S Corp vs. LLC: Which Is Best for Your Business?

S Corp vs. LLC: Which Is Best for Your Business? – SmartAsset

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So you own a business and you’re looking to incorporate. Two of the most popular business structure are the S Corp and the LLC. Which is best for your business can depend on many factors, such as what you do for a living, your tax situation and more. We’ll walk through the key characteristics of the two, and how to decide between them.

Why Incorporation Is Important

In most cases, the best reason to incorporate is liability. When you create a corporation, you separate your personal assets from your company’s assets. If someone wants to collect a debt or, at worst, file a lawsuit, they can only do so against the company and any assets in that company’s name. In turn, your personal savings remain protected. Both LLCs and S corporations can effectively protect your home life from a downturn in your professional world.

What Is An LLC?

A limited liability company, or LLC, is a type of corporate entity. It’s one of the most basic business types, and chiefly serves to separate the assets of the business owner(s) from the business itself.

If you opt to create an LLC, you will have created an entity that exists entirely separate from yourself. Clients will do business with this entity, which will have its own assets, debts and liabilities. If someone collects a debt or sues the LLC, they cannot pass that debt on to you.

What Is An S Corporation?

An S corporation is a tax status that allows a company to pass all profits directly through to its owner(s). This allows a small business to distribute profit-based income without double taxation.

Under the standard corporate form, known as a C corporation, a company first pays its corporate income tax. It then pays its owners and workers, who in turn pay personal income tax on that salary. This works well when a company functions entirely separately from the people who own and operate it.

However, in many small businesses, owners will take the profits entirely as their personal income. This creates a problem of double taxation, because in this case a business owner’s corporate income tax and personal income tax are one and the same. An S corporation allows the company’s owners to pay taxes only once via their personal income tax forms.

S Corp vs. LLC: Similarities and Differences

It is important to note that, because one is a corporate form and the other a tax status, LLCs and S corporations can, and do, overlap. To be clear, an LLC can file for S corporation tax status. Conversely, if you have S corporation tax status, you can also incorporate as an LLC. These forms do share a number of similar features, though, including:

  • Asset Protection – Both S corps and LLCs protect your personal assets from debt, bankruptcy, legal liability and other possible losses incurred by the corporation.
  • Double Taxation – All corporate profits pass along to the owners of LLCs and S corps without incurring corporate income taxes. This helps you avoid being taxed twice.
  • Multiple Members – LLCs and S corps can each have anywhere from one to multiple members, though an S corporation caps out at 100 shareholders. Further, only U.S. citizens and legal residents can be members of an S corporation.

In practice, one of the largest differences between LLCs and S corporations lies in how they assign payment. Under a default LLC operating as a sole proprietorship/general partnership, profits and expenses pass entirely through to the taxes of the individuals involved. Each participant both deducts business expenses and claims all profits on their personal income taxes. The LLC itself does not have any tax filings.

Under an S corporation, the members assign themselves a salary that the company pays out of its operating budget. This income must be reasonable for their position and industry. Then, after the company pays all expenses, it passes along any additional profits as a distribution to its members.

Here’s an example that illustrates these differences. Sue is a freelance programmer. She currently has an LLC that she operates. Last year she made $100,000 in income and had $10,000 in business expenses. Here’s how her tax situation plays out under the two statuses:

  • Sole Proprietorship LLC – Sue would claim $100,000 of personal income on her income taxes. She would reduce her taxable income by the $10,000 in expenses she incurred, leaving her with $90,000 in taxable personal income.
  • S corporation LLC – Sue has determined that a reasonable salary is $75,000. She would report that $75,000 as earned income. Her corporation would then pay the $10,000 in expenses and pass the remaining $15,000 as a profit distribution to Sue, who would report and pay taxes on it as corporate profit income.

Operating requirements for a multi-member S corporation are also significantly more complex than they are for an LLC. An S corporation must adopt bylaws which meet IRS guidelines and must have a corporate governing body that includes a board of directors and officers.

How Taxes Affect S Corps and LLCs

Most Americans pay a FICA tax of 7.65% of their income under $132,900, encompassing contributions to both Social Security and Medicare. Their employer pays the same 7.65% on their behalf. The self-employed, however, pay both sides of this tax, creating what’s known as the “self-employment tax.” This combines the aforementioned rates to the tune of a 15.3% tax on all self-employment income beneath the $132,900 limit.

The self-employment tax applies to all pass-through income as well. It does not apply to corporate profit distributions, though. The profit distributions will likely be taxed as ordinary income, while you may be able to classify them at the lower dividend income rate. In the end, you will not pay any payroll taxes on them.

S corporation members do not pay self-employment taxes on their profit distributions either. As a result, these members usually try to minimize the income portion of their earnings in favor of profit distributions. This is entirely valid as long as your income remains within a reasonable range. If you attempt to reduce your income too much, you will likely trigger an audit.

Continuing our previous example, Sue’s LLC earned $100,000 and spent $10,000 in business expenses last year. Under the S corporation form, Sue would save herself more than $2,000 in payroll taxes. Here’s how things would shake out:

  • Sole Proprietorship – Sue will claim the $100,000 of income and the $10,000 of expenses herself. This will lead to her having $90,000 of taxable income. She will pay the 15.3% self-employment tax on all of it, leading to $13,770 in self-employment taxes.
  • S Corporation – Sue takes a salary of $75,000. Her LLC will pay $10,000 in expenses and send her $15,000 as a corporate profit distribution. Sue and her LLC will pay the full combined 15.3% tax on her salary earnings, coming to $11,475. She will pay no payroll taxes on her profit distribution.

Bottom Line

In most cases, if you do business as an individual or a partnership, you should consider forming an LLC. This corporate form is inexpensive and highly flexible. Unless you anticipate major growth involving external shareholders and outside investment in the future, an LLC is a good way to protect your personal assets.

For an individual operator, the choice to elect S corporation tax status is largely a matter of accounting. If you would save a meaningful amount of money in self-employment taxes, it is likely worth electing S corporation status.

For a partnership, consider the operating requirements of an S corporation carefully. Would it significantly affect your business to adhere to bylaws and corporate governance? Do you have few enough members, and will you likely keep that membership group small? If so, once again, consider whether an S corporation would create enough tax savings to justify the costs of filing and paperwork.

Tips for Managing Your Finances

  • In-depth budgeting is a worthwhile strategy to adopt if you’re looking to improve your long-term finances. It may, however, be difficult to build a budget if you have little to no experience doing so. To get some help, stop by SmartAsset’s budget calculator.
  • Many financial advisors specialize in financial and tax planning for business owners. You can find a financial advisor today using SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool. Simply fill out our short questionnaire and you’ll be matched with up to three fiduciary advisors in your area.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/andresr, ©iStock.com/PattanaphongKhuankaew,©iStock.com/alfexe

Eric Reed Eric Reed is a freelance journalist who specializes in economics, policy and global issues, with substantial coverage of finance and personal finance. He has contributed to outlets including The Street, CNBC, Glassdoor and Consumer Reports. Eric’s work focuses on the human impact of abstract issues, emphasizing analytical journalism that helps readers more fully understand their world and their money. He has reported from more than a dozen countries, with datelines that include Sao Paolo, Brazil; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Athens, Greece. A former attorney, before becoming a journalist Eric worked in securities litigation and white collar criminal defense with a pro bono specialty in human trafficking issues. He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and can be found any given Saturday in the fall cheering on his Wolverines.
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A Guide to Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans

A Guide to Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans – SmartAsset

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As you explore funding options for higher education, you’ll come across many different ways to pay for school. You can try your hand at scholarships and grants, but you may also need to secure federal student loans. Depending on your financial situation, you may qualify for a subsidized loan or an unsubsidized loan. Here’s the breakdown of subsidized and unsubsidized loans, along with how to get each of them.

Subsidized vs. Unsubsidized Loans

In name, there’s only a two-letter difference. But in operation, subsidized and unsubsidized loans  – sometimes referred to as Stafford loans – aren’t quite the same.

A subsidized loan is available to undergraduate students who prove financial need and are enrolled in school at least part-time. After students or parents of the students fill out the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA), the school will determine how much money can be borrowed. Unfortunately, you can’t borrow more than you need.

One major difference of a subsidized loan vs. an unsubsidized loan is that the U.S. Department of Education pays the interest on a subsidized loan while the student is in school, for the first six months after graduating and during a deferment period (if the student chooses to defer the loan). For example, if your subsidized loan is $5,000 at the start of your college education, it’ll still be $5,000 when you begin paying it off after graduation because the government paid the interest on it while you were in school. The same may not be true for an unsubsidized loan.

An unsubsidized loan is available to both undergraduate and graduate students, and isn’t based on financial need. This means anyone who applies for one can get it. Like subsidized loans, students or their parents are required to fill out the FAFSA in order to determine how much can be borrowed. However, unlike subsidized loans, the size of the unsubsidized loan isn’t strictly based on financial need, so more money can be borrowed.

For an unsubsidized loan, students are responsible for paying the interest while in school, regardless of enrollment, as well as during deferment or forbearance periods. If you choose not to pay your interest during these times, the interest will continue to accrue, which means that your monthly payments could be more costly when you’re ready to pay them.

Both types of loans have interest rates that are set by the government and both come with a fee. Each one offers some of the easiest repayment options compared to private student loans, too. Students are eligible to borrow these loans for 150% of the length of the educational program they’re enrolled in. For example, if you attend a four-year university, you can borrow these loans for up to six years.

Pros and Cons

Both types of loans have pros and cons. Depending on your financial situation and education, one may be a better fit than the other. Even if you qualify for a subsidized loan, it’s important to understand what that means for your situation before borrowing that money.

Pros of Subsidized Loans

  • The student is not required to pay interest on the loan until after the six-month grace period after graduation.
  • The loan may be great for students who can’t afford the tuition and don’t have enough money from grants or scholarships to afford college costs.

Cons of Subsidized Loans

  • Students are limited in how much they can borrow. In the first year, you’re only allowed to borrow $3,500 in subsidized loans. After that, you can only borrow $4,500 the second year and $5,500 for years three and four. The total aggregate loan amount is limited to $23,000. This might cause you to take out additional loans to cover other costs.
  • Subsidized loans are only available for undergraduate students. Graduate students – even those who show financial need – don’t qualify.

If you don’t qualify for a subsidized loan, you may still be eligible for an unsubsidized loan.

Pros of Unsubsidized Loans

  • They are available to both undergraduate and graduate students who need to borrow money for school.
  • The amount you can borrow isn’t based on financial need.
  • Students are able to borrow more money than subsidized loans. The total aggregate loan amount is limited to $31,000 for undergraduate students considered dependents and whose parents don’t qualify for direct PLUS loans. Undergraduate independent students may be allowed to borrow up to $57,500, while graduate students may be allowed to borrow up to $138,500.

Cons of Unsubsidized Loans

  • Interest adds up — and you could be on the hook for it — while you’re in school. Once you start paying back the unsubsidized loan, payments may be more expensive than those for a subsidized loan because of the accrued interest.

How to Secure Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans

If you’re looking to get loans to pay for a college education, direct subsidized or unsubsidized loans might be your best option.

To apply for a subsidized or unsubsidized loan, you’ll need to complete the FAFSA. The form will ask you for important financial information based on your family’s income. From there, your college or university will use your FAFSA to determine the amount of student aid for which you’re eligible. Be mindful of the FAFSA deadline, as well additional deadlines set by your state for applying for state and institutional financial aid.

After the amount is decided, you’ll receive a financial aid package that details your expected family contribution and how much financial help you’ll get from the government. Your letter will include the amount of money you’ll receive in grants, as well as all types of loans you could secure. If you’re ready to accept the federal aid offered, you’ll need to submit a Mastery Promissory Note (MPN). This is a legal document that states your promise to pay back your loans in full, including any fees and accrued interest, to the U.S. Department of Education. 

The Bottom Line

Both subsidized and unsubsidized loans may be good financial resources for upcoming college students who need help paying for school. Both loans tend to have lower interest rates than private student loans, as well as easier repayment terms. 

Keep in mind that these are still loans and they will need to be paid back. If you avoid paying your student loans, you could end up in default or with a delinquent status, and your credit score could be damaged. Once you’re done with your college or graduate school education, stay responsible with your student loan repayment and you’ll be on the path to a successful financial future.

Tips for Managing Student Loan Debt

  • If you’re struggling to manage student loan debt, consider working with a financial advisor. Finding the right financial advisor that fits your needs doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in five minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Paying off student loans can be overwhelming. One way to make it easier is by refinancing them into one lower monthly payment, if you can. Check out the different student loan refinance rates that are available to you now.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/baona, ©iStock.com/urbazon, ©iStock.com/designer491

Dori Zinn Dori Zinn has been covering personal finance for nearly a decade. Her writing has appeared in Wirecutter, Quartz, Bankrate, Credit Karma, Huffington Post and other publications. She previously worked as a staff writer at Student Loan Hero. Zinn is a past president of the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and won the national organization’s “Chapter of the Year” award two years in a row while she was head of the chapter. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Florida Atlantic University and currently lives in South Florida.
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Effective tax rates in the United States

I messed up! Despite trying to make this article as fact-based as possible, I botched it. I’ve made corrections but if you read the comments, early responses may be confusing in light of my changes.

For the most part, the world of personal finance is calm and collected. There’s not a lot of bickering. Writers (and readers) agree on most concepts and most solutions. And when we do disagree, it’s generally because we’re coming from different places.

Take getting out of debt, for instance. This is one of those topics where people do disagree — but they disagree politely.

Hardcore numbers nerds insist that if you’re in debt, you ought to repay high-interest obligations first. The math says this is the smartest path. Other folks, including me, argue that other approaches are valid. You might pay off debts with emotional baggage first. And many people would benefit from repaying debt from smallest balance to highest balance — the Dave Ramsey approach — rather than focusing on interest rates.

That said, some money topics can be very, very contentious.

Any time I write about money and relationships (especially divorce), I know the debate will get lively. Should you rent a home or should you buy? That question gets people fired up too. What’s the definition of retirement? Should you give up your car and find another way to get around?

But out of all the topics I’ve ever covered at Get Rich Slowly, perhaps the most incendiary has been taxes. People have a lot of deeply-held beliefs about taxes, and they don’t appreciate when they read info that contradicts these beliefs. Chaos ensues.

Tax Facts

When I do write about taxes — which isn’t often — I try to stick to facts and steer clear of opinions. Examples:

  • The U.S. tax burden is relatively low when compared to other countries.
  • The U.S. tax burden is relatively low when compared to U.S. tax burdens in the past.
  • Overall, the U.S. has a progressive tax system. People who earn more pay more. That said, certain taxes are regressive (meaning that, as a percentage of income, low earners pay more).
  • A large number of Americans (roughly one-third) pay no federal income tax at all.
  • Despite fiery rhetoric, no one political party is better with taxing and spending than the other. The only period during the past fifty years in which the U.S. government had a budget surplus was 1998-2001 under President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress.

Even when I state these facts, there are people who disagree with me. They don’t agree that these are facts. Or they don’t agree these facts are relevant.

Also, I sometimes read complaints that the wealthy are taxed too much. To make their argument, writers make statements like, “The top 50% of taxpayers pay 97% of all federal income taxes.” While this statement is true, I don’t feel like it’s a true measure of where tax burdens fall.

I believe there’s a better, more accurate way to analyze tax burdens.

Effective Tax Burden

To me, what matters more than nominal tax dollars paid is each individual’s effective tax burden.

Your effective tax burden is usually defined as your total tax paid as a percentage of your income. If you take every tax dollar you pay — federal income tax, state income tax, property tax, sales tax, and so on — then divide this total by how much you’ve earned, what is that percentage?

This morning, while curating links for Apex Money — my second personal-finance site, which is devoted to sharing top money stories from around the web — I found an interesting infographic from Visual Capitalist. (VC is a great site, by the way. Love it.) They’ve created a graphic that visualizes effective tax rates by state.

Here’s a summary graph (not the main visualization):

State effective tax rates

As you can see, on average the top 1% of income earners in the U.S. have a state effective tax rate of 7.4%. The middle 60% of U.S. workers have a state effective tax rate of around 10%. And the bottom 20% of income earners (which Visual Capitalist incorrectly labels “poorest Americans” — wealth and income are not the same thing) have a state effective tax rate of 11.4%.

Tangent: This conflation of wealth with income continues to grate on my nerves. I’ll grant that there’s probably a correlation between the two, but they are not the same thing. For the past few years, I’ve had a low income. I’m in the bottom 20% of income earners. But I am not poor. I have a net worth of $1.5 million. And I know plenty of people — hey, brother! — with high incomes and low net worths.

It’s important to note — and this caused me confusion, which meant I had to revise this article — that the Visual Capital numbers are for state and local taxes only. They don’t include federal income taxes. (Coincidentally, I made a similar mistake a decade ago when writing about marginal tax rates. I had to make corrections to that article too. Sigh.)

GRS readers quickly helped me remedy my mistake, pointing to the nonprofit Tax Foundation’s summary of federal income tax data. With a bit of detective work, I uncovered this graph of federal effective tax rates by income from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. (Come on. What parent names their kid Peter Peterson? That’s mean.)

Federal effective tax rates

Let’s put this all together! According to the Institute on Taxation on Economic Policy, this graph represents total effective tax rates for folks of various income levels. Note that this graph is explicitly comparing projected numbers in 2018 for a) the existing tax laws (in blue) and b) the previous tax laws (in grey).

TOTAL effective tax rates in the U.S

Total Tax Burden vs. Total Income

Here’s one final graph, also from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. This is the graph that I personally find the most interesting. It compares the share of total taxes paid by each income group to their share of the country’s total income.

Tax burden vs. total income

Collectively, the bottom 20% of income earners in the United States earned 3.5% of total income. They paid 1.9% of the total tax bill. The top 1% of income earners in the U.S. earned one-fifth of the nation’s total personal income. They paid 22.9% of total taxes.

Is the U.S. tax system fair? Should people with high incomes pay more? Do they pay more than their fair share? Should low-income workers pay more? Are we talking about numbers that are so close together that it doesn’t matter? I don’t know and, truthfully, I don’t care. I’m concerned with personal finance not politics. But I do care about facts. And civility.

The problem with discussions about taxation is that people talk about different things. When some folks argue, they’re talking about marginal tax rates. Others are talking about effective tax rates. Still others are talking about actual, nominal numbers. When some people talk about wealth, they mean income. Others — correctly — mean net worth. It’s all very confusing, even to smart people who mean well.

[embedded content]

Final Note

Under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, the U.S. Department of the Treasury was required to establish a website — USASpending.gov — to provide the American public with info on how the federal government spends its money. While the usability of the site could use some work, it does provide a lot of information, and I’m sure it’ll become one of my go-to tools when writing about taxes. (I intend to update a couple of my older articles this year.)

U.S. federal budget

The USA Spending site has a Data Lab that’s currently in public beta-testing. This subsite provides even more ways to explore how the government spends your money. (I also found another simple budget-visualization tool from Brad Flyon at Learn Forever Learn.)

Okay, that’s all I have for today. Let the bickering begin!

Source: getrichslowly.org

Effective tax rates in the United States

I messed up! Despite trying to make this article as fact-based as possible, I botched it. I’ve made corrections but if you read the comments, early responses may be confusing in light of my changes.

For the most part, the world of personal finance is calm and collected. There’s not a lot of bickering. Writers (and readers) agree on most concepts and most solutions. And when we do disagree, it’s generally because we’re coming from different places.

Take getting out of debt, for instance. This is one of those topics where people do disagree — but they disagree politely.

Hardcore numbers nerds insist that if you’re in debt, you ought to repay high-interest obligations first. The math says this is the smartest path. Other folks, including me, argue that other approaches are valid. You might pay off debts with emotional baggage first. And many people would benefit from repaying debt from smallest balance to highest balance — the Dave Ramsey approach — rather than focusing on interest rates.

That said, some money topics can be very, very contentious.

Any time I write about money and relationships (especially divorce), I know the debate will get lively. Should you rent a home or should you buy? That question gets people fired up too. What’s the definition of retirement? Should you give up your car and find another way to get around?

But out of all the topics I’ve ever covered at Get Rich Slowly, perhaps the most incendiary has been taxes. People have a lot of deeply-held beliefs about taxes, and they don’t appreciate when they read info that contradicts these beliefs. Chaos ensues.

Tax Facts

When I do write about taxes — which isn’t often — I try to stick to facts and steer clear of opinions. Examples:

  • The U.S. tax burden is relatively low when compared to other countries.
  • The U.S. tax burden is relatively low when compared to U.S. tax burdens in the past.
  • Overall, the U.S. has a progressive tax system. People who earn more pay more. That said, certain taxes are regressive (meaning that, as a percentage of income, low earners pay more).
  • A large number of Americans (roughly one-third) pay no federal income tax at all.
  • Despite fiery rhetoric, no one political party is better with taxing and spending than the other. The only period during the past fifty years in which the U.S. government had a budget surplus was 1998-2001 under President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress.

Even when I state these facts, there are people who disagree with me. They don’t agree that these are facts. Or they don’t agree these facts are relevant.

Also, I sometimes read complaints that the wealthy are taxed too much. To make their argument, writers make statements like, “The top 50% of taxpayers pay 97% of all federal income taxes.” While this statement is true, I don’t feel like it’s a true measure of where tax burdens fall.

I believe there’s a better, more accurate way to analyze tax burdens.

Effective Tax Burden

To me, what matters more than nominal tax dollars paid is each individual’s effective tax burden.

Your effective tax burden is usually defined as your total tax paid as a percentage of your income. If you take every tax dollar you pay — federal income tax, state income tax, property tax, sales tax, and so on — then divide this total by how much you’ve earned, what is that percentage?

This morning, while curating links for Apex Money — my second personal-finance site, which is devoted to sharing top money stories from around the web — I found an interesting infographic from Visual Capitalist. (VC is a great site, by the way. Love it.) They’ve created a graphic that visualizes effective tax rates by state.

Here’s a summary graph (not the main visualization):

State effective tax rates

As you can see, on average the top 1% of income earners in the U.S. have a state effective tax rate of 7.4%. The middle 60% of U.S. workers have a state effective tax rate of around 10%. And the bottom 20% of income earners (which Visual Capitalist incorrectly labels “poorest Americans” — wealth and income are not the same thing) have a state effective tax rate of 11.4%.

Tangent: This conflation of wealth with income continues to grate on my nerves. I’ll grant that there’s probably a correlation between the two, but they are not the same thing. For the past few years, I’ve had a low income. I’m in the bottom 20% of income earners. But I am not poor. I have a net worth of $1.5 million. And I know plenty of people — hey, brother! — with high incomes and low net worths.

It’s important to note — and this caused me confusion, which meant I had to revise this article — that the Visual Capital numbers are for state and local taxes only. They don’t include federal income taxes. (Coincidentally, I made a similar mistake a decade ago when writing about marginal tax rates. I had to make corrections to that article too. Sigh.)

GRS readers quickly helped me remedy my mistake, pointing to the nonprofit Tax Foundation’s summary of federal income tax data. With a bit of detective work, I uncovered this graph of federal effective tax rates by income from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. (Come on. What parent names their kid Peter Peterson? That’s mean.)

Federal effective tax rates

Let’s put this all together! According to the Institute on Taxation on Economic Policy, this graph represents total effective tax rates for folks of various income levels. Note that this graph is explicitly comparing projected numbers in 2018 for a) the existing tax laws (in blue) and b) the previous tax laws (in grey).

TOTAL effective tax rates in the U.S

Total Tax Burden vs. Total Income

Here’s one final graph, also from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. This is the graph that I personally find the most interesting. It compares the share of total taxes paid by each income group to their share of the country’s total income.

Tax burden vs. total income

Collectively, the bottom 20% of income earners in the United States earned 3.5% of total income. They paid 1.9% of the total tax bill. The top 1% of income earners in the U.S. earned one-fifth of the nation’s total personal income. They paid 22.9% of total taxes.

Is the U.S. tax system fair? Should people with high incomes pay more? Do they pay more than their fair share? Should low-income workers pay more? Are we talking about numbers that are so close together that it doesn’t matter? I don’t know and, truthfully, I don’t care. I’m concerned with personal finance not politics. But I do care about facts. And civility.

The problem with discussions about taxation is that people talk about different things. When some folks argue, they’re talking about marginal tax rates. Others are talking about effective tax rates. Still others are talking about actual, nominal numbers. When some people talk about wealth, they mean income. Others — correctly — mean net worth. It’s all very confusing, even to smart people who mean well.

[embedded content]

Final Note

Under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, the U.S. Department of the Treasury was required to establish a website — USASpending.gov — to provide the American public with info on how the federal government spends its money. While the usability of the site could use some work, it does provide a lot of information, and I’m sure it’ll become one of my go-to tools when writing about taxes. (I intend to update a couple of my older articles this year.)

U.S. federal budget

The USA Spending site has a Data Lab that’s currently in public beta-testing. This subsite provides even more ways to explore how the government spends your money. (I also found another simple budget-visualization tool from Brad Flyon at Learn Forever Learn.)

Okay, that’s all I have for today. Let the bickering begin!

Source: getrichslowly.org

What to Know Before Taking Out a Subsidized Loan

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Disclaimer

Attending college or university is a dream for a ton of people. Yet higher education can be expensive, seemingly putting that dream out of reach for many students and families.

Tuition at American schools has steadily increased for decades, so it can be hard for your average student to afford it. But it’s not only tuition costs that you need to consider: fees, room and board, off-campus living, meal plans, textbooks, living essentials and other supplies all cost money.

Fortunately, there are many different types of financial aid available to help you meet the total costs of attending school.

Grants, scholarships and government programs can all be used to aid your pursuit of higher education. Student loans, including private and federal loans, are also commonly used to fund college. But taking on debt requires more financial planning than other types of aid.

If you’re ready to find the right loan for you and your unique financial situation, we’ve got you covered. We’ll go over everything and anything we think you need to know about subsidized student loans—the basics, how they’re different from unsubsidized loans and much more. 

Student Loans and Rising Education Costs

Having a plan for how you’ll pay for college is pretty important. That’s mostly because the tuition continues rise: 

  • According to The College Board, tuition and fees for a public four-year institution in the academic year of 1989–90 were $3,510, in 2019 dollars. 
  • For the academic year 2019–2020, those costs exceeded $10,000. In the same time span, tuition and fees for a private four-year institution rose from $17,860 to nearly $37,000. 
  • In the last 10 years alone, tuition and fees for four-year public schools have increased $2,020, while costs for four-year private schools have grown $6,210. 

But as we mentioned, total costs include a lot more than tuition, and these other cost items have shown the same upward trend:

  • Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows college textbooks costs increased 88% from 2006 to 2016.
  • Average dorm costs at all postsecondary institutions were $6,106 in 2017, per data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Boarding costs, including meal plans, were $4,765. A decade earlier those costs, respectively, were $4,777 and $4,009.
  • Costs rose 24% for students living off-campus at public four-year universities between 2000 and 2017, according to The Hechinger Report.

The growth in college costs has occurred rapidly, outpacing wagegrowth. This has made a degree unaffordable for many. That’s where student loans come in.

The biggest source of these loans is the federal government. According to Sallie Mae, more than 90% of student loan debt today is tied to federal student loans. While the government offers several loan types, often based on financial need, private lenders such as banks and credit unions also make student loans available.

What is a Subsidized Loan?

To better understand your loan options, let’s explore the specifics of one of the government’s most popular offers: the subsidized student loan.

Officially, a subsidized loan is a type of federal loan offered through the U.S. Department of Education’s Direct Loan Program and referred to as a Direct Subsidized Loan. They are made exclusively to undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need and can be used to pay for college, university or a career school.

Subsidized loans work like most other student loans. They allow college goers to borrow money as they learn, paying the principal and interest back later. Most loans don’t require repayment while you attend school, and provide a grace period of six months after graduation for you to find a job. 

The most notable feature of subsidized loans is that the government pays the interest while you attend school at least part time. This is a quality that’s pretty much unique to federal subsidized loans. 

The government will also pay the interest during the grace period and during periods of loan deferment. You eventually assume responsibility for paying the interest, and principal, once you enter the repayment plan. 

The bottom line for subsidized loans is they carry a lower lifetime cost, because the government pays interest while you’re at school.

Who’s Eligible to Take Out a Subsidized Loan?

Subsidized loans aren’t available to everyone, however. In addition to meeting basic requirements for getting a loan from the federal Direct Loan Program, applicants for subsidized loans must:

  • Demonstrate financial need.
  • Be an undergraduate student.
  • Be enrolled at least half time.

Anyone considering a subsidized loan must fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. This is how the government will establish whether you demonstrate financial need that is sufficient for taking out a subsidized loan.

What Else Should You Know?

There are two other main points to discuss about subsidized loans—loan limits and time limits. Ultimately, your school will decide how much you can borrow. But there are annual limits to what you can borrow through subsidized loans, as well as a maximum for the entirety of your college career.

  • In your first undergrad year you can borrow up to $5,500 through federal loan, no more than $3,500 of that amount can be through subsidized loans.
  • In your second year you can borrow up to $6,500, no more than $4,500 through subsidized loans.
  • In your third year you can borrow up to $7,500, no more than $5,500 through subsidized loans.
  • The limits for your third year apply to your fourth year, and any year after that for which you are eligible to borrow through federal subsidized loans.

Factors influencing what you can borrow include what year you are in school and whether you are a dependent or independent student. 

Importantly, you can only receive subsidized loans for 150% of the published time of your degree program. That means if you attend a four-year bachelor’s program, you can only receive a subsidized loan for six years.

What’s the Difference Between Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans?

Unsubsidized loans are the other type of loan the government offers. While unsubsidized loans and subsidized have some similarities, unsubsidized loans have some major differences.  

Interest rates for both subsidized and unsubsidized loans are controlled and set by Congress. This makes the interest rates for government student loans among the lowest you will be able to find.

While the federal government pays interest on subsidized loans, you’ll be solely responsible for paying interest on unsubsidized loans. You’ll have to pay interest while you’re in school and during the grace/deferment period.  Here are some other key differences:

  • Unsubsidized loans are available to undergraduate students, as well as graduate and professional students.
  • Students don’t need to demonstrate financial need to apply for an unsubsidized loan.
  • There is no maximum time limit for how long you can receive unsubsidized loans (compared to the 150% rule for subsidized loans).
  • Annual and aggregate loan limits are generally higher for unsubsidized loans.

Private Loans vs. Federal Student Loans

Interested in how private loans stack up to government loans? In a nutshell:

  • Private loans can have variable interest rates, which may make them lower in some cases than even fixed interest rates on government loans.
  • Annual loan limits don’t apply to private loans, as you and your lender will work out a package that is best for you.
  • Being approved for a private loan means submitting to a credit check, or having a parent as a consigner.
  • Often, private loans require payment while you attend school, and may not have the allowance for forbearance and forgiveness as government loans do.

Taking the Next Steps Toward Taking Out a Student Loan

If you or your child is nearing college age, it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll pay for higher education. It’s a good idea to look into a few options, including student loans, scholarships, grants and other sources. 

If you want to get started on applying for a subsidized loan, get started on your FAFSA form. And if you’re taking a closer look at private student loans, you can find help here.

Infographic outlining what to know about subsidized loans, including their structure, requirements, and qualifications.


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529 Plans: A Complete Guide to Funding Future Education

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Do you have kids? Are there children in your life? Were you once a child? If you plan on helping pay for a child’s future education, then you’ll benefit from this complete guide to 529 plans. We’ll cover every detail of 529 plans, from the what/when/why basics to the more complex tax implications and investing ideas.

This article was 100% inspired by my Patrons. Between Jack, Nathan, Remi, other kiddos in my life (and a few buns in the oven), there are a lot of young Best Interest readers out there. And one day, they’ll probably have some education expenses. That’s why their parents asked me to write about 529 plans this week.

What is a 529 Plan?

The 529 college savings plan is a tax-advantaged investment account meant specifically for education expenses. As of the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (in 2017), 529 plans can be used for college costs, K-12 public school costs, or private and/or religious school tuition. If you will ever need to pay for your children’s education, then 529 plans are for you.

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529 plans are named in a similar fashion as the famous 401(k). That is, the name comes from the specific U.S. tax code where the plan was written into law. It’s in Section 529 of Internal Revenue Code 26. Wow—that’s boring!

But it turns out that 529 plans are strange amalgam of federal rules and state rules. Let’s start breaking that down.

Tax Advantages

Taxes are important! 529 college savings plans provide tax advantages in a manner similar to Roth accounts (i.e. different than traditional 401(k) accounts). In a 529 plan, you pay all your normal taxes today. Your contributions to the 529 plan, therefore, are made with after-tax dollars.

Any investment you make within your 529 plan is then allowed to grow tax-free. Future withdrawals—used for qualified education expenses—are also tax-free. Pay now, save later.

But wait! Those are just the federal income tax benefits. Many individual states offer state tax benefits to people participating in 529 plans. As of this writing, 34 states and Washington D.C. offer these benefits. Of the 16 states not participating, nine of those don’t have any state income tax. The seven remaining states—California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, and North Carolina—all have state income taxes, yet do not offer income tax benefits to their 529 plan participants. Boo!

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This makes 529 plans an oddity. There’s a Federal-level tax advantage that applies to everyone. And then there might be a state-level tax advantage depending on which state you use to setup your plan.

Two Types of 529 Plans

The most common 529 plan is the college savings program. The less common 529 is the prepaid tuition program.

The savings program can be thought of as a parallel to common retirement investing accounts. A person can put money into their 529 plan today. They can invest that money in a few different ways (details further in the article). At a later date, they can then use the full value of their account at any eligible institution—in state or out of state. The value of their 529 plan will be dependent on their investing choices and how those investments perform.

The prepaid program is a little different. This plan is only offered by certain states (currently only 10 are accepting new applicants) and even by some individual colleges/universities. The prepaid program permits citizens to buy tuition credits at today’s tuition rates. Those credits can then be used in the future at in-state universities. However, using these credits outside of the state they were bought in can result in not getting full value.

You don’t choose investments in the prepaid program. You just buy credit’s today that can be redeemed in the future.

The savings program is universal, flexible, and grows based on your investments.

The prepaid program is not offered everywhere, works best at in-state universities, and grows based on how quickly tuition is changing (i.e. the difference between today’s tuition rate and the future tuition rate when you use the credit.)

Example: a prepaid credit would have cost ~$13,000 for one year of tuition in 2000. That credit would have been worth ~$24,000 of value if used in 2018. (Source)

What are “Qualified Education Expenses?”

You can only spend your 529 plan dollars on “qualified education expenses.” Turns out, just about anything associated with education costs can be paid for using 529 plan funds. Qualified education expenses include:

  • Tuition
  • Fees
  • Books
  • Supplies
  • Room and board (as long as the beneficiary attends school at least half-time). Off-campus housing is even covered, as long as it’s less than on-campus housing.

Student loans and student loan interest were added to this list in 2019, but there’s a lifetime limit of $10,000 per person.

How Do You “Invest” Your 529 Plan Funds?

529 savings plans do more than save. Their real power is as a college investment plan. So, how can you “invest” this tax-advantaged money?

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There’s a two-part answer to how your 529 plan funds are invested. The first part is that only savings plans can be invested, not prepaid plans. The second part is that it depends on what state you’re in.

For example, let’s look at my state: New York. It offers both age-based options and individual portfolios.

The age-based option places your 529 plan on one of three tracks: aggressive, moderate, or conservative. As your child ages, the portfolio will automatically re-balance based on the track you’ve chosen.

The aggressive option will hold more stocks for longer into your child’s life—higher risk, higher rewards. The conservative option will skew towards bonds and short-term reserves. In all cases, the goal is to provide some level of growth in early years, and some level of stability in later years.

The individual portfolios are similar to the age-based option, but do not automatically re-balance. There are aggressive and conservative and middle-ground choices. Thankfully, you can move funds from one portfolio to another up to twice per year. This allowed rebalancing is how you can achieve the correct risk posture.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Using a 529 Plan

The advantages of using the 529 as a college investing plan are clear. First, there’s the tax-advantaged nature of it, likely saving you tens of thousands of dollars. Another benefit is the aforementioned ease of investing using a low-maintenance, age-based investing accounts. Most states offer them.

Other advantages include the high maximum contribution limit (ranging by state, from a low of $235K to a high of $529K), the reasonable financial aid treatment, and, of course, the flexibility.

If your child doesn’t end up using their 529 plan, you can transfer it to another relative. If you don’t like your state’s 529 offering, you can open an account in a different state. You can even use your 529 plan to pay for primary education at a private school or a religious school.

But the 529 plan isn’t perfect. There are disadvantages too.

For example, the prepaid 529 plan involves a considerable up-front cost—in the realm of $100,000 over four years. That’s a lot of money. Also, your proactive saving today ends up affecting your child’s financial aid package in the future. It feels a bit like a punishment for being responsible. That ain’t right!

Of course, a 529 plan is not a normal investing account. If you don’t use the money for educational purposes, you will face a penalty. And if you want to hand-pick your 529 investments? Well, you can’t do that. Similar to many 401(k) programs, your state’s 529 program probably only offers a few different fund choices.

529 Plan FAQ

Here are some of the most common questions about 529 education savings plans. And I even provide answers!

How do I open a 529 plan?

Virtually all states now have online portals that allow you to open 529 plans from the comfort of your home. A few online forms and email messages is all it takes.

Can I contribute to someone else’s 529?

You sure can! If you have a niece or nephew or grandchild or simply a friend, you can make a third-party contribution to their 529 plan. You don’t have to be their parent, their relative, or the person who opened the account.

Investing in someone else’s knowledge is a terrific gift.

Does a 529 plan affect financial aid?

Short answer: yes, but it’s better than how many other assets affect financial aid.

Longer answer: yes, having a 529 plan will likely reduce the amount of financial aid a student receives. The first $10,000 in a 529 plan is not part of the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) equation. It’s not “counted against you.” After that $10,000, remaining 529 plan funds are counted in the EFC equation, but cap at 5.46% of the parental assets (many other assets are capped higher, e.g. at 20%).

Similarly, 529 plan distributions are not included in the “base year income” calculations in the FAFSA application. This is another benefit in terms of financial aid.

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Finally, 529 plan funds owned by non-parents (e.g. grandparents) are not part of the FAFSA EFC equation. This is great! The downside occurs when the non-parent actually withdraws the funds on behalf of the student. At that time, 50% of those funds count as “student income,” thus lowering the student’s eligibility for aid.

Are there contribution limits?

Kinda sorta. It’s a little complicated.

There is no official annual contribution limit into a 529 plan. But, you should know that 529 contributions are considered “completed gifts” in federal tax law, and that those gifts are capped at $15,000 per year in 2020 and 2021.

After $15,000 of contributions in one year, the remainder must be reported to the IRS against the taxpayer’s (not the student’s) lifetime estate and gift tax exemption.

Additionally, each state has the option of limiting the total 529 plan balances for a particular beneficiary. My state (NY) caps this limit at $520,000. That’s easily high enough to pay for 4 years of college at current prices.

Another state-based limit involves how much income tax savings a contributor can claim per year. In New York, for example, only the first $5,000 (or $10,000 if a married couple) are eligible for income tax savings.

Can I use my state’s 529 plan in another state? Do I need to create 529 plans in multiple states?

Yes, you can use your state’s 529 plan in another state. And mostly likely no, you do not need to create 529 plans in multiple states.

First, I recommend scrolling up to the savings program vs. prepaid program description. Savings programs are universal and transferrable. My 529 savings plan could pay for tuition in any other state, and even some other countries.

But prepaid tuition accounts typically have limitations in how they transfer. Prepaid accounts typically apply in full to in-state, state-sponsored schools. They might not apply in full to out-of-state and/or private schools.

What if my kid is Lebron James and doesn’t go to college? Can I get my money back?

It’s a great question. And the answer is yes, there are multiple ways to recoup your money if the beneficiary doesn’t end up using it for education savings.

First, you can avoid all penalties by changing the beneficiary of the funds. You can switch to another qualifying family member. Instead of paying for Lebron’s college, you can switch those funds to his siblings, to a future grandchild, or even to yourself (if you wanted to go back to school).

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What if you just want you money back? The contributions that you initially made come back to you tax-free and penalty-free. After all, you already paid taxes on those. Any earnings you’ve made on those contributions are subject to normal income tax, and then a 10% federal penalty tax.

The 10% penalty is waived in certain situations, such as the beneficiary receiving a tax-free scholarship or attending a U.S. military academy.

And remember those state income tax breaks we discussed earlier? Those tax breaks might get recaptured (oh no!) if you end up taking non-qualified distributions from your 529 plan.

Long story short: try to the keep the funds in a 529 plan, especially is someone in your family might benefit from them someday. Otherwise, you’ll pay some taxes and penalties.

Graduation

It’s time to don my robe and give a speech. Keep on learning, you readers, for:

An investment in knowledge pays the best interest

-Ben Franklin

Oh snap! Yes, that is how the blog got its name. Giving others the gift of education is a wonderful thing, and 529 plans are one way the U.S. government allows you to do so.

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, I’d suggest checking out my Archive or Subscribing to get future articles emailed to your inbox.

This article—just like every other—is supported by readers like you.

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