How to Plan and Save on Holiday Travel

Some of my fondest college memories aren’t from going to homecoming games, attending my first college party or walking around campus when no one else was going to class. Some of my favorite memories are going home for winter break and seeing all my high school friends. Seeing old friends was always so fun, especially since we had all matured during the previous semester.  

But getting home was another story. I went to college in Bloomington, Ind., a small college town where the university was the main attraction. That meant getting a flight back to my hometown of Memphis, Tenn. was always a struggle. I hated having to coordinate buses and flights while in the middle of finals. 

Here’s what I learned about booking flights home, so you don’t have to struggle like I did.  

Plan Ahead 

The first step to saving on holiday travel is planning ahead. If you wait until the last minute to buy plane tickets, you’ll probably pay more. You may even be completely out of luck and not find any flights that work for you. 

You can sign up for travel alerts through Hipmunk.com, which aggregates flights from most major airlines. You can also look at Google flight alerts or sign up for emails for your favorite airline.  

Learn about what airlines fly out of your hometown’s airport and what alternative routes there are. For example, if you’re struggling to find cheap flights coming out of Louisville, look at Cincinnati’s airport. You might have to get creative and look at airports you never consider. 

According to the travel website Skyscanner, the best month to buy plane tickets for Christmas is in October. Yes, it might seem crazy to book tickets for winter break when the leaves are barely falling off the trees, but you could save lots of money. 

Carpool with Other Students 

If you’re at a big university, you might find someone who’s also traveling to your destination for the holidays. If you carpool with them, you’ll save money on transportation while also dividing the driving time. 

I did this a lot in college because I didn’t have a car, but I only needed to travel a couple hours for Thanksgiving break. It was easy finding someone who was also going that way.  

If you’re not traveling to a popular city, you should put out feelers ASAP. Make a shareable post on Facebook, put a physical notice in your dorm’s common area or ask your college advisor if there are any official student carshare groups. 

Look at Buses 

Even though the US isn’t known for its public transportation system, buses can be a decent way to save money on travel if you’re going somewhere close. For example, you can find MegaBus tickets as little as $5 if you book way in advance. Some of these buses include WiFi and let you pick your seat beforehand. 

Buses almost always take longer than driving, but are a good option if you’re on a budget and have time to kill. If you’re lucky, you can find a fellow student who’s also traveling by bus and book your tickets together.  

Compare Alternative Dates 

If you’re flying home for winter break, you probably have some leeway on when you arrive and when you need to leave. Being flexible on travel dates can save you a lot of money, especially during the holidays. 

When you look at flights, you can often look at dates with one to three days of flexibility. Flights that leave or arrive on Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often less expensive than weekends. You should also use an incognito browser when you book tickets. 

If you find an especially good deal that coincides with class, ask your professor if you can get an excused absence. Some may be ok with you taking a final early or if you miss the first day of classes for the new semester. 

Again, ask your professors about this ahead of time. They may be more lenient if you’re asking in early November instead of the week before finals. 

Use Credit Card Points 

If you or your parents have a travel rewards credit card, see if they have enough points to book a flight. This works best if you book early, because flights often increase in price as the dates get closer. 

Travel rewards programs all work differently so it’s good to compare offers before you book a flight. Your parents can book your flights using their account, or they can transfer points to your personal account. This doesn’t work for every credit card, so call and ask if there’s a way to do it for free. It may be easier to do if you’re an authorized user on the account. 

Read the Fine Print 

Nowadays airlines are trying to cut corners everywhere, by trimming seats and charging more for basic amenities. When you buy your flight, read through the ticket agreement to understand what’s included and what’s extra. In some cases, a carry-on bag costs extra just like a checked bag. But a checked bag may be cheaper than a carry-on. 

If snacks aren’t provided, bring your own beforehand. Also, try not to pack your bags completely full. If you’re like me, you’ll have Christmas presents and new clothes to take back with you. And who wants to pay a $30 carry-on fee?  

Understand What Your University Provides 

If you’re lucky, your college may have some free transportation options. For example, my university was in Bloomington, Ind., an hour away from Indianapolis. There was a free shuttle to the Indianapolis airport that left every two hours. 

There’s also a student-only bus that goes from Indy to Chicago and Chicago-area suburbs. This is only available during the holidays and is very affordable.  

The key to saving on holiday travel is to plan ahead, ask other people and do lots of research. You may discover someone in your dorm who’s driving through your city on their home or someone who also takes the bus home.  

 

The post How to Plan and Save on Holiday Travel appeared first on MintLife Blog.

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My Parents Can’t Afford College Anymore – What Should I Do?

When most parents offer to fund their child’s tuition, it’s with the expectation that their financial circumstances will remain relatively unchanged. Even with minor dips in income or temporary periods of unemployment, a solid plan will likely see the child through to graduation.

Unfortunately, what these plans don’t tend to account for is a global pandemic wreaking havoc on the economy and job market.

Now, many parents of college-age children are finding themselves struggling to stay afloat – much less afford college tuition. This leaves their children who were previously planning to graduate college with little or no debt in an uncomfortable position.

So if you’re a student suddenly stuck with the bill for your college expenses, what can you do? Read below for some strategies to help you stay on track.

Contact the University

Your first step is to contact the university and let them know that your financial situation has changed. You may have to write something that explains how your parent’s income has decreased.

Many students think the federal government is responsible for doling out aid to students, but federal aid is actually distributed directly by the schools themselves. In other words, your university is the only institution with the authority to provide additional help. If they decide not to extend any more loans or grants, you’re out of luck.

Ask your advisor if there are any scholarships you can apply for. Make sure to ask both about general university scholarships and department-specific scholarships if you’ve already declared a major. If you have a good relationship with a professor, contact them for suggestions on where to find more scholarship opportunities.

Some colleges also have emergency grants they provide to students. Contact the financial aid office and ask how to apply for these.

Try to Graduate Early

Graduating early can save you thousands or even tens of thousands in tuition and room and board expenses. Plus, the sooner you graduate, the sooner you can get a job and start repaying your student loans.

Ask your advisor if graduating early is possible for you. It may require taking more classes per semester than you planned on and being strategic about the courses you sign up for.

Fill out the FAFSA

If your parents have never filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) because they paid for your college in full, now is the time for them to complete it. The FAFSA is what colleges use to determine eligibility for both need-based and merit-based aid. Most schools require the FAFSA to hand out scholarships and work-study assignments.

Because the FAFSA uses income information from a previous tax return, it won’t show if your parents have recently lost their jobs or been furloughed. However, once you file the FAFSA, you can send a note to your university explaining your current situation.

Make sure to explain this to your parents if they think filing the FAFSA is a waste of time. Some schools won’t even provide merit-based scholarships to students who haven’t filled out the FAFSA.

Get a Job

If you don’t already have a job, now is the time to get one. Look at online bulletin boards to see what opportunities are available around campus. Check on job listing sites like Monster, Indeed and LinkedIn. Make sure you have a well-crafted resume and cover letter.

Try to think outside the box. If you’re a talented graphic designer, start a freelance business and look for clients on sites like Upwork or Fiverr. If you’re a fluent Spanish speaker, start tutoring other students. Look for jobs where you can study when things are slow or that provide food while you’re working.

Ask anyone you know for suggestions, including former and current professors, older students and advisors. If you had a job back home, contact your old boss. Because so many people are working remotely these days, they may be willing to hire you even if you’re in a different city.

It may be too late to apply for a Resident Advisor (RA) position now but consider it as an option for next year. An RA lives in the dorms and receives free or discounted room and board in exchange for monitoring the students, answering their questions, conducting regular inspections and other duties.

Take Out Private Loans

If you still need more money after you’ve maxed out your federal student loans and applied for more scholarships, private student loans may be the next best option.

Private student loans usually have higher interest rates and fewer repayment and forgiveness options than federal loans. In 2020, the interest rate for federal undergraduate student loans was 2.75% while the rate for private student loans varied from 3.53% to 14.50%.

Private lenders have higher loan limits than the federal government and will usually lend the cost of tuition minus any financial aid. For example, if your tuition costs $35,000 a year and federal loans and scholarships cover $10,000 a year, a private lender will offer you $25,000 annually.

Taking out private loans should be a last resort because the rates are so high, and there’s little recourse if you graduate and can’t find a job. Using private loans may be fine if you only have a semester or two left before you graduate, but freshmen should be hesitant about using this strategy.

Consider Transferring to a Less Expensive School

Before resorting to private student loans to fund your education, consider transferring to a less expensive university. The average tuition cost at a public in-state university was $10,440 for the 2019-2020 school year. The cost at an out-of-state public university was $26,820, and the cost at a private college was $36,880.

If you can transfer to a public college and move back home, you can save on both tuition and housing.

Switching to a different college may sound like a drastic step, but it might be necessary if the alternative is borrowing $100,000 in student loans. Remember, no one knows how long this pandemic and recession will last, so it’s better to be conservative.

The post My Parents Can’t Afford College Anymore – What Should I Do? appeared first on MintLife Blog.

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529 Plans: A Complete Guide to Funding Future Education

Do you have kids? Are there children in your life? Were you once a child? If you plan on helping pay for a child’s future education, then you’ll benefit from this complete guide to 529 plans. We’ll cover every detail of 529 plans, from the what/when/why basics to the more complex tax implications and investing ideas.

This article was 100% inspired by my Patrons. Between Jack, Nathan, Remi, other kiddos in my life (and a few buns in the oven), there are a lot of young Best Interest readers out there. And one day, they’ll probably have some education expenses. That’s why their parents asked me to write about 529 plans this week.

What is a 529 Plan?

The 529 college savings plan is a tax-advantaged investment account meant specifically for education expenses. As of the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (in 2017), 529 plans can be used for college costs, K-12 public school costs, or private and/or religious school tuition. If you will ever need to pay for your children’s education, then 529 plans are for you.

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529 plans are named in a similar fashion as the famous 401(k). That is, the name comes from the specific U.S. tax code where the plan was written into law. It’s in Section 529 of Internal Revenue Code 26. Wow—that’s boring!

But it turns out that 529 plans are strange amalgam of federal rules and state rules. Let’s start breaking that down.

Tax Advantages

Taxes are important! 529 college savings plans provide tax advantages in a manner similar to Roth accounts (i.e. different than traditional 401(k) accounts). In a 529 plan, you pay all your normal taxes today. Your contributions to the 529 plan, therefore, are made with after-tax dollars.

Any investment you make within your 529 plan is then allowed to grow tax-free. Future withdrawals—used for qualified education expenses—are also tax-free. Pay now, save later.

But wait! Those are just the federal income tax benefits. Many individual states offer state tax benefits to people participating in 529 plans. As of this writing, 34 states and Washington D.C. offer these benefits. Of the 16 states not participating, nine of those don’t have any state income tax. The seven remaining states—California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, and North Carolina—all have state income taxes, yet do not offer income tax benefits to their 529 plan participants. Boo!

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This makes 529 plans an oddity. There’s a Federal-level tax advantage that applies to everyone. And then there might be a state-level tax advantage depending on which state you use to setup your plan.

Two Types of 529 Plans

The most common 529 plan is the college savings program. The less common 529 is the prepaid tuition program.

The savings program can be thought of as a parallel to common retirement investing accounts. A person can put money into their 529 plan today. They can invest that money in a few different ways (details further in the article). At a later date, they can then use the full value of their account at any eligible institution—in state or out of state. The value of their 529 plan will be dependent on their investing choices and how those investments perform.

The prepaid program is a little different. This plan is only offered by certain states (currently only 10 are accepting new applicants) and even by some individual colleges/universities. The prepaid program permits citizens to buy tuition credits at today’s tuition rates. Those credits can then be used in the future at in-state universities. However, using these credits outside of the state they were bought in can result in not getting full value.

You don’t choose investments in the prepaid program. You just buy credit’s today that can be redeemed in the future.

The savings program is universal, flexible, and grows based on your investments.

The prepaid program is not offered everywhere, works best at in-state universities, and grows based on how quickly tuition is changing (i.e. the difference between today’s tuition rate and the future tuition rate when you use the credit.)

Example: a prepaid credit would have cost ~$13,000 for one year of tuition in 2000. That credit would have been worth ~$24,000 of value if used in 2018. (Source)

What are “Qualified Education Expenses?”

You can only spend your 529 plan dollars on “qualified education expenses.” Turns out, just about anything associated with education costs can be paid for using 529 plan funds. Qualified education expenses include:

  • Tuition
  • Fees
  • Books
  • Supplies
  • Room and board (as long as the beneficiary attends school at least half-time). Off-campus housing is even covered, as long as it’s less than on-campus housing.

Student loans and student loan interest were added to this list in 2019, but there’s a lifetime limit of $10,000 per person.

How Do You “Invest” Your 529 Plan Funds?

529 savings plans do more than save. Their real power is as a college investment plan. So, how can you “invest” this tax-advantaged money?

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There’s a two-part answer to how your 529 plan funds are invested. The first part is that only savings plans can be invested, not prepaid plans. The second part is that it depends on what state you’re in.

For example, let’s look at my state: New York. It offers both age-based options and individual portfolios.

The age-based option places your 529 plan on one of three tracks: aggressive, moderate, or conservative. As your child ages, the portfolio will automatically re-balance based on the track you’ve chosen.

The aggressive option will hold more stocks for longer into your child’s life—higher risk, higher rewards. The conservative option will skew towards bonds and short-term reserves. In all cases, the goal is to provide some level of growth in early years, and some level of stability in later years.

The individual portfolios are similar to the age-based option, but do not automatically re-balance. There are aggressive and conservative and middle-ground choices. Thankfully, you can move funds from one portfolio to another up to twice per year. This allowed rebalancing is how you can achieve the correct risk posture.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Using a 529 Plan

The advantages of using the 529 as a college investing plan are clear. First, there’s the tax-advantaged nature of it, likely saving you tens of thousands of dollars. Another benefit is the aforementioned ease of investing using a low-maintenance, age-based investing accounts. Most states offer them.

Other advantages include the high maximum contribution limit (ranging by state, from a low of $235K to a high of $529K), the reasonable financial aid treatment, and, of course, the flexibility.

If your child doesn’t end up using their 529 plan, you can transfer it to another relative. If you don’t like your state’s 529 offering, you can open an account in a different state. You can even use your 529 plan to pay for primary education at a private school or a religious school.

But the 529 plan isn’t perfect. There are disadvantages too.

For example, the prepaid 529 plan involves a considerable up-front cost—in the realm of $100,000 over four years. That’s a lot of money. Also, your proactive saving today ends up affecting your child’s financial aid package in the future. It feels a bit like a punishment for being responsible. That ain’t right!

Of course, a 529 plan is not a normal investing account. If you don’t use the money for educational purposes, you will face a penalty. And if you want to hand-pick your 529 investments? Well, you can’t do that. Similar to many 401(k) programs, your state’s 529 program probably only offers a few different fund choices.

529 Plan FAQ

Here are some of the most common questions about 529 education savings plans. And I even provide answers!

How do I open a 529 plan?

Virtually all states now have online portals that allow you to open 529 plans from the comfort of your home. A few online forms and email messages is all it takes.

Can I contribute to someone else’s 529?

You sure can! If you have a niece or nephew or grandchild or simply a friend, you can make a third-party contribution to their 529 plan. You don’t have to be their parent, their relative, or the person who opened the account.

Investing in someone else’s knowledge is a terrific gift.

Does a 529 plan affect financial aid?

Short answer: yes, but it’s better than how many other assets affect financial aid.

Longer answer: yes, having a 529 plan will likely reduce the amount of financial aid a student receives. The first $10,000 in a 529 plan is not part of the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) equation. It’s not “counted against you.” After that $10,000, remaining 529 plan funds are counted in the EFC equation, but cap at 5.46% of the parental assets (many other assets are capped higher, e.g. at 20%).

Similarly, 529 plan distributions are not included in the “base year income” calculations in the FAFSA application. This is another benefit in terms of financial aid.

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Finally, 529 plan funds owned by non-parents (e.g. grandparents) are not part of the FAFSA EFC equation. This is great! The downside occurs when the non-parent actually withdraws the funds on behalf of the student. At that time, 50% of those funds count as “student income,” thus lowering the student’s eligibility for aid.

Are there contribution limits?

Kinda sorta. It’s a little complicated.

There is no official annual contribution limit into a 529 plan. But, you should know that 529 contributions are considered “completed gifts” in federal tax law, and that those gifts are capped at $15,000 per year in 2020 and 2021.

After $15,000 of contributions in one year, the remainder must be reported to the IRS against the taxpayer’s (not the student’s) lifetime estate and gift tax exemption.

Additionally, each state has the option of limiting the total 529 plan balances for a particular beneficiary. My state (NY) caps this limit at $520,000. That’s easily high enough to pay for 4 years of college at current prices.

Another state-based limit involves how much income tax savings a contributor can claim per year. In New York, for example, only the first $5,000 (or $10,000 if a married couple) are eligible for income tax savings.

Can I use my state’s 529 plan in another state? Do I need to create 529 plans in multiple states?

Yes, you can use your state’s 529 plan in another state. And mostly likely no, you do not need to create 529 plans in multiple states.

First, I recommend scrolling up to the savings program vs. prepaid program description. Savings programs are universal and transferrable. My 529 savings plan could pay for tuition in any other state, and even some other countries.

But prepaid tuition accounts typically have limitations in how they transfer. Prepaid accounts typically apply in full to in-state, state-sponsored schools. They might not apply in full to out-of-state and/or private schools.

What if my kid is Lebron James and doesn’t go to college? Can I get my money back?

It’s a great question. And the answer is yes, there are multiple ways to recoup your money if the beneficiary doesn’t end up using it for education savings.

First, you can avoid all penalties by changing the beneficiary of the funds. You can switch to another qualifying family member. Instead of paying for Lebron’s college, you can switch those funds to his siblings, to a future grandchild, or even to yourself (if you wanted to go back to school).

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What if you just want you money back? The contributions that you initially made come back to you tax-free and penalty-free. After all, you already paid taxes on those. Any earnings you’ve made on those contributions are subject to normal income tax, and then a 10% federal penalty tax.

The 10% penalty is waived in certain situations, such as the beneficiary receiving a tax-free scholarship or attending a U.S. military academy.

And remember those state income tax breaks we discussed earlier? Those tax breaks might get recaptured (oh no!) if you end up taking non-qualified distributions from your 529 plan.

Long story short: try to the keep the funds in a 529 plan, especially is someone in your family might benefit from them someday. Otherwise, you’ll pay some taxes and penalties.

Graduation

It’s time to don my robe and give a speech. Keep on learning, you readers, for:

An investment in knowledge pays the best interest

-Ben Franklin

Oh snap! Yes, that is how the blog got its name. Giving others the gift of education is a wonderful thing, and 529 plans are one way the U.S. government allows you to do so.

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, I’d suggest checking out my Archive or Subscribing to get future articles emailed to your inbox.

This article—just like every other—is supported by readers like you.

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