Wednesday, January 31, 2007
It's funny because it's true.
From last week's Carnival of Education:

The best summary of the college application experience EVER.

I laughed a lot.

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Monday, January 29, 2007
All About Education at the Washington Post.
Sunday's Business section had three separate articles regarding educational finance. While I didn't see anything particularly revelatory, they do make a solid introduction to the issues surrounding paying for a child's education.

Forget Yale--Go State serves up the usual advice to:
  • start saving in 529s when the children are young,
  • spend time figuring out exactly how much of the school bill the parents are willing to pay a few years before the children visit and apply to schools, and
  • remember to take advantage of all applicable tax credits when the children start attending college.
There is a very nice sidebar of Internet resources including the usual suspects (FAFSA, Finaid, Fastweb, and Savingforcollege) along with less well-known resources (NCES school profiles, College Board).

The article does mention that a student may get sufficient aid to cover the difference between a "high sticker-price" school and an ostensibly more affordable one, but it's somewhat glossed over. They do emphasize that the time to fill out the FAFSA is NOW.

Financial Futures--Save for You, Too means pretty much exactly what it says. Parents shouldn't save for college at the expense of their own retirement savings.

The article makes the point that lower-income families might not have as many costs to cover, because aid packages for lower income students may include grants. However, as Pell Grants have declined per recipient, this may be overly optimistic.

The larger point, however, stands. Families can't borrow for retirement.

Beware the Scholarship Hucksters reminds us that aid resources on the Internet are free, so there is no reason to pay for scholarships in any way. This includes scholarship searches, "recipient fees," or anything else. I wish this were simply common knowledge by now, but I guess not.

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Friday, January 26, 2007
Now that Blue Monday is well behind us...
(by which I mean January 22 and not the New Order single)

...let's share some cheery news.

1) Kiplinger's released its latest ranking of the 100 Best Values in Public Colleges. UNC-Chapel Hill topped the list for the sixth straight time. The reporters believe that the major increases in public school tuition over the last several years is likely to moderate going forward.

2) Princeton will hold tuition steady for the first time in 40 years. Room and board fees will increase. Overall, the total cost of attendance is about $44,000 a year, while the average annual grant to a first year student on financial aid is $30,000. This could still leave many students with a large debt load, but it is a marked improvement over the past. Hopefully more Ivies and other private schools will look at how Princeton is managing its endowment and follow suit.

And on the personal front...

3) I indulged in some relatively frugal entertainment last night. The auto show was in town, so I stopped by for a visit. Thanks to a coupon, my ticket was only $6. For that $6, I saw:

  • A set by a local band that I'd been meaning to check out
  • A "magic show" to demonstrate the wonders of flex-fuel vehicles, at which I got free popcorn
  • the wacky Ford Airstream concept...CUV, or whatever they're calling not-minivans these days
  • the super-duper integrated audio system in the Volvo S80 (would I buy one? Probably never. Would I sit in one and pretend for a little while? Heck yes.)
  • a vendor selling off-brand accessories for all types of home and car audio. So I finally found an iPod charger for half off retail!
All told, I think it was pretty good bang for the buck.

This weekend, I'm going to use some coupons from my gifted Entertainment book and try to see another Oscar movie. I'm thinking Last King of Scotland, but it depends on which films are showing nearby.

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Monday, January 22, 2007
New and Improved.
1) Single Ma's recent redesign inspired me to retool my own layout. I've been tinkering with it for a few weeks (I had to figure out the difference between old style templates and new style templates the hard way). There are still a few minor things I'd like to adjust, but for the most part, I'm pleased with it. I've also finally set up my Feedburner account, which will probably give me some more headaches to start, but will also eventually improve services for any subscribers I may have (I don't track that sort of thing).

2) Speaking of feeds, I spent a very long time without a good reader (neither Bloglines nor Sage nor any standalone readers really worked for me.) Google Reader, however, seems like a good fit. Each feed displays with enough white space that I can scroll through entries easily, and folder management isn't very arduous either. I REALLY like the easy "star" system for tagging posts. I've heard complaints that it doesn't fetch entries all that quickly, but since I tend to do my reading in batches, it doesn't bother me. Plus, it's nice to have one login for reading and posting.

3) The recent edition of TaxAct has much to recommend it. I file relatively straightforward returns, so I don't need lots of customer support and advice. So I usually go with the free edition. And I'm still quite happy with the (preliminary) results. The Q&A section has a dropdown checklist feature that makes it easy to skip from section to section as different documents arrive. One caveat: If you want the system to recognize your exemptions for the standard telephone tax credit, it apparently requires completing the Q&A topics in order (although you can skip reviewing the data already entered).

I have to point out that THIS year, the Deluxe edition offers a student aid report function to assist with the FAFSA. Although I haven't used it, it seems like a good tool for figuring out one's Expected Family Contribution, since it takes the numbers from one's own return. (Still, in order to get the FAFSA filed before the February/March deadlines, it might be worth putting in estimates based on end-of-year paystubs, savings accounts, and the like, to generate the SAR. When all documents are in, then one could file the actual tax return and corrected FAFSA.)

4) I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned the no-longer-so-recent redesign at VirtualBank. While I still think ING is the simplest choice for someone who has never dealt with an online account before, the VB interface is now nearly as clean and pleasing, with logically-arranged tabs for various tasks. And the "personal account representative" is a nice feature. It's decidedly not the rate leader at 4.6%, and they don't offer tax statements online, but reponsive transfers, good beneficiary service, and other features make me likely to hold onto it at least until I have solid cash for ELoan (the only other online bank besides EmigrantDirect that makes beneficiary nomination a key feature [if I'm wrong about this, please let me know]).

Anyway, I'm pretty much all out of ING referrals (thanks to Jonathan), so if you'd like a $20 VirtualBank referral, email me.

Other new plans include me finally getting off my duff and starting to review all those financial aid books that I checked out from the library, and trying to spotlight more news items about student aid. If you have any interest in seeing something in particular featured here, I'd love to read your comments.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007
Apparently now I even LOOK like a PF blogger.
I went over to CC for my weekly tutoring engagement last night. My student for the evening, Mrs. H., had been assigned a unit on understanding charts. So I found some pie chart worksheets in the drawer. Both worksheets used a family budget to illustrate the pie chart concept.

As Mrs. H. settled in, one of the other volunteers, R., asked me if we were looking at budgets, and almost immediately asked me if I could help her get her husband involved in managing their money. I was a bit flustered, but managed to ask a few questions about how they handled their money already. "He's the spender."

I suggested that she promise him a (frugal) date night if he agreed to track all his spending in a notebook for at least a week, just to give them a jumping off point for discussion. She seemed pleased with that idea, but also wanted a longer term plan for herself, her husband, and her daughter. She also wanted to know how I felt about savings vs. debt.

"Well, are you a numbers person or a mindset person?"


After we talked a bit more, I ended up suggesting that she go in a far more Ramseyan direction ($1K baby e-fund, debt repayment, etc., possibly even envelope budgeting) than I'd choose for myself. (Hey, I may not particularly like the guy, but I know he's helped a lot of people in her situation.) But since this was all pretty much off the cuff in the few minutes I had before tutoring started, I really hope that I can follow up with R. next week.

So, blog on, buckos. You never know when it will help someone out who really needs it.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007
House Bill to Halve U.S. Stafford Loan Rates.
The bill would target subsidized Stafford loans. (Public Blog link here.)

The plan is to reduce interest rates over five years, from 6.8% to 3.2%. It remains unclear how PAYGO legislation will interact with this bill, although moving to lower-cost direct loans rather than administered loans from private companies (Sallie Mae, Nelnet, et. al) is a distinct possibility. Regardless, that $6 billion will have to come from somewhere.

I know Uncle Bill is not a fan of this plan, but I think he misinterprets how student loans are funded. Private companies administer Stafford loans on behalf of the government; they don't just start offering them out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it because it is highly profitable (which, again, leads back to expanding the cheaper direct loan program). At any rate, if the government chooses to fund lower-cost loans, then it WILL be a hit to the taxpayer, but the Department of Education estimates that every $1 of student loan assistance returns $3 in revenue over a student's lifetime. (pdf, page 7)

I'll be watching this with great interest.


Monday, January 08, 2007
My iPod is a gateway drug.
Now that the holidays are over, the wrapping paper has been tossed (or, if you're me, the gift bags have been folded up and put away), and the thank you notes have been written started, I'm able to consider the pleasures of my family's generosity.

One of the highlights is my new iPod Nano. For obvious reasons (well, obvious to some people), I have named it Hermia. It has made my commute much more pleasant, and I'm both rediscovering older songs and spending a lot of time with new favorites. Because it's the 2GB version, I have to do a bit more space management than if I'd saved up for the 4GB, but I don't look a gift iPod in the mouth. I foresee a lot of aural goodness in my future.

That said? That little gizmo could suck me dry if I let it.

I've already had to purchase a case and supra-aural earphones (I LOATHE earbuds). Both of these were pretty obvious add-ons if I planned to spend any time listening to it at all. (I could have purchased cheaper earphones, but the PX100s were well rated and foldable. I'm very happy with them.)

But what about a dock and A/V charger? What about car audio adapters? What about an alarm clock?

Thus far, I'm just taking slow breaths and not rushing into any other accessory purchases.

But the iPod Nation is vast and full of attractions to empty my wallet.

If you have one, which accessories (if any) do you consider critical? Which could you have done without?


Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Head of Janus and all that. (2006 Net Worth and 2007 Financial Resolutions.)

I've been away having a much-needed vacation with my family, but I didn't COMPLETELY forget about the pf world.

For starters, my net worth improved pretty mightily over the course of the month. I also offer the improvement since May (I technically started tracking it in March, but didn't have a consistent methodology until May [although there is one significant exception that I'll detail below].) I report on the second of every month for the transactions of the prior month (plus one loan payment on the first).

Personal Items

The KBB value of my car stayed the same this month, and I had no reason to adjust anything else. I have made adjustments since May to my vehicle and computer valuation.

Cash and Cash Equivalent

My rent check has yet to clear in my checking balance, but even so, I managed to keep more than I expected in my account. Part of this has to do with my family feeding me for much of my vacation. The increase in my savings account is mainly, but not entirely, due to generous gifts from family from the holidays and some reimbursement for ticket purchases. I'll be transferring most of it to my condo fund when the balance is no longer being held. My online savings account improvement reflects depositing my net bonus in my emergency fund.


I was pleasantly surprised by the continued growth in the markets in December. As you can see, equity growth and increased contributions (both from raises and higher percentages) led to strong growth in my retirement account since May. I'm comfortable with my percentage level (10 percent plus 5 percent match) so this probably won't see such vast improvement in 2007.

I did not record my mutual fund balance until August, so I don't show improvement in that category from May. However, the "zero" for that line does overstate my percentage improvement in my assets and overall net worth since May, although I estimate it's only by a few basis points.

At any rate, my asset base improved by at least 50 percent since May, and I am very pleased with that.

Loan Balances

I continue to make my scheduled payments on my loans. However, the holiday prevented both of my loans that are due on the first from posting (usually, one of them posts by the 2nd). For ease of comparison, I treat the loan that I transferred to my credit union as an "other loan" in May, although I originally recorded it as a student loan. Obviously, reducing the interest rate on that loan made a large difference.

Other Debt

One of my credit cards is now officially at a zero balance. The other card has been statement-paid (in part with my Christmas savings fund), but late December expenditures still left a higher-than-average balance on my card. I should be able to pay a good chunk of that balance off with my extra paycheck this month, well before the February due date. Since I am no longer using my one credit card as a DIY 0% financing tool for my computer, I suspect my credit balances will remain lower than they were in May.

All told, my net worth improved by at least 25 percent since May 2006. I'm still a long way off from a net worth of zero, but I am pleased with my progress.

And now for 2007.

I'm not that big on resolutions, but I do have a few specific goals this year.

  1. Improve my condo fund to at least $8K. I think my current contribution schedule should get me there without too much difficulty, but I will need to make extra contributions during my three-paycheck months. Stretch goal: $9K.
  2. Take a homeownership class. There are two being offered in my area this month. I doubt that I'll be ready to purchase this year, but taking the class early should help me get my ducks in a row for next year.
  3. Limit snack/cash withdrawal trips to CVS to once a week. I have a bad habit of sugar-crashing or wanting cash and therefore stopping at CVS on the way home. I should make more use of my network ATMs and do better grocery shopping so that I don't fritter those extra dollars away.
At any rate, I hope everyone has a lovely New Year.