529 plans for beginners

A friend of mine was recently talking about how he’s saving for his 1 year old daughters college education through savings accounts and stock market investments. After asking if he was also using a 529 plan his reaction was “What’s that?” I realized most people don’t know what a 529 plan is, why it is a excellent savings tool, and why it’s a crucial family planning asset.

What is a 529 plan and what is its intended use?

A 529 plan is a tax advantaged investment account that is intended to be used for higher education (and sometimes private primary/secondary education) expenses. These expenses typically include tuition, books, room and board, computers and up to $10,000 of student loans. These expenses do not typically include travel expenses or required healthcare costs to go to school, such as immunizations.

How much can I contribute to a 529 plan?

This varies by state, but in general, there are typically no limits as to what you would like to contribute. If you go above $15K in contributions per year you may need fill out paperwork classifying the contribution as a gift. Another aspect of these investment plans is that anyone can contribute. If you have a 529 plan started for your 1 year old daughter, you can contribute to the plan, the grandparents can contribute to the plan, family friends can contribute the plan. This is an easy way to consolidate savings if multiple people would like to help with college savings.
Almost all 529 plans are controlled by individual states in the US. This means that what individuals can contribute and invest in will vary from state to state. Typically this ranges between $250K and $500K, aggregate.

Can I invest in stocks within my 529 account?

Yes. However, what you can invest in is typically limited by the 529 plan’s provider. Think of a 529 account like a 401K retirement account, you’re allowed to invest in different stocks, bonds, ETFs, etc. but at the discretion of what the provider deems to be safe investments. This will vary from provider to provider.

Can I use a 529 plan for my personal education?

Another friend of mine wanted to take a coding bootcamp to advance his career and was curious about using a 529 plan to pay for it. This is a very intriguing question as most people use 529 plans to save for their kids or their grandchildren. Rarely do you hear about using these plans for personal education.
The answer is, yes! You can use a 529 plan to save and pay for your education and you can change the beneficiary of the 529 plan at any time, if you decide. If you are planning on starting your higher education journey or going back to school this is a great tool to save. If you’re still deciding on going back to school you can check out my earlier article on whether or not going back to school is worth it.
Advanced tip: Take advantage of the ability to change the plans beneficiary at any time! If you are planning to have a child in the future, open a 529 account in your name and contribute some funds. Once the child is born, change the beneficiary to the child’s name. You’ve now effectively created a longer growth run way for your child’s college education investment.

How do I avoid questions from the IRS when I want to spend the money?

Spend directly from the 529 plan! Most colleges will accept funds directly from your 529 investment account. If you withdraw from the 529 plan and then use the funds to pay for college expenses, you will need receipts to show that the funds were used for education to avoid any withdrawal penalties.

What if I need the money from the 529 plan for purposes outside of education?

Not an issue! You can withdrawal all of the principle contributions without any tax or fee. If you need to withdrawal any of the gains from the account, you will have to pay income tax and will also incur a 10% fee for using the funds for expenses outside of education.

Splurge on a new lunch bag and save $2000 a year

Looking for ways to save money? One easy way is to pack your lunch. Packed lunches are not just for grade school kids. Packing your lunch can help your waist line and your wallet. Consider that eating lunch out is $8-$12 a day. This doesn’t even account for the gas to get there or the stress of getting something and getting back to work on time. If you eat lunch out 5 days a week you are spending on average $50/week on lunches. Also, let’s be real, it’s easier to get greasy fast food than to look for a healthy option.

Solution; pack your own healthy lunch. Some will argue that eating out with co-workers or friends is critical to networking and relationships. They are right, so eat out one day a week and pick something special you really like. If you pack your lunch 4 days a week you will save on average $40 per week. That’s $2,000 per year. This is not pocket change. Think of what you could do with an extra $2,000 per year.

Last but not least, some will argue that they can’t cook or have no idea what to pack. Check out all the healthy packed lunch ideas at eatingwell.com. You can have great healthy lunches and save money. One last tip, prepare and organize your lunch at night so all you need to do in the morning is load your lunch bag.

To get started, have fun shopping for the following items:

Next, plan a week of lunches and make your grocery list.

You’re ready.  Enjoy lunch and saving money!

 

The cost of attending weddings

Currently I’m up to four wedding invites this year. I’m extremely happy and excited for my friends taking the next big step, and I figured it would also be a great opportunity to discuss the cost of attending weddings. Recently I moved across the country, which makes weddings difficult and expensive to attend when they are held on the other side of the country. Here are the areas that I will be spending the most on as well as how I plan on budgeting to attend.

1) Flights ($400)

I fully expect this to be the most expensive part of attending weddings. Personally, I’m expecting to spend at least $400 per cross-country trip. While this portion of attending weddings is the most expensive, it also has the highest potential for savings. Finding cheaper flights is a huge victory in planning to attend a wedding. Although, if you’re lucky enough to live close to where the wedding will be held, that cost can be avoided.

2) Hotels ($100 a night)

While this cost is hugely dependent on the area, I would estimate at least $100 a night for a hotel. While this cost can add up quickly, a few options to save on cost are to split the cost of a room with other attendees. Or to stay with nearby friends that you haven’t seen in a while.

3) Clothes ($250)

If you are part of the wedding party there will be the additional cost of either purchasing or renting clothes. For the weddings I’m in, I had to purchase a new suit. This cost me $250 for the suit and tailoring. Based on input from my sister, who is also attending multiple weddings this year, women can expect to spend double this to purchase a dress. For the two other weddings, I can use clothes that I currently have, saving on expenses.

4) Car Rental ($100)

Again, traveling across the country hurts as I will need to have transportation. I’m estimating that a rental car for 2-3 days will cost approximately $100. Other methods I am evaluating to cut down on cost are carpooling with others coming into town, or taking ubers.

5) Gifts ($100)

Attending a wedding comes with the tradition of having a gift to help out the newlyweds start out. I’m estimating that a gift will be anywhere between $50 and $125. Possibly more if you’re really close with those getting married. This is an area where I would recommend not going cheap. However, a good way to save money if you wish to would be giving a gift that has personal meaning to your friend and yourself.

6) Miscellaneous/food/drinks ($100)

I added this cost as a buffer. Expect hidden costs along the way that we forgot to plan. Whether it be getting food at the airport, going to the bar with friends you haven’t seen in a while, or toiletries that you forgot, it’s a good idea to plan for unexpected costs. Anything you don’t spend from this reserve is bonus.

 

Total:

Flights:                  $400 X 4 =$1600

Hotels:                  $200 X 3 =$600 (one wedding in my home town)

Clothes:               $250 X 2 =$500

Car Rental:          $100 X 3 =$300

Gifts:                     $100 X 4 =$400

Misc:                     $100 X 4 =$400

Total                                      $3,800 ($950 per wedding)

 

Based on my current expenses for attending so many weddings my plan is cost avoidance. AKA find the cheapest flights possible, split rooms with friends/stay with family, car pool with other people attending the wedding. Of course, another option is to plan on not attending a wedding.

 

What are your thoughts on attending weddings and how do you try to save for attending? Leave us a comment below.

Why the Dow Jones hitting 20K is meaningless

The Dow Jones just recently hit a milestone price of $20,000. While we think this is good, we believe this is nothing to be excited about. Essentially, our lack of enthusiasm over this $20,000 mark comes from how the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) is calculated.

When the DJIA started in 1896, it was a true average. To find the index price you would simply add all of the stock prices for the companies in the collection and then divide by the number of companies.  Today it’s a little different in that the sum of all of the stock prices is now divided by a number less than 1. Essentially, the index will be larger than the sum of all of the included companies’ stock prices. This divisor fluctuates based on how many stocks are offered as well as when a company is added or removed from the index. Basically, this number will move a lot.

The other issue with the DJIA formula is that it is price weighted. The index rewards large price increase to stocks rather than looking at total market cap. For example, let’s say you have a company that sells 10 shares for $5 each and I have a company selling 100 shares for $0.50 each. Both companies are worth $50. Now let’s say both companies grow 20%. So your company is now selling 10 shares for $6, while my company is selling 100 shares for $0.60. Again, both companies are worth the same amount. However, the DJIA would increase more with your company due to the larger price increase.

Another reason to not get excited over the Dow Jones is that the index only includes 30 companies. This is a very small number in today’s market. Meaning that the Dow Jones would not be representative of what the market is doing as a whole. While there are great companies included in the index, we feel that a larger sample size of corporations would be more reflective of the market.

Overall, we’re not thrilled with the Dow Jones index. However, we understand that there is some emotional value to looking back and saying “wow, I remember when the Dow was at 18,000”. While the Dow Jones hitting 20,000 is definitely a milestone, we recommend using other market indicators like the S&P 500 to get a more accurate representation of how the overall market is performing.

To learn more about the Dow Jones Industrial Average, you can visit their site at http://www.djaverages.com/?go=industrial-overview

Going Back to school, is it worth it?

After working for some time, many realize that what they’re doing isn’t what they would like to do their whole life. Going back to school to change career paths can be daunting and even financially devastating. Recently, I’ve started looking into going back to school to get an MBA. Here are a few things that I am looking at as I work towards this decision.

 

1) ROI

ROI stands for Return on Investment. In this situation, it’s how well you are doing after school. Are you making more money? Is the payback period on your loans short enough that you won’t be in debt forever? As you’ve probably experienced, going to school is expensive. Taking out more student loans sounds like a drag. However, many programs publish the average salary of their graduates. Use this to start calculating how long it might take to pay back these loans. Obviously, we don’t want to be paying back debt until we’re 70. So plan conservatively with your payback timeframe.

 

2) School recognition

School recognition is huge when going back for another degree, consider it as brand recognition. Think of it like this, if you offered a random person on the street a can of Coke or a can of store-branded Cola, what will they pick? The Coke, right? Because it’s a known and trusted brand. The same thing happens with schools. Nationally recognized schools help assure organizations looking to hire you understand that you went through a rigorous program. Shoot for a top 50 school in your discipline with national recognition. Large state schools are a good option to get national recognition while reducing costs.

 

3) Career path afterward

To be clear, this is highly depended on the position you accept after getting your degree. Did you accept a senior position with a fortune 500 company? A consultant position with a top consulting firm? Did the company you’re working for promote you based on your new skills? Utilize school resources like the alumni network or job fairs to help you find that next position to put you on the career path you wish to follow. Personally, I’m looking to where I want to be in 10 years and whether or not the position will help me get there.

 

4) Financing (company pay vs student loans)

Unless you are an executive in a very large company, it is very unlikely that the company you work at will pay for your entire degree. However, a lot of companies do have continued education funding. For instance, the company I currently work for grants approximately $5,200 a year for classes. While this isn’t a lot, it’s still financing that I won’t have to get through loans. The thing to consider most through utilizing company funding is time to complete the degree.

Another option is to quit your job and go back to school full time. The issue with this is that you will be spending more due to having no income, possibly having to move, finding new housing, etc. For this situation, we’ve determined that the payback period is too long to quit your job unless you are accepted into a top 5 program nationally. Even then there is still a possibility that the expenses to get the degree are too much to provide a reasonable payback period.

 

5) Networking (online vs in class)

Going back to school is as much about networking as it is about studying hard and getting a degree. Creating a network of similarly thinking individuals and friends will help with finding potential opportunities in the future.

While it may be cheaper and more flexible to get a degree online, it sacrifices the networking potential of attending classes and meeting new people. If you have great networking skills this may be a non-factor. However, for the majority of us, meeting new people and struggling through class together helps build networks that we can use in the future to find financial opportunity.

One big positive from Online degree programs is flexibility in location.  If you are doing an MBA program where you are still working and going to school part-time, it may take up to 5 years to complete.  In the meantime, you might be asked to change locations for your job, or might take a new job opportunity in a different location.  The online program will allow you location flexibility without penalty.  Just be sure to pick an online program that has a good or even great reputation.  See point 2 above.

 

6) Time to completion

For me, the time it takes to complete a degree is probably the most important factor. Taking your time and using company financing is good, however if it takes you an extra 3 years to complete then you’re losing out on 3 years of financial gain. Transfer credits, overload your semester, or in general do what you can to reduce the amount of time you are in school. Doing so will help with reducing the payback period of your loans as well as with maximizing your earning potential.