The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on many aspects of people’s financial lives. Despite this, many people report that they have not stopped contributing to their children’s 529 college savings plans.
In early May, Savingforcollege.com released survey results showing the pandemic’s economic impact on families saving for college. About two-thirds of respondents reported seeing a decrease in their 529 plan’s value since January. Approximately one fourth said that someone in their household had lost a job or was making less money. However, most also said they hadn’t changed their strategy for saving for college.
As the situation developed, though, and economic hardship continued, more families (although not a majority) did report an impact on their college savings. A CollegeBacker survey in May reached out to 1,200 American adults. About 16 percent said they had paused their college savings contributions. Additionally, 17 percent planned to withdraw money from their college savings accounts, and 13 percent had decreased the amount they were contributing.
The June 2020 State of Savings report from Ascensus, which analyzed 529 plans with fewer than 500 participants between early 2019 and May 31, found about a 21 percent decrease in the amount of one-time contributions between the end of March and the end of May. However, Ascensus’ analysis showed hardly any change in automated contributions during that time period.
“There are many families facing a tougher situation so you do see some occasional monthly reductions in their contribution rates, but overall it hasn’t been as dire as you might expect,” Jordan Lee, founder and CEO of CollegeBacker, said in a press statement. Here’s what you need to know about 529 plans during the pandemic:
This Is How 529 Plans Work
The value of a 529 plan is that it allows adults, primarily parents or grandparents, to save money for a designated beneficiary. The account will grow tax-deferred, and money can be withdrawn tax-free for qualified expenses related to education.
The money can be withdrawn for other expenses (financial planners recommend this option only be used as a last resort) if times are hard. However, the plan’s earnings would then be subject to a 10 percent penalty, and the account holder would also be charged federal income tax on the withdrawal.
Extensions Were Granted to Return Money Refunded as a Result of the Pandemic
Federal regulators offered one break, however, for 529 plans during the pandemic. In some cases, families paid for college expenses for spring 2020 out of their 529 plans and may have received a refund for tuition or room and board due to schools closing their physical campuses and going online for much of the semester.
In a typical year, account holders would be required to reinvest the refund into their 529 plan quickly or be penalized. This year, the Internal Revenue Service allowed families 60 days (the deadline was July 15) to return the money without a penalty.
529 Plans Are Good Investments
The pandemic has forced many families into tough situations, as working members of families have faced layoffs, furloughs, and other economic hardships. However, 529 plans remain an excellent investment, as rules for how the money can be used have been relaxed over the years. Qualified expenses can include everything from tuition for vocational and trade schools to paying off student loans to some costs associated with K-12 education.
Federal laws restricting gifts to $15,000 each year are less stringent for 529 accounts. This means that grandparents or other adults who want to invest in a child’s education can give as much as $75,000 in a single contribution. In addition, if the account’s recipient decides not to go to college, another family member can use the money.
Your Budget May Be More Flexible Than You Think
Experts advise families to keep making contributions to their 529 plans—and even increase them if possible—during the pandemic. Some financial planners point out that typical budget items, such as eating out and vacations, may not be spent and the money could instead be allocated to college savings.
Families also should regularly review their budget and financial planning outlook. The current economic situation is changing rapidly due to ongoing questions about employment and the market. However, college will still be an expense in most cases, and a 529 college savings plan remains an excellent way to save for college even if you find yourself in financial hardship.
Plans May Be Uncertain, but 529s Are Flexible
The pandemic has forced many to change their plans, and your student may even be considering putting college off or choosing a different route all together. Restrictions on indoor gatherings have required many American colleges to remain online, an educational format that is less appealing to many students.
The good news is that 529 plans are designed for flexibility. This means you can continue saving while your student’s educational future unfolds, and the plan likely will cover other educational expenses if your student decides to pursue a nontraditional educational opportunity. And if your student foregoes education entirely to work or travel, the 529 plan can be transferred to a qualified relative whose education can benefit from the savings.
Retirement planning advice—which is not in short supply—can linger long past its time. Advice that may have worked 20 years ago, for example, may not be as applicable today, when the economy is different and people are making different choices about their retirement. It may be time to reconsider the following common retirement advice.
You Must Pay Off Your Debts, Including Your Mortgage
In reality, this advice is unachievable for many Americans. Becoming debt-free for many may be impossible or so difficult that it pushes retirement back many years. Following this guideline, then, would mean trading enjoyment in your senior years for more years of work.
In some cases, it’s OK to carry debt into your retirement; the key is determining which debt is manageable. Paying off high-interest debt, such as credit card balances, is important—interest rates on credit card debt can be 15% or higher, which means your debt can quickly build. Growing debt and a fixed retirement income aren’t compatible, and in this case, it’s a good idea to pay off all high-interest debt before retirement.
Other debt, however, may be tolerable—and even beneficial—during retirement. If you can comfortably make the payments on low-interest debt with your retirement income, there’s no reason to postpone retirement. In other situations, your money may be better spent on investments rather than paying off low-interest debt. For example, if your mortgage interest rate is 4% and your investments are generating a 6.5% rate of return, it makes more sense to invest your money rather than use it to make additional mortgage payments.
The 4% Retirement Withdrawal Rule
This rule was developed in the 1990s. It essentially says that you’re ready to retire when your savings will last for 30 years if you plan to withdraw 4% of your retirement savings the first year and a similar amount, adjusted to inflation, over the remaining 29 years.
However, many financial planners say this formula doesn’t fit all retirement situations and doesn’t take into account a fluctuating market. Retirees also don’t spend consistently over the course of their retirement—they tend to spend more in the early years when they are traveling and marking off experiences on their “bucket list.” Spending may drop as retirees settle down or increase if health issues arise.
A better strategy is to consult with a financial planner about a safe withdrawal strategy based on your circumstances and plans for your senior years. For example, a plan could be built around your required minimum distributions, or you could calculate what you need to cover basic living expenses and then factor additional money into your budget for travel and other expenses.
You Need $1 Million in Savings
Saving $1 million has been the longtime gold standard for retirement, but more recent estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics have increased that estimate to $1.5 million per family. Reasons for the increase include a drop in pensions, which previously could be relied upon to supplement retirement savings; inflation; and longer lifespans. Many people are in retirement for three decades or more.
Retirees Spend Less
Retirement doesn’t necessarily cause your spending to decrease. Traditional guidelines state that retirees should plan to spend between 75% and 85% of their current budget, but that estimate doesn’t always hold true.
The best way to map out retirement spending is to make a retirement budget, estimating what you’ll spend each month when you stop working. You may delete some budget items, like commuting costs, but you may take on new expenses with more travel or new hobbies. Creating a retirement budget will help you avoid an unexpected surprise if your spending in retirement doesn’t drop.
Social Security Withdrawals Should Begin at a Certain Age
Conventional wisdom has advised everything from withdrawing benefits immediately when you become eligible at 62 to delaying until you reach 70. In reality, the ideal age to begin claiming Social Security benefits depends on your individual situation.
The best time for you to claim benefits will depend on your retirement budget. For example, if you begin withdrawing at age 62, your monthly benefits will be reduced because you haven’t reached your full retirement age, which will range between 66 and 67, depending on your birth year. If you wait until your full retirement age, your monthly check will include a bonus.
Retirees with comfortable savings may choose to withdraw early for extra spending cash, while people who know they will need help with income later in retirement may want to hold off so their monthly check is larger. Your health may also be an issue—people in good health who think they will live a long time may want to delay claiming benefits, while those who are in declining health may benefit more from larger checks now.
Regardless of your situation, it’s wise to consult with a financial planner about your retirement plan to make the most of the options available.
During economic crises, it can be instinctive to change course with your finances as uncertainty and perhaps even panic set in. However, it will benefit you financially to avoid making quick decisions about your money, particularly during a recession. Financial stability, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, will reduce stress on your family and keep you moving toward your financial goals.
Here are some sound options for managing your finances during the pandemic.
Pad your emergency savings
While the pandemic has hurt many aspects of the American economy, personal savings rates have soared. CNBC recently reported that the US Bureau of Economic Analysis showed a personal savings rate (the percentage of disposable income that people save) of 33 percent in April, the highest it’s been since the 1960s, when the agency began keeping track. Nationwide stay-at-home orders have encouraged savings, as people have drastically reduced their spending on travel, shopping, and entertainment and eating out.
If you continue to have a steady income, this is an excellent time to build an emergency fund for situations ranging from job loss to an unexpected medical bill. Financial experts recommend saving between three and six months of living expenses to make sure that you can weather unforeseen hardships, including the pandemic if it stretches out.
A good place to start would be saving any lump sum of money you receive, such as a tax refund, work bonus, or a commission. You could also decrease the amount you contribute to your 401(k) temporarily and move the difference into your emergency fund.
Adjust your budget
Millions of Americans have been affected by COVID-19 shutdowns, whether they have been furloughed, laid off, or experiencing a reduction in wages. The economic fallout is far from over, so even those who have yet to be impacted by COVID-19 could as companies examine their long-term revenue and adjust their plans in the coming months.
Regardless of your job situation, this is a good time to make adjustments to protect yourself against job loss or wage reduction. You can think through your long-term income potential and job security and consider ways to insulate your family from income loss as the impact of COVID-19 unfolds over the coming months and years. You may also want to make your budget more conservative, increase your savings, and reduce non-essential spending.
Look at payment reduction options
While your income may seem stable now, that may not be true a few months down the road as the economic crisis stretches out. To be prepared for financial difficulties, familiarize yourself now with programs that allow for payment deferment or reduction on key debts.
Mortgage payments: If a time comes when you can’t make your mortgage payment, call your bank. Many states will allow property owners to take a “holiday” from mortgage payments if their cash flow has been impacted by COVID-19. Lending institutions may allow you to postpone payments without incurring late fees, extra interest, or a negative impact on your credit score.
Credit card payments: In the wake of COVID-19 financial hardship, many credit card companies are offering relief to their clients in the form of lower interest rates, reduced fees, and delayed monthly payments. Contact your credit card company for details about their COVID-19 relief plan.
Federal student loan payments: The US Department of Education currently has reduced the interest rates on federally-backed student loans to 0 percent for a minimum of 60 days, and graduates can also take a break from payments for at least two months if they call 1-800-4FED-AID and request it.
Reconsider your real estate
Your biggest monthly budget item is likely your rent or mortgage. Financial setbacks, such as a job loss, can become severe if you can’t pay it. If you’re a renter and you’re anticipating or experiencing a financial hardship, ask your landlord for a temporary reduction in your monthly payment or if you can apply your security deposit toward rent. In a more extreme scenario, you may need to get out of your lease early and move to a more affordable rental.
If you’re a homeowner, call your bank and ask for mortgage relief, such as deferred payments or temporarily paying interest only on your mortgage. With interest rates extremely low, this may be an ideal time to refinance your mortgage to decrease your payments or shorten your loan terms so that you can pay it off more quickly.
Is it time for more investments?
While your inclination may be to save right now, you may be missing out on excellent investment opportunities. Many stock prices are low, making it a good time to enter the long-term investment market or temporarily increase contributions to your 401(k). Bear markets have rebounded above average for several years, a historic trend that could play out again when the COVID-19 recovery begins.
As with any risk, however, caution is always advised. Before you step further into the market, make sure you have a generous emergency savings fund, stable expenses, and job security.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—federal legislation that was passed in March to provide relief to Americans struggling economically due to the coronavirus pandemic—offers an enticing option for withdrawing money from employee retirement accounts.====
Here are two ways that 401(k) holders who can show that they have been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak can access these accounts due to the CARES Act:
- Account holders can withdraw as much as $100,000 from their 401(k) accounts through the end of 2020. While they will be not be assessed the 10 percent early withdrawal fee that is typically applied to account holders ages 59½ and younger, they will have to pay taxes on the withdrawal over the course of three years.
- Account holders can also borrow up to $100,000 (double the typical $50,000 allowance) from their 401(k) until September 22 with their employer’s consent.
Some Americans are taking the government up on this offer, as many live paycheck to paycheck and have felt pressure to dip into their savings. The CARES Act took effect in late March, and since then, more than 370,000 people have withdrawn money from their retirement accounts, according to Fidelity. The average withdrawal was $13,000, but as many as 8,500 have borrowed the full $100,000 from their 401(k)s.
While this may seem like an effective stopgap measure during a difficult economic time, withdrawing money from your 401(k) early is not a decision to take lightly because it could significantly impact your long-term retirement plans. Here are some issues to think through before pulling money out of your 401(k).
The Long-Term Impact
Even if you pay yourself back after your economic situation improves, taking money out of your 401(k) early, even temporarily, will negatively impact your long-term savings.
Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research has determined that withdrawing money early from your 401(k) can reduce your retirement wealth by as much as one-fourth, according to a report from MSNBC. The reality was borne out during the economic downturn in the late 2000s, when people also made early withdrawals from their 401(k)s. By 2019, people who had sold their stock in 2008 had an average balance of $275,000 in their 401(k)s, while those who had not sold stock averaged $360,000 in retirement savings, according to Fidelity.
MSNBC offered the following example: A 60-year-old who earns $60,000 annually has contributed 9 percent of her earnings to her 401(k) annually for 30 years with an annual return of 6.5 percent. When she retires, she will have a savings of $675,000.
However, if she had withdrawn $40,000 when she was 40 years old due to hardship, her savings would be reduced to $480,000 at retirement.
Additionally, 401(k) balances are down across the board due to market declines. That means withdrawing money now will lock in losses, never giving that initial investment time to recover when the market improves.
Impact on the Workplace
In a recent Forbes survey on how the pandemic is affecting retirement planning, 11 percent of respondents said that they were planning to work longer to offset financial shortfalls. The majority of these individuals were 45 to 54 years old, while respondents aged 18 to 24 were the least likely to say they planned to extend their working years.
In some cases, longer working years may be attributed to changes in how employers are contributing to their employees’ 401(k) accounts. About 4 percent of respondents said their employers had stopped matching contributions during the pandemic—a number that could grow as pandemic shutdowns continue.
A Way Forward
If possible, financial advisors recommend staying calm during a crisis and focusing on long-term savings goals. historically, the ups and downs of the market tend to balance out over time. For example, between 2007 and 2012, 401(k) account balances grew an average of 12 percent annually, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Reacting to market downturns by selling investments, decreasing contributions, and making early withdrawals can result in lower balances at retirement.
It’s particularly risky to borrow from your 401(k) at times of high unemployment (currently, 40 million people are out of work) because you are much more likely to be able to repay a loan when you have a job than when you don’t.
However, if you need to borrow from your 401(k) to pay bills during the pandemic, you do get a break on repayment. The CARES Act gives some borrowers a year before they must begin repayment. However, if you don’t repay the loan in five years, it will be considered a withdrawal, complete with a 10 percent penalty plus tax.
If you can stay the course, keep making monthly contributions to your 401(k) and, if possible, make additional contributions. Since so many businesses and entertainment venues are closed, Americans are spending less and saving more, making this a great time to put some of that extra money into retirement savings.
Deciding how to divide your estate between your children is not always as clear-cut as it seems. An equal division would have you leave each of your children the same amount, but what if one has served as your caregiver for five years? What if one is extremely wealthy, while the other two are struggling financially? If you have four children, who gets the beloved family home or their great-grandmother’s wedding ring?
Experts say that however you decide to divide up your estate, harmony should be a guiding principle. An inequitable inheritance, especially when it comes as a surprise, can cause long-lasting conflict between siblings, and no one wants to leave behind a legacy of family discord.
Here are some ways to ensure that the distribution of your estate is equitable, minimizes conflicts, and follows your wishes.
Figure out what “fair” means
When you consider how your children should share your inheritance, certain situations may call for an equal division of assets. For example, if all your children are in similar economic and life circumstances and you haven’t already given any of them substantial gifts, equal financial distribution may be appropriate.
Alternatively, you may want to factor in the total amount of financial assistance you’ve given your children over their lifetime. In other words, you may want to adjust their inheritance to reflect what you’ve already given them. For example, you may have a child who you gave $50,000 to help pay off private college student loans, while your other children attended state colleges that were much cheaper. You could adjust your financial division to give one child $100,000 and the other two $150,000 each to make the inheritance equitable.
Sometimes people want to leave more money to one child as a reward or a necessity. For example, one child may have sacrificed greatly to provide in-home care for you, or you may have a child with a disability who will need money for care for the rest of their life. You may have created a blended family later in life and want to leave more to your biological children.
These situations can become sticky, but sometimes siblings will understand and even support another sibling receiving a larger share of the inheritance. In other cases, however, perceived inequities can lead to years of sibling disputes. If you’re not sure what will happen, consider making decisions that will create harmony, not conflict, between siblings.
Large family assets
It doesn’t always make sense to divide a large family asset such as a family home or business between multiple children. For example, if one of your children has settled in another state and one has stayed in your hometown, it may make more sense to leave the house to the child who lives locally and give the other child more of your assets to offset the value of the house.
A similar situation could arise with a family business. If one child has made a career in that business while another shows no interest, it could be detrimental to the business to split ownership between the children in the interest of being “equal.” In this case, you could leave the business to the child who works there and give the other child more cash.
Conveying your wishes
While you are of sound mind, clearly define your wishes. You can do this by writing a detailed letter that explains not only what your decisions are, but why you made them. This will eliminate any conjecture about your motivations that could lead to hurt.
Talk to your children. You may find that they are much more understanding than you’ve given them credit for. For example, you may find that a child who already is well-off is more interested in a sentimental family heirloom than an equal share of the assets. Discussions about your estate will help your children understand why you made the decisions you did and stave off potential conflict after you’ve gone. It will also give your family time to accept your wishes. Many times, it is the surprise bequests that create discord.
You also may want to ask your children how they feel about sharing assets. Are they all willing to put the time and money into keeping up the family vacation home? Would one child be willing to allow a sibling to inherit the family silver if they get the grand piano? Heading off potential conflicts through pre-emptive discussion can go a long way toward long-term harmony.
In some cases, you might not want your estate to be divided equitably—however you define that term—between your children. You may feel that one child doesn’t deserve it, or you may be estranged from a son or daughter. While these situations can be unpleasant, it’s worth considering whether an equitable division may be worthwhile to avoid emotional and financial conflict between siblings. An equitable division may also avoid the risk of the “slighted” child suing the estate—a situation where some of your assets could end up in a lawyer’s bank account.