Hidden Costs of College

Congratulations!  You have four years of tuition, room and board stashed away in your 529 Plan and Junior hasn’t even graduated from high school yet.  Now you can breathe easily, right?  Well…maybe, maybe not.

The published cost of college attendance can vary substantially from the actual cost for numerous reasons.   The primary contributor to this variance; a surprisingly small number of students graduate in four years.   In fact only 59% of students graduate within six years according to the National Center for Education Statistics.       Now before you blame Junior for taking too long to get that degree (and blowing your budget), understand that getting the classes needed to fulfill degree requirements at a large university can be a daunting, if not impossible, Hunger Games-like experience resulting in an extended stay.   Changing majors, transferring schools and required remedial classes are other common contributors to a longer than expected the graduation time line.

One cost-effective way to manage the timeline is to plan on taking required classes you couldn’t get during the regular school year at your local community college during the summer.   Budget for this (hopefully minimal) additional expense and have the classes pre-approved so your student receives credit for their work.  Also, insist that your student meet with their advisor before scheduling classes to confirm they are on the right path to meeting their degree requirements.  Now that you are on the four-year plan, it’s time to understand some of the other hidden costs of college.

While wandering the park-like grounds and admiring the architecture of the colleges on your tour list, it can be easy to forget a very important question.  Is this a comprehensive fee?  Quite often the answer is yes at a private college and hard to ascertain at a public school.   To help compare apples and oranges, take a checklist of possible extra fees or expenses on your tour so you ask the same questions everywhere.

  • Are there class-specific fees? For example, lab fees for science classes or studio fees for art or music classes.
  • Are there differential fees for specific majors?
  • Does the school charge more for additional credit hours? Some schools have a  50% tuition surcharge for credits in excess of degree requirements.
  • Is tutoring an additional expense? Is the tutoring remedial only?
  • Are there use fees for athletic facilities, the health center, and tech support?
  • Is there a fee for printing?
  • Can you rent textbooks at the campus bookstore?
  • What percentage of the student body lives on-campus vs. off-campus? If your student lives off-campus budget for rent, security deposit, utilities, furniture, and renters insurance.
  • How far is the school from your home? You may need to budget for travel expenses and summer storage fees.
  • What does it cost to have a car on-campus?
  • Do you receive college credit for study abroad programs?
  • What extracurricular activities interest your student? Greek organizations and club sports teams can cost thousands of extra dollars each year.
  • What is the process to get student tickets to football or basketball games and what do they cost?
  • What are some of the other small fees you can expect? Many schools charge an orientation fee, a matriculation fee, and a commencement/graduation fee.
  • And last but not least… expect a 3% fee for paying the other fees with your credit card.

Once you have narrowed down your list of potential colleges, find someone who has a student there and ask about the hidden extras.   You may be surprised to find that the private school, with a high four-year graduation rate, and a comprehensive fee compares more favorably than you expected to a large, public university.

Nancy Blackman
Portfolio Manager

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Shouldering the Burden of Financial Responsibility

“Atlas through hard constraint upholds the wide heaven with unwearying head and arms.” –Hesiod

My Wednesday morning started with five 400-meter runs, uphill, carrying a 35# sandbag. OK, maybe “run” is a bit of an exaggeration – it was more of a trudge, and there might have been some walking in there toward the top. I hated every second of it, but I kept going because, well, that’s just what you do. When I thought about it later, it struck me as an apt metaphor for the way life feels sometimes – an endless uphill struggle with the weight of responsibility resting heavily on your shoulders. This is particularly true for anyone who is the primary provider for their family. As my colleague Carrie pointed out in her recent blog post, more and more women (including me) are finding themselves in this position, whether by choice or necessity. Most of the time I am able to face each day as it comes and maintain an upbeat outlook on life, but sometimes the enormity of this responsibility is paralyzing and my mind races with worries – what if something happens to me? Have I prepared for the worst possible outcome? What more can I do to ensure that the people who depend on me to keep going will be OK if I can’t?

Since everyone loves a list, let’s break this down into 5 areas that you definitely want to address if you are the primary provider for your family:

  1. Life Insurance – This one is pretty obvious, and I hope most people have some amount of life insurance in order to provide for their dependents should the worst come to pass. But do you have enough? Many companies provide life insurance as an employee benefit, but the standard amount will probably not be enough to replace your salary for an extended time. As a starting point, consider your current salary and how old your children are, so you can estimate how much financial support they will need and for how long. Beyond that, you may want to provide your spouse with your lost income until retirement age. Take these factors into consideration when determining the length of the term and amount of coverage you need.
  2. Long Term Disability Insurance – This one is a little less common, but no less important than life insurance. Think of it this way – if you become disabled and cannot perform the job that supports your family, how will you replace your income? What if your disability adds to the household expenses in the form of ongoing medical care? Now you’ve not only lost your earning power, but you’ve also become a liability to the family you once supported. Don’t let that happen.
  3. Estate Planning/Will – Many times younger people who are still in the asset accumulation phase tend to put off drafting a will, despite its importance. It is especially imperative if you have young children, since it allows you to determine who will become their guardian if both you and your spouse are gone. Make sure your beneficiary designations are up-to-date for any IRAs, 401(k) plans, pension plans or life insurance policies. For more complex estate planning strategies you might want a trust – your financial advisor can help you figure out what you need to do to make sure your estate plan is sufficient.
  4. Retirement Savings – If the worst doesn’t happen and you live to a ripe, old age, you need to be sure that you are saving money to provide for your golden years. As the primary earner, the bulk of this responsibility falls to you to contribute to your company’s 401(k) or another retirement plan, but it is equally important to include your spouse in your retirement projections and contribute to a plan for him or her if you can. Again, your advisor can help you figure out how much you need to be putting aside and how to navigate the ever-complicated IRS rules and requirements for retirement savings.
  5. Education Savings – Though not as imperative as the first four points, saving for your children’s education expenses will relieve them of significant financial pressure when they are in school and will help them avoid taking on massive amounts of student loan debt. You can rest easier knowing that if you predecease your spouse and children, you won’t be leaving them with an insurmountable tuition bill. As with retirement plans, there are several investment vehicles available to you for education savings. Work with your advisor to determine the best plan for you and your family.

Shouldering the burden of financial responsibility can make you feel like Atlas, but it needn’t crush you. With a little planning and preparation, you can weather the uphills, savor the downhills, put down the sandbag every once in a while and live fully in the present.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA Financial Advisor

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Student Loans vs. Saving

This is the second post in a series of six blog entries focused on topics that might be of interest to the Millennial generation. If you would like to see our attempt at making these subject matters entertaining, visit our YouTube page to see a video version of this article.

 

You’ve recently graduated from college and you have a load of student debt. It can be overwhelming. You think it will take forever to pay it off. To make matters worse, you know you are supposed to be saving for retirement but you feel like you can’t because you need to pay off your student loans first.

To make the best financial decision it is important to remove the psychological barriers that often accompany the ‘saving versus paying down debt’ trade-off. The millennial generation is particularly opposed to debt – more so than older generations, so they tend to pay their student loans off before they start saving. Unfortunately, this could be the wrong choice.

The long run average of large company stocks is 11.3% (1950-2013). If your student loans are at an 8% interest rate, you would be better off investing money over and above your minimum loan payment if you have the risk tolerance for investing the money in equities.

Maybe an 11.3% return sounds unrealistic. It’s common for this historical return to seem disconnected from the present. A common psychological condition causes us to take recent past experiences and extrapolate them into the future, creating a false sense of predictive ability on what the future holds. If the good times are rolling, they will always roll. If we are in crisis, we will be in crisis for the foreseeable future. But the truth is that things change. Our economy is cyclical in nature and that’s why we use long-term historical observations to make long-term decisions.

Even with the worst recession since the Great Depression the average return of large company stocks in the 10-year period from 2004 -2013 was 7.4%. And while that’s not huge, you may be willing to take the chance that we won’t soon see a repeat of the worst stock market period in history. Those loans will get paid off eventually and you’ll have more money in retirement simply by saving more and saving earlier.

Don’t forget about your employer match on your 401k. If you have a 401k match, by all means take it! Even if your student loan interest rate is 12%, you’d be better off (after paying the minimum) putting enough money into your 401k to get the free money. That’s a 100% return, guaranteed.

Harli Palme, CFA, CFP®
Partner

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College Savings for the Kids, or Retirement?

Many a financial advisor has been asked how to balance saving for retirement while also funding a child’s college education. Which brings up the question: Is it a parent’s responsibility to pay for their child’s education? And is it possible to do both? As with most difficult questions, there are no black and white answers.

While I’m not a parent myself, I’ve heard passionate positions on both sides of the argument. Some parents didn’t receive any college financial support and feel pride in having paid their own way, working and going to school part time in order to earn their four-year degree. Others, myself included, felt fortunate enough to receive monetary support from their parents, and the gift of graduating with a four-year degree debt-free. In a perfect world, most parents would choose to provide for their children’s education but unfortunately not everyone has the income to do it. In that case, what is the best course of action?

Before tackling that question, there is some good news. A recent Gallup Poll shows that expensive, prestigious colleges don’t necessarily produce happier people who lead more fulfilling lives. Specifically, graduates of colleges in the bottom-ranked U.S. News & World Report schools faired just as well as graduates from top-ranked colleges in terms of overall well being. The poll looked at several quality of life factors, including income level and “engagement” in graduates’ careers. See the article here. Of particular note, high college debt loads had a meaningfully negative impact on graduates. Sadly, 70% of students who borrow have a national average debt balance of $29,400.

I would tend to agree with these findings. As a state university graduate (go Gators!) I received a great education, learned and worked with some world-renowned scholars, and feel pretty darn satisfied in my life and career today. All-in, college cost my parents about $12,000 a year. Granted, that was seventeen years ago. Today, attending the University of Florida costs about $21,000 a year, including room and board; still a pretty attractive price tag considering sky-high tuitions at some of the top private colleges and universities. Don’t get me wrong, if money had been no option and my grades were a little better back in high school, I would have jumped at the chance to attend an Ivy League school. Such were not my cards. The point, however, is that state schools often offer a phenomenal education at a fraction of the cost of many private schools which can make the dilemma of whether to save for your retirement or your child’s secondary education a little less challenging.

However, different students have different needs and may be searching for what those more expensive colleges offer – whether that’s a smaller setting, specific academic programs or special facilities. So if your child is interested in what the pricier schools have to offer, consider applying even if you don’t have all the funds available to pay. Some of the most expensive schools have a tremendous amount of scholarship money available for qualified students in need. It’s a great reason for your child to stay motivated with grades and extracurricular activities throughout high school.

But back to our main question: should you save for your retirement or your child’s college education? Ideally, everyone would do both, but given a median US income of about $51,000, this isn’t always possible. Taking an economic perspective, the classic airplane analogy comes to mind: when the oxygen masks come down due to a drop in air pressure, air regulations require parents to first secure their own oxygen mask before helping their child. Why? Because we can’t take care of someone else, children included, until we’ve first tended to our own needs. I believe the same holds true regarding retirement savings and a child’s college education. Funding your child’s college education at the expense of your retirement savings plan implicitly shifts the financial burden of retirement from parent to child. Essentially, parents who first try to support their child at the expense of their own retirement are making the bet that their child will earn more than them, or at least enough to provide for them in their twilight years. While parents may have good intentions, this dynamic can ultimately prove unhealthy for all parties involved. As with the oxygen mask analogy, a sound strategy would suggest first meeting your own retirement savings needs and then, as you’re able, contributing to a child’s college fund. In the end, you’ll have peace of mind regarding your own financial security and likely be in a better position to further support your child – who may just be thriving on her own.

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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How much is that Doggie in the Window?

According to a recent announcement from the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent $55.7 billion last year on their pets. That’s billion, not million. An article at Time.com (http://time.com/#23451/pets-dogs-cats-spending-americans/) cleverly noted that the figure is $10 billion more than Germany spends on its defense budget.

I admit I am one of these people. My little rescue dog hit the lottery when she came to live with me. She has seven dog beds, if you include her car seat (yes, car seat). She owns more jackets than I do, although they are all for function, not fashion. She has multiple, color-coordinated harnesses, collars, and leashes so that she need never feel ashamed about how she looks. When we go on vacation, she has as much luggage as I do. Yes, she is spoiled rotten.

I am not alone. Bill Geist of the “CBS Sunday Morning” program tells a hilarious story about his “free” rescue dog: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/even-cat-people-fall-in-puppy-love/.  Sometimes, the unexpected costs can really add up.

In our industry, I see a number of fees that some people pay for investments: high commission rates for certain products, either on the front or back end of the transaction; frequent, unnecessary trade costs from a practice called “churning;” and expensive investment counsel fees. Before long, that simple purchase of 100 shares of ABC Widget Works has cost a fortune in added fees.

When you are evaluating an investment advisor, consider how the person earns his or her money. Does he receive a commission for his or her investment recommendations? Is he or she directly affiliated with a broker? Does he or she charge an additional investment counsel fee? While he or she may promise a great gross return on investment, the net return after all of those fees may be no better than what you would find with a simple savings account.

At Parsec, we do not receive commissions for any of the investment products we recommend – no commission from the trade, no commission for recommending a certain security, nothing. In addition, when we recommend mutual funds, we look for funds that do not carry significant internal fees.

We are not beholden to a particular broker. We have four brokers who we like to recommend, based upon client needs.

We do charge an investment counsel fee that we think is reasonable to industry standards. When you sign a service agreement, you see upfront what your fee schedule will be. On a quarterly basis, you receive a reports package that includes information about net-of-fee investment performance, current holdings, et cetera. We are also here to help with planning – everything from college savings to retirement to estate. We like to think service goes beyond placing a trade. Our clients pay us to act as a partner in planning their future.

Everything in life – from owning a home to adopting a rescue dog – has the potential for unexpected costs. How you invest your money, though, should be a little more straightforward. With a little research in advance, you can evaluate whether or not fees charged for service are reasonable and affordable.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to order organic food for my doggie. And maybe I will pick up a bottle of shampoo. She told me she is tired of smelling like a bowl of oatmeal.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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Saving for College

It is that time of year when the air turns cooler, the leaves begin to change color, and the kids return to school.  Some of you may already have children in college and know the financial burden a good education can be.  Others may be setting up a savings plan for the first time.  This post is geared toward you.

You have probably heard of something called a “529 plan.”  This type of college savings plan is named after the section of the Internal Revenue Service code in which the plans were created.  I found an excellent article on, of all places, the SEC’s website.  In plain English, it explains the difference between the two types of 529 plans, tax benefits, and other interesting tidbits.  Here is the link:  http://www.sec.gov/investor/pubs/intro529.htm

Another great site to visit is www.savingforcollege.com.  You can learn about the 529 plans offered in your state.  The site has information about financial aid, scholarships, and lots of other things.

At Parsec, we are familiar with the basics of 529 plans.  Your financial advisor will be happy to answer any questions you might have, although we do not personally setup 529 plans.  We can guide you to resources with which we have experience.

Saving for your child’s college education does not have to be a painful experience.  As you have learned with your retirement savings, the best approach is to develop a plan and stick with it.  Utilizing a 529 plan might be a way to accomplish your goal.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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