How to Maximize a 529 Plan Amidst Increasing College Costs

Enrolling in a 529 plan is the first step toward conscious planning for your child’s college education, but don’t stop there. With college costs rising steadily — over 168 percent over the last 20 years, according to U.S. News — it’s important to maximize the value of your plan to ensure you reach your college savings goals.

First, it’s important to know the specifics of 529 plans. For instance, there are two different types of these state-sponsored plans available:

  • Probably the most well-known, the college savings plan allows your money to be invested in a variety of ways, such as mutual funds and the like, and it will compound interest over time. The account will go up or down in value based on the performance of the investment options.
  • A pre-paid tuition plan allows savers to purchase units on a credit-based system to put toward tuition and fees for campus living, excluding secondary expenses such as room and board. Because prepaid plans allow you to lock in current tuition prices, if budgeting is a priority, this plan might be the best fit. Just be sure to check which colleges and universities participate in the plan because not all do.

Start early

Because 529 plans compound tax-free over time, starting early gives you an advantage. The longer the money is in the account, the more time it has to grow.

Take Advantage of Automatic Contributions

Automatic contributions to 529 plans can commonly be withdrawn from a linked checking or savings account. This makes it easier to stay on track to reach your goal. If financial situations change, account holders can adjust this setting in their account and continue to make contributions when it’s practical.

Be Mindful of Rules and Fees

Like IRAs, you make yourself vulnerable to penalty fees if you withdraw earnings from a 529 plan too soon, like withdrawing funds before the beneficiary’s tuition bill is due, which could incur a 10% penalty fee. Likewise, withdrawing more than allotted for qualifying expenses that year will prompt a fee. Though non-qualifying expenses, like medical bills, will provoke a penalty fee, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as if the beneficiary receives a scholarship or another type of educational assistance.

Both prepaid and college savings plans typically include enrollment and administrative fees when you withdrawal funds, but college savings plans may also add an assessment management fee.

Cut the Middle Man—You

An effective way to use your 529 funds to ensure that you’re not taking out more than your expenses, and thereby causing a tax liability, is to have the plan pay the costs directly to the school with direct payment.

Know How Your State Operates

Individual states make their own rules for 529 plans, so in whichever state you set up your 529 plan, it’s important to understand that state’s benefits, drawbacks, rules, and fees. State income tax deductions will also vary by state.

Withdraw from the Correct Fund

If you have more than one 529 plan, be sure you’re not just randomly withdrawing from any of them, or simply withdrawing from the account with the highest balance. Gauge each plan’s growth potential to determine which one has the best investment growth rate, and tap into those savings to receive the best tax breaks.

Involve Extended Family

Relatives have the ability to contribute to or open a 529 plan to help alleviate the burden for parents and students, and the contributor is eligible to take a deduction as long as it’s offered by that state.

Knowing the ins and outs of a 529 plan can be complex, but the simplest way to maximize your plan is to start early, allowing the funds to accumulate over time.

How to Estimate Retirement Income Needs

Depending on where you are in life, trying to anticipate your financial needs in retirement and determining how exactly to get to that point could feel like a daunting task, or even a task that doesn’t need tackling yet. In fact, according to a study completed by The Alliance for Lifetime Income, only 28% of non-retired Americans have attempted to estimate their retirement income. Not as intimidating as it sounds, read on to learn how to estimate those needs.

Start with Your Current Income

If you’re living within your means and not depending on credit cards to maintain your lifestyle, using your paycheck as a benchmark is a sufficient starting point. This, of course, excludes contributions to a traditional 401(k) account as well as health insurance premiums that are deducted from your gross pay. A common and simple approach, then, is to set your desired annual retirement income at 60% to 90% of your current income. However, it doesn’t take a financial expert to note potential flaws with this approach. What if, for example, you plan to travel extensively during retirement? Planning for 60% to 90% of your current income might not be enough to fulfill your jet setting goals.

Forecast Retirement Expenses

Your annual retirement income should be more than enough to meet your daily living expenses. Keep in mind that the cost of living will increase over time, and insurance and health care could fluctuate. Having said that, some common retirement expenses to estimate include:

  • Food and clothing
  • Housing (mortgage, homeowners insurance, rent, property updates, repairs, etc.)
  • Utilities
  • Transportation (car payments, insurance, maintenance, gas, repairs, public transportation)
  • Insurance (medical, dental, life, etc.)
  • Health care costs not covered by insurance (deductibles, copayments, etc.)
  • Taxes
  • Debts and loans
  • Recreation such as travel, hobbies, and dining out

What to Do with Your Projected Retirement Income Needs?

A standard rule of thumb when talking about estimating retirement income needs is to have 25 times your anticipated annual expenses saved up by the time you retire. This is assuming you’re planning for a 30-year retirement. Theoretically, you could then withdraw 3% to 4% of your nest egg each year.

If you’re lacking additional sources of protected lifetime income, such as pensions or annuities, you may need to tap into savings in order to bridge the gap between social security checks and what you’ll need to live on. You could also buy a simple income annuity to cover part of that funding gap. These payments continue for life, thereby removing some of the guesswork of estimating retirement income needs and providing peace of mind.

How the SECURE Act Could Affect Your Retirement

The House of Representatives recently voted to approve the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement or SECURE Act, which would expand access to retirement savings programs for part-time workers and people employed by small business owners.

If the SECURE Act Passes…

If the bill passes the Senate, which it’s expected to do, it will be placed on President Trump’s desk. If signed into law, the SECURE Act would implement the most significant changes to retirement plans since 2006.

The bill aims to entice non-savers to participate in workplace retirement programs, such as a 401(k), so some of the provisions include:

  • Raising the age that American workers must start withdrawing from retirement savings, known as the required minimum distribution age, from 70 ½ to 72. This is to reflect the fact that more Americans are working longer, and in this vein, the bill also stipulates more years for people to contribute to retirement accounts.
  • Increasing tax incentives for small business employers to offer retirement plans by increasing the tax credit for new plans from the current cap of $500 to $5,000, or $5,500 for plans that automatically enroll new workers.
  • Allowing part-time workers to participate in 401(k) plans. The current minimum requirement for part-time employees is 1,000 hours in a 12-month period, but the SECURE Act would amend this requirement to 500 hours, effective January 2021. However, this isn’t mandatory, so it would be at the discretion of the employer.

The SECURE Act would also permit parents to withdraw up to $5,000 from retirement accounts penalty-free within a year of birth or adoption for qualified expenses. Parents could also withdraw up to $10,000 from 529 plans to repay student loans.

What Does the Federal Reserve Say?

According to the Federal Reserve’s annual study, only 36% of Americans feel that their retirement savings are on track, while 25% of Americans have no retirement savings to speak of. Part of this is due to the fact that, because of the cost and complexity of putting retirement savings plans in place, many small businesses don’t offer such plans to their employees. The SECURE Act aims to incentivize small business owners to offer retirement plans by making it easier for small businesses to implement multi-employer retirement plans—where two or more employers join together to offer a plan. This would potentially give small businesses access to lower cost plans with better investment options, thereby possibly giving millions more workers an opportunity to save at work.

In short, this legislation is important because it would remove some barriers that have kept American workers from saving for retirement, specifically through employer-provided plans and incentives. If you have questions or would like to talk about how the information in this article may impact you personally, please reach out to me at sreed@mkrcpas.com and we’ll schedule a time to talk.

How to Stop the Paycheck to Paycheck Cycle

According to a 2017 study from Career Builder, nearly 78% percent of people live paycheck to paycheck, with little to no money left over after financial obligations are paid. This means that nearly 8 out of 10 workers may not be able to handle even a $500 emergency. Here’s how to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.

Build a Budget

Yes, this tired old budget thing is rearing its head again, but every financial plan needs to start here. You simply must know where your money is going. Start by creating a simple spreadsheet in Google Docs, which can be shared if you have dual contributors to your household income. If you’re ready for something a bit more sophisticated, Mint.com is a great online tool for budgeting. It will even send you notices and alerts, creating a more personal budgeting experience.

In order to know where your money is going, you need to also track your spending. Document every single purchase for two to four weeks. You’ll be surprised at how seemingly insignificant purchases can quickly add up. Typically, this exercise helps consumers to be more mindful of how they’re spending.

Establish and Emergency Fund

If you approach saving by promising to set aside whatever’s leftover after your financial obligations are paid, you’ll never make a dent in creating an emergency fund, let alone heftier savings goals. Funds intended for saving should come before any other spending. Aim to initially save the equivalent of one month’s paycheck.

Quick fix: put saving on autopilot. If your company offers a 401(k) plan, make sure you’re participating in it. You can also set up an automatic transfer on paydays to have some money automatically transferred from your checking account into a savings account.

Pay Down Debt

Nothing perpetuates the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle like having debt looming over your head. Control and monitor your spending by discontinuing the use of credit cards until you’ve paid them off. To streamline this process, you can consolidate your debt by transferring all your credit onto one card. While you’re focused on paying off debt, avoid taking out any kind of loan. If you can chip away at your debt while simultaneously building up an emergency fund, you can use that fund to pay for any unexpected expenses that may crop up instead of relying on credit cards.

Examine Your Lifestyle

Sometimes fixing the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle is as simple as taking a hard look at your lifestyle and making adjustments where necessary. Is your monthly car payment too high? Does your monthly mortgage payment exceed 28% of your monthly gross income? Are you paying for subscriptions or memberships you don’t use? You get the idea. Examine your monthly costs and find ways to scale back.

Stop Treating Raises and Bonuses as Fun Money

If you’re stuck in the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, upticks in earnings such as raises, bonuses, and tax returns should be stashed away in savings, not spent on wants and splurges. Likewise, you shouldn’t rely on bonuses as part of your budget. These earnings should be used to increase your emergency savings or retirement funds.

If you have questions or would like to talk about how the information in this article may impact you personally, please reach out to me at jmiller@mkrcpas.com and we’ll schedule a time to talk.

What to Do If You Owe Taxes to the IRS

What happens when you file your taxes and discover that you owe money to the IRS? What are your options? What about when the amount owed is greater than you can afford at the moment? Luckily, there are several options for both scenarios.

Before we get into the different options for making payments to the IRS, remember that your payment has to be received by the IRS no later than the April 15th tax deadline, or be prepared for IRS-issued tax penalties and interest. This deadline applies to those who filed for a tax extension as well.

Below are the different payment options available to pay the IRS.

Automatic Withdraw

If you have the funds available when you file, you can have them automatically withdrawn from your bank account when you e-file and choose the e-pay option. This is available whether you use tax preparation software or an accounting professional to do your taxes.

Direct Pay

The IRS has a “Direct Pay” service through its website, where you can pay from your checking or savings account at no cost. In order to track your payment, use the “Look Up a Payment” tool on the website or enable email notifications.

Credit or Debit

The IRS provides three third-party payment processors on its website through which you can pay your balance using a credit or debit card either online or by phone. They do charge a small service fee, which may be tax-deductible, and your credit card company may charge a fee as well.

Check or Money Order

Make checks payable to the United States Treasury and include your social security number or employer identification number, phone number, related tax form or notice number, and the tax year in the memo field. Send your check with a Form 1040-V, which is a payment voucher found on the IRS website, but don’t paperclip or staple your check to the voucher. You’ll find the correct mailing address for your check on page two of Form 1040-V.

Pay in Person

If you want to be absolutely sure that your payment is getting to the IRS on time, you can pay in person at your local IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center, which can be located on the IRS website. You will need to schedule an appointment before you go.

Wire Service

Check with your bank to see if they offer same-day wire transfer payable to the IRS. Be sure to ask about cut-off times and fees for this service.

What if you don’t have the full amount now? Luckily, the IRS offers two installment plans – a short-term plan and a long-term plan – which you can apply for online with the Installment Agreement Request (Form 9465). Which plan you qualify for depends on how much you owe and your specific tax situation. There is an application fee, and once approved the IRS can void the agreement if you don’t stay on schedule with payments.

Another option is to request a temporary delay from the IRS. You might have to fill out a Collection Information Statement and provide transparent information on your personal finances, and penalties and interest will factor in until the amount is paid in full.

Finally, you can offer to settle for a smaller amount than what’s owed, but the IRS encourages taxpayers to consider all other options before submitting an offer to settle. If you decide to go this route, you will need to be current on your tax filings and not involved in an open bankruptcy proceeding. To determine if you qualify, the IRS will take into account your income, expenses, ability to pay, and asset equity.

Financial Regrets: A Tale as Old as Time

Mismanaged money, investment duds, a blown budget (or no budget), bad habits, the proverbial hole in your pocket. If financial regrets weren’t a thing, we wouldn’t need the Dave Ramseys of the world, but there’s a difference between splurging on an artisan cup of coffee and making a financial blunder that could have ramifications for years to come.

Some red flags that you’re about to jump into a bad financial decision include needing to justify your rationale, a lack of thorough research and homework, depending on a payment you haven’t received, falling for a too-good-to-be-true scheme, and not paying attention to that internal tugging known as instinct. You might say that you’re effectively ignoring these red flags if you’re tempted by any of the following common financial mistakes that could cause long-term consequences.

Taking a Loan from a 401(k)

Yes, you usually have five years to pay it back, and yes, it’s your money after all, but those who borrow from their 401(k) usually reduce or suspend contributions while they’re repaying the loan. This means they’re going months or even years without contributions, missing out on investment growth and company matches. Not to mention the interest on the 401(k) loan. It’s also a gamble because if you leave your company, the loan must be repaid within 60 days.

Claiming Social Security Early

Waiting until age 70 to tap into your Social Security is your best bet, but it’s generally recommended to wait at least until your full retirement age (currently 66-67). The earliest age to withdraw benefits is 62, but your monthly check would be reduced by approximately 25% for the rest of your life.

Making the Minimum Payment on Credit Cards

With mounting interest costs, it can take years to pay off credit card debt, especially if consumers continue to spend with credit cards while only paying the minimum payment. If possible, transfer the balance to a lower-rate card, and always try to pay more than the minimum payment due. Even a small increase in monthly payments can save you on interest.

Not Saving for Retirement

Unless you’re fresh out of college, you should start saving for retirement yesterday. Don’t think you can wait until you start making more money. According to Morningstar, and assuming a 7% annual rate of return, someone who starts saving for retirement at 25 years old would need to save $381 a month to hit $1 million by the time they turn 65. Compare that to someone who starts saving for retirement at 35 ($820 a month) or 45 ($1920).

Foregoing Professional Advice

Do you have a valid will? Have you legally appointed beneficiaries for your retirement accounts? Financial advisors will help with this as well as anything from taxes and insurance to retirement savings and estate planning.

Refraining from Investing

Sure, there’s risk involved, but by diversifying your investment in a mix of large, small, domestic, and foreign stocks, you reduce the possibility of getting hit with a big loss. Perplexed on where to begin? See “Foregoing Professional Advice” above.

And while your nest egg should keep growing after retirement, most financial planners recommend decreasing risk by gradually pulling away from investing in stocks.

Falling for Scams and Raw Deals

According to the FTC, Americans lost a collective $765 million to telephone, text, mail, email and face-to-face scams in 2015. Requests to wire money; or pay fees before receiving anything; or provide personal information, bank information, or sensitive financial information should be met with extreme skepticism. If you suspect a scam, conduct a quick Google search with any information you have on the product or company, including key words like “scam” or “review”. If your suspicion is confirmed, be sure to file a complaint with the FTC and your local consumer protection office.