This blog article is based on the College Talks & More podcast brought to you by Mybookcart.com. Coming up with a plan to pay for college can be stressful and confusing. Hanna and Cari, along with their guest Robert Farrington, talk about all the different ways you can pay for college, some traditional ways and some rather unique. Continue reading to learn how important proper planning is. If you do it wrong, it can be disastrous, especially for parents and their retirement. And don’t forget about the side hustle! In this article, Robert Farrington also discusses how his blog, The College Investor, helps students and parents invest for college and pay off debt. He started out by giving the history of The College Investor:
I’ve been out of college for 10 years, but I started The College Investor when I was finishing college. I started it as a way to share my thoughts on investing, making money, and building wealth. After doing it for a year or so, people told me that my tips were great but they had a lot of student loans or are struggling to pay for college. We’ve really transformed our message over the last couple of years to helping people escape student loan debt so they can start building wealth. This time of year, we also talked to a lot of kids and families about how to pay for college and how to be smart when paying for college, even more so right now with the pandemic going on. For example, we asked the question, “Is college even worth it?” because college is online in a lot of places now. So that’s how I got started and that’s one of the main things I talk about.
If our readers want to go to your website, what URL would they type in?
You can find me at https://thecollegeinvestor.com/.
What do you recommend for students or parents looking to have enough money for college?
It definitely starts early. I recommend families have these conversations as early as possible. They should be having money conversations at every age but if you’re talking about college, it should definitely be at the end of middle school at the latest and all through high school. There’s so many ways to save for college. The kids can work, the parents can work, you can use gifting so maybe a family member gives you some money. As the student gets older, you can pay for college with scholarships, which I think are one of the most underrated ways to pay for college. It takes work and you have to spend the time to write essays and track down scholarships, but students that I see applying to 20-50 scholarships, end up paying only 25% to 50% of their college costs. Scholarships go a long way to help out.
Do you have any advice for people looking to save money, such as limited eating-out, certain bank rates, etc.?
We have a lot of advice when it comes to that but I always like to start a little bit before that. I like to talk about getting organized because most people that are worried about money aren’t organized with their finances. I do like to step back a little and say, “Get organized with your money.” You should know exactly what’s coming in, what’s going out, how many loans you might have, and what credit card balances you have. Once you have a clear picture of exactly what’s going on with your money, then we can have a conversation about what you might want to cut, or how to earn more money. If we’ve cut everything we possibly can and you’re still coming up short, maybe you need to go out and side hustle to earn a little bit of extra money to supplement your budget. You can also ask for a raise or find another way to earn more money.
Let’s say someone has extra cash that they can put into a savings plan. Can you give an overview on the college savings plans that are available?
The biggest and most popular plan is the 529 savings plan. There’s two varieties of the 529 plan: there’s a traditional 529 and there’s the prepaid college savings program but there’s only a few of those left in the country. The 529 plan is a great way to save for college because you can put money in and once it’s in the 529 plan, it grows tax-free. If you pull the money out to pay for higher education expenses, the money comes out of the account tax-free. It’s like an IRA or 401K for saving for college. The cool thing is, in about half the states, you can get a tax deduction for contributing to a 529 plan. Over the last few years, they’ve opened up the uses that you can take money out tax-free. You can take it out now in a lot of places for K through 12 private education and you can even take out up to $10,000 to pay off the existing student loans. A 529 plan is the best way to save for college in my opinion but there are other ways to save. You can use a Roth IRA, you can save in a regular taxable account, and there’s some other random approaches like life insurance but those aren’t recommended because they’re a high cost and not as great of a return.
What happens if I have a college savings plan and I don’t go to college or use it for anything educational, how do I get my money then?
You can always get your money. The question is “at what cost?” I think it’s important to note that your money isn’t trapped there. If you use your money for non-qualifying expenses, your earnings only (not your contributions) are subject to taxes, and possibly a 10% penalty. There’s a lot of ways around this because there’s a lot of uses for 529 plan money. You can use it for another child, grandchildren, or you can use it for yourself to go back to school. The penalty is really for the worst case scenario and we don’t usually see it happening that much unless it’s an accident or a mistake.
When a parent or student is searching for a student loan, how do you find the best loan and the best rates?
First off, student loans should be the last thing you consider in the order of operations to pay for college. The biggest problem that we see today with this argument of if student loans are worth it, is that most students borrow too much and then it becomes not worth it. You have to make sure that you’re really thinking hard before you borrow. With that being said, the best student loans are always federal student loans first and then private student loans only if the return on your investment in your education supports the private student loan. To apply for it, you fill out the FAFSA, which is the free application for federal student aid. Your college or university will send you an email and tell you what federal student loans you qualify for. If that’s not enough then you can move into private student loans, where it is very much like shopping for a car loan or shopping for a mortgage, where you need to shop around, compare 5 different offers, get quotes, see what the lowest rate is, look at companies that offer flexible repayment plans. Honestly, I hate seeing people borrow private student loans. It’s the biggest way that people get themselves in financial trouble after graduation.
To follow up on that, let’s say someone has some cash set aside or some savings. Would you recommend getting a student loan or draining that nest egg?
It’s hard but for a parent, I would never recommend jeopardizing your own finances to pay for a child’s education. I always like to say, “You can get a loan for college but you can’t get a loan for retirement.” Sadly, I see the reverse end of this too much. I see parents in their 50’s and 60’s who spent 150,000 to 200,000 on their children’s education but then they have nothing left for themselves. Then, they either have to work longer or they ask their children to support them. Meanwhile, your children are in the prime of their lives, maybe looking to get married or start a family. I really hate seeing parents blow their nest eggs on kid’s education because there’s so many ways to pay for school and really no extra ways to pay for retirement, except for your own savings. With that being said, if you are a kid that has money, I would recommend that you use your savings. I recommend that children, high schoolers, and college students work and deploy that money that they earned and saved to offset as much of the cost of education as they can.
How would a student find grants and scholarships?
It all starts with filling out the FAFSA. The FAFSA is like a golden ticket to grants and scholarships and it’s actually the only real way to get grants. Grants are federal and state aid that you can get for college, so if you don’t fill out the FAFSA, you will never get that. To get scholarships, there are really only two paths. There’s the scholarships you qualify for by filling out the FAFSA and your college will award you a scholarship based on your need. There are also merit based scholarships, which you have to apply for. I love these scholarships because there are hundreds of thousands of scholarships out there. The hard part is that these scholarships can be hard to find. There are scholarship search engines but those only have a tiny fraction of scholarships. For students that want to put in the work and effort to track down scholarships, you can look at your parent’s company, community organizations, churches, local governments, local nonprofits, and other things that you’re part of in your community. You’d be surprised how many of these offer scholarships and because they’re harder to find, they don’t get a lot of applications. They might only get a few dozen, so by just putting in the work finding them and applying you have a very good chance of getting some money to pay for college. Every little bit helps, so even if it’s a $500 or $1,000 scholarship, that can help you quite a bit when you start putting a few of those together.
There’s been a lot of talk about the student loan problem here in the United States and I know that in the government they were also talking about getting some bills passed that relate to student loan forgiveness. Since those bills haven’t passed yet, what are some of the current top ways to get student loan forgiveness and what loans do they apply to?
Even if we don’t complete any new laws, about 50% of all student loan borrowers qualify for something. It might not be total loan forgiveness, but they usually qualify for something. The most popular program today is public service loan forgiveness or PSLF. This is one of the most popular ones because if you work in a public service job for 10 years or 120 payments (it doesn’t actually have to be a solid ten years, you could break it up but you have to get to that 120 payments mark), you can get your loans forgiven tax-free if you have federal loans, a qualifying repayment plan, and you work in public service for 10 years. Also, working in public service is very open ended. You could be a state, federal, in the local government, a public school teacher, in the police or fire department, or in health services or any other nonprofit jobs. It also doesn’t matter what job you do there. We say teachers a lot but you could be a handyman that works for the school district. It doesn’t matter what your actual job is, it just matters who employs you. The PSLF is an amazing program but there’s lots of other programs out there. We have a list on our website of over 80 different programs that you could apply to for student loan forgiveness. A lot of those programs are based on your employment or where you live. Most of them require you to do some type of service or work somewhere but if that’s what you’re already going to do, you might as well get some loan forgiveness for it.
So is having a podcast and blog where we give free advice considered community service?
I wish. That would be amazing but sadly, no.
Why should a recent graduate consider refinancing their loans?
Most recent graduates shouldn’t refinance their loans. I’m a big believer that 95% of federal loan borrowers should never refinance their student loans. When you refinance your loan, you’re replacing the loan that you have with a private loan. If you have federal loans today, you get so many amazing benefits. Right now, you have an interest rate and a payment freeze but you also get income-driven repayment plans, you get loan forgiveness options, and more. Like you mentioned earlier, congress is talking about more loan forgiveness programs and if you refinance, you will make yourself ineligible for those future programs. It’s really important to know that if you have federal loans, most people shouldn’t refinance. If you have private loans, you’re already out of luck with all of these programs, so you can refinance. Look for the lowest interest rate, the best terms you can find, and refinance if it’s a better deal. The only exception may be for the 5% of federal loan borrowers who are high earners, and they want to pay off their federal loans within 3-5 years. The reason I say that is because the only way you’re going to beat your federal loan rate right now is if you’re refinancing for a very short term, so if you’re getting a 3 year or 5 year student loan. That’s the sweet spot to lower your loans from a federal rate and that’s also a short enough period of time where you’re probably not going to see any real massive changes to student loan laws.
Other than parents blowing their retirement savings to pay for their children’s education, what are some other common mistakes that parents and students make when starting to invest for college?
When you’re investing for college, there’s not really any mistakes you can make. If you put away as much money as you can, you’ll always reap that benefit later. The other big mistake that parents make when it comes to college is sometimes the parents are the ones who are taking out student loans to pay for the child’s education. I’m a hater on parent plus loans and parent student loans when paying for college. I think the burden should be on the child’s shoulder because I think a lot of parents don’t realize that the loan is 100% the parent’s responsibility. Even though the loan was taken out for the child’s education, it’s only the parent’s problem. I see so many issues arise in the future where there was an agreement that Mom and Dad would borrow money and the child would pay them back or make the monthly payments but the child stops making the monthly payments and the parent’s credit gets harmed. It just causes so much family drama and it’s never a good thing. Parents also shouldn’t borrow money to pay for their child’s education. It’s one of the worst financial moves you can do.
You just mentioned credit. When you do a loan forgiveness program, does that affect your credit negatively?
It doesn’t impact your credit negatively at all. If you get loan forgiveness, it’s usually a great thing. It will take the loan right off your credit score and you won’t have debt anymore that’s holding you down. A lot of people get concerned in the short-term and whenever they change something massively on their credit in the first week, their credit score might go all wonky. If you give it some time to settle down, it is a huge win for your credit.
Let’s get personal. You mentioned earlier why you started your blog and how to subscribe but why should we subscribe to your blog?
Over the last 10 years, we’ve built the blog into one of the best resources on student loans. If you have student loan debt or you’re thinking about how to pay for college, you’re not going to find a better resource than The College Investor, in terms of finding programs, finding help, and getting the tools you need to get out of debt. We also have some of the best reviews for product services and tools in the personal finance space. If you’re looking for that savings account or investing account because you’re moving into the wealth building mode, we have all of that for you.
Is your blog your full time job and if so, how do you make money?
It is my full time job. I’ve been doing it for 10 years but it was a side hustle for me during the first 7 years. After college, I started working full time but I kept blogging and it continued to grow over time. About 2 and a half or 3 years ago, I left my day job and now I’ve been doing this full time. We make money by advertising partnerships. We work with almost every major financial services provider in the United States, in some form or fashion, whether that is affiliate marketing, sponsored content, or advertising. It all loops into how our blog makes money.
I noticed on your website that you list some companies to buy books at. For students looking to sell back their textbooks, what buyback companies would you recommend?
I’m very agnostic to this because I’m a big believer in finding the best price. It’s always about the best price when you’re buying a textbook and when you’re reselling a textbook it’s about getting the most money that you could get. Always look around or use a comparison tool to figure out where you’re going to maximize your money.
Of course, Mybookcart.com does have some of the best prices for selling back your book!
Did you work while you were attending college?
I worked full time through college. I was working 30-40 hours a week and I highly recommend that you work during college. It doesn’t have to be full time but I think you get more value from college if you’re working full time because employers want to see skills that you get beyond the classroom. They want to see communication, business, and problem-solving skills. You don’t get that from attending a lecture, you get that from getting a real-world experience. I’m a huge believer in working while going to college.
What kind of “side hustles” can students use to make extra money and what side hustles have you done?
I’m a huge fan of the side hustle because I’m a big fan when it comes to earning extra money and here’s why. We talked a little earlier in the show about budgeting and where to cut and save but there’s only so much you can cut from your expenses. We still have to live, eat, get to work and school. Earning money is limitless so there’s no cap on how much you can earn. When you start thinking about that, there’s so much you can do in your free time. Most college students don’t have the responsibilities of family and taking kids to school so they have a lot of time in their day. There are just limitless ways to earn extra money today. You can do things online, an app, drive, deliver, or sell stuff. We have hundreds of ideas on how you can earn extra money on our website. Some of the things that I have done is sell stuff on eBay when I was a junior in high school. I love buying stuff and flipping it to resell it. I sold old stuff that I’ve had around the house. When I was in college, I used to go to garage sales and estate sales and I would buy stuff just for the purpose of reselling it on eBay. Even today, I see an amazing deal and I have to buy it because I know I can resell it. I still sell a few things on eBay every year. It’s just so hard once you have that mindset of earning more money to pass that stuff up. I’ve done that side hustle and I also started the blog, which was another side hustle for me. I’ve dabbled in all kinds of things to earn extra money. I do things like Rakuten where you get rewards for your normal shopping. There’s so many simple things that you can do to just boost your income or give you rebates back on your normal stuff. Anyone can put at least $100 or more a month into their pocket with just some time and effort dedicated to earning more money.
Just to put it out there, students can also join our ambassador program, where you can earn a referral fee for every book that is sold back for someone that they referred.
That’s great. There’s so many little things that add up. I think it’s hard because sometimes when you’re doing things in the moment, you don’t feel like 5-10 dollars is going to help you but when you start adding it up, all those small gains start gaining up to a significant amount of money over time. I think it is important to think about aggregation of marginal gains because that’s how you build wealth and get out of debt. It all takes time and starts small but it could help you immensely in the future.
Lastly, do you have other advice for students and parents worried about affording college?
I think the biggest thing is to always think about “return on investment.” You’re going to college because you’re investing in your future self and your future earnings. The days of “I’m going to college for education,” are pushed to the side because you could get educated in so many different ways. You’re not going to college just to learn, you’re going to boost your income and establish social skills for future employers. With that in mind, I like people to work and think backwards. Think about what you want to do, what jobs, what careers, and what salary do those jobs and careers pay. Based on that number, think about how much you’re going to spend on college and how much you’re going to borrow. For example, if you want to be a teacher and you know you’re going to only make $45,000 a year when you graduate, it doesn’t make any sense to spend $150,000 to go to a private school. It’s going to cost you so much of your financial life for decades to come. Instead, think about how you can get to that end career goal the smart way. Maybe that’s going to community college, knocking out your undergraduate, transferring into your local state school, finishing up, and getting out for a very inexpensive amount. Especially in today’s society, where college is online and the Harvard’s of the world are also going to be online. You could take English 101 at Harvard and spend $40,000 this year or you could take English 101 at your community college and in half the states, community college is free. Consider the cost of college because we have a student loan crisis in America today but it’s not really just a student loan crisis, it’s a crisis of people who don’t feel like they got the value that they spent their money on. They didn’t get the salaries or job prospects they thought they were going to get and they borrowed so much to pay for it. If everyone that went to college with student loans was making a lot of money, no one would be complaining about the student loan crisis. It’s important to realize that we have a student loan crisis because students over borrowed for the education they got. What you can do today is to be smart about how you’re spending your education dollar.