Archive for College Planning

How will the election affect your financial plans?

What now? It’s very early to make predictions but I have at least as good a chance as the pollsters, right? We really don’t know what this incoming president will do, since his policy statements have been so thin, simplistic, and utterly without actionable detail. Nevertheless, some things seem obvious, so here are my thoughts on possible steps.

Never has saving been so important

One thing that seems pretty clear is that support for the vulnerable, the disabled, the elderly, and the ill will be diminished or eliminated. Even under Republican presidents there was opposition to much of the social support network, but now that the mandate seems to be for the ultra-conservative right wing, social programs and benefits are likely to be drastically cut. Certainly we’ll be unlikely to see any new initiatives. This means:

  • You won’t see any assistance to make education more affordable. If you have school loans, you’re not going to get any breaks. If you have children, saving for college will be critical. Without savings, it’s very likely you won’t see your children in college.
  • The incoming president has absolutely no plan to remedy the problems in Social Security. I can say with near certainty that you won’t see any impetus to bring benefits up to an actually livable retirement income. Without your own savings, you’re going to have a bleak old age.
  • Health care costs will be on you. Since the incoming president is unlikely to favor cost containment, single payer options, or public provision of service, we may well see a free-for-all where service providers scramble to snare the people who can actually pay out of pocket. Same goes for colleges, now that I think about it.
  • Charities won’t pick up the slack. The national mood to support the vulnerable seems to have disappeared. One of the most shocking things I’ve learned as a financial planner is how few people give to charities at all, and how small some of our contributions are. Especially in an economic downturn, charitable donations will lessen. Most charities are not able to float extensive programs for continuing care on their own, and depend on public, government support which is unlikely to continue.

Money, as always, gives you flexibility and protects you even in severe economic downturns. If you have to pay, yourself, for all the services most Western democracies provide their citizens, you must have savings.

Try to arrange catastrophic protection on your own

There is unlikely to be any movement toward increasing protection of the elderly and disabled. Long-term care insurance appears to be a necessity for anyone but the super rich. There certainly won’t be any type of long-term care insurance provision at the government level, and most likely no regulation of the industry. Unless you want to face complete impoverishment in needy old age, you should consider the catastrophic protection long-term care insurance provides. Medicaid, for when you’re completely broke, is unlikely to receive enough funding to provide enough care for enough people.

Similarly, disability insurance becomes even more important. Getting Social Security disability, already extremely difficult, will certainly not become easier or more generous. Even those with some savings could easily be wiped out by a disability.

I can’t comment on health insurance, because all the alternatives look so bleak to me that I have no idea what may still be available in the next years. This is a significant drain on entrepreneurship and small businesses. One of the biggest blocks to people starting new ventures has always been the inability to secure individual health insurance. The insurance safety net now becomes more important while simultaneously becoming more damaged.

Review your employment situation

Even if laws protecting workers are still on the books, the federal agencies still have plenty of options on how to enforce them (or not). A professor of mine once said that the most important thing a president does is make the 250 or so critical appointments to agencies that actually run the government. I think it’s pretty safe to say that anti-discrimination provisions, OSHA protections, affirmative action efforts, and environmental protections will be dismantled as much as possible. If you get in an employment situation where legal protections might be important…well, I hope you have the savings and insurance to tide you over a long legal sojourn with a potentially poor outcome. Don’t forget, a president gets to appoint judges and prosecutors.

Do whatever you can to develop your technical skills. The only way to make yourself valuable in a recessionary economy is to acquire skills that are so in demand no one will care who you are: computer, health care, accounting, and engineering come to mind. These are skills that are valuable world wide.

If you’re in college or have children who are, it is with a heavy heart that I say it appears to be a poor idea to concentrate on the liberal arts. My own daughter majored in Anthropology, and my long-ago degree is in Sociology, and I have (all my life) rigorously defended the value of a liberal education. I still believe in it, because I don’t think education should be job-training; it should be developing the life of the mind. However, with the reality of the current developments, any student needs to think about how to add technical or in-demand skills to their education, at least as a minor or certificate program. This is the time to add pragmatic skills to education, because you can’t count on any help or justice except what you can muster on your own.

If you are part of any vulnerable group—women, minorities, immigrants, disabled, LGBTQ, to name a few—this advice goes double. As Cal Newport has said, be so good they can’t resist you. It didn’t work for Hillary Clinton, but I’m hoping your luck will be better.

Stay with diversified investments

I don’t know what the impact will be on markets as yet. I’m guessing socially responsible investments, green energy, and anything dependent on health care funding are going to take a hit, while military contractors will see windfalls. I doubt that defunct industries can be brought back. Will Europe become more attractive? Will the Fed have any tools left? As always, the only mitigation of catastrophe is to have eggs in many baskets.

It all depends on your personal situation, of course, but this may not be the time to pay off a house (locking up your cash). You may need it—it’s easier to lose a house than to go without critical health care. However, it may be the time to nail down a low-interest mortgage, because rates aren’t going any lower.

Take care of yourself

The future looks stressful beyond anything I have encountered in my lifetime, while the quality and availability of health care is almost certain to be drastically impacted. Try to improve what is in your control: lose weight, eat healthy (and don’t be a victim of the corporate manufactured pseudo food complex), try to get exercise. You’re going to need to try to stay as healthy as possible, as long as possible.

I hope it will be possible to compartmentalize some of this, to get relief by pursuing craft, authentic relationships, the pleasure of pets. I almost said the joys of nature, but the impact on our natural world and climate is likely to be catastrophic.

Think realistically about emigrating

 For most of us, it’s not going to be easy or even possible. Without significant money to take with you, and skills so in-demand that you’d be embraced by any country in the world, you’re probably not going to be obtain residency, particularly if you need to work. And if you own a house, who do you think is going to buy it? Those immigrants that are being deported? It’s going to take a lot of planning and forethought to actually accomplish this.

Darn, tried to keep out that bitter tone. Did avoid naming He Who Must Not Be Named. I’ll do my best to help puzzle through how all this relates to your own personal financial picture. It’s never been a better time to shore up and plan for what is in your control, and take steps to protect yourself. Let’s work on this together.

Financial aid: sorting through student loans

English: A vector image of a mortar board hat.

When I see clients with really big student loans, the money has been used not for college, but for graduate or professional education. Many people will borrow $20,000-$40,000 for college. I view that as an acceptable amount if the person has any reasonable hope of employment after graduation. The rule of thumb is don’t borrow more than you can reasonably expect to make your first year of employment. That way, you’ll end up paying about 10% of your income, and that’s doable if you are at least a little frugal. After all, many people spend that much on a car and pay it off in 5 years.

Where there’s really trouble in River City is when the student has an undergrad loan for that much, and then goes on to graduate school. Getting a masters or PhD in an academic field is pretty chancy unless you’ve carefully researched employment possibilities. Without getting significant aid you’re probably wasting your time and money—we all know how difficult it is to get a job in academia. Even with a free ride, you need to think very carefully about the lost income over the years when you continue to be in school.

If your career really requires an advanced degree, you should first look into whether your employer will foot the bill for at least some of it, whether you can study part time, attend a weekend intensive program, etc. But let’s say you’re determined to pursue a professional degree that pretty much requires full time study (Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, prestigious MBA and law school programs, etc.) Let me exclude from this discussion medical school because I must confess I don’t know how even affluent middle class people can pay for it any more. Medical school, particularly an advanced specialty, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and unless family is willing to foot the bill, I think young medical students are, under our current system, pretty much faced with career-long debt.

The kinds of loans available to you are going to be quite different from the more favorable ones that you might have had as an undergrad.

Basically, the fun subsidies are over. You’re not going to see that lovely subsidized loan (where the Feds cover your interest while you’re in school) at that 3.76% interest rate. The Ford Unsubsidized Loan (also known as the Stafford loan) is the best deal you can probably get as a graduate student. Interest begins accruing as soon as you take the loan, although payment of interest and principle can be delayed until 6 months after you graduate. And the rate (currently) is 5.31% + a 1.069% origination fee.  The loan limit is $20,500/year.

Do you need more than that, Bunkie? First, explore everything you can to cover other costs—teaching assistantships, a job, choosing a state school, scholarships and awards, and living at home with mom and dad. Your next option is a Direct PLUS loan, where you can borrow up to the cost of attendance (including reasonable living expenses) minus any other loan amounts (like the Ford Unsubsidized). You must have good credit for these loans. The interest rate on this loan is currently 6.31% plus a loan origination fee of 4.276% deducted as dispersed (so you have to borrow more in order to cover the fee).  You can choose a 10 to 25 year (ouch!) repayment plan on these loans.

Once you exhaust these possibilities, you’re into private loans. Some are made directly through the school and some come from private lenders. These are fraught with perils:

  • Are they fixed or variable? The fixed rate can be 5% (usually only if you’re already earning money or have a parent co-signer) up to more than 12% (thanks Sallie Mae). Before you sign for a variable with teaser rates, think about whether you expect interest rates to go up significantly over the term of the loan (yes, probably).
  • Do they require a co-signer? Note to parents: no, no, no. If you don’t know why, we need to talk.
  • Do you have to make payments while in school? Interest?
  • Do they have financial hardship forbearance? This doesn’t mean you get off the hook—it just means they won’t go after you while you’re ill or unemployed—but interest continues to accrue.

 

As you can probably tell by the length of this post, graduate school financial aid (and it’s almost all loans) is really complex and you really need to know what you’re signing before you choose how much, and how to borrow. Please use those research skills you learned in college to understand the different possibilities and traps of these types of loans.

 

Resources:

For more specifics on Federal student loans, comb this site.

More information on the terms and pitfalls of private loans can be researched here.

 

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Bernie Sanders’s “ridiculous” proposals

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can hardly open the Wall Street Journal without seeing an article about why Bernie Sanders’ proposals won’t work, but I’m not buying it. Sure, any sort of change at all is going to have some unintended consequences. But that’s been true of just about every single governmental policy in the last, oh, 100 years or so. Of course, some people will benefit more than others—just as they did under the Republican presidencies. But, like Bernie, I’d like to see the greatest good for the greatest number, and I’d most like to see policies that will benefit the hard working middle class, tamp down extreme disparities in wealth, and provide basic social supports so that no one lacks basic healthcare, housing, nutrition, and the opportunity for an education.

I like government to stay out of my hair as much as the next person. Hey, I homeschooled my kid for 10 years while paying a pretty big property tax bill to support the local schools. I’ve yet to meet the person that actually enjoys paying taxes. But, as a financial planner, I ask what return I’m going to get on my investment—is there benefit for my (many) bucks?

Healthcare

Really, I have to laugh when I listen to the Republicans pounding their chests about how long you’ll have to wait for a doctor’s appointment if we get Bernie’s single payer national health program. In January I decided to find a new internist, since my previous one has decided that he can’t make a living billing even the best health insurance around. Of course, maybe if he downsized his suite of offices on Lake Shore Drive and didn’t have 4 receptionists chatting to each other at the front desk(who, by the way, NEVER answer the phone), he might be able to eke out a living of, oh I don’t know, a pitiful $300k or so. I had to call 5 recommended internists before I found 1 who was even taking new patients, and then I had to carefully check just WHAT Blue Cross insurance they would take (i.e. not many from the Health.gov marketplace). And then, I have to wait 4 months (mid-April) to get in to see her—and I have no idea whether I’ll even like her, so theoretically if I interviewed 3 practitioners, it could take the better part of a year of waiting to see a doctor for actual examination. For a dermatologist I saw in October, I was told to go home immediately and schedule my 6 month checkup or there wouldn’t be anything left. I can’t imagine that it COULD get all that much worse.

What about the charge that your taxes will skyrocket? Right now I pay $10,144.20/year for a plan that covers me and my daughter, with a $3,500 deductible. It’s an old policy—yes, I liked my insurance and just as President Obama promised, I got to keep it. I haven’t seen any proposal at all that suggests that your taxes will go up by $10,000 a year if we get a single payer. Yes, if you’re employed by a company that pays most of the health care cost, you probably don’t see that kind of bill, but you’re paying it nonetheless—in lower earnings. Unless, of course, companies find a way to offload a cost without any salary compensation. Oh wait, that’s already happened to your retirement. Remember that antique thingy that your parents had—a pension?

I’d happily pay more taxes for better health care for all—prenatal care, lead screening, diabetes prevention, you name it. The comment about how it will never work? It DOES work in every other Western nation, all of whom have better health outcomes than we do. Yeah, maybe hospitals and insurance companies would make less. But something tells me they’d find a way to survive—perhaps by providing the same healthgap insurance they currently provide to Medicare users. Maybe it would create more elite stratification—it all depends on how high the basic bar is set. Once it’s a universal, there’s a limit on how much extra most people will pay. It seems to me that in Europe people still become doctors, and in interviews I’ve heard even they all talk about the better quality of life.

Incremental change is easier than radical change and usually works better. Obamacare was that incremental change. Now, let’s make another one.

Public education for everyone

Some bonehead Republican (I think it was Trump but he says so much crap I lose track) declared that a free university system would make us like Europe, and foreign students all want to come to the U.S. for our superior education. Simply not true. It’s true there are a lot of foreign students on U.S. college campuses for at least two reasons I can see: colleges heavily promote it because these students generally pay full freight, and they’re coming from countries where the university system is generally rigid or substandard (India and China) or where the system offers little potential or is in political turmoil (especially women from Middle Eastern countries). European students are absolutely NOT in evidence as undergrads—in fact, the traffic is the other way since even the best Euro universities are cheaper and easier to get into than the U.S. equivalent. Sure, graduate students come from all over (but again, not predominantly Europeans) but plenty of traffic goes east across the pond, too. There’d probably be more if most U.S. students weren’t so completely incompetent in and terrified of functioning in another language.

Would this put private colleges out of business? Probably, yes and no. The financially weaker ones might have to recast their mission to actually offer programs that would be worth paying for, and a lot of them would fall by the wayside. Oh wait, that’s already happening. The elite schools? Not so much—over half the attendees are already paying full freight, and an awful lot of parents around here would pay absolutely anything to get their kid into those places (you know who you are). I don’t think that will change, and most of these places could already fill their freshman classes three times over with qualified applicants. I don’t think they’ll see empty seats if their application ratio goes from 10 for every 1 accepted to 3 for every 1 accepted. And maybe an expanded public system will stop the horrendous college arms race we’re currently experiencing, and the horrible impact on the mental health of college students.

Right now, its college or you’re a failure. Maybe some changes would produce quality technical and trade education as a viable and respectable option. Pinch me, I’m in Europe.

Social Security

This is actually a Hilary Clinton proposal—that Social Security be redesigned so that it doesn’t penalize women who have stayed home with children. Now there’s a family friendly proposal. Republicans will certainly continue braying that Social Security was never designed to completely fund your retirement. Right. Because when Social Security was designed, people had PENSIONS. Social Security should be redesigned to offer people a respectable retirement consistent with what they earned in their working life. It’s just ridiculous that contributions cease at $118,500 in income. And why not tax people with very high retirement incomes? If it would provide a decent life for the elderly (which we all hope to be someday)—I’ll pay. The societal good seems just compelling to me—and like all income increases, it would raise consumer demand (more money to spend) and not necessarily discourage savings, since everyone would want to live above the minimum. People who save now would continue to save, and people who save very little (the vast majority) would not endure a desperate old age. Our system right now punishes stay at home parents, people who’ve dedicated themselves to socially useful lower paid work, people who’ve gotten ill or taken care of their own elderly parents or got a late in life divorce. Don’t even get me started on the need for long term care—it’s going to take the tragedy baby-boomers are surely facing to confront society with that disaster.

Financial transaction tax

Whew, this one hurts. Bernie is proposing a .5% tax on every $1,000 transacted according to WSJ this morning. That’s pretty high for individuals, but maybe it will return some sanity and thoughtfulness to the process of investing, and slow down the rapid fire high stakes trading that individuals cannot possibly compete with. Does anyone seriously think that it will topple our markets, the strongest in the world? I would like to see some protection for individual investors, but my guess is that if this ever passes it’s going to be a lot more complex than what is currently proposed.

However the election resolves, I think we need to read the handwriting on the wall. Bernie’s policies are overwhelmingly popular with the millennials. Unlike the baby boomers who had no real political agenda except ending the Vietnam War (and then taking up the culture of hedonism), millennials seem to have real political beliefs and economic issues that they intend to fight for. As they get older and move into positions of control, I think we will all have to acknowledge that the times, they are a changin’.