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Saving For College, Part 4: The EFC Calculation

Contributed by mm | December 25, 2004 1:42 PM PST

Now, I want to put my pro forma 2020 financials to the test of Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and see if, and how, I can use the "hints" I received in the analysis in Part 3 to change my behavior.

(Before I get into the details, let me first say from this point on, the analysis becomes very specific to my family's status, and my conclusions may or may not apply to you. Nevertheless, I would like to document my line of thinking as much as possible and hope it will be more meaningful for whoever is reading.)

First, I will assume I will hit my goal of $1,000,000 net worth by 2016 -- this is a reasonable target assuming I keep working, my wife will be working on and off, and we keep saving at the current rate. I will also assume from now to 2016, we will contribute to the maximum in 401(k), and fully fund our Roth IRAs every year. Factoring in some reasonable investment returns, my back-of-envelope calculation in Excel reveals I will end up with this asset mix:

- $450,000 in 401(k)
- $180,000 in Roth IRA
- $230,000 in home equity (house value - outstanding mortgage balance)
- $180,000 in after-tax saving and retirement account

Between 2016 and 2020, I probably will not work on a full-time basis, so my after-tax account balance will decline but my retirement account balance will continue to rise, so the balance will more look like this:

- $550,000 in 401(k)
- $250,000 in Roth IRA
- $300,000 in home equity (house value - outstanding mortgage balance)
- $100,000 in after-tax saving and retirement account

Eonough on the background, let me put the numbers to work at the EFC calculator at finaid.org.

The key inputs include:

- Adjusted Gross Income: $40,000
- Federal Tax Paid: $3,000
- Earned Income: $20,000
- Worksheet A: $4,000
- Liquid Assets: $20,000
- Net Home Equity: $300,000
- Other Investments: $80,000
- No student income

The result:

- Using Federal Methodology (FM), the expected family contribution is $8,695 based on $29,128 of adjusted available income. $29,128 includes parents' available income of $21,760 based on the tax form, and $7,368, or 12% from the discretionary net worth ($20,000 + $80,000 - $38,600 asset protection allowance), from the assets.

- Using Institutional Methodology (IM), the expected family contribution is $25,615 based on $65,128 of adjusted available income. $29,128 includes parents' available income of $21,760 based on the tax form, and $42,368, or 12% from the discretionary net worth ($20,000 + $80,000 + $300,000 - $38,600 asset protection allowance), from the assets. Student is expected to kick in another $1,000.

- The different results between FM and IM is caused by the different treatment of home equity.

Some of the findings:

- FM leaves the loophole for home equity treatment. Conceptually, you can always shift assets between your liquid account and home equity by refinancing, which creates more opportunity for financial aids.

- Having more assets in retirement accounts will make your kids more eiligible for financial aids. Quantitatively, in my case, every $10,000 more in the after-tax account will add about $500 to EFC in Im calculation (again, this is specific to my case). 5% is not a small number; 5% for four years is 20% difference, which is huge.

Now, my approach to contribute to the max of retirement accounts (both 401(k) and Roth IRA) will definitely help financial aid eligibility, and I will continue to do that. However, it might not apply to everyone. One important factor we need to consider in this game is liquidity. Funds in 401(k) and traditional IRA have very poor liquidity; you cannot withdraw from them for educational purpose without penalty. If you can only afford to contribute to 401(k) and can save nothing else, you should hedge your bet by moving some 401(k) contributions to Roth IRA -- at least, Roth IRA contributions (not the appreciation) can be withdrawn anytime for any reason without penalty. Otherwise, you might end up with a big 401(k) balance that cannot help your kids' immediate college needs.

By now, we have a foundation to analyze different vehicles for college saving. Starting from next installment, I will look into specific tools like 529 plans, Coverdell accounts and other options.

(This article is a component of the 10-part "Saving for College" series at PFBlog. If you want to read from the start, follow the links at this Table of Contents page.)

This Post Has Received 32 Comments. Share Your Opinions Too.


Motts McGregor Commented on December 26, 2004

Following this with great interest. Just curious how you deal with the impact of inflation. For example $40k nominal in 2020 may be equivalent to $20k today. On the other hand you could use the REAL increase in college costs (deduct out the background rate of inflation) to figure out what the current formulae would make of your projected REAL (current dollar) future income estimates.

This is a complicated case of making sure not to improperly mix nominal and real estimates.


-Motts


mm Commented on December 26, 2004

Yes, I guess someone will ask for this ... and this is a fair question.

In the calculation, the $1M net asset is inflation-adjusted, the $40k AGI is also inflation-adjusted, factoring in a minimal part-time job plus some investment gains from non-tax-advantaged accounts.

To this end, I feel I am making conservative projections as the FM/IM formula is adjusted for 2005-2006 cost of living, and presumably, the 2020-2021 formula will generate a lower EFC number than the number I quoted above.

Also, to some extent, inflation does not matter in this analysis, because we are discussing how each component of the assets contributes to EFC differently, and thus draw some conclusion that how to best arrange assets.


Mathematics Commented on August 3, 2005

You said 5% more times 4 years is 20% more. It'd only be 20% more of 1 year, though.

5% more per year times 4 years is 5% more. Duh.
5% more than, for example, $10,000 is 10,500. Times 4 is 42,000. Had the extra 5% not been there, it'd be 40,000. 42000/4000 is 1.05, Thusly, 5% extra.

However, 42000-40000 is $2,000 extra, which is 20% of a single year (10,000). So, 5% times 4 years is 20% more of a single year, but still 5% overall. It's about as much as your gas going from $2.30 to $2.41, you're just filling up a fleet of Hummers...


mm Commented on August 3, 2005

To Mathematica, the base of 5% is your after-tax account balance, not the tuition. So you are penalized at a rate of 5% every year for your balance. Keeping a $10,000 balance for four years does not make it $40,000, but you will hurt yourself by $2,000 for keeping the $10,000 balance. Make sense?


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