In this episode, Emily interviews Ben Wills, who is starting a master’s of science at Georgia Tech at age 29. They discuss the interesting jobs and experiences that Ben had in his 20s and why he is now pursuing a graduate degree. Ben’s main financial goals for graduate school are to not accumulate any debt and to max out his Roth IRA each year, and he shares how those goals align with his values. Ben and Emily discuss how to remove money from Ben’s 529 account without penalty to supplement his stipend and keep him on track to reach his financial goals while living in Atlanta.
Links Mentioned In This Episode
- PF for PhDs: Podcast Guest Submission
- Maguire Fellowship at Vassar
- Delusions of Gender (Book by Cordelia Fine)
- The Hastings Center
- 529 Plan
- PF for PhDs: Quarterly Estimated Tax
- PF for PhDs: How to Make Money without Working: Credit Card Rewards and 529s (Interview with Seonwoo Lee)
- PF for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- PF for PhDs: Subscribe to Mailing List
00:00 Ben: Have a little kind of metacognitive experience and, you know, watch your feelings, watch the stories that are in your head and just have, you know, a sense of curiosity like, oh, where did this come from? And how is this helping?
00:18 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: A Higher Education in Personal Finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts. This is Season 10, Episode 1, and today my guest is Ben Wills, who is starting a master’s of science at Georgia Tech at age 29. Ben relays the interesting jobs and experiences that he had in his 20s and why he is now pursuing a graduate degree. Ben’s main financial goals for graduate school are to not accumulate any debt and to max out his Roth IRA each year, and he shares how those goals align with his values. We discuss how to remove money from his 529 account without penalty to supplement his stipend and keep him on track to reach his financial goals while living in Atlanta.
01:05 Emily: I’m excited to announce that with Season 10, we’re resuming a once-per-week publication schedule! Lots of great interviews are coming your way… which means I have to record lots of great interviews. If you are interested in being a guest on this podcast, you can do exactly what Ben did, which is to go to PFforPhDs.com/podcastvolunteer/ and submit your info there. I highly encourage you to volunteer now as I will batch record interviews over the next few months that will be published through April 2022.
01:37 Emily: If you’ve listened to at least a couple of interviews you know that they are pretty low-key and casual. Many of my guests have told me that this was their first podcast interview ever and that the had a great time! Don’t worry if you’re not super sure of the topic of your interview. A lot of volunteers type a few ideas into the form and then we settle on one over email. Again, now is the time to volunteer! Go to PFforPhDs.com/podcastvolunteer/. I can’t wait to speak with you! Without further ado, here’s my interview with Ben Wills.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
02:13 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me on the podcast today Ben Wills. He is entering graduate school in fall 2021. He’s going to be a master student, and is not quite a traditional student. He’s actually 29. And so we are going to be talking about his career-to-date, why he’s pursuing graduate school, and what his financial goals are going to be as a person with a little bit more financial experience than someone coming into graduate school right out of college. So, Ben, thank you so much for volunteering to be on the podcast. And will you please introduce yourself a little bit further?
02:42 Ben: Sure thing, thanks for having me. Ben Wills, again, I use he/him pronouns as you got right. I am 29. I studied cognitive science as an undergrad way back when, at this point, and basically since undergrad, I’ve done kind of a potpourri of fun, like life-building, resume-building sorts of experiences as I’ve kind of approached it. So I spent an AmeriCorps year in Juneau, Alaska working with men who committed domestic violence and betters intervention programs. Then I worked at a law firm doing disability law for a couple of years, and I got funding from my Alma mater to do some research in Australia with a research mentor. And then I got my current job, which is, I’m a project manager and research assistant at a bioethics think tank in New York. And I’ve been here for almost three years and coming to the end of my tenure.
03:34 Emily: Wow. Let’s discuss that further in a minute. That was exciting. What is the program that you’re going into and where will you be?
03:40 Ben: Yeah, I am going to be starting a master’s in science in the history and sociology of technology and science at Georgia tech.
Work Experiences Prior to Master’s
03:49 Emily: All right. Congrats. And that is a mouthful. My graduate degree has many syllables as well and many words that sort of trip people up who aren’t in the field. So that’s fun. Well, yeah. Tell us more about these work experiences and like maybe was there a direction you were going in or you were just kind of looking for that like interesting, fun, next thing? Like how did that go?
04:09 Ben: Yeah, I basically knew that I will probably end up in a career where it’s kind of my career. You know, right now I’m looking at kind of going into a law or public policy sort of space after this degree. And if I get really sucked into, maybe academia. I kind of saw opportunities and did what felt right at the time. So for the AmeriCorps program, I was in college, I was working on a senior thesis, and I was just so focused on me and my work that I really felt like I needed to kind of turn my attention outwards. And so doing a year where it’s called a service year and the particular program I was in we were living in an intentional community, all like working in social service organizations, and we had a very kind of structured experience. And it was really perfect for me.
05:00 Ben: After focusing on magnetic resonance imaging of people and researching what the self is with a neuro imaging scanner, such a thing can be done, to focusing on, you know, humans and what people’s needs are and kind of like social context. So that was really important and generative for me. And then after that, I moved back home to my folks and I’ve been interested in law for a while, and I was fortunate enough to be connected to someone who was looking for a legal assistant. And so I started working at a law firm downtown. And then yeah, my Alma mater has this kind of pocket of money that you can apply to called the Maguire Fellowship. And you can basically use it to, it’s a competitive fellowship, but you can use it to fund study or independent research abroad.
05:51 Ben: And I had read a book called Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine in college that was really cool to me because she was one of the first people that I had read who within science talked about, kind of like, the social construct of science. And, you know, if you have scientists with, you know, gendered expectations of what, you know, men and women and other people’s kind of reality is, then those expectations will be born out in their research methods and their results. And that kind of blew my mind and I wanted to work with her. And so, you know, I just emailed her and said, Hey, if I get some money, can I come work with you? And she said, sure. So I applied for it and got it. So I was in Melbourne, Australia for a year.
06:29 Ben: Then, yeah, I was kind of testing what does law look like? What does academia look like? What is the intersection of the two kind of in a public policy sort of facing academic sort of situation? That’s where I am now, which is a place called the Hastings Center. And I’d actually taken a class with one of the scholars at my school, Vassar. He had adjuncted there, and his name is Erik Parens, and I took a class with him on the post-human future which is all about, you know, gene editing humans and all this sort of wild cool stuff. And I thought it was great. And I kept that kind of organization in the back of my mind when I was in Australia, applied to a project manager research assistant position there and got it. So I flew back to Oregon, bought a car, and 10 days later, I was in New York, starting up a new job.
Decision to Pursue Master’s in Science
07:20 Emily: Wow. This is so exciting. And what brought you specifically to the decision to pursue the master’s in science over maybe a law degree or some other kind of further education that you might do?
07:31 Ben: Yeah, so I think, you know, at this point I’m really interested in kind of doing more of an applied kind of work. So, you know, compared to the kind of academic environment that I’m interested in, which is, you know, a little bit more social science, humanities, I’m interested, you know, in terms of topic areas that I’m interested in. I was interested in doing more of an applied thing and, you know, when you’re going to law school, when you’re doing a terminal master’s in public policy, for example, those are kind of like, you know, they’re vocational schools basically. You’re getting a degree and you’re learning skills, and you’re learning a way of thinking. And I still had questions that I want to answer and kind of ways of thinking and topics of exploring. I’m particularly interested in direct consumer telemedicine like Hims and Hers and Roman.
08:15 Ben: If you’ve ever seen subway ads with phallic cacti or on your Instagram feed, those are advertisements from these direct to consumer telemedicine startups that I’m interested in kind of researching their kind of ethical implications. And I want to explore this more and you can’t really do that, you know, in law school. But I didn’t want to commit to a whole PhD, and Georgia Tech’s program is interdisciplinary. They have people who are coming from history of technology, coming from sociology of technology, also medical sociology. They have folks, faculty there, and it seemed like a great opportunity to kind of learn more about what I’m interested in without having to commit to a whole PhD to do it. And also, I was lucky enough to get funding to do that, which was a real difference maker.
09:03 Emily: Yeah, I was just going to say, I think the funding, like it’s clear from your work history. Like you’ve had some, not really jobs, but they come with money, right? Like the AmeriCorps thing, the fellowship that you did, or whatever it was, in Australia. So you have found a way to get money, at least some, while you’re still exploring these different areas. And the masters seems to be an extension of that as well.
09:25 Ben: I think that’s fair to say. Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t have done this program if I hadn’t gotten funding. I’m only going to take on debt for something that has a little bit more kind of monetizable potential.
Shifts in Money Mindset: From College to Present
09:38 Emily: Well, yeah, let’s talk more about the money stuff then. Through these various different jobs and experiences that you had since college, or maybe even before then, you know, what do you know about money or what is your money mindset right now that you think is different than what it was for you coming out of college or going into college?
09:57 Ben: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think college is a really weird time for finances. If you have the privilege that I did going to school, you know, I had to go to a school that had really good need-based financial aid, but I wasn’t financially independent. I didn’t have to make sure that I could afford rent and stuff. I was living on campus. And so I didn’t quite know how money worked really. So, and then living in Alaska, we all kind of shared expenses. Everything was very structured. So it was kind of, you know, the kiddie pool version of understanding what it is like to be a person who lives in a world where everything costs something. And so I think it was about the time I was 24 that I started living on my own for the first time, got a lease with a friend, and I started learning how things work. But of course I had some kind of money mindsets that I came up with.
10:48 Ben: And some of those were things like, my folks are very frugal and they went through a pretty lean time when I was in middle school. And so I definitely have a frugal kind of ethic. And I don’t spend money that I don’t need to. And I, you know, learned things like, you know, take advantage of credit card intro offers, but don’t carry a balance ever, ever, ever, or it’s not worth it. You know? So I was really lucky to learn some pretty smart ways of thinking about money from my folks. And also my mom does kind of investing almost as a hobby. She gets really into, you know, managing my dad’s and hers, you know, retirement finances, and, you know, thinking about how, you know, the best way to kind of help them to retire. She’s 10 years older than my dad and close to retirement. So this is something that’s very much on her mind and I’ve learned a lot from what she’s been able to learn, which I consider myself very lucky. Because I think, you know, this kind of, what you don’t know costs you. And that’s not fair, but I’m glad that I know what I know.
11:47 Emily: I’m really interested in hearing more about your AmeriCorps experience in particular, because I don’t think I’ve interviewed anyone on the podcast who did AmeriCorps, we haven’t had a detailed discussion about it. But I, as a person who didn’t do it, kind of think about AmeriCorps as even more financially difficult than your average grad student situation, like living on less. And I understand a lot of it is like, it has to be subsidized like your housing and your food and so forth in many places. So how do you think that you having had an AmeriCorps experience in your past, how do you think that specifically affects how you’re thinking about graduate school and your finances in graduate school?
12:25 Ben: Yeah. Great question. I think, so the interesting thing is, so it’s an AmeriCorps program, but it was AmeriCorps-funded to an organization called Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, which has existed since before AmeriCorps existed. And so they take funding from the federal government for that, but they, you know, they already have a house where I lived, you know, they put me with these other people. And you know, the house’s rent is like prearranged with the landlord. So there’s a lot of that sort of stuff, which is so stressful about moving to a new place and expensive about moving to a new place. You know, it’s already furnished. The house just gets, you know, new people every year. So that was great. But you’re right. We had very little money. You know, we had, I think like $180 a month for fun, a hundred dollars a month for fun total. That’s if you want a burger, if you want a beer, if you want to, you know, take an Uber, whatever. You know, and we were challenged to not access any money that we had saved, but to actually try to live within our means.
13:27 Ben: And so I know, you know, preparing me for grad school. I know that I can live leanly. We, I think our whole house lived, we were six people and we spent $80 a week on food. Like we ate a lot of rice and beans, and if it’s beans and rice then that’s two dishes. You know, so I don’t intend to be living quite as lean, but I know that like, you know, I know that I can do that. And I definitely have some kind of ethic about like, do I really, is it going to be that much worse to do the easier option and save a lot of money, you know, for any particular thing? One example of that ethic is, you know, when I flew from Australia back to Portland at the end of my tenure, it was like $400 cheaper to fly to Seattle and then take a train down.
14:13 Ben: And so I did that. And you know, it’s kind of looking for that sort of thing. I think that’s a little bit of a mindset that I’ve picked up with my family. It was reinforced with AmeriCorps. And just one more thing quickly on that, you know, there’s definitely some negative sides to, you know, I think I still have a little bit of kind of a food scarcity mindset, you know, I’m always like, Hmm, this fridge is looking a little bare. You know, because we did run lean, you know, so there’s positives and negatives as well, but that was all part of it. And I’m, I’m really glad for the experience.
Financial Goals for Graduate School
14:40 Emily: I can’t remember where I heard this from, but it was recently and it was some well-known personal finance personality who phrased it something like spending money, like this is this person’s default mindset. Spending money is a failure of creativity. Like you can get anything or just about anything for no money, little money. And it’s only a matter of, do you want to put in the effort to be creative and you know, maybe take some extra time or something? Or do you want to go, as you were just saying, the easy route, which is spending a little bit more money to get, you know, the convenient option. So I’m not, I mean, that’s a very extreme view, but I can see a little bit of that, you know, in, in what you were describing. So going into graduate school again with your stipend, do you want to share what your stipend is by the way?
15:28 Ben: Yeah, so the standard graduate stipend is about $18,000. I have a little internal fellowship on top of that. That brings me up to about 22 or 23. And then I can also work as a research assistant for a faculty member and also work a little bit over the summer. So my understanding is that I can make between 30 and up to $36,000 a year, most likely.
15:57 Emily: And are you, have you already arranged for that assistantship or do you know that’s coming or is it like a possibility?
16:04 Ben: It sounds like an “everybody who wants one can get one” kind of a thing, is my understanding. So I haven’t started that process yet.
16:13 Emily: Okay. I feel a little bit relieved because when you said 18, I was going, oh no, Atlanta. Wow. Okay. But no 30. Yeah. Okay. We’re getting into a reasonable range there for, you know, for a graduate student. And so knowing that stipend or that range that you’ll be receiving, you know, looking at that, looking at the cost of living and so forth, what are your financial goals, if any, for graduate school?
16:35 Ben: Yeah, I think I have two big goals, which is to not go into debt, and continue to try to fully fund my retirement. I think that’s maybe a big thing that sets me apart from just people who are just coming out of undergrad is I’ve realized and, you know, thanks to folks in my life who have impressed this upon me, how important it is to, you know, save for retirement. And if literally, if all you do is max out your Roth IRA from the time you’re like 19 or 20, you can probably retire comfortably. You know, if you just do that, or comfortably enough. And that’s huge. And I know, you know, that what I wasn’t contributing as a 20 or 21-year-old, it’s all the more important that I, you know, max out my Roth IRA contributions now. So when I talked about that with the graduate advisor, that was, you know, that’s something that certainly wasn’t on her mind for us. And maybe a lot of graduate students aren’t thinking about that, you know, but for me, I’m not expecting to come into a lot of money later in life, and I want to be financially stable, and I don’t want to work until I’m 95. So those are the two main things, I think. Also have little fun maybe.
Retirement Savings History
17:45 Emily: Yeah, well, fun can be frugal, but if you want to max out that Roth IRA, there’s a definite dollar sign attached to that. What’s been your history with retirement investing through these various different jobs? Have you been able to do some or has it been kind of patchy?
17:59 Ben: Hmm. Yeah, I think it’s depended. I have typically, I think after the AmeriCorps year, I have contributed at least some to my Roth IRA. With my current job, they have a fantastic 403(b) program, which is like a 401(k) for nonprofits, I think. And they do a match, too. So what I do is I do the minimum for the full match from them. And then I contribute because I like Vanguard better than TIAA-CREF. I contribute to my Roth IRA separately. So I’m doing the best now that I’ve ever done as far as that’s concerned, but I have been contributing you know, anywhere from a couple thousand to the cap for the past five years or so.
18:45 Emily: Yeah. That’s great. And I love that you have these two goals that you articulated, don’t go into debt and max out the Roth IRA. I mean, as you said, like just those two things alone, you’re going to be in such good shape. You know, if you can do that through your master’s program or if you decide to go on for the PhD as well. Those are two very, very strong goals. How do you think you’re going to make it happen? Like, have you done any projections about cost of living in Atlanta? And you said you’re moving from New York there, right? So it’s going to be a big cost of living difference.
19:14 Ben: Yeah, actually it’s interesting. So I’m in Beacon, New York right now, which is in the mid-Hudson Valley. And Beacon is not cheap. My current living situation with utilities is probably $750, $800 a month, a room in a house. And so I think it’s realistic to get about that in Atlanta, just from the little bit of Craigslist slewthing that I’ve done so far. So I haven’t done a lot of planning. For all the stuff that I know about what you’re supposed to do with money, I’m not very good at actually budgeting for, for worse. But I think my mindset is assuming that expenses are not going to be that much different.
19:55 Emily: Okay. And when is your, when are you planning on moving?
20:01 Ben: My family is going camping in mid-August. And so I think I’m going to try to move right after that, which will mean that I’ll be like moving into a place and starting school in like five days, or something like that, in the mid-August heat and humidity which will be a heck of a time. But that’s what I’m thinking about right now.
529 Tax-Advantaged Savings Account
20:20 Emily: Yeah, that’s great. We’re recording this in April, 2021. So you still have quite a bit of time to be planning and finding a place and finding that assistantship and so forth. And I understand as well that you have a 529 that you wanted to talk about. And so for the listeners who do not know what that is, do you want to explain briefly what a 529 is and how you got one?
20:42 Ben: Yeah. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of a 529 is it’s a tax-advantaged savings account specifically for qualified educational expenses. So you can put money in there and then, you know, there are tax advantages that I think depends on the state at least to what the tax advantages are, but then you can spend that money on things like tuition, room and board, fees, other sorts of things.
21:11 Emily: That’s exactly right. But just to add onto it, so the growth, so money that’s contributed to a 529, similar to an IRA, typically if you invest it, it’s going to grow. And that growth is tax-free as long as when you end up withdrawing it, it’s for, as you said, the 529 definition of qualified education expenses, which is like tuition and also living expenses for a full-time student. And it depends on what state you live in, whether or not there is a tax advantage on the contributions. So there’s no federal like deduction the way you could have for like a traditional IRA, but your state, depending on what state you live in, when you do the contribution, they might give you a tax break on their state tax for doing the contributions. And it’s most common for parents to do this for their children or their grandchildren or something like that. So it’s something that often people start when their children are very young, so there’s lots of time for the investments to grow.
22:02 Ben: Yeah. And to the second part of your question, in my particular case, my folks did this great thing where, you know, I was expected to contribute two or $3,000 a year to my education in undergrad that I made from working over the summers. And my folks said, we’re going to take that money, instead of sending it to Vassar, basically, I think, we’ll cover that. And we’ll just hold it in a 529. And so when you go to grad school, you better go to grad school, when you go to grad school, that’ll be there and have grown and be there waiting for you.
22:39 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude. These action items are for you if you recently switched or will soon switch onto non-W2 fellowship income as a grad student, postdoc, or post-bac and are not having income tax withheld from your stipend or salary. Action item number one: fill out the estimated tax worksheet in form 1040ES. This worksheet will estimate how much income tax you will owe in 2021 and tell you whether you are required to make manual tax payments on a quarterly basis. The next quarterly estimated tax due date is September 15th, 2021. Action item number two: whether you are required to make estimated tax payments or pay a lump sum at tax time, open a separate named savings account for your future tax payments, calculate the fraction of each paycheck that will ultimately go toward tax, and set up an automated recurring transfer from your checking account to your tax savings account and to prepare for that bill. This is what I call a system of self-withholding, and I suggest putting it in place starting with your very first fellowship paycheck so that you don’t get into a financial bind when the payment deadline arrives. If you need some help with the estimated tax worksheet, or want to ask me a question, please join my workshop, Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients. It explains every line of the worksheet and answers common questions that PhD trainees have about estimated tax. Go to PFforPhds.com/QETax, to learn more about and join the workshop. Now, back to our interview.
529: To Use or Not to Use?
24:19 Emily: Yeah, so you have this nice little nest egg that’s available to you but is kind of specifically tied for education expenses. So what are your thoughts about that? Like, is it something that you want to draw on during graduate school or that you feel you have to, or what are your thoughts?
24:35 Ben: Yeah, well, it’s kind of a use it, or it just sits there sort of thing. So I guess if I didn’t use it, then I would have to be doing something like giving it to my sister if she just needs it or giving it to a cousin or something like that, I suppose. So I definitely want to use it. And one of the questions in my head is like, does it make sense to use it now? Or if I’m probably, but not definitely, going to something like law school or a public policy program or even a PhD, you know, I could definitely use it for those. So would it make more sense to use it now or later, is one question I have. That’s kind of what I’m thinking about. And the way I’ve thought it is, basically, it would be really hard to max out my Roth IRA while earning between 30 and $36,000 a year at the most. But if I have, you know, the 529 is worth about $12,000. If I pull $6,000 a year from the Roth IRA, or excuse me from the 529, that covers my Roth IRA contribution. So it would be as if I was making 36 to $42,000 a year and maxing my Roth IRA contribution. And that sounds pretty good to me. That sounds doable. So that’s kind of how I’m thinking about it is making that possible.
25:56 Emily: Yeah, I was thinking kind of the same thing, because you were phrasing it just now as like using the money in the 529, but I’m thinking about it more as getting the money out of the 529 in a reasonable way where you’re not going to be taxed and all the growth and so forth. Just getting it out so that you can use it for whatever, if that is your Roth IRA contribution, I mean, money is fungible, right? So it could be the Roth IRA. It could be anything else. It doesn’t really matter. But yeah, to give you that extra cushion, and then let’s say it was sort of a, it feels like almost direct, like withdrawal from the 529 and a contribution $6,000 to the IRA. All you’re doing then is making the money more flexible actually, right? Because in the first case, it can only be used for these well, without penalty, can only be used for these qualified education expenses, versus with the Roth IRA, well, you can withdraw your contributions at any time or you can leave it and let it grow for the decades and, you know, withdraw it tax-free and so forth.
26:50 Emily: So yeah, I really see it more of it as not using the money, but just transferring the money to some other place in an indirect way, which you can only do without taxes and penalties and so forth when you have qualified education expenses as you do in this upcoming phase of life. Another thing to think about, another twist in this is, and I don’t know, I haven’t looked it up for Georgia Tech, but some, especially public, universities do allow their graduate students who are employees to contribute to the university’s 403(b) or 457. So that’s also something to look into before you, again, make a final decision about what to do with the 529 is, do I have access not only to a Roth IRA, but also a 403(b) or 457? And could I even supercharge my retirement savings above that $6K per year level? Yeah. So something else to think about.
457 Retirement Plan
27:39 Ben: What’s a 457?
27:42 Emily: 457 is another tax-advantaged retirement account. It’s a little bit similar to a 401(k). So 401(k) and 403(b) are very similar to one another, as you said. One is in the private sector, one is in the nonprofit sector. A 457 was originally constructed, I guess, for like highly-compensated employees. And so it’s available usually in addition to a 403(b) or something similar. But in some cases, at universities, it seems that it’s often, if they have one, it’s sometimes available to any employee, not just, you know, C-suite or whatever. So just something to look into whether or not there is one, whether or not you’re eligible for it. And the 457 has some slightly different benefits than a 403(b) does. If I remember correctly, you can actually access the money more easily than you can in a 403(b), like you don’t have to be like retirement age necessarily to do it. So I’m speaking a little bit out of my like zone of competency here, but yes, it’s sometimes available to graduate student employees.
28:43 Ben: Cool. Thanks.
What Are Qualified Education Expenses?
28:46 Emily: The other thing that I wanted to hit on with this discussion of 529s is what are qualified education expenses. And, you know, longtime listeners of the podcast or readers of my other material know that that term, qualified education expenses, is something that we talk about a lot with respect to figuring out your income tax as a graduate student. Now, and if you have dived really deep into my material, you know that there’s a different definition of qualified education expense for each different tax benefit that you might be talking about. And so it turns out that 529s, or qualified tuition programs, have their own definition of qualified education expenses that is vastly different from the other ones. So you mentioned earlier that qualified education expenses include tuition fees. You know, we’re, we’re accustomed to those things being qualified education expenses, but in the case of 529s, that also includes your expected living expenses.
29:38 Emily: I can’t remember what’s the exact term the universities use, like cost of attendance, I think, which is inclusive of both the educational expenses and also reasonable living expenses, whether you would be living on campus or off campus. Cost of attendance is something that I think comes up a lot for undergrads, but not so much for funded graduate students, but it’s really relevant for our conversation of getting money out of a 529. And one really good episode to listen to which I did previously on the podcast is season two, episode nine, with Seonwoo Lee. And we’re talking about 529s in that episode as well, but it’s from a different, a little bit of a different perspective, but it’s still a conversation about what is a qualified education expense and what are the anticipated educational expenses that you can use to remove money from a 529 without penalty. And so in your case, have you calculated like how much you would be able to get out of the 529 per year using that anticipated cost of attendance?
30:34 Ben: Yeah, so I think the, you know, again I have about 12 and change thousand dollars in there. And the estimated cost of attendance I think is about just by happenstance, Seonwoo also goes to Georgia Tech. So he mentioned that it was about $10,000. So if those numbers are still good, then, tell me if I’m wrong, but I feel like I’m pretty in the clear. You know, I’ll probably take about half of the 529 out each of the two years I’m in the program and that’ll go underneath the $10,000. And even if I do the thing that he was talking about, contribute $2,000 into a Georgia state 529 and pull it out for the tax advantage, credit deduction, whatever it is that’ll still be under the total of $10,000. I don’t know if that’s how it works. I assumed that I couldn’t like, yeah, like pull $10,000 out and then add $2,000 at the Georgia one and then be over my cost of attendance. I don’t know, but I don’t think I would do that anyway.
31:35 Emily: Yeah, that sounds right to me. So the way that you calculate how much money you could get out of a 529 each year is you have to take the total cost of attendance, and then you have to subtract from that all of your tax-free money. So in your case, if you’re fully funded, it would be like tuition and fees and so forth. So the cost of attendance is going to be reduced to, again, if you’re fully funded, it’s essentially just the portion of the cost of attendance that is like your living expenses. And so, I don’t know, $10,000 per year sounds really low to me, but I would have to look at the numbers too. So whatever it is, as long as you don’t have tax-free funding that is already paying for that, then that’s your cap for removing money from the 529 for that given year. And anyway, all of this, I was just reviewing it before our conversation. All of this is in publication 970 chapter eight, which is called qualified tuition program.
529 is Typically NOT in the Name of the Student
32:30 Emily: Yeah. Anything else you want to talk about regarding 529s? It’s an interesting and unusual topic for me.
32:36 Ben: Maybe just, this might be useful for listeners is I just remember that my mom did something kind of tricky or clever with 529s where she had it like, in her name, not in my name, because if it was in my name for undergrad, they would’ve taken all that money. And if it was in her name, I guess they, you know, the financial aid office looked at it differently or something like that. I never got the full story from her, but is that right? Is that how that works?
33:08 Emily: I don’t know exactly the mechanics of it, but it is recommended that 529 money be in the name of the parent or the grandparent, whoever’s doing the contributing, not in the name of the student. And I do think it’s for those FAFSA type calculations that it’s again, weighted less heavily in the assets of the family if it’s held technically by the parent. And in a 529, you have to designate a beneficiary. So you’re presumably the designated beneficiary on this particular 529, but it’s very easy to switch the beneficiary. So the money still belongs to your parents, so they could, you know, yoinks it away from you if they wanted to, because it’s theirs until it’s actually, you know, removed for your qualified education expenses and so forth. But that’s why it’s really easy to just choose a different beneficiary and move the money from, you know, let’s say in the case of like my family. So I’m about to start 529s for my two children. And I don’t really care whose beneficiary name is on it because I’m just considering it for either child. And if the oldest one has some leftover, I would just switch it to the younger one because I’m thinking of it as my money, right? Until later on in life. So yeah, so it’s really easy to switch the beneficiary and it does make sense for the contributor or the parent or whoever to hold it.
34:20 Ben: Okay.
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career Grad Student
34:22 Emily: Yeah. Well, it’s been so much fun to talk with you, Ben, and it’s a very kind of different story for the podcast listeners. So I’m excited about that. The question that I end all my interviews with is what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD or graduate student perhaps in your case?
34:40 Ben: I think of two things. One is to remember that like, money is real. And sometimes you feel like you can plug your ears and shut your eyes and it’s less real, but it’s still sitting there or not sitting there. So for me, it’s really helpful to try to develop a relationship with my money where I’m not, you know, checking my balance on my phone and going, you know, I just, I don’t want to have a contentious emotional relationship with money. You know, like, the world is structured to make us feel nervous about money. And I don’t think that it’s a healthy relationship to have if you have the ability to not be nervous about it in that way. So, you know, I try to check it more often, just, you know, just so I know what’s going on and there’s no mysteries, because it’s all internal to me, it’s all my own money.
35:33 Ben: And the other thing is there’s this really insidious idea that like, in order to feel like, like we’re told that we need to buy things for ourselves because we deserve it or because we need to like treat ourselves. And so people, you know, like I just saw this person who was like living in her parents’ house, not a lot of money, she’s like, should I buy like the iPhone, like 12, actually the iPhone 12, you know, gajillion or something like that. And like, you know, you do what you want with your money. I’m not here to like make moral judgements, but she was doing it in kind of the mindset of like, I want to treat myself or I deserve it or that sort of thing. And that is just a load of bologna that like marketers have worked really hard on for the past 20 years to be like, you deserve this meal, you deserve this trip, you know?
36:20 Ben: And like the more we can extract ourselves from like taking in that, like marketing lingo of like what we deserve and don’t deserve based on you know, like what is expensive or not expensive, if we can kind of like, you know, develop a more internal sense of like, you know, rewarding ourselves and not have it be based on how expensive something is. Like, you know, I love myself a lot. So I’m spending, you know, more on myself to get the nicer thing or whatever, you know, it’s like, I don’t know, it just makes me kind of sad. And so I guess my advice is to like, you know, kind of have a little kind of metacognitive experience and, you know, watch your feelings, watch the stories that are in your head, and just have, you know, a sense of curiosity, like, oh, where did this come from? And how is this helping me?
37:10 Emily: Wow. Yeah. I find both of those points to be super insightful. And actually we could probably do a whole other episode just on what you just mentioned about like observing feelings that arise in yourself when you think about money and so forth. I love that point, but it’s a great one to end on. And Ben, thank you so much for joining me today. It was really fun to talk with you.
37:28 Ben: Yeah, it was a pleasure. Thank you.
37:31 Emily: Listeners. Thank you for joining me for this episode. PFforPhds.com/podcast is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast. On that page are links to all the episodes show notes, which include full transcripts and videos of the interviews. There is also a form to volunteer to be interviewed on the podcast. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved. If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, here are four ways you can help it grow. One, subscribe to the podcast and rate and review it on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. Two, share an episode you found particularly valuable on social media, with an email listserv, or as a link from your website. Three, recommend me as a speaker to your university or association. My seminars cover the personal finance topics PhDs are most interested in, like investing, debt repayment, and effective budgeting. I also license prerecorded workshops on taxes. Four, subscribe to my mailing list at PFforPhDs.com/subscribe. Through that list, you’ll keep up with all the new content and special opportunities for Personal Finance for PhDs. See you in the next episode! And remember, you don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance, but it helps. The music is Stages of Awakening by Podington Bear from the free music archive and is shared under CC by NC. Podcast editing and show notes creation by Meryem Ok.
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