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Is it time to rethink college savings?

Silhouettes of new graduates in caps and gowns.
Some student debt relief is possible, as is some expansion of free college options, but don’t count on U.S. college educations becoming entirely free for everyone.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: My wife and I have three kids ages 4 and younger. We have been diligently saving in our state’s 529 college savings plans for all of them. Now with various concepts of free college and student debt relief gaining traction, I’m wondering if we would be better off simply investing future amounts elsewhere that don’t lock it into educational expenses, which may look very different in 14 to 18 years.

Answer: Politics is the art of the possible. Although some student debt relief is possible, as is some expansion of free college options, it’s hard to imagine a U.S. where college educations are entirely free for everyone.

President Biden has asked the Department of Education to study whether he can unilaterally forgive federally held student loan debt.

Even in states that currently offer free two- or four-year public college options, the aid is typically limited to free tuition, which means students still have to pay for books, housing, meals, transportation and other costs. Some programs are need based, which means not all students qualify, and many students choose other non-free options, such as private colleges and graduate school.

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So the advice hasn’t changed: If you can save for college, you probably should. You may not be able to cover all the costs of your children’s future education, but anything you save will probably reduce their future debt.

In an uncertain world, 529 college savings plans offer a lot of flexibility. The money can be used tax free for a variety of college expenses, and any unused funds can be transferred to a family member — including yourself or your wife, should either of you want to pursue more education. If you withdraw the money for non-education purposes, only the earnings portion is typically subject to income taxes and the 10% federal penalty.

A newly single reader is overwhelmed by finding financial pros. Also: Add spouses to accounts; paying down a mortgage; survivor benefits redux.

What to consider before taking a lump sum

Dear Liz: I had a pension from a previous employer that was going to pay me $759 per month at 65. They offered me a lump-sum buyout about five years ago of around $65,000. I ran the numbers and decided that was definitely not enough money and declined.

Then last year they upped the offer and the new lump sum amount was $125,000. I ran the numbers again and this time decided to grab the money and roll it into an IRA. I’m 63 and plan to retire at 70. I can hopefully grow that $125,000 to $250,000 by that time, which would give me that much more to live on, plus it gives me more discretion on using that money than just getting the monthly payment the pension would have paid me.

After reading one of your latest columns, I am now questioning whether I made the right decision to take the lump sum.

Answer: There are a number of good reasons for opting for a lump sum versus an annuity. For example, people with large pensions may not be fully protected by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. if their pension fund fails. Others may need more flexibility than an annuity offers.

But a pension is typically money that’s guaranteed for life, in good markets and bad. If you’re choosing the lump sum just because you think you can earn better returns, you need to consider how you’ll protect yourself and your spouse from fraud, bad decisions and bad markets.

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Bull markets can lull people into thinking they’re good investors, but markets can go down and stay down for extended periods. That poses a special risk to retirees, who are at increased risk of running out of money when they draw from a shrinking pool of investments. Even a short bear market can cause problems, while an extended one can be disastrous.

You’ll also want to consider how you’ll manage when your cognitive abilities begin to decline. Our financial decision-making abilities peak in our 50s, but our confidence in our abilities tends to remain high even as our cognition slips. That can lead to bad investment decisions and increased vulnerability to fraud.

Finally, consider your spouse. If you die first, will your spouse be comfortable managing these investments? If not, is there someone in place who can help?

A fee-only financial planner could discuss these issues with you and help you create a plan to deal with them.

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Here are ways to boost retirement savings to make up for lost time. Also: When credit scores don’t need improving.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.


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