Advertiser Disclosure

Featured

Prepaid Debit Cards: To Use or Not To Use?

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Prepaid Debit Cards

An estimated 23 million Americans use prepaid cards each month, according to data from the Pew Charitable Trusts. It’s not hard to see why. Prepaid cards can be a highly convenient way to manage your money. But before you start using one, it’s important to know exactly when it’s a good idea to use prepaid cards – and when it’s not.

When to use prepaid debit cards:

You don’t qualify for a traditional bank account. If you’ve opened and closed bank accounts often, or you have a history of incurring overdraft fees, it can be difficult to get approved for a checking account at traditional banks. For people with poor banking histories, a prepaid debit card can be a good alternative to store your money safely. Most prepaid cards are backed by FDIC insurance, like a traditional bank account. You can use them as freely as you would use a regular debit card, both online and in stores.

You want a simple way to control your spending. Because you can only spend as much as you deposit onto a prepaid debit card, they can be a good budgeting tool. For example, you could put $500 on a prepaid card each month for groceries. Once you hit your limit, you’ll have to wait till the next month to hit up the supermarket. Parents might also use prepaid cards as a tool to teach their kids how to budget. You can control how much your child receives on her card each month. Once the funds have dried up, that’s it.

You need a debit card to pay your bills online. Paying bills in cash can be a hassle. You’ll spend time and money driving to and from businesses if you’re paying each bill in person. Then there’s the extra postage cost if you’re mailing checks, not to mention the chance that a check could arrive late and result in a penalty charge. In this case, it might make more sense to use a prepaid debit card online to pay your bills each month.

You need your paycheck two days early. Some prepaid debit card issuers offer a pretty attractive perk: they will credit your account with your payroll earnings two days early. For example, if you’re paid on Fridays, your card issuer would deposit your earnings on Wednesday. Many prepaid debit card users find it difficult to stretch each paycheck to cover your household expenses. This feature could mean the difference between paying a bill on time or paying late and getting hit with an extra late fee.

When not to use prepaid cards:

You’re trying to build credit. Prepaid debit cards are not credit cards. That means your activity will not be reported to any major credit bureaus. So don’t expect your credit history to improve by using prepaid debit cards each month. If your credit is poor, one of the best ways to improve it is to sign up for a secured credit card (or credit building loan) through your local bank or credit union. MagnifyMoney keeps track of of the best secured credit card offers on the market today.

You can qualify for a low- or no-fee bank account. Prepaid debit cards often come with a host of fees that can make it much more expensive than a typical bank account. Some card issuers charge a fee every time you use the ATM, load funds on your card or need to replace a lost card, among a slew of others. Prepaid card companies are also notorious for hiding fees that they charge. In a recent study of 10 major prepaid card issuers by CreditCards.com, 7 out of 10 did not disclose fees as transparently they should.

While it’s true big banks do charge many fees of their own, there are plenty of low- or no-fee checking and savings accounts available today. These can cost far less in the long-run than a prepaid debit card.

You often cash your paycheck at check cashing storefronts. Cashing checks can be a pricey business, especially if you’re already having trouble making ends meet. On top of that, carrying around a lot of cash can leave you vulnerable to theft. Finding a low-fee prepaid debit card — if you are unable to qualify for a low- or no-fee bank account — can be a good alternative. Many prepaid debit card issuers even waive some fees if you have your paycheck deposited directly onto the card each time you’re paid. But you might think twice about carrying your entire paycheck on your prepaid card. RushCard and Green Dot, two of the largest prepaid card issuers in the industry, both had technical glitches in the last year that left customers unable to access their accounts.

You’re worried about identity theft online. Hyper-vigilant shoppers out there might use a prepaid debit card for online purchases. If your card number is stolen, the hackers can only access what’s on your card. But this would require the hassle of loading funds onto a separate card when you need cash, and many prepaid card issuers charge loading fees. Also, credit card fraud is a fairly innocuous threat to most consumers. Banks and credit card issuers almost always refund you any funds lost and send replacement cards free of charge. Some prepaid cards, as we noted above, charge for replacement cards.

Just to reiterate: Prepaid card fees can really hurt

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is working on new rules that would make prepaid card fees much more transparent. Until then, it’s unfortunately up to you to carefully review fees before signing up for a new card.

Just because your favorite celebrity has endorsed a certain prepaid card does not mean it’s right for you. Trust us — millionaire talk show hosts and musicians are pretty much the least likely prepaid debit card users out there. On the contrary, most prepaid card users are not high-earners. More than 80% of people who don’t have bank accounts and use prepaid cards earn less than $50,000 per year, according to Pew. When your funds are already tight, you need every penny you can get. Prepaid card fees can really hurt.

Looking for a free checking account? Check out our guide here > 

 

 

Mandi Woodruff
Mandi Woodruff |

Mandi Woodruff is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Mandi at mandi@magnifymoney.com

TAGS:

Advertiser Disclosure

Featured, Health, News

5 Smart Ways to Lower the Cost of Therapy

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Source: iStock

Sasha Aurand has had to scramble for four years to find high-quality mental health care she can afford on her salary from running a website on psychology and sex.

The 25-year-old New Yorker suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and anxiety, and has no health insurance.

“So I’ve always had to find other solutions,” she tells MagnifyMoney. Aurand originally sought help for these conditions while still a college student in Indiana. But after the school’s counseling center referred her to a private practice she couldn’t afford, she researched, asked around, and found a community health clinic where a therapist helped her for $20 a visit.

After graduating from college, Aurand moved to New York, where she briefly had health insurance, enabling her to see what she describes as a “phenomenal psychiatrist” for depression medications. But her insurance ended, and she could no longer afford the psychiatrist’s $350/hour fee.

Aurand is not alone, having to be resourceful finding doctors and therapists in her price range. According to the 2016 State of Mental Health in America report, one out of five American adults with mental illness report they are unable to get the treatment they need, often due to cost. And with an uncertain health care climate in Washington, the challenges are unlikely to ease soon.

Although the Senate failed in its recent attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act — an effort, says Colin Seeberger, strategic campaigns director for Young Invincibles, “that would have allowed states to opt out of the ACA’s essential benefits, such as substance abuse and mental health coverage” — there’s still some instability in the insurance markets as a result.

In such a confusing environment, how can you find the help you need at a price you can afford?

Here are a few options if you’re looking for affordable therapy options:

1. Work with a therapist-in-training

If you live near a university with a graduate psychology program, it most likely has an in-house clinic. You can see a trainee at one of these clinics for a reduced fee. Yes, the therapists are students, but each one is closely supervised by a seasoned, licensed professional.

Pros: “Because the therapists are still in school, they’re up to date on the latest developments in psychology,” says Linda Richardson , Ph.D., a psychologist who works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in San Diego. “You’ll also have the advantage of two heads being better than one.”

Cons: Most trainees work at these clinics for a year or less. If you find someone you like, they’re eventually going to leave.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask about sliding scales or reduced cash fees

After losing her insurance, Aurand went back to her $350/hr psychiatrist and “explained the situation and asked if there was anything she could do,” she says. The psychiatrist agreed to see Aurand for $100 a visit as long as Aurand paid in cash. Aurand now sees the doctor every three months.

Many therapists offer a sliding scale based on a patient’s income. If you find a therapist you like, let him or her know your financial concerns and inquire about paying a lower fee. Another option is to check out Open Path Psychotherapy Collective, a nonprofit that lists therapists who offer a few weekly sessions at a lower rate. There’s a one-time $49 fee to join the collective; therapists in the collective charge $30 to $50 per session.

Pros: With a sliding scale, you get all the benefits of good, one-on-one therapy at a lower rate.

Cons: If you don’t reassess the financial arrangement occasionally, says Erika Martinez, a psychologist in private practice in Miami, Fla., “a therapist can become resentful or frustrated with a client,” especially if your income rises. To avoid this, discuss payments every few months to see if an adjustment is needed.

3. Consider group therapy

According to the American Psychological Association, group therapy works as well as individual therapy for many conditions, such as depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder — and for a fraction of the price. Martinez, for example, charges $150 an hour for individual therapy but only $65/hour for a group session.

Pros: There’s a lot of power in knowing you’re not alone. “When you share about your struggles in group where others have the same concerns, and you feel their empathy, that’s incredible,” says Martinez.

Cons: Some people aren’t comfortable speaking about emotional issues in a group. Also, you have to share the therapist’s attention with others.

4. Try online services & therapy apps

There are many online tools, including Breakthrough.com and Betterhelp.com that offer individual therapy sessions with licensed therapists over the phone or via a secure, HIPAA-compliant video for considerably less than an in-office visit. Rates vary, but if you search, you can find someone affordable.

Several California-based therapists (among the most expensive in the nation) on Breakthrough.com, for example, offer sessions for as low as $55 an hour. A note of caution: Choose someone licensed in your state. In case of an emergency, a therapist can only help secure needed services if you’re in the same state.

Pros: You can get high-quality, one-on-one therapy without ever having to leave your home, office, or pajamas — and at a reasonable cost.

Cons: Insurance often doesn’t cover phone or video sessions. “Also, you can’t fully see the nonverbal language of the therapist,” says Martinez. “And the Internet connection can be bad.”

Better Help App. Source: iTunes

Therapy apps — which allow you to text or chat with a licensed therapist — are becoming increasingly popular. Among the many available are Betterhelp.com, Talkspace.com, and iCounseling.com. Studies in both The Lancet and the Journal of Affective Disorders have shown that online therapy is an effective way to get help, and many services start for as little as $35 a week.

TalkSpace app. Source: iTunes

Pros: You can get help anytime, anywhere, even while sitting in a business meeting or on the subway. Also, it’s a good option for people afraid to walk into a therapist’s office.

Cons: Chat and text therapy, which are not covered by insurance, are inappropriate if you’re feeling suicidal or have severe mental illness. And some people find the technology alienating. “I tried one of these apps a few years ago,” says Aurand, “ and I just missed the human interaction of seeing a therapist in person.”

5. Tap into community resources for free or discounted counseling

You can find psychological and psychiatric care at public mental health clinics, which offer services for free or on a sliding scale, based on your income. Organizations devoted to helping survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse also offer a wide range of services, including free counseling. And religious organizations, such as Jewish Family Services, often offer therapy on a sliding scale. The best way to find resources in your community, says Richardson, is to dial the information hotline, 211, on your phone or look online at http://www.211.org.

When her PTSD flares up and she needs to talk to a therapist, Aurand supplements her psychiatrist visits by going to a community health clinic, the Ryan/Chelsea Clinton Community Health Center, which offers a sliding scale based on her income and charges $100-$125 a session.

Pros: You can find good care for low or no cost.

Cons: The demand at public health clinics is huge, and staffs are often overwhelmed. “There can be long waiting lists, especially for individual counseling,” says Richardson. “You may have better luck if you’re willing to join a group, such as anger management, that fits your needs.”

The bottom line

When it comes to finding affordable mental health care, persistence is the key. “It can be really daunting, especially if you’re not feeling well or don’t have insurance and think you can’t get help,” says Aurand. “But if you take the time and do your research, you’ll find someone who wants to help you. There are a lot of good therapists and psychiatrists out there, and it’s not necessarily all about the money.”

Laura Hilgers
Laura Hilgers |

Laura Hilgers is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Laura here

TAGS: , , , ,

Advertiser Disclosure

College Students and Recent Grads, Featured, News

With the Fate of Public Service Loan Forgiveness Uncertain, Here are Tips for Confused Borrowers

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Source: iStock

More than half a million Americans are working toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), a program that eliminates federal student loan debt for people with jobs in the public sector. But the proposed 2018 White House budget reportedly calls for ending PSLF for future borrowers — and even current participants’ status could be in doubt, with a lawsuit claiming the government has reversed previous assurances given to certain borrowers that their employment qualifies.

Final decisions have not yet been made in either scenario. But even with this uncertainty, there are steps both current borrowers and interested potential future PSLF participants can take to make themselves as secure as possible.

First, a quick primer on PSLF: The program began in October 2007 under George W. Bush, and it wipes clean the remaining federal student debt for qualifying borrowers who have made 120 payments, or 10 years’ worth (more information is available at StudentAid.gov/publicservice). So the earliest any public service worker could receive loan forgiveness under PSLF is October 2017.

“The idea is to avoid making debt a disincentive to choosing public service,” explains Mark Kantrowitz, a student loan expert and publisher at college scholarship site Cappex.com. “Think about a public defender. They might make $40,000 a year, but they’ll incur $120,000 in debt for law school. That debt-to-income ratio is impossible, so PSLF makes that career path possible — and attracts people who might have otherwise taken high-paying private-sector jobs.”

Public Service Loan Forgiveness — on the chopping block?

At this time, the biggest threat to the future of PSLF is President Donald Trump’s 2018 White House education budget proposal. The budget proposal would eliminate PSLF — citing costs — and replace all current income-based repayment/forgiveness plans with a single income-driven system. While existing borrowers would be grandfathered into PSLF, any new students who take out their first federal loans on or after July 1, 2018, would not qualify. Still, all of this can happen only if Congress passes the budget — and it remains to be seen whether this section will pass as currently written in the proposal.

If you’re one of the more than 550,000 borrowers who is already working toward forgiveness — that is, you have already taken out at least one federal loan and/or you’ve completed school and are working in public service — the proposed cancellation of PSLF won’t affect you. Again, if the program is cut, it will impact only students who take out their first federal loans on or after July 1, 2018.

But even existing borrowers working toward PSLF can’t fully relax. As first reported by The New York Times, the Department of Education added a serious wrinkle by sending letters to people saying their employment was no longer eligible for PSLF, after the borrowers had confirmed with their loan servicer that they qualified. Four borrowers and the American Bar Association have filed a lawsuit against the department, and the case is currently in progress.

That may leave many workers questioning whether or not they will ultimately be eligible for loan forgiveness after all — even if they work in the nonprofit or public sector. MagnifyMoney has spoken to experts and reviewed the rules of the program to help.

How Can I Be Sure I Qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness?

Qualifying for PSLF depends on meeting several specific requirements, so the first step in determining your eligibility is to make sure your loans and employment check all the boxes.

1. Your student loan must qualify for forgiveness.

PSLF provides forgiveness only for federal Direct Loans:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans
  • Direct PLUS Loans—for parents and graduate or professional students
  • Direct Consolidation Loans

Note that loans made under other federal student loan programs may become eligible for PSLF if they’re consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan, but only payments toward that consolidated loan will count toward the 120-payment requirement. And, according to ED, parents who borrowed a Direct PLUS Loan “may qualify for forgiveness of the PLUS loan, if the parent borrower—not the student on whose behalf the loan was obtained—is employed by a public service organization.”

2. You must be enrolled in the right type of repayment plan.

You must be enrolled in one of the Direct Loan repayment plans, some of which are income-based. The umbrella term for these plans is income-driven repayment plans, which include the Pay As You Earn and Income-Based Repayment plans. While payments under other types of Direct Loan plans, like the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan, do qualify and count toward your 120 payments, you’ll want to switch to an income-driven plan as soon as possible — because if you stick with a standard 10-year repayment, you’ll have paid off your loan in full after 10 years with nothing left to be forgiven under PSLF. Check the official PSLF site for more details. And note that private loans, including bank loans that are “federally guaranteed,” do not qualify.

3. You must make 120 on-time payments while employed full time by an eligible employer.

If you drop to part-time work, those payments won’t qualify. You must also be employed full time in public service at the time you apply for loan forgiveness and at the time the remaining balance on your eligible loans is forgiven. After you make your 120th payment you’ll need to submit the forgiveness application, which the Department of Education says will be available in September 2017.

4. Your employer must count as a public service organization.

This is the big one, and the most complicated step of the process for some borrowers to figure out. While the Education Department does address types of employers that fit under the PSLF program, there are some gray areas. Broadly, the types of employers that qualify include governmental groups, not-for-profit tax-exempt organizations known as 501(c)(3)s, and private not-for-profits. That last category includes military; public safety, health, education, and library services; and more.

Pro tip: Certify that your employer is included in the program every year.

Each year and whenever you change employers, you should fill out and send an Employment Certification form to FedLoan Servicing. The form isn’t required to be submitted on an annual basis, but it’s highly recommended to fill it out annually so there are no unhappy surprises down the road. It also helps you keep track of progress toward your 120 payments and gives you a chance to find out whether there is any change to your eligibility status.

What if you fear your job’s eligibility is unclear?

The validity of that FedLoan Servicing certification form is at the center of the lawsuit against the Department of Education. Although it’s important to have your employer’s eligibility certified by the department, the Education Department has said the form isn’t necessarily binding and the eligibility of employers can possibly change. As The New York Times put it, the department’s position implies “that borrowers could not rely on the program’s administrator to say accurately whether they qualify for debt forgiveness. The thousands of approval letters that have been sent … are not binding and can be rescinded at any time, the [DOE] said.”

That puts existing borrowers in a tough spot, says Joseph Orsolini, CFP and president of College Aid Planners: “[PSLF] is sort of an all-or-nothing in that you can’t apply for the forgiveness until you’ve already done your 120 payments. So to have someone choose this career path and work for years only to be told, ‘never mind, you no longer qualify even though we said you did,’ it would be hard for them not to see that as reneging on a deal.”

That possibility is “terrifying” for Frances Harrell, 35, a preservation specialist who works for a nonprofit that supports small and medium-size libraries in caring for their collections. She completed a library graduate school program in 2013 and emerged with a total of about $125,000 in debt, including her undergraduate loans.

“Everyone I know is in public service, and we all saw the Times article [about the PSLF lawsuit] and flipped out,” says Harrell, who currently lives in Gainesville, Fla. “I felt like I had been dropped in a bucket of ice. We’re making life decisions based on this understanding, and it feels so precarious not to have any true confirmation that we’ll get the forgiveness in the end.”

Christopher Razo, 22, who this month will begin classes at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School, plans to take advantage of PSLF while working toward his dream of becoming a state attorney. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Razo)

Harrell has also dealt with confusion from loan servicers and other experts — and based on incorrect advice, she nearly consolidated her loans in a way that would have reset the clock on her years of payments.

Christopher Razo, 22, who this month will begin classes at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School, is relieved that he is enrolling before the 2018 uncertainty begins. Razo is one of Orsolini’s clients, and he plans to take advantage of PSLF while working toward his dream of becoming a state attorney.

“[PSLF] is complex as it is, so my initial thought was, ‘Wow, great timing for me that I’m starting in 2017,’” Razo says. “But I understand the program affects way more than just me. [PSLF] gives you comfort to pursue public-service goals without having to make your employment about the money. I’m optimistic that [lawmakers] will see the good in the program so it can continue.”

When in doubt: Follow the ‘3 phone call rule’

While borrowers may think their loan servicer has all of the answers, Harrell’s situation isn’t uncommon, says Orsolini. He recommends “the three phone call rule”: Call three times and ask the same question, documenting whom you spoke to and when.

“These programs are complicated — which is one of the issues that critics [of PSLF] bring up — and you don’t always get the right information,” Orsolini says. “Before you plan your whole life around the [first] answer you get, you have to double- and triple-check that it’s right.”

If you’re taking out your first qualifying loan on or after July 1, 2018, Orsolini says “there’s not much to do besides hurry up and wait” to see what happens with the White House budget as it relates to PSLF.

“The important thing to remember is that a proposal is just a proposal, and these don’t always see the light of day,” Orsolini adds. “It doesn’t do any good to be overly worried, but you’ll want to keep a close eye on the news.”

Other types of loan forgiveness, cancellation, or discharge:

PSLF isn’t the only option. But not all types of federal student loans offer the same forgiveness, cancellation, or discharge options. See the chart below and check out StudentEd.gov pages here and here for more details.

Still, borrowers should know Trump’s desire to streamline federal programs into a single option means some of these loan types and forgiveness plans could be changed or canceled as well.

Julianne Pepitone
Julianne Pepitone |

Julianne Pepitone is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Julianne here

TAGS: , ,

Advertiser Disclosure

College Students and Recent Grads, Featured, News

How to Master the College Enrollment Process and Beat ‘Summer Melt’

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

As many as 40 percent of college-bound students never make to campus their freshman year thanks to a phenomenon called “Summer Melt.” The term was coined by researcher Karen Arnold in 2009 to describe what happens when high school seniors get accepted into postsecondary institutions but still fail to enroll.

Students susceptible to summer melt, many of whom are often low-income and first generation college students, may get stuck on one or more of the steps required to complete enrollment. These steps can be as simple as filling out housing applications, taking placement tests and attending summer orientation — but the most common culprit behind summer melt is the financial aid process.

“A lot of the reason why students struggle over the summer is wrapped up in the process of accessing financial aid and following through with the financial aid that they are offered,” says researcher Lindsay Page , who co-authored the book, “Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students Through the Transition to College”.

Making a mistake on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, or missing important financial aid deadlines could mean little or no scholarship or grant money for at-risk low-income students, who may not be able to attend attend school without the aid.

Here are a few steps students and their families can take to make sure they don’t fall prey to summer melt.

Reach out to school counselors and nonprofits for help

Dejah Morales, 19, could easily have fallen into the summer melt trap. As a first generation college student, the East Boston, Mass. teen told MagnifyMoney she wasn’t sure how to navigate the college matriculation process. But rather than giving up, she sought help from nonprofit organizations with experts on hand to guide her.

“I wanted to go find help because I knew all of the paperwork that is filled out needs to be done correctly because it affects how much [money] you get for financial aid and anything that has to do with you living on campus,” Morales said.

She started by contacting her high school college admissions counselor, who turned her on to a program offered by Bottom Line, a Boston, Mass.-based nonprofit that helps low-income and first-generation students get through the college application process and provides additional support when students are in school. Bottom Line made sure she correctly completed the application process in order to become a student. The nonprofit also has offices in Chicago, New York City, and Worcester, Mass.

For first generation college students like Dejah Morales, 19, (pictured above) getting accepted to college is only half the battle. Completing the enrollment process is the next hurdle. Photo courtesy of Dejah Morales.

When it came to sorting outout the nitty-gritty details of securing financial aid, Dejah turned again to her high school’s resources. All Boston-area high schools are staffed with a counselor from uAspire, a nonprofit that helps college-bound students get the information and resources they need to complete the college admissions and financial aid process.

“Submitting your actual [income verification] paperwork to the school was the hard part. And then having to get my parents tax information was always a struggle especially my dad since he wasn’t living with me,” says Morales. The uAspire counselor assisted her through the entire process.

Even if your school doesn’t have dedicated college counselors on staff, there are many free programs dedicated to helping students navigate the college financial aid process. Check out national non-profits like the College Goal Sunday Program hosted by the National College Action Network, or Reach4Succes. Also, students and families can contact their school counselor’s office for access to local resources.

Know your national AND state FAFSA deadlines — and submit your forms early

In order to get access to financial aid — that includes federal grants like the Pell grant and federal student loans — students and families absolutely MUST fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

That’s why it is so crucial to stay on top of deadlines to submit your FAFSA. If you miss the deadline, your options for financing school become incredibly limited.

Check out our guide on how to get through the FAFSA smoothly >

What’s more, federal grants and scholarships — ‘free’ money for school that you don’t have to pay back — are typically doled out on a first come, first serve basis. That means the later you wait to submit the FAFSA application, the less likely those funds will be available to you — even if you qualify for the aid.

There are two deadlines to keep in mind: the national FAFSA deadline and your state FAFSA deadlines.

State FAFSA Deadlines:

Your state may have set a different FAFSA submission deadline to qualify for state-specific aid. Check here to find your state’s deadline.

Get your parents on board early

Joe Orsolini, CFP and founder of College Aid Planners, says the majority of financial aid issues he sees occur just weeks before the fall semester begins are a result of parents not getting involved early on. Even small mistakes, like entering an incorrect social security number or miscalculating a parent’s income, could mean delays in receiving aid.

“The parents never really sat down with the kid and asked, ‘Hey. where is the rest of this money coming from?’” says Orsolini.

You’ll need to have important documents like your parent’s taxes and income from the past two years and your social security number on hand to complete the FAFSA form. Those can be difficult to get hold of when you don’t live with one or both your parents or if your parents don’t fully understand what they are being asked to provide.

Easy mistakes that can throw off your FAFSA submission

Incomplete e-signature. The FAFSA can also trip you up on seemingly-easy steps, like providing an e-signature. If you don’t provide the e-signature correctly, or think you hit ‘submit’ but didn’t, you may waste valuable time waiting for an email that won’t come until you sign the form properly.

Missing mistakes on your Student Aid Report. About two weeks after you submit the form, you should receive a Student Aid Report which gives you basic information about your eligibility for federal student aid along with your Expected Family Contribution – what your family is expected to pay. The SAR also includes a four-digit Data Release Number (DRN), which you’ll need to allow your school to change certain information on your FAFSA.The SAR also lists your responses to the questions on your FAFSA, so be sure to review it and correct any mistakes.

Income verification notifications. After you receive your SAR, check to see if you’ve been flagged for ‘income verification’ as about 1/3 of students are required to verify their parent’s income with additional proof to complete the FAFSA process. The government usually follows up on students who are more likely to qualify for the federal Pell grant or other grant-based aid, Page says. If flagged for income verification, you’ll have to submit verification to each school you apply to, and the schools may have different paperwork and processes.

Missing deadlines in e-mail. When you create and submit the FAFSA, you give the Education Department your email address. The Education Department will email you, so you need to check the inbox of the email address you provided for correspondence. Create your FAFSA account using an email account you check regularly. Turn on your email notifications on your devices so you won’t miss any emails reminding you to submit your FAFSA form or letting you know if something went wrong somewhere in the process.

Formally accept your financial aid awards

After submitting your FAFSA, you will receive a student aid award letter from your college. But your work isn’t done there. You’ll have to sign online to officially accept the aid (student loans, grants, work-study programs, etc). Typically, that will be facilitated through your college’s website.

If you applied for federal work-study, this is when you’ll decide if accepting it is best for your circumstances. Work with a financial aid counselor at the college if you need help weighing the pros and cons of accepting or denying any aid you’ve been offered.

Don’t forget to sign your Master Promissory Note. In order to receive federal student loans, you must sign a Master Promissory Note. The MPN is a legal document you must sign saying you promise to repay your loan(s) and any accrued interest and fees to the U.S. Department of Education. If you miss this final step, you won’t actually get any of the federal loans you’ve been assigned.

Log into your school’s student portal ASAP

Income freshman likely have access to a student portal provided by their college or university. There, you’ll likely find a checklist of important steps to complete before you can officially enroll.

The list may include important financial aid actions like accepting grants and scholarships or signing your Master Promissory Note.

Contact your school’s financial aid counselors early

If you’re not sure what your next steps should be in the financial aid process, you should reach out to the school you’re planning to attend. Call or send an email to the financial aid or admissions offices at your school if you are concerned about receiving the aid you need or get stuck completing all of the steps in the process.

In the future, your college may be the one reaching out to you first, as Georgia State University did with it’s Fall 2016 freshman class. The school experimented using a “chatbot” to send a control group of incoming freshmen alerts about the enrollment process.

The chatbot ‘nudged’ students to remind them of things they needed to do, like signing their MPN, or accepting scholarships, but it could also respond to students’ questions or help them get in contact with a human if asked or if it couldn’t answer the question.

“We saw our melt rate drop from 18% to 14%,” says Scott Burke, the school’s’ Associate Vice President and Director of Undergraduate Admissions. “That was 300 more students in our freshman class in fall 2016 than in fall 2015.”

Don’t forget your high school resources

Like Morales, high school seniors can still ask their high school counselors for help after they’ve graduated. Don’t hesitate to reach out with questions you may have about your transcripts or other parts of the financial aid process.

High school counselors, like Morales’ uAspire counselor, are usually equipped to answer many of the questions you may have about the financial aid process or with the FAFSA, but they may not be able to answer more college-specific questions. For example, your high school counselor could help you navigate your way through Loan Entrance Counseling, but may not be able to explain the process you need to go through to accept any awarded scholarships or grants from the university.

If a high school counselor can’t answer your questions, they generally direct you to the proper entity or person who can.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

TAGS:

Advertiser Disclosure

Featured, News, Pay Down My Debt, Retirement

Seniors Are Getting Crushed by Debt, New MagnifyMoney Analysis Shows

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

More American seniors are shouldering debt as they enter their retirement years, according to a new MagnifyMoney analysis of data from the latest University of Michigan Retirement Research Center Health and Retirement Study release. MagnifyMoney analyzed survey data to see whether debt causes financial frailty during retirement. We also spoke with financial experts who explained how seniors can rescue their retirements.

1 in 3 Americans 50 and older carry non-mortgage debt

The Health and Retirement Study from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center surveys more than 20,000 participants age 50+ who answer questions about well-being. The survey covers financial topics including debt, income, and assets. Since 1990, the center has conducted the survey every other year. They released the 2014 panel of data in November 2016. MagnifyMoney analyzed the most recent release of the data to learn more about financial fitness among older Americans.

In an ideal retirement, retirees would have the financial resources necessary to maintain the lifestyle they enjoyed during their working years. Debt acts as an anchor on retiree balance sheets. Since interest rates on debts tend to rise faster than earnings from assets, debt has the power to destroy the balance sheets of seniors living on fixed incomes.

We found that nearly one-third (32%) of all Americans over age 50 carry non-mortgage debt from month to month. On average, those with debt carry $4,786 in credit card debt and $12,490 in total non-mortgage debt.

High-interest consumer debt erodes seniors’ ability to live a quality lifestyle, says John Ross, a Texarkana, Texas-based attorney specializing in elder law.

“From an elder law attorney perspective, we see a direct correlation between debt and institutional care,” Ross says. “Essentially, the more debt load, the less likely the person will have sufficient cash assets to cover medical care that is not provided by Medicare.”

Even worse, debt leads some retirees to skip paying for necessary expenses like quality food and medical care.

“The social aspect of being a responsible bill payer often leads the older debtor to forgo needed expenses to pay debts they cannot afford instead of considering viable options like bankruptcy,” says Devin Carroll, a Texarkana, Texas-based financial adviser specializing in Social Security and retirement.

Some older Americans may even be carrying debt that they don’t have the capacity to pay.

According to our analysis, 40% of all older Americans have credit card debt in excess of $5,000. More than one in five (22%) Americans age 50+ have more than $10,000 in credit card debt. On average, those with more than $10,000 in credit card debt couldn’t pay off their debt even by emptying their checking accounts.

Over a third of American seniors don’t have $1,000 in cash

It’s not just credit card debtors who struggle with financial frailty approaching retirement. Many older Americans have very little spending power. More than one-third (37%) of all Americans over age 50 have a checking account balance less than $1,000.

Low cash reserves don’t just mean limited spending power. They indicate that American seniors don’t have the liquidity to deal with financial hardships as they approach retirement. This is especially concerning because seniors are more likely than average to face high medical expenses. Over one in three (36%) Americans who experienced financial hardship classified it as an unexpected health expense, according to the Federal Reserve Board report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015. The median out-of-pocket health-related expense was $1,200.

Debt pushes seniors further from retirement goals

Seniors carrying credit card debt exhibit other signs of financial frailty. For example, seniors without credit card debt have an average net worth of $120,000. Those with credit card debt have a net worth of just $68,000, 43% less than those without credit card debt.

The concern isn’t just small portfolio values. For retirees with debt, credit card interest rates outpace expected performance on investment portfolios. Today the average credit card interest rate is 14%. That means American seniors who carry credit card debt (on average, $4,786) pay an average of $670 per year in interest charges. Meanwhile, the average investment portfolio earns no more than 8% per year. This means that older debtors will earn just $4,508 from their entire portfolio. Credit card interest eats up more than 15% of the nest egg income.

For some older Americans the problem runs even deeper. One in 10 American seniors has a checking account balance with less than $1,000 and carries credit card debt. This precarious position could leave some seniors unable to recover from larger financial setbacks.

Increased debt loads over time

High levels of consumer debt among older Americans are part of a sobering trend. According to research from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center, in 1998, 36.94% of Americans age 56-61 carried debt. The mean value of their debt (in 2012 dollars) was $3,634.

Over time debt loads among pre-retiree age Americans are becoming even more unsustainable. Today 42% of Americans age 50-59 have debt, and their average debt burden is $17,623.

Credit card debt carries the most onerous interest rates, but it’s not the only type of debt people carry into retirement. According to research from the Urban Institute, in 2014, 32.2% of adults aged 68-72 carried debt in addition to a mortgage or a credit card, and 18% of Americans age 73-77 still have an auto loan.

Even student loan debt, a debt typically associated with millennials, is causing angst among seniors. According to the debt styles study from the Urban Institute, as of 2014, 2%-4% of adults aged 58 and older carried student loan debt. It’s a small proportion overall, but the burden is growing over time.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in 2004, 600,000 seniors over age 60 carried student loan debt. Today that number is 2.8 million. Back in 2004 Americans over age 60 had $6 billion in outstanding student loan debts. Today they owe $66.7 billion in student loans, more than 10 times what they owed in 2004. Not all that student debt came from seniors dragging their repayments out for 30-40 years. Almost three in four (73%) older student loan debtors carry some debt that benefits a child or grandchild.

Even co-signing student loans puts a retirement at risk. If the borrower cannot repay the loan on their own, then a retiree is on the hook for repayment. A co-signer’s assets that aren’t protected by federal law can be seized to repay a student loan in default. Because of that, Ross says, “We never advise a person to co-sign on a student loan. Never!”

How older Americans can manage debt

High debt loads and an impending retirement can make a reasonable retirement seem like a fairy tale. However, an effective debt strategy and some extra work make it possible to age on your own terms.

Focus on debt first.

Carroll suggests older workers should prioritize eliminating debt before saving for retirement. “Several studies have shown a direct correlation between debt and risk of institutionalization,” he says. Debt inhibits retirees from remodeling or paying for in-home care that could allow them to age in place.

Downsize your lifestyle

As a first step in eliminating debt, seniors should check all their expenses. Some may consider drastic measures like downsizing their home.

Cut off adult children

Even more important, seniors with debt may need to stop supporting adult children.

According to a 2015 Pew Center Research Poll, 61% of all American parents supported an adult child financially in the last 12 months. Nearly one in four (23%) helped their adult children with a recurring financial need.

Wanting to help children is natural, but it can leave seniors financially frail. It may even leave a parent unable to provide for themselves during retirement.

Work longer

Older workers can also eliminate debt by focusing on the income side of the equation. For many this will mean working a few years longer than average, but the extra work pays off twofold. First, eliminating debt reduces the need for cash during retirement. Second, working longer also allows seniors to delay taking Social Security benefits.

Working until age 67 compared to age 62 makes a meaningful difference in quality of life decades down the road. According to the Social Security Administration, workers who withdraw starting at age 62 received an average of $1,077 per month. Those who waited until age 67 received 27% more, $1,372 per month.

Retirees already receiving Social Security benefits have options, too. Able-bodied retirees can re-enter the workforce. Homeowners can consider renting out a room to a family member to increase income.

Consider every option

If earning more money isn’t realistic, a debt elimination strategy becomes even more important. Ross recommends that retirees should consider every option when facing debt, including bankruptcy. He explains, “A 65-year-old, healthy retiree would be well advised to pay down the high-interest debt now. Alternatively, an 85-year-old retiree facing significant health issues is better off filing bankruptcy or just defaulting on the debt. For the older person, their existing assets are a lifeline, and a good credit score is irrelevant.”

Don’t take on new debt

It’s also important to avoid taking on new debt during retirement. “The only exception,” Ross explains, “[is taking on] debt in the form of home equity for long-term medical care needs, but then only when all other reserves are depleted and the person has explored all forms of government assistance such as Medicaid and veterans benefits.”

Every senior’s financial situation differs, but if you’re facing financial stress before or during retirement, it pays to know your options. Conduct your research and consult with a financial adviser, an elder law attorney, or a credit counselor from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to choose what is right for your situation.

Hannah Rounds
Hannah Rounds |

Hannah Rounds is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Hannah at hannah@magnifymoney.com

TAGS:

Advertiser Disclosure

Featured

4 Lessons We Learned from Buying Our House at an Estate Sale

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Newlyweds Laura and Chris Mericas, pictured above, stumbled upon their dream home at an estate sale in Houston, Texas. “We were never wanting to buy a brand new house,” Laura told MagnifyMoney. “We knew that whatever house we got, we would want to do work.” Photo courtesy of Laura and Chris Mericas.

Around a year ago, newlyweds Laura and Chris Mericas were eager to purchase their first home in Houston, Texas. It didn’t take long before they realized homes in the neighborhoods they liked were out of their budget, so they put home buying on hold. Laura and Chris aren’t alone — like other millennials, they’re being priced out of markets across the country. Homeownership among millennials is lower than decades past: For those under 35, 39% owned homes in 1995, compared to 43% in 2005 and just 31% in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

On the off chance that he might come across a good deal, Chris, 26, continued to look at realtor websites. A year later, he happened upon a home in the Garden Oaks-Oak Forest neighborhood in Northwest Houston that piqued his interest. The property — a three-bedroom, one-bathroom fixer-upper — was listed as part of an estate sale, and it was within their maximum budget of $350,000. They made their move.

“We found the house on a Monday and had an offer accepted by Friday,” Chris says.

But the journey was far from smooth. Here’s what they learned along the way.

You can’t judge a house by its cover photo

Browsing through realtor photos of the house online, Laura wasn’t exactly impressed. Driven by the price point, however, they decided to give it a shot.

They were pleasantly surprised.

“Because it was an estate sale and because the people selling it weren’t super motivated [to stage the home for photos],” says Laura, 25. “For whatever reason, the pictures online were awful.”

The home had belonged to a man who was born in the house and purchased it after his parents died. He had rented the home out and planned on permanently moving into the house before he passed away. It was his children who decided to sell rather than continue renting it out.

Laura says she thinks because the home was a rental property, the children were even more eager to sell it. Brian Davis, a real estate investor, says family members eager to sell estate sale properties is common.

“The adult children typically want to sell the property as quickly as possible, since it will continue to accrue costs while it sits vacant,” he says. “Mortgage payments, taxes, insurance and maintenance all add up quickly. These adult children often don’t have as strong of an emotional attachment to the house as live-in owners do, and are less likely to be offended by low offers.”

Emotions will inevitably add complications

Despite the children not being attached to the home, Laura, a freelance journalist, and Chris, a mechanical engineer, still felt unsure how to act during negotiations.

“I think the fact that it was an estate sale made it different on our end,” Chris says. “In the negotiation phase, we were a little conflicted. We don’t want to belittle the fact that they just lost their father … but in addition to that, we wanted to play off the fact that they weren’t selling this house to buy another house. It was extra income that they weren’t expecting because their father died at a young age.”

There were other offers on the table, but most were from professional house flippers who were offering land value only, so theirs was accepted quickly.

A good home inspection is everything

Laura and Chris first found their new home in early March, and they closed on April 24. All in all, the whole process took around 50 days.

“It was a pretty stressful two weeks at the beginning, getting all of our paperwork and getting all of our employment records to get the loan,” Laura says. They both had strong credit scores and were already pre-approved for a mortgage because they had looked into buying a home a year earlier, which helped speed up the process.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“We had to scramble to get the inspection done,” Laura says. The couple initially asked for 10 days to get the appraisal done, but then asked for a two-day extension because a lot of inspection companies were closed for spring break.

After their initial offer was accepted, inspectors came to look at the home and found it was rife with problems: outdated and dangerous electrical wiring, plumbing troubles, and holes in the sewer line. The inspectors said it would cost around $20,000 for these repairs, so Laura and Chris sent a second offer that took these costs into consideration.

Their offer was accepted immediately.

Fixer-uppers require a lot of imagination — and cash

In most home sales, the property is tidy and beautifully staged. Laura and Chris discovered this wasn’t the case in their estate sale. “I feel like when people are trying to sell their house, they might try to spruce it up a bit in the months leading up to it,” Laura says. “There was definitely none of that. It was dirty. There was dog hair.”

So they used their imagination. Laura and Chris always envisioned purchasing a home in need of renovation and a little TLC, so the problems with the house didn’t faze them. “We were never wanting to buy a brand new house,” Laura says. “We knew that whatever house we got, we would want to do work.”

After completing around $20,000 in necessary home renovations after closing, Laura and Chris moved in early June. Although it’s been a whirlwind few months, the couple feels lucky to have swooped in on the estate sale at the perfect moment. They say every other comparable home they saw in the same neighborhood about $75,000 more than what they paid.

“We saw an opportunity to get into the neighborhood with a steal,” Laura says. “Down the street, there are people building enormous houses. We would never be able to get into this neighborhood at that price ever again.”

Tips for purchasing a home from an estate sale

Kevin Godfrey, an agent with Douglas Elliman and the owner of Henry Laurent Estate Sales, shares his advice for purchasing a home through an estate sale.

  1. Use the estate sale as the open house. Go into the rooms, check the water pressure, inspect the foundation, and discreetly take measurements. Take your time and make sure it’s what you are looking for. A standard open house lasts for two hours, while an estate sale lasts for two days — eight hours each.
  1. If you get in early enough, the owner won’t have an agent yet. Dealing directly with them and only using real estate attorneys to finalize the transaction can save the owner the typical 4% to 6% agent fee.
  1. As with any purchase of a home, you’ll still want to do all of the necessary inspections and search the property records for liens or encumbrances.
Jamie Friedlander
Jamie Friedlander |

Jamie Friedlander is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Jamie here

TAGS: ,

Advertiser Disclosure

College Students and Recent Grads, Featured, News

How These Student Loan Borrowers Are Getting Their Debt Dismissed in Court

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

college students Teenagers Young Team Together Cheerful Concept

Student debt is only forgiven or discharged in special cases, but a new report by The New York Times might offer a glimmer of hope to some student loan borrowers struggling to manage their debt.

If a student loan lender or servicer can’t prove that they own the debt that they are attempting to collect from a consumer, it’s possible that the debt can be dismissed in court.  That’s what happened in a recent case profiled by New York Times reporters Stacy Cowley and Jessica Silver-Greenberg involving private student lender National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts, one of the nation’s largest owners of private loans.

National Collegiate sued dozens of former students who had defaulted on their private student loans. But in court National Collegiate failed to prove they owned the loans. This happens often when loans are sold to another lender, or otherwise handed to another account manager and paperwork gets lost. Ultimately, the courts dismissed the lawsuits, citing the fact that National Collegiate had no way of proving they owned the debts in the first place.

This isn’t always how the scales tip in cases against consumers for unpaid debts.

If consumer debts are left unpaid for an extended period of time, consumers can and often are taken to court by the companies they owe. Often, consumers don’t answer these lawsuits at all. And when lawsuits aren’t answered, judges usually rule in favor of the plaintiffs. With those judgments in place, companies can then push to have the consumers’ wages or federal benefits like Social Security garnished.

The outcomes in these National Collegiate lawsuits are proof of what can happen if consumers simply show up at court and try to fight back.

“Individuals trying to get rid of student loan debt should be proactive in demanding proof of ownership of the loan documents from the lender that is collecting or trying to enforce the [loan],” says Attorney Evelyn J. Pabon Figueroa, based in Orlando, Fla.

People who are going through the bankruptcy process and are attempting to have student loan debt discharged should also ask their lenders for proof that they own the debt, Figueroa says. If proof isn’t provided, they should dispute the debt.

Figueroa says in some cases borrowers should even stop making payments if they believe the lender doesn’t have the right documents to prove they own the loan. Instead, send the lender a debt verification letter, which asks lenders to provide proof that the debt belongs to a person. You can download a sample debt verification letter from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website.

The CFPB suggests asking these three questions in your letter:

  • Why a debt collector thinks you owe this debt.
  • The amount of the debt and how old it is.
  • Details about the debt collector’s authority to collect this money.

If the lender can’t provide proof, you should consider disputing the debt, either in court (if the lender has filed a lawsuit against you at that point) or through the three major credit bureaus (if the debts are appearing on your report and subsequently hurting your credit score).

How student lenders lose track of their debts

If the National Collegiate debacle sounds familiar, it should. It’s similar to the same issues mortgage lenders encountered during the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Lenders took borrowers to court to pursue unpaid mortgage debts, but when the lenders could not provide proof that the borrowers owed the debt, courts often ruled that the loans were not collectible. The lack of documentation was so pervasive that many borrowers intentionally defaulted on their mortgage loans on the off chance a lender could not prove they owned the debt.

National Collegiate is already anticipating that it will face the same problem — that borrowers will simply stop paying their debts — as word spreads of its inability to win lawsuits against borrowers. “[A]s news of the servicing issues and the Trusts’ inability to produce the documents needed to foreclose on loans spreads, the likelihood of more defaults rises,” the company said in a recent legal filing.

What to do if you’re sued by a student lender or debt collector

First, don’t panic. The last thing you want to do if you’re ever sued is admit in writing or verbally that you owe the debt. In the event the lender can’t prove they own the debt, this may come back to haunt you. By taking these few key steps, you can protect yourself both legally and financially in the event you’re served with a lawsuit from a lender:

  1. Ask them to verify the debt. If you’re already suspicious your loan lender may have lost your paperwork and can’t prove the debt, start by sending out a debt verification letter. If the lender doesn’t respond (give them 30-60 days), they must cease attempting to collect the debt. If they don’t stop, you’ll likely need to contact a lawyer. You may not need to hire one, but a quick consultation for legal advice for your best course of action will be well worth it.
  1. Never discuss the debt over the phone. If a lender or collection agency contacts you via phone before you are served a lawsuit or receive anything in the mail, be sure to get the the caller’s name, company, and license number. Once you have this information, it’s best to communicate via certified USPS mail to track and document that every correspondence has been received by the legitimate collections company and lender. If you end up in court, this is important, as it establishes a paper trail for your communications. (Email and electronic timestamps can easily be forged.) Keep in mind you don’t ever have to answer the phone if you don’t recognize the number, and you have a legal right to tell debt collectors to stop contacting you entirely.
  1. Contact a lawyer. Lawsuits involving large sums of money are no small game to play in a courtroom. Most consumers don’t know the intricacies of the laws that actually protect them (and sometimes may not know how to read the contracts they signed), but a lawyer versed in contract law or one who specializes in bankruptcy can easily help dispute the debt and, if it’s valid, negotiate a settlement without ever stepping into a courtroom. The CFPB keeps a handy list of legal aid groups so you can find an affordable lawyer in your state.

 

Kelly Clay
Kelly Clay |

Kelly Clay is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Kelly here

TAGS: ,

Advertiser Disclosure

Featured, News, Strategies to Save, Tax

16 States Offering Sales Tax Holidays in 2017

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

The back-to-school season can be an exciting but expensive time.

Buying school supplies adds up, even before new clothes, backpacks, and shoes join the list. Needs such as a new laptop, textbooks, or graphing calculator can cause costs to escalate.

The good news is that for the last 20 years, some states have offered holidays on which they don’t collect state sales taxes on many items on your back-to-school shopping list.

Craig Shearman, vice president for government affairs public relations for the National Retail Federation, a retail trade federation, says consumers can save about 5% to 10% during sales-tax holidays. Actual savings for consumers depend on the state sales tax rate in their state.

Sales Tax Holidays 2017

This year, 16 of the 45 states that collect sales taxes are offering tax holidays, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators, an organization that provides research, training, and other resources to state-tax administrators. Most of these holidays revolve around school-related purchases, though some states also have other tax holidays throughout the year for things like disaster preparedness items, firearms, hunting supplies, or energy- and water-saving appliances.

Here’s a schedule of upcoming tax holidays by state:

How does a tax holiday work?

Sales-tax weekends are a set period of time in which the state doesn’t collect typical sales tax on certain items up to a certain dollar amount. Each state defines what will be exempt during the holiday, but common items for July and August holidays include clothing, shoes, school supplies, and personal computers.

Eight states holding tax holidays this year are doing so during the first weekend of August to help families buy back-to-school items. For example, Florida isn’t collecting sales tax on school supplies that are less than $15, clothing, footwear, and certain accessories that are less than $60, and personal computers and computer-related accessories less than $750.

Things to watch out for: Timing and spending caps

Just because a state offered a tax holiday in the past doesn’t mean its residents can expect to get one in the future. Georgia is not having tax holidays this year, after having two in 2016 that covered back-to-school supplies and Energy Star and WaterSense appliances. It’s the first time since 2012 Georgia will not have a tax holiday.

Previous sales-tax holidays in Georgia have helped mom Cheri Melone, 45, save on school supplies, lunchboxes, and backpacks for her sons, ages 11 and 3. Melone, who lives in Watkinsville, Ga., estimates she saved about $10 to $20 per child each year.

“It’s disappointing,” Melone says. “I know a lot of my friends that have big families, they wait for that weekend to go shopping.”

Massachusetts lawmakers are still determining whether the state will have a tax holiday this year. The state canceled its 2016 holiday after a Department of Revenue report found that the 2015 holiday caused it to miss out on $25.51 million in revenue.

In addition to double-checking if and when a state’s holiday is happening, shoppers will want to familiarize themselves with the holiday’s limits: The holidays only apply to certain items and often impose tax-free spending limits. And even though a state isn’t collecting sales tax during this period doesn’t mean that shoppers won’t see taxes added to their bill at checkout. Some states allow counties, cities, and districts to choose if they want to stop collecting their specific sales taxes during the holiday. In 2017, 49 of Missouri’s 114 counties will collect county sales taxes during the state’s back-to-school sales-tax holiday.

Beyond that, not all retailers may participate. Retailers in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia are required to participate in the tax holidays. New Mexico does not require retailers to participate. Missouri lets retailers opt out if less than 2% of their merchandise would qualify for the tax exemption. Florida lets retailers opt out if less than 5% of their 2016 sales were from items that would be exempt during the 2017 back-to-school tax holiday.

Guides to the sales tax holiday in Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, and Mississippi don’t specify if retailers are required to participate.

What are the pros and cons of tax holidays?

Shearman says the events benefit retailers by bringing customers into the store and help consumers by saving them money.

“Because [consumers are] excited about the prospect of what amounts to a sale going on, they’ll be in that frame of mind, and they will buy other things that are there that are not tax exempt,” Sherman says. “So the boost in sales per items that are still being taxed very often offsets the tax revenue lost from the tax-free items.”

However, economists like Ron Alt from the Federation of Tax Administrators says he thinks it is a bad tax policy because states lose the revenue. Also, retailers may mark up prices for the holiday to make money off the hype of a tax-free weekend, says Alt, senior manager of economic and tax research.

A March 2017 study from economists at the Board of Governors at the Federal Reserve System found that tax holidays boosted retail sales throughout the whole month.

Shearman says that while 5% to 10% saved is “relatively small,” it can help families that are financially stretched.

Georgeanne Gonzalez, 32, an Athens, Ga., mom who buys school supplies for her two children and her niece, says the state’s tax-free weekends helped her out a lot in the past as the school supply lists grew.

“It made it a lot easier when having three children to buy school supplies for,” she says.

Jana Lynn French
Jana Lynn French |

Jana Lynn French is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Jana Lynn here

TAGS: , ,

Advertiser Disclosure

Consumer Watchdog, Featured, News

GOP Moves to Block Rule That Allows Consumers to Join Class Action Lawsuits

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

A rule that would make it easier for consumers to join together and sue their banks might be shelved by congressional Republicans or other banking regulators before it takes effect.

Members of the Senate Banking Committee announced Thursday that they will take the unusual step of filing a Congressional Review Act Joint Resolution of Disapproval to stop a new rule announced earlier this month by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (D-Texas) introduced a companion measure in the House of Representatives.

The CFPB rule, which was published in the Federal Register this week and would take effect in 60 days, bans financial firms from including language in standard form contracts that force consumers to waive their rights to join class action lawsuits.

The congressional challenge is one of three potential roadblocks opponents might throw up to overturn or stall the rule before it takes effect in two months.

So-called mandatory arbitration clauses have long been criticized by consumer groups, who say they make it easier for companies to mistreat consumers. But Senate Republicans, led by banking committee chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), say the rule is “anti-business” and would lead to a flood of class action lawsuits that would harm the economy. They also say the CFPB overstepped its bounds in writing the rule.

“Congress, not King Richard Cordray, writes the laws,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), referring to the CFPB director. “This resolution is a good place for Congress to start reining in one of Washington’s most powerful bureaucracies.”

Congress’s financial reform bill of 2010, known as Dodd-Frank, directed the CFPB to study arbitration clauses and write a rule about them. The rule permits arbitration clauses for individual disputes, but prevents firms from requiring arbitration when consumers wish to band together in class action cases.

Consumer groups were quick to criticize congressional Republicans.

“Senator Crapo is doing the bidding of Wall Street by jumping to take away our day in court and repeal a common-sense rule years in the making,” said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center. “None of these senators would want to look a Wells Fargo fraud victim in the eye and say, ‘you can’t have your day in court,’ yet they are helping Wells Fargo do just that.”

Meanwhile, the new rule also faces a challenge from the Financial Stability Oversight Council, made up of 10 banking regulators. The council can overturn a CFPB rule with a two-thirds vote if members believe it threatens the safety and soundness of the banking system. A letter from Acting Comptroller of the Currency Keith Noreika, a council member, to the CFPB on Monday asked the bureau for more data on the rule, and raised possible safety and soundness issues. Any council member can ask the Treasury secretary to stay a new rule within 10 days of publication. The council would then have 90 days to veto the rule via a vote. It would be the first such veto.

The CFPB rule also faces potential lawsuits from private parties.

How to be sure you’re protected by the new rule

Barring action by Congress, the CFPB rule is slated to take effect in late September 2017, with covered firms having an additional 6 months to comply, meaning most new contracts signed after that date can’t contain the class-action waiver. Prohibitions in current contracts will remain in effect.

Consumers who want to ensure they enjoy their new rights will have to close current accounts and open new ones after the effective date, the CFPB said.

Bob Sullivan
Bob Sullivan |

Bob Sullivan is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Bob here

TAGS: , , ,

Advertiser Disclosure

Featured, Investing, Retirement, Strategies to Save

Ultimate Guide to Maximizing Your 401(k)

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

You’re probably familiar with the basics of a 401(k).

You know that it’s a retirement account and that it’s offered by your employer. You know that you can contribute a percentage of your salary and that you get tax breaks on those contributions. And you know that your employer may offer some type of matching contribution.

But beyond the basics, you may have some confusion about exactly how your 401(k) works and what you should be doing to maximize its benefits.

That’s what this guide is going to show you. We’ll tell you everything you need to know in order to maximize your 401(k) contributions.

The 4 Types of 401(k) Contributions You Need to Understand

When it comes to maximizing your 401(k), nothing you do will be more important than maximizing your contributions.

Because while most investment advice focuses on how to build the perfect portfolio, the truth is that your savings rate is much more important than the investments you choose. Especially when you’re just starting out, the simple act of saving more money is far and away the most effective way to accelerate your path toward financial independence.

There are four different ways to contribute to your 401(k), and understanding how each one works will allow you to combine them in the most efficient way possible, adding more money to your 401(k) and getting you that much closer to retirement.

1. Employee Contributions

Employee contributions are the only type of 401(k) contribution that you have full control over and are likely to be the biggest source of your 401(k) funds.

Employee contributions are the contributions that you personally make to your 401(k). They’re typically set up as a percentage of your salary and are deducted directly from your paycheck.

For example, let’s say that you are paid $3,000 every two weeks. If you decide to contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k), then $150 will be taken out of each paycheck and deposited directly into your 401(k).

There are two different types of employee contributions you can make to your 401(k), each with a different set of tax benefits:

  1. Traditional contributions – Traditional contributions are tax-deductible in the year you make the contribution, grow tax-free while inside the 401(k), and are taxed as ordinary income when you withdraw the money in retirement. This is just like a traditional IRA. All 401(k)s allow you to make traditional contributions, and in most cases your contributions will default to traditional unless you choose otherwise.
  2. Roth contributions – Roth contributions are NOT tax-deductible in the year you make the contribution, but they grow tax-free while inside the 401(k) and the money is tax-free when you withdraw it in retirement. This is just like a Roth IRA. Not all 401(k)s allow you to make Roth contributions.

For more on whether you should make traditional or Roth contributions, you can refer to the following guide that’s specific to IRAs but largely applies to 401(k)s as well: Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

Maximum personal contributions

The IRS sets limits on how much money you can personally contribute to your 401(k) in a given year. For 2017, employee contributions are capped at $18,000, or $24,000 if you’re age 50 or older. In subsequent sections we’ll talk about how much you should be contributing in order to maximize these contributions.

2. Employer Matching Contributions

Many employers match your contributions up to a certain point, meaning that they contribute additional money to your 401(k) each time you make a contribution.

Employer matching contributions are only somewhat in your control. You can’t control whether your employer offers a match or the type of match they offer, but you can control how effectively you take advantage of the match they do offer.

Taking full advantage of your employer match is one of the most important parts of maximizing your 401(k). Skip ahead to this section to learn more on how to maximize your employer match.

3. Employer Non-Matching Contributions

Non-matching 401(k) contributions are contributions your employer makes to your 401(k) regardless of how much you contribute. Some companies offer this type of contribution in addition to, or in lieu of, regular matching contributions.

For example, your employer might contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k) no matter what. Or they might make a variable contribution based on the company’s annual profits.

It’s important to note that these contributions are not within your control. Your employer either makes them or not, no matter what you do.

However, they can certainly affect how much you need to save for retirement, since more money from your employer may mean that you don’t personally have to save as much. Or they could be viewed as additional free savings that help you reach financial independence even sooner.

4. Non-Roth After-Tax Contributions

This last type of 401(k) contribution is rare. Many 401(k) plans don’t even allow this type of contribution, and even when they do, these contributions are rarely utilized.

The big catch is again that most 401(k) plans don’t allow these contributions. You can refer to your 401(k)’s summary plan description to see if it does.

And even if they are allowed, it typically only makes sense to take advantage of them if you’re already maxing out all of the other retirement accounts available to you.

But if you are maxing out those other accounts, you want to save more, and your 401(k) allows these contributions, they can be a powerful way to get even more out of your 401(k).

Here’s how they work:

Non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions are sort of a hybrid between Roth and traditional contributions. They are not tax-deductible, like Roth contributions, which means they are taxed first and then the remaining money is what is contributed to your account. The money grows tax-free while inside the 401(k), but the earnings are taxed as ordinary income when they are withdrawn. The contributions themselves are not taxed again.

A quick example to illustrate how the taxation works:

  • You make $10,000 of non-Roth after-tax contributions to your 401(k). You are not allowed to deduct these contributions for tax purposes.
  • Over the years, that $10,000 grows to $15,000 due to investment performance.
  • When you withdraw this money, the $10,000 that is due to contributions is not taxed. But the $5,000 that is due to investment returns — your earnings — is taxed as ordinary income.

This hybrid taxation means that on their own non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions are typically not as effective as either pure traditional or Roth contributions.

But they can be uniquely valuable in two big ways:

  1. You can make non-Roth after-tax contributions IN ADDITION to the $18,000 annual limit on regular employee contributions, giving you the opportunity to save even more money. They are only subject to the $54,000 annual limit that combines all employee and employer contributions made to a 401(k)..
  2. These contributions can be rolled over into a Roth IRA, when you leave your company or even while you’re still working there. And once the money is in a Roth IRA, the entire balance, including the earnings, grows completely tax-free. This contribution rollover process has been coined the Mega Backdoor Roth IRA, and it can be an effective way for high-income earners to stash a significant amount of tax-free money for retirement.

How to Maximize Your 401(k) Employer Match

With an understanding of the types of 401(k) contributions available to you, it’s time to start maximizing them. And the very first step is making sure you’re taking full advantage of your employer match.

Simply put, your 401(k) employer match is almost always the best investment return available to you. Because with every dollar you contribute up to the full match, you typically get an immediate 25%-100% return.

You won’t find that kind of deal almost anywhere else.

Here’s everything you need to know about understanding how your employer match works and how to take full advantage of it.

How a 401(k) Employer Match Works

While every 401(k) matching program is different, and you’ll learn how to find the details of your program below, a fairly typical employer match looks like this:

  • Your employer matches 100% of your contribution up to 3% of your salary.
  • Your employer also matches 50% of your contribution above 3% of your salary, up to 5% of your salary.
  • Your employer does not match contributions above 5% of your salary.

To see how this works with real numbers, let’s say that you make $3,000 per paycheck and that you contribute 10% of your salary to your 401(k). That means that $300 of your own money is deposited into your 401(k) as an employee contribution every time you receive a paycheck, and your employer matching contribution breaks down like this:

  1. The first 3% of your contribution, or $90 per paycheck, is matched at 100%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $90 on top of your contribution.
  2. The next 2% of your contribution, or $60 per paycheck, is matched at 50%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $30 on top of your contribution.
  3. The next 5% of your contribution is not matched.

All told, in this example, your employer contributes an extra 4% of your salary to your 401(k) as long as you contribute at least 5% of your salary. That’s an immediate 80% return on investment.

That’s why it’s so important to take full advantage of your 401(k). There’s really no other investment that provides such an easy, immediate, and high return.

How to Find Your 401(k) Employer Matching Program

On a personal level, taking full advantage of your 401(k) employer match is simply a matter of contributing at least the maximum percent of salary that your employer is willing to match. In the example above that would be 5%, but the actual amount varies from plan to plan.

So your job is to find out exactly how your 401(k) employer matching program works, and the good news is that it shouldn’t be too hard.

There are two main pieces of information you’re looking for:

  1. The maximum contribution percentage your employer will match – This is the amount of money you’d need to contribute in order to get the full match. For example, your employer might match your contribution up to 5% of your salary as in the example above, or it could be 3%, 12%, or any other percentage. Whatever this maximum percentage is, you’ll want to do what you can to contribute at least that amount so that you get the full match.
  2. The matching percentage – Your employer might match 100% of your contribution, or they may only match 50%, or 25%, or some combination of all of the above, and this has a big effect on the amount of money you actually receive. For example, two companies might both match up to 5% of your salary, but one might match 100% of that contribution, and one might only match 25% of it. Both are good deals, but one is four times as valuable.

With those two pieces of information in hand, you’ll know how much you need to contribute in order to get the full match and how much extra money you’ll be getting each time you make that contribution.

As for where to find this information, the best and most definitive source is your 401(k)’s summary plan description, which is a long document that details all the ins and outs of your plan. This is a great resource for all sorts of information about your 401(k), but you can specifically look for the word “match” to find the details on your employer matching program.

And if you have any trouble either finding the information or understanding it, you can reach out to your human resources representative for help. You should be able to find their contact information in the summary plan description.

Two Big Pitfalls to Avoid When Maximizing Your 401(k) Employer Match

Your 401(k) employer match is almost always a good deal, but there are two pitfalls to watch out for: vesting and front-loading contributions. Both of these could either diminish the value of your employer match or cause you to miss out on getting the full match.

Pitfall #1: Vesting

Clock time deadline

Employer contributions to your 401(k) plan, including matching contributions, may be subject to something called a vesting schedule.

A vesting schedule means that those employer contributions are not 100% yours right away. Instead, they become yours over time as you accumulate years of service with the company. If you leave before your employer contributions are fully vested, you will only get to take some of that money with you.

For example, a common vesting schedule gives you an additional 20% ownership over your 401(k) employer contributions for each year you stay with the company. If you leave before one year, you will not get to keep any of those employer contributions. If you leave after one year, you will get to keep 20% of the employer contributions and the earnings they’ve accumulated. After two years it will be 40%, and so on until you’ve earned the right to keep 100% of that money after five years with the company.

Three things to know about vesting:

  1. Employee contributions are never subject to a vesting schedule. Every dollar you contribute and every dollar that money earns is always 100% yours, no matter how long you stay with your company. Only employer contributions are subject to vesting schedules.
  2. Not all companies have a vesting schedule. In some cases you might be immediately 100% vested in all employer contributions.
  3. There is a single vesting clock for all employer contributions. In the example above, all employer contributions will be 100% vested once you’ve been with the company for five years, even those that were made just weeks earlier. You are not subject to a new vesting period with each individual employer contribution.

A vesting schedule can decrease the value of your employer match. A 100% match is great, but a 100% match that takes five years to get the full benefit of is not quite as great.

Still, in most cases it makes sense to take full advantage of your employer match, even if it’s subject to a vesting schedule. And the reasoning is simply that the worst-case scenario is that you leave your job before any of those employer contributions vest, in which case your 401(k) would have acted just like any other retirement account available to you, none of which offer any opportunity to get a matching contribution.

However, there are situations in which a vesting schedule might make it better to prioritize other retirement accounts before your 401(k). In some cases, your 401(k) employer contributions might be 0% vested until you’ve been with the company for three years, at which point they will become 100% vested. If you anticipate leaving your current employer within the next couple of years, and if your 401(k) is burdened with high costs, you may be better off prioritizing an IRA or other retirement account first.

You may also want to consider your vesting schedule before quitting or changing jobs. It certainly shouldn’t be the primary factor you consider, but if you’re close to having a significant portion of your 401(k) vest, it may be worth waiting just a little bit longer to make your move.

You can find all the details on your 401(k) vesting schedule in your summary plan description. And again you can reach out to your human resources representative if you have any questions.

Pitfall #2: Front-Loading Contributions

In most cases, it makes sense to put as much money into your savings and investments as soon as possible. The sooner it’s contributed, the more time it has to compound its returns and earn you even more money.

But the rules are different if you’re trying to max out your 401(k) employer match.

The reason is that most employers apply their maximum match on a per-paycheck basis. That is, if your employer only matches up to 5% of your salary, what they’re really saying is that they will only match up to 5% of each paycheck.

For a simple example, let’s say that you’re paid $18,000 twice per month. So over the course of an entire year, you make $432,000.

In theory, you could max out your annual allowed 401(k) contribution with your very first paycheck of the year. Simply contribute 100% of your salary for that one paycheck, and you’re done.

The problem is that you would only get the match on that one single paycheck. If your employer matches up to 5% of your salary, then they would match 5% of that $18,000 paycheck, or $900. The next 23 paychecks of the year wouldn’t get any match because you weren’t contributing anything. And since you were eligible to get a 5%, $900 matching contribution with each paycheck, that means you’d be missing out on $20,700.

Now, most people aren’t earning $18,000 per paycheck, so the stakes aren’t quite that high. But the principle remains the same.

In order to get the full benefit of your employer match, you need to set up your 401(k) contributions so that you’re contributing at least the full matching percentage every single paycheck. You may be able to front-load your contributions to a certain extent, but you want to make sure that you stay far enough below the annual $18,000 limit to get the full match with every paycheck.

Now, some companies will actually make an extra contribution at the end of the year to make up the difference if you contributed enough to get the full match but accidentally missed out on a few paychecks. You can find out if your company offers that benefit in your 401(k)’s summary plan description.

But in most cases you’ll need to spread your contributions out over the entire year in order to get the full benefit of your employer match.

When to Contribute More Than Is Needed for Your Employer Match

Maxing out your 401(k) employer match is a great start, but there’s almost always room to contribute more.

Using the example from above, the person with the $3,000 per-paycheck salary would max out his or her employer match with a 5% contribution. That’s $150 per paycheck. Assuming 26 paychecks per year, that individual would personally contribute $3,900 to his or her 401(k) over the course of a year with that 5% contribution.

And given that the maximum annual contribution for 2017 is $18,000 ($24,000 if you’re 50+), he or she would still be eligible to contribute an additional $14,100 per year. In fact, this individual would have to set his or her 401(k) contribution to just over 23% in order to make that full $18,000 annual contribution.

3 big questions to answer:

  1. Do you need to contribute more in order to reach your personal goals?
  2. Can you afford to contribute more right now?
  3. If the answer is yes to both #1 and #2, should you be making additional contributions to your 401(k) beyond the employer match, or should you be prioritizing other retirement accounts?

Questions #1 and #2 are beyond the scope of this guide, but you can get a sense of your required retirement savings here and here.

Question #3 is what we’ll address here. If you’ve already maxed out your employer match and you want to save more money for retirement, should you prioritize your 401(k) or other retirement accounts?

Let’s dive in.

What Other Retirement Accounts Are Available to You?

Your 401(k) is almost never the only retirement account available to you. Here are the other major options you might have.

IRA

An IRA is a retirement account that you set up on your own, outside of work. You can contribute up to $5,500 per year ($6,500 if you’re 50+), and just like with the 401(k) there are two different types:

  1. Traditional IRA – You get a tax deduction on your contributions, your money grows tax-free inside the account, and your withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income in retirement.
  2. Roth IRA – You do not get a tax deduction on your contributions, but your money grows tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

You can read more about making the decision between using a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA here: Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

The big benefit of IRAs is that you have full control over the investment company you use, and therefore the investments you choose and the fees you pay. While some 401(k)s force you to choose between a small number of high-cost investments, IRAs give you a lot more freedom to choose better investments.

The only catch is that there are income limits that may prevent you from being allowed to contribute to an IRA or to deduct your contributions for tax purposes. If you earn more than those limits, an IRA may not be an option for you.

Health Savings Account

Health savings accounts, or HSAs, were designed to be used for medical expenses, but they can also function as a high-powered retirement account.

In fact, health savings accounts are the only investment accounts that offer a triple tax break:

  1. Your contributions are deductible.
  2. Your money grows tax-free inside the account.
  3. You can withdraw the money tax-free for qualified medical expenses.

On top of that, many HSAs allow you to invest the money, your balance rolls over year to year, and as long as you keep good records, you can actually reimburse yourself down the line for medical expenses that occurred years ago.

Put all that together with the fact that you will almost certainly have medical expenses in retirement, and HSAs are one of the most powerful retirement tools available to you.

The catch is that you have to be participating in a qualifying high-deductible health plan, which generally means a minimum annual deductible of $1,300 for individual coverage and $2,600 for family coverage.

If you’re eligible though, you can contribute up to $3,400 if you are the only individual covered by such a plan, or up to $6,750 if you have family coverage.

Backdoor Roth IRA

If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA directly, you might want to consider something called a Backdoor Roth IRA.

The Backdoor Roth IRA takes advantage of two rules that, when combined, can allow you to contribute to a Roth IRA even if you make too much for a regular contribution:

  1. You are always allowed to make non-deductible traditional IRA contributions, up to the annual $5,500 limit, no matter how much you make.
  2. You are also allowed to convert money from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA at any time, no matter how much you make.

When you put those together, high-earners could make non-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA, and shortly after convert that money to a Roth IRA. From that point forward the money will grow completely tax-free.

There are some potential pitfalls, and you can review all the details here. But if you are otherwise ineligible to make IRA contributions, this is a good option to have in your back pocket.

Taxable Investment Account

While dedicated retirement accounts offer the biggest tax breaks, there are plenty of tax-efficient ways to invest within a regular taxable investment account as well.

These accounts can be especially helpful for nearer term goals, since your money isn’t locked away until retirement age, or for money you’d like to invest after maxing out your dedicated retirement accounts.

How to Decide Between Additional 401(K) Contributions and Other Retirement Accounts

With those options in hand, how do you decide whether to make additional 401(k) contributions, beyond the amount needed to max out the employer match, or to contribute that money to other accounts?

There are a few big factors to consider:

  • Eligibility – If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA or HSA, a 401(k) might be your best option by default.
  • Costs – Cost is the single best predictor of future investment returns, with lower cost investments leading to higher returns. You’ll want to prioritize accounts that allow you to minimize the fees you pay.
  • Investment options – You should prioritize accounts that allow you to implement your preferred asset allocation, again with good, low-cost funds.
  • Convenience – All else being equal, having fewer accounts spread across fewer companies will make your life easier.

With those factors in mind, here’s a reasonable guide for making the decision:

  1. Max out your employer match before contributing to other accounts.
  2. If your 401(k) offers low fees and investments that fit your desired portfolio, you can keep things simple by prioritizing additional contributions there first. This allows you to work with one account, at least for a little while, instead of several.
  3. If your 401(k) is high-cost, or if you’ve already maxed out your 401(k), a health savings account may be the next best place to look. If you can pay for your medical expenses with other money, allowing this account to stay invested and grow for the long term, that triple tax break is hard to beat.
  4. An IRA is likely your next best option. You can review this guide for a full breakdown of the traditional versus Roth debate.
  5. If you’re not eligible for a direct IRA contribution, you should consider a Backdoor Roth IRA.
  6. If you maxed out your other retirement accounts because your 401(k) is high-cost, now is probably the time to go back. While there are some circumstances in which incredibly high fees might make a taxable investment account a better deal, in most cases the tax breaks offered by a 401(k) will outweigh any difference in cost.
  7. Once those retirement accounts are maxed out, you can invest additional money in a regular taxable investment account.

The Bottom Line: Maximize Your 401(k)

A 401(k) is a powerful tool if you know how to use it. The tax breaks make it easier to save more and earn more than in a regular investment account, and the potential for an employer match is unlike any opportunity offered by any other retirement account.

The key is in understanding your 401(k)’s specific opportunities and how to take maximum advantage of them. If you can do that, you may find yourself a lot closer to financial independence than you thought.

Matt Becker
Matt Becker |

Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt at matt@magnifymoney.com

TAGS: