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Is Using Retirement Money So My Daughter Can Graduate a Mistake?

Dear Penny,

I am a single parent. I am 67 years old and ready to retire.  However, I am anxious about decisions I need to make.

My daughter is in her last year of college. I don’t have any more money to pay for it. So for her last year, should I take from retirement monies or get a loan? 

She is a good kid with some special problems that she overcomes daily. I want her to have this degree and a chance in life. She worked very hard to overcome all of the physical and mental challenges in her life, BUT expenses are starting to affect my retirement. Any advice?

-J.

Dear J.,

Sometimes I get antsy when parents talk about spending retirement money on their child’s education. But we’re talking about one year of college, not four. I think you’d deeply regret not giving your daughter the financial support she needs to make it through this final year.

Contact the financial aid office for your daughter’s school if you haven’t already done so. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, bases financial aid on income from two years earlier. For example, aid for the 2022-23 school year will be based on 2020 income. But some schools offer a process called professional judgment where administrators can adjust FAFSA information based on major life changes, like a parent’s retirement, on a case-by-case basis.

If financial aid can’t make up the shortfall, a Parent PLUS loan is a good solution. A Parent PLUS loan is a federal student loan that you, as the parent, are responsible for repaying.

A big advantage of Parent PLUS loans is that you can qualify for something called income-contingent repayment. Basically, your payment is capped at 20% of your disposable income. You’re planning to retire soon, so I’m assuming your income will drop soon as well. That means you could qualify for an extremely low payment once your daughter graduates.

With private student loans — whether you take them out in your name or co-sign for your daughter — you’re at the mercy of your lender if you’re struggling with payments. So I’d vote in favor of a Parent PLUS loan, even if you find a private loan with a lower interest rate.

Keep in mind, a Parent PLUS loan is only an option if your daughter is considered a dependent student. For example, if she’s 24 or older or she has dependent children of her own, unfortunately, you wouldn’t be eligible.

If you can’t get a Parent PLUS loan, I’d suggest splitting taking half from your retirement funds and a private loan for the other half. Neither is an ideal option, but sometimes life forces us to choose between less-than-perfect options.

What makes me nervous about using retirement money is that virtually everyone’s investments have taken a hit in recent months. You want to limit your withdrawals as much as possible right now so that your money can recover. But at least since you’re 67, you won’t pay an early withdrawal penalty.

By taking half from your retirement and half as a loan, you can minimize the damage to your nest egg while taking less debt into retirement. If you’re able to work just a bit longer to pay some of these expenses in cash, even better.

Now let’s address your daughter’s role. I don’t know if she currently has a job. If she is able to work some to help defray costs without jeopardizing her studies, that should be on the table.

But I want her to focus on her studies so that she can actually complete her final year of coursework in a year. Stretching out the timeline further could pose a greater risk to your retirement. So I wouldn’t ask your daughter to get a job if she’s not already working or work more hours if she has a job.

Instead, I’d make sure your daughter understands the financial situation. Talk to her now about what her responsibility will be in helping you repay any loans. Once she graduates and finds a job, perhaps she could live with you and give you a percentage of her paycheck.

I’d also be clear with her: You’ll pay for one more year of school. But beyond that, you won’t be able to help her financially.

Your daughter has no doubt overcome her challenges thanks to her own grit, but also because of your love and support as a parent. You’re making a sacrifice to pay for her last year of school because you believe in her. Once she graduates, paying off any debt you’ve incurred will be another challenge you’ll need to conquer together.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].

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