Strategies for Paying Off Student Loans

Strategies for Paying Off Student Loans

Today, 70 percent of college students graduate with an average of $30,000 in student loan debt. The average payment is nearly $400 a month and will take about 20 years to pay off. On an individual level, paying off high debt can delay hopes of saving to buy a house, start a family, launch a business or invest for retirement.

On a broader level, the national burden of student debt could impact America’s economic future. When young adults are unable to afford home ownership, that reduces spending on all types of consumer products that accompany home buying. It also reduces property taxes used to support local resources and reduces the insurance pool of property owners used to help repair and rebuild homes after extreme weather crises.

Whether you’re a graduate or the relative of a graduate in this situation, it’s worth considering various strategies to help pay off this debt. After all, it may be better – for both your offspring and the country’s GDP – to financially help them out now rather than later via a larger inheritance.

High Interest and Consolidation Considerations

The strategic way to approach student debt is to focus on paying off high-interest loans first. This generally includes private loans and any others with variable interest rates that may increase over time. Be aware that with federal student loans, there are different types and the borrower is permitted to switch to a different payment plan that better suits his needs over time. Another option is to consolidate student loans. However, if sometime in the future federal student loans are forgiven, your student could miss out on that by transferring or consolidating to a privately held loan.

Employer Assistance Programs

In recognition of student loan debt as both a personnel and national concern, many employers are starting to offer repayment assistance programs – even to parents paying off parent student loans. It’s important to inquire whether or not an employer offers this benefit, as they are not always promoted – especially to current workers. However, these programs have become more appealing to companies since passage of the CARES Act, which extended pre-tax employer-provided educational assistance for up to $5,250 per employee, per year through 2025

Another program that some companies have introduced is the ability for employees to convert the cash value of unused paid-time-off (PTO) toward their student loan payments. In other words, if a worker is not able to use all of his accrued paid vacation days in a given year, he can request the employer contribute that income toward his student loan debt.

College Savings Plans

Each state sponsors a Section 529 college savings and investment plan, which feature tax-deferred growth and tax-free withdrawals when used to pay for qualified education expenses.

In 2019, as part of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, Congress included a provision that permits up to $10,000 (a lifetime cap, per each beneficiary) from 529 College Savings Plans to be used to repay student loans. For example, if a family has three college students, the parents may withdraw up to $30,000 to help pay off that debt from their 529 account(s). Note that a 529 account owner can change the 529 plan beneficiary at any time without tax consequences.

Be aware, however, if 529 college funds are used to make principal and interest payments on a qualified student loan, that student loan interest cannot be claimed as a deduction on their tax return.

What is a Net Zero Economy?

What is a Net Zero Economy?

Net Zero Economy

President Biden re-entered the United States in the Paris Agreement. This is an international treaty first signed in 2015 in which countries around the globe committed to mitigating climate change. Specifically, the goal of the Paris Accord is to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

This objective would generate what is called a net zero global economy, which means creating a balance between the amount of greenhouse gases produced and the amount of greenhouse gasses removed from the atmosphere. The main engine that places carbon back into the soil is healthy vegetation that grows all years round, these are called cover crops and reforestation. You can help by using the Ecosia search engine. 

The initial benchmark is to achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 and net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2070. However, accomplishing these lofty goals will require a remarkable transformation of the global economy and global farming practices.

A way to measure global warming is through “temperature alignment” – a forward-looking benchmark that compares the level of emissions today against the potential for reducing them by a certain date in the future. The measure can be applied to a specific business, government, or investment portfolio.

For investors, global greening provides an opportunity to invest in companies positioning for a future net zero economy. After all, it’s important to recognize that climate risk represents substantial investment risk. Companies that prepare for the transition to sustainable energy sources will be able to deliver long-term returns, while those that do not could become obsolete.

If Net Zero is your path consider the following steps to align your investment allocation with the goals of a net zero economy. For example:

  • Reduce your exposure to high-carbon emitters and companies not making forward-looking commitments to transform to the net zero economy.
  • Prioritize investment decisions based on companies actively reducing reliance on fossil fuels and meeting science-based targets.
  • Target specific sustainable sectors (e.g., clean energy, green bonds) based on your asset allocation strategy – and diversify investments among those holdings.
  • Monitor ongoing research and available data to measure temperature alignment to ensure your issuers and investments are meeting published transition plans. This benchmark should be reviewed with the same rigor as traditional financial data.

The United States and the entire world have a choice to reduce the global. However, the effort also offers an opportunity to invest in climate innovation. The future will bring the survival of the fittest, is your portfolio ready.

HSA: Save it for Retirement

HSA: Save it for Retirement

HSA: Save it for Retirement, Health Saving AccountAccording to Fidelity Investments, the average 65-year-old couple retiring today will need about $300,000 for out-of-pocket healthcare expenses during retirement. And that doesn’t even include long-term care. One way to help pay for this enormous cost is to open a health savings account (HSA), which is a savings and investment vehicle designed to help people pay for medical-related expenses on a tax-free basis.

To open one of these accounts, you must be enrolled in an HSA-eligible, high-deductible health insurance plan (HDHP). These are offered by many employers and also are available on the individual insurance market. One of the little-known advantages of the HSA is that if you delay withdrawing from it until retirement, you’ll have money ready to tap for those out-of-pocket expenses on as-needed basis.

An HDHP works exactly as it is named; comprehensive coverage does not kick in until the plan member reaches an annual deductible that is typically higher than other healthcare plans. The trade-off for the higher deductible is that monthly premiums are lower. Therefore, this type of plan is generally suited for healthy individuals or families that do not have a lot of ongoing medical expenses.

In 2021, the annual HSA contribution limit is $3,600 for individuals and $7,200 for family coverage.  In 2022, these limits increase to $3,650 for individuals and $7,300 for families. Account owners age 55 and older may add another $1,000 “catch-up” contribution. With a work-sponsored HDHP, both the employee and the employer may contribute to the savings account, but their combined contributions may not exceed the annual limit. As long as you are enrolled in an HDHP, you may contribute to the HSA. Even when you no longer contribute, the account belongs to you and maybe invested for growth and tapped as needed.

Investment Advantage

An HSA is maintained at a financial institution, such as a bank. Once saved assets have reached a certain threshold, that custodian will allow the owner to invest a portion of the balance. While the HSA rules technically allow you to invest starting with your first dollar, many custodians have their own minimums required in the HSA (usually $1,000 to $2,500) to be available for medical expenses. Beyond that the balance, the savings can be invested for growth. Also, the owner can transfer money to and from the bank and the investment account as needed.

The invested portion of an HSA is transferred to a brokerage account. There, the owner has a variety of options to invest in, including mutual funds and individual securities. According to Morningstar, more than 80 percent of HSA investment funds have earned gold, silver, or bronze analyst ratings, and the lower end of investment fees range from 0.02 percent to 0.68 percent a year. Note that some investment management fees run higher, so it’s important to compare fees just as you would with any other type of investment.

Triple Tax Advantage

The health savings account features more tax benefits than any other type of investment, including a 401(k), a traditional IRA, or a Roth IRA. That’s because all contributions are tax-free (either through payroll deductions at work, which also avoid FICA taxes or as a tax deduction when health insurance is purchased independently). Moreover, HSA investments grow tax-free. If eventual withdrawals are used to pay for qualified medical expenses, they are not taxed either. So essentially, savings, investments, and gains from an HSA account that are used to pay for healthcare expenses are never subject to taxes. If you do use this money for nonqualified expenses, you’ll have to pay income taxes and, if taken before age 65, a penalty fee as well.

However, consider when most people encounter their highest medical bills: during retirement. If you pay for all out-of-pocket expenses with current income throughout your career, your HSA has the opportunity to grow into a substantial nest egg by (and during) retirement. The most effective use of these funds is to pay for health-related expenses, such as Medicare premiums, dental, and vision care, long-term care insurance premiums, and nursing home costs.

An additional advantage is that health savings accounts are not subject to required minimum distributions. However, be aware that when an HSA is left to a non-spouse heir, it converts to a taxable account – so it’s best to use up these assets while you’re still alive.

Wishing on a Star: Investors Pour Billions in to SPACs

Wishing on a Star: Investors Pour Billions in to SPACs

Wishing on a Star: Investors Pour Billions in to SPACsA SPAC is a special purpose acquisition company. It is typically sponsored by a venture capitalist or a private equity firm that has expertise in a specific sector or industry, such as green technology. A SPAC launches as an IPO, but it is nothing more than a shell company that raises money from investors. Post-IPO, it has a limited amount of time (one to two years) to merge with an existing company, where the capitol is deployed. Once that happens, the private operating company trades publicly under the SPAC name.

While SPACs have been around for about 30 years, they’ve only become popular in the past year or so. In fact, this year investors have already poured more than $100 billion into these vehicles, and that’s more than the total amount raised since they were first introduced. SPACs offer investors the opportunity to buy into a startup, which might be at early-, middle- or late-stage development when it partners with the SPAC. In 2020 and 2021, industries heavily represented by SPACs include electric vehicles, consumer-oriented technology, communications and retail.

What makes the SPAC particularly interesting is that investors do not know what company they are buying into since the entity has no commercial operations of its own. As such, they are sold largely based on trust in the management sponsor and belief in the growth potential for the industry it represents.

SPACs differ from traditional IPOs in that the IPO price is not based on the valuation of an existing business. Instead, investors typically pay $10 per common share of regular stock at the initial offering. These shares are referred to as units. Each unit also includes a warrant, which offers the right to purchase the company’s stock at a specific price and at a later date. Once a SPAC merges with a private company, the shares and warrants are listed and publicly traded on the stock exchange. Capital raised by the sale of warrants is typically used to compensate the SPAC sponsor.

One of the appeals of the SPAC model is that individual investors have the opportunity to invest in a startup that has been vetted and funded by an experienced private equity partner. This presents less risk as well as a ground-floor opportunity that is usually not feasible for individual investors. Most IPO opportunities require higher capital investments and occur at a later stage of development. SPACs provide the opportunity to commit a smaller investment at an earlier stage in a company’s life cycle, which often offers the potential for higher returns.

Unfortunately, the lack of a longer, established track record also increases risk – which is something the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is currently scrutinizing. For now, the SEC has taken a hands-off approach, hoping the market will regulate itself. However, if SPAC sponsors oversell the entity’s capabilities or investors become disillusioned with the returns on their investment, the SPAC market may be subject to considerable regulation in the future.

As for investment returns, the outcomes are mixed. Initial SPAC IPOs tend to outperform the S&P 500. However, once SPACs merge with their respective private companies, the results tend to be less impressive. Given their recent surge in popularity, there’s no way to gauge their long-term performance success. 

Real Estate Opportunities in 2021

Real Estate Opportunities in 2021

Real Estate Opportunities in 2021Even before the pandemic began, the U.S. residential real estate market was short on houses, with more people looking to buy than those who were selling. And yet, unlike the 2008 recession, any economic woes related to the pandemic did not undercut housing prices. If anything, real estate had a banner year as home prices continued to rise. In April of this year, the median sale price of existing homes rose by 19.1 percent to a record high of $341,600.

There are several reasons we haven’t seen a repeat of the housing crisis that we experienced during the Great Recession. Today’s market is different from 2007, when the economic decline was launched by a housing bubble that sent many homeowner values underwater – followed by job losses and the inability to pay their mortgage. This time around, the government stepped in to ensure Americans didn’t lose their homes when they lost their jobs. The stimulus-relief packages included a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. This, too, has contributed to the low inventory of existing homes, which normally would be put up for sale when owners become cash strapped.

The Homebuyers’ Market

However, in addition to the cash-strapped – we now have the cash-rich. Among the gainfully employed, savings rates increased during 2020. This means there are now several types of eager homebuyers: millennials trying to buy their first home; mid-career professionals looking to trade up; and retirees (or near-retirees) looking to make a cash offer for a smaller or second home.

The coronavirus contributed to this fiercely competitive market of buyers. Some are looking to take advantage of the newly mainstreamed remote work model and move to rural areas for a more affordable lifestyle. People who are nearing retirement are rethinking moves to large metropolitan areas or continuum of care retirement communities, where future outbreaks can spread more quickly.

The point is, there are millions of people looking to buy a home right now and not enough housing stock There are 72 million millennials alone, the oldest of who are approaching their 40s, with Generation Z right at their heels. Over the next 10 years, the demand for first-time homebuyers alone will persist regardless of how conditions change in the housing market.

The Home-Sellers’ Market

While the buyers’ market is booming with demand, the sellers’ market is starting to grow as well, just not as fast. Rising real estate values due to low inventory have presented an attractive opportunity to cash-in on home equity. In fact, according to a recent NerdWallet survey, about

17 percent of today’s homeowners say they plan to put their home on the market within the next year and a half.

The seller’s market is boosted by historically low mortgage rates, which when compared to renting make taking out a home loan even more appealing. Sellers also benefit from the near-desperation of buyers, many of whom are willing make offers before seeing the property, for as-is condition and above offer price. Not only can sellers take their pick of multiple offers, but they can often skimp on home repairs and upgrades before putting their house on the market.

In recent months, existing homes have stayed on the market for an average of only 20 days. Sellers also have the luxury of making their buyers wait under contract until the owner can buy another home. But here’s the tricky part: due to low inventory, it can be very difficult to find a replacement. Sellers who become buyers enter the fray of contract wars just like everyone else.

New Home Building

The single-family homebuilding industry recovered from last year’s economic decline quickly. In March of this year, new home starts swelled 15.3 percent to 1.238 million units. But even with the surge, real estate agents say that new builds need to range between 1.5 million and 1.6 million units per month to meet demand.

Unfortunately, one factor that is holding this market back is access to building materials. Low supply of lumber due to increased demand for new homes and renovations has catapulted lumber prices to record highs. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the cost of lumber has driven up the price of the average new single-family home by more than $35,000 within the past year.

While more inventory will come onto market as people emerge from their lockdowns and the economy fully reopens, one thing is certain: demand in the home-buying market is expected to remain high among Millennials and Gen Z for at least another decade. The momentum for high prices is expected to continue through 2021, so it may be a better time to sell than buy.

New Rules and Ways to Use HSAs/FSAs

New Rules and Ways to Use HSAs/FSAs

People who own a high-deductible health insurance plan may have the ability to open a health savings account (HSA). They can contribute pre-tax income to an HSA and invest the money for tax-free growth in a variety of mutual funds, stocks and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

The funds may be withdrawn tax-free when used to pay for qualified expenses, such as the plan’s high deductible, copayments and coinsurance. The funds also can be used to purchase a wide range of health-related products.

However, a recent poll found that 40 percent of respondents who have access to a health savings account do not fully understand them. Perhaps that is why legislation passed last year that increased eligible uses of HSA funds largely went under the radar. The CARES Act included a provision that greatly expanded the number and types of health-related products and services that can be paid for with money from an HSA or an employer-sponsored Flexible Spending Account (FSA). The following list includes many of the newly eligible expenses (some require a Letter of Medical Necessity (LMN) from a licensed provider):

  • Over-the-counter medications, such as for fever, cold and flu, headache, muscle aches, acid, heartburn and indigestion relief, allergy and sinus relief, anti-diarrheal and constipation medicine
  • Toothache relief
  • Skin and rash ointments, medicated body lotions
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Thermometers
  • Band-Aids and bandages
  • Kinesiology tape
  • Hot and cold therapy packs, cooling headache pads
  • Eye drops
  • Facial cleansers, face wipes
  • Prescription acne medication and over-the-counter acne treatments
  • Sunscreen and SPF moisturizers (including expensive anti-aging facial lotions with SPF protection)
  • Lip balm for sun protection and chapped lips
  • Sleep and snoring aids
  • Smoking cessation nicotine gum, patches, lozenges, inhalers and nasal sprays
  • Prescription sunglasses
  • Humidifiers, air purifiers and filters
  • Dietician fees
  • Some mental health treatments and services
  • Prescription hormone replacement therapy
  • Birth control pills
  • Pregnancy tests
  • Fertility tests
  • Fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization, intrauterine insemination, fertility medication, the temporary storage of eggs or sperm
  • Birth classes and medically certified doulas
  • Breast pumps, breastfeeding classes, absorbent breast pads, breast milk storage bags
  • Baby monitors and potty training undies
  • Feminine care items, such as pads, tampons, cups and sponges
  • DNA/Ancestry kits

In 2021, the contribution limit for a health savings account is $3,600 for individuals and $7,200 for families; anyone age 55 or older can make an additional $1,000 annual contribution.

Just recently, the IRS published guidelines for employers regarding the use of Flexible Spending Account funds. Because of social distance guidelines and shutdowns in 2020, many people continued to work from home and contribute to their FSA but were unable to use those funds, which are generally designed to be used in the year saved (or otherwise lost).

The new guidelines allow employers to carry over or extend the grace period for unused health and/or dependent care FSA funds to the immediately following plan year. This new rule is retroactive for the 2020 and 2021 plan years. Note that while the IRS permits these new extension rules, it’s up to employers to decide what they want to do.