you to use the money for K-12 private school tuition. Investment earnings grow tax free and withdrawals for educational purposes are tax exempt.

An AARP survey found that 36 percent of grandparents believe it is their job to spoil their grandchildren by buying them lots of stuff, mostly at the holidays. Of grandparents surveyed, 25 percent will spend more than $1,000 in a year on their grandchildren, and 40 percent will spend more than $500.

Those amounts can add up to substantial college savings by the time your children are ready for school. If your children were to receive a total of $500 in gifts each holiday season from their relatives beginning when they are babies, a 529 plan could grow to well over $14,000 by the time they are 18, assuming a 5.0 percent annual return. Smaller amounts also help. Some 529 plans accept deposits on existing accounts as low as $15.

The gift giver benefits as well. Contributions to a 529 plan in 34 states are state tax deductible, and in two thirds of those states, you don’t need to be the owner of the account to get the deduction. In Oregon, for example, a single person can deduct up to $2,300 of their contribution, and a married couple can deduct up to $4,600. If a larger gift is made, the extra over the deductible limit can be deducted in future years.

For the states where you do need to be the owner to get a deduction, the gifter would open their own account and simply name the child as the beneficiary. There is no limit to the number of accounts that can be opened for a single beneficiary.

For the 16 states that don’t offer a 529 plan, an account can be opened in any other state’s plan. While contributions are not deductible, the investment earnings will still grow tax free. There is no obligation to attend school in the state where the account is opened. Savings in 529 plans can be used for educational expenses at a wide variety of schools nationwide.

There are no limits to annual contributions for 529 plans. Gifts greater than $14,000, which is the gift tax exclusion amount, require the filing of a gift tax return. However that does not mean the gift will be taxable. It can remain tax exempt under the lifetime exclusion for estate taxes, currently at $5.49 million per individual for federal tax purposes. The maximum lifetime 529 plan contribution limit is $300,000

If your child doesn’t attend school, the money can continue to grow tax free in case they change their mind later. The money can remain in the plan as long as there is a living beneficiary, and you can change the beneficiary if school isn’t in the cards for the first one.

If the money is not used for educational purposes, you will pay income tax and a 10 percent penalty on the earnings. While that sounds terrible, if you’ve had the money invested for a while, chances are your earnings will have grown, and you will still come out ahead.

Instead of your parents buying gifts that won’t last or will be set aside to gather dust, have them invest in your child’s future. Toys wear out. Clothes are outgrown. Electronics become obsolete in no time. Most kids can only take so much unwrapping on Christmas. A College 529 plan contribution is a gift that will have a lasting impact, and have your child remembering Grandma and Grandpa’s gift all their life.

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