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Archive | February, 2014

Greening Your Dorm Room: Saving the World or Just a Little Cash?

Greening Your Dorm Room: Saving the World or Just a Little Cash?

GreenMeadowIt may be modest, but your dorm room is likely your first chance to create a personal environment that really reflects who you are and what you care most about. Beyond posters on a wall, you have an opportunity to convey what is important in your life and how you want to live.

Or you might just need to keep it cheap and simple so you can focus on study and education.

Either way, finding ways to green your dorm room and college life make perfect sense. And it’s all relatively easy to do. Sure much of it comes down to a bullet list of common sense items, which we’ll get to in a moment, but beyond any list are the ideas and ideals behind the choices you make for your living space.

This quick article will help get you thinking about some of these ideas that you’ll carry with you as you move from a dorm room to an off-campus apartment and perhaps eventually to your own house or urban condo.

Years from now people will ask where you learned how to run such a low-footprint, energy-efficient house and you’ll say, “yeah, I learned that back in college.”

Let’s get started.

First of all, congratulations on making it this far; you’re studying at college or university – or you soon will be – and you’re getting ready to take on the world. Maybe some of your friends are still asking “is global warming real? but you know that climate, energy and sustainability are all part of the same problem. You know that the choices you make today will impact the future for generation to come. You also know that greening your lifestyle not only makes sense environmentally, but economically as well.

It all begins with the three R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Reduce

Okay, you’re a poor college student living in a tiny dorm room – how exactly are you supposed to “reduce” when you’re living on peanut butter and skittles? You’d be surprised how, even in the most modest of dorm rooms, you can reduce – your energy use, your waste and your resource consumption.

  • Lighting

Use CFL lightbulbs, or better yet, LED fixtures. We won’t save the world by changing lightbulbs, but the Energy Information Administration estimates that about 461 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity were consumed in the United States in 2011 just for lighting. That’s equal to 17 percent of total electrical demand and represents some “low hanging fruit” for greening a dorm room (or any room for that matter). Granted, upfront costs for LED’s are still high, but they use a fraction of the energy of even a CFL bulb, and could last until you get your student loans paid off. With CFL’s or LED, you’ll save money in the long run.

  • Go Paperless

We don’t need to tell you, the savvy college student, about all the cool apps and programs available to help you go paperless. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to eliminate paper entirely from your college experience, but with services like Evernote, Google Drive, Dropbox and many others, you can be as paperless a student as possible.

Going paperless can extend to many areas of your life, too. Food, for instance. Carry a favorite mug for coffee or tea instead of an endless string of paper cups. Whenever possible, avoid using paper plates and napkins. Clean up with cloth towels instead of paper towels. You might be saving more trees than money here, but your actions just may catalyze others to do the same, saving even more trees in the process.

  • Energy

Beyond lighting, there are lots of ways to reduce energy consumption and their associated costs. Granted, you may not be paying for energy while living in your dorm room, but getting in this habit now will save money for the rest of your life.

It can start with sharing any appliances you don’t absolutely need in your dorm room – TV’s and refrigerators for instance; can these appliances be shared? If you do have a TV or fridge in your room, make sure they are EnergyStar rated – that goes for any appliance you own.

You can cut way down on energy for heating and cooling by adapting floor and window coverings to your environment. Put down rugs to keep your room cooler, roll them up when it gets warmer. On hot summer days open the windows and use curtains and blinds to either block the hot sun or let the air flow through. If you can, avoid using an air conditioner and opt for a fan instead.

  • Green mobile phones

Perhaps this one is a bit unexpected, as you look lovingly at your iPhone or Android, but your choice of smartphone can make a big difference in terms of manufacturing, packaging, energy use and product lifecycle. If you’re not looking to upgrade, then don’t. The greenest (and least expensive) thing you can do is to continue to use what you already have. But if you think you’ll soon get a new phone, consider your options for getting one of the greenest smartphones.

Reuse

Much of what we’ve mentioned so far may not save you that much money right off the bat, but they help establish lifetime habits that will save you cash throughout your life and set a good example for your friends and family.

“Reuse” however, is a different story. In our throwaway culture the idea of reuse may at first seem a bit foreign. But it starts with simple things. When you do use sheet paper, make sure to use both sides if you can before throwing it in the recycle bin. Save big bucks by using or buying used appliances or clothing. Make sure to donate items you do discard to the Salvation Army or some other charity.

Be creative, find ways specific to your life that you can reuse materials and resources, it will make an immediate impact on your bottom line and help the world at the same time. Let us know the different ways you’ve found to employ this concept in your life!

Recycle

This may be the best known of the three R’s. Recycle bins are becoming ever more evident wherever we go these days. And that’s a good thing. Recycling reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills. Americans throw away about 250 million tons of garbage every year, but only 32 percent of waste is now diverted to landfills nationwide. We can do better – much better!

The city of San Francisco diverts 80 percent of its garbage from landfills, and is on track to becoming a zero waste city.

But here’s a real challenge for college students everywhere: North Carolina State University now diverts as much as 93 percent of its waste from landfills. Surely you’re not going to let NC State one-up your school’s landfill diversion program – are you? (and if you’re from NC State – kudos!)

Save money, save resources, save the world

If only it were that easy, right? The fact is that getting started on the road to saving money, conserving resources and making the world more sustainable does really start with a few simple, common sense steps. Using a mug instead of a plastic cup, changing a light bulb or recycling old term papers won’t save the world or make you rich. But it’s a start.

By taking steps to green your dorm room and your college life you’ll lay the foundation for a better world – as Jeffery Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute puts it, a world that is economically prosperous, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable.

It starts with you, with me, with all of us.

About The Author:

Today’s guest article comes from Matthew Speer, the co-founder of iSustainableEarth.com.

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The Debt Dilemma: How to Make Going Back to School Affordable for Adults

The Debt Dilemma: How to Make Going Back to School Affordable for Adults

Education ScholarshipsIt’s no wonder that millions of adults across the country are considering going back to school. The New York Times reports there are a total of 3.4 million unfilled positions across America, and employers need skilled workers to do the jobs. Colleges and universities are keen to provide and promote training programs designed to match mid-career workers with the skills that today’s economy requires.

If you’re wondering whether a return to the classroom is for you, decide if your educational investment will pay off. Forbes Magazine makes clear that older people in the classroom are becoming more and more common, with 1.3 million undergraduates aged 40 and over in 2010 alone. But this means that big ticket debt is also becoming popular.

Balancing Act: Tuition vs. Salary

Before taking on any loans, think clearly about what position you will be qualified for after completing your degree or certification course. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) offers excellent information for job seekers about average salaries, as well as projected job growth. Ideally, you’ll want to find a program that is relatively inexpensive and will prepare you for a career with room for growth and solid earning potential. Once you’ve got the numbers in front of you, do the math and see if you can earn back your education expenditure within a reasonable time frame.

You may also think about choosing a certification program over a two or four year degree. Schools like Penn Foster deliver practical job skills in a short timeframe, which translates to less tuition and more time to increase your salary. The school’s medical coding and billing program runs just 7 months, and the BLS reports that median pay for this field is close to $35,000 per year. In addition, the medical records and health information field is expected to grow by 22 percent between 2012 and 2022, which is much faster than many other industries.

If you know what career you’re thinking about, you can search the BLS site to get detailed information about job requirements, including education, as well as salary breakdowns by state. Not sure what you want to pursue? You can also browse their resources to identify the top growing fields and then work to find a training program that will help you join your chosen industry.

Taking the First Steps

Returning to school can ultimately have a positive impact on your finances and your self-confidence. Take plenty of time to research your options and your interests before committing to any program, and don’t be shy about contacting programs for information including specifics on tuition and expected duration of the program. Browse the Bureau of Labor Statistics to find the most accurate salary information for your region, and keep in mind that urban areas with larger populations generally pay a bit higher than smaller towns or more rural states. Once you’ve registered for your courses, make a clear, realistic payment plan, and ask for assistance at your new school’s financial aid office.

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FAFSA: New Regulations Recognize Same Sex Parents

FAFSA: New Regulations Recognize Same Sex Parents

FAFSA_iconThe U.S. Department of Education has recently announced new regulations for the 2014-15 academic year that impact how students filing for federal financial aid will complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) from this year forward. Furthermore, these changes play a strong role in how a dependant student’s family income will be used to determine eligibility.

Although the U.S. government’s decision to recognize same-sex and unmarried parents on the FAFSA marks an achievement for many, some families may be concerned about how it could affect a student’s financial aid. Here is an overview of the new regulations to keep everyone informed of what to expect when completing their FAFSA this year.

Impetus Behind the New Regulations

According to Inside Higher Ed, the new regulations are the result of a Supreme Court decision made in June of 2013. This decision declared invalid the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited federal agencies from providing legal recognition to same-sex marriages. Now that this policy change has been made, the federal government is free to apply the same treatment to same-sex marriages as they have been to heterosexual marriages in past years. It is also important to note, however, that prior to this decision, the U.S. Department of Education already had changes put into motion to make the switch to gender-neutral language on future FAFSA forms so that both parents from unmarried couples who live together could be used to determine household income.

New Requirements for Dependent Students

There are several factors that determine a student’s status as either dependent or independent. While individual circumstances can play a role in this determination, most undergraduate students under the age of 24 are declared as dependent if they are unmarried and not raising children of their own. In the past, dependent students who lived with same-sex or unmarried parents only had to claim the income of one of their parents. On the new form, students will be instructed to include household income using gender-neutral language that also takes into account recognized same-sex marriages and unmarried couples so that all of a household’s income can be used to calculate a student’s estimated family contribution.

How Do the FAFSA Changes Impact Students and Families?

According to a letter released by the U.S. Department of Education, the new regulations are expected to affect only a small percentage of students due to the fact that over 60 percent of FAFSA filers are classified as independent. Out of the remaining filers, an estimated 20 percent will not notice the changes because their parents are classified as heterosexual married couples and have already been recognized on the application in past academic years. The remaining students will find that their family dynamics will affect the determination of their estimated family contribution. For some of these students, the additional income could reduce the amount of aid they receive through federal, state and privately-funded financial aid programs. Other students may find that the addition of an extra family member generates an increase in the amount of aid they can receive. While this does represent a shift in how financial aid is distributed, the federal government maintains that this will ensure fairness among all families who apply for aid.

Changes in the Application Process

When students and their families complete the FAFSA for this academic year, the most obvious change will be the use of gender-neutral language. Instead of using the terms “mother” and “father,” students will be instructed to list the income of each “parent.” For the purposes of the application, both biological and adoptive parents who live in the same home as the student must be included. Students who live with heterosexual married parents will continue to complete their application as it has been done in the past; however, those who live with same-sex parents who are in a marriage legally recognized by their home state or foreign country will list their parents’ marital status as “unmarried and living together”. Follow-up questions to this response will then include the new gender-neutral language.

Completing the New FAFSA

Now that same-sex married and unmarried parents are to be included on the FAFSA, some questions will arise when it is time to submit tax return information. The current IRS Data Retrieval Tool is unable to provide separate financial information for parents who file separately regardless of their sex or marital status. Therefore, special instructions will be provided during the application process for students who have separate tax forms filed for their parents that pertain to how they should answer questions regarding tax filing status and adjusted gross income for the family.

Every student and their family applying for financial aid using the FAFSA this academic year should be aware of the changes that will affect how they should respond appropriately to questions regarding their current living arrangements and dependent status. While the recognition of same-sex married and unmarried parents on the FAFSA will impact the amount of financial aid that students receive, these new changes are meant to provide a more accurate report that will ensure fairness for all students who can benefit from having financial aid to fund their education.

About the Author:

Today’s guest article comes from Greg Mitchell. He is a freelance financial blogger and proud resident of Houston, Texas. He encourages all local families to carefully look at how recent developments in their lives, such as new marriages or divorces in Houston, could impact their FAFSA applications.

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Did You Receive A 1098T? Not Sure What To Do? Here Is Some Help!

Did You Receive A 1098T? Not Sure What To Do? Here Is Some Help!

taxcreditsThe big questions at work this time of year are: “When are you sending 1098T forms?” and the follow up “You filled out the wrong box”. Colleges and Universities are required to file the Forms 1098-T, but the rules on what they have to include do not necessarily mesh with filling out your taxes, especially if you or your tax program don’t know how to interpret them. That form can be the information that helps claim a big tax credit; or, often missed, it could be the information about scholarships that have to be claimed as income. Who claims what and where?

Reading a Form 1098T

The Form 1098T was created by the IRS after the initial education tax credits were passed into law, the Hope (now American Opportunity) and Lifetime Learning credits. There are more than just these two, but that is what started it all. The problem is, colleges and universities aren’t necessarily set up to easily provide or interpret the payment information as the law reads, so the IRS allowed them an out. The result is two boxes on the form – the one you need and the one the colleges complete. Box 1 is Payments Received for Qualified Tuition and Related Expenses. This box would generally be what you need to claim the credit, simple and done. But the systems at colleges aren’t set up to easily calculate this. Variables that they don’t track include who made the payments and whether the payment was specifically for tuition or room or something else. For this reason, the IRS allowed them to complete Box 2, Amounts Billed for Qualified Tuition and Related Expenses. So what to do? Well the information may still be on the form, you just need to do some math and check against your statements.

Also included in the form is Box 5, Scholarships or Grants. This box is important for two reasons: it can help calculate how much is eligible for the credit; but often missed, it can also indicate that some of those scholarships are taxable. Let’s first look at calculating the credit.

If your college is like the vast majority, they report on Box 2. So to get a start on what is eligible for the credit, the first step is to subtract Box 5 from Box 2. Why? Scholarships are generally applied to tuition. Also, they are only tax free to the extent that they are applied to tuition (and related expenses). I have more on when they aren’t below. So, if the scholarship is paying tuition, then you did not, which makes you not eligible for the credit. Unfortunately, doing this math is not necessarily the end. Because the information on the 1098T, through quirks in the law, is not necessarily all related to the tax year in question.

It’s close. But Box 2 is what was billed during the year. Colleges bill for their spring or first calendar year term usually in late November or early December. This allows taxpayers to do some planning, but makes it confusing. On the planning end, the bill isn’t usually due until January, so you can decide which tax year works best by paying in either December or January. The confusion is, what did you pay? It is not always simple. For some, the information on the 1098T is all that is needed. For others, the best way is to pull out the statements from the college or request one. Things to remember: all payments you made count, including payments on credit cards and student loans (see below). Unfortunately, this whole confusion sends many to a tax advisor. If you are unsure, having one help, at least the first time through, may not be a bad idea.

What to do when scholarships exceed tuition

Some will go through the calculations above, either the simple or complex, and realize that they had enough scholarship and grant aid to not only cover tuition, but also some that pays for room and board. First comment is great! That means you earned quite a bit of free money for school. It does also mean that some of it is taxable. Scholarships or grants that exceed qualified tuition and related expenses are taxable income to the recipient. The recipient is the student, which does at least mean that the tax rate will be low.

You report this income in the same place you report wages. It can even be done on a 1040-EZ. The form should have “SCH” written just to the left of line 7 on your form 1040, 1040A or 1040-EZ.

Who claims what?

The other problem with relying on Form 1098T, and the information colleges don’t track, is who paid. To qualify for the credit or deduction, you have to have made the payment and the recipient has to be your dependent. Payments by check or credit/debit card are easy for you to track. For loans, look at the borrower. Federal Direct Loans are issued to the student only, so technically not a payment from the parent. If you are a co-signer on a loan, than you likely can count it as a payment. As I stated above, scholarships are taxable to the student. This is a good thing, since students likely have a lower tax rate.

Navigating this form with tax software

Unfortunately, because the form is confusing, it is sometimes difficult to make your tax software report this properly. Frequently you have to skip the input screen for Form 1098-T. That is because the software programs want Box 1 (we all do). But as the Mick Jaggar so wisely said, you can’t always get what you want. You will need to figure out how to make the program report this. Usually you can go directly to the tax form and get the number where it needs to go, usually right-clicking the line on the form. It may require reading the help file a little. Where the numbers should be:

  • Tax credits are taken/reported on Form 8863. The Tuition deduction is on Form 8917. To understand which is right, you can start here.
  • Scholarships are reported on line 7 of Form 1040, 1040A or 1040-EZ. There is usually a place in the tax software for wage income not reported on Form W2. This is the place to input the taxable scholarship.

So in the end, taking this benefit isn’t easy. Some important things to remember:

  • Is it worth it? Absolutely! The tax credits can reduce your tax by up to 100% of what you paid (American Opportunity Credit). Even the other options will reduce your tax by 20% or more of what you paid. More information about the options is available in this article.
  • While it may stink that you have to pay tax on some of your scholarships, it also means you didn’t have to pay for the school. That scholarship is likely being taxed at a rate of 20%. That means 80% was free money! Scholarships are any funds paid to you. They can be the grant award the school provided, a Pell grant or SEOG, State Financial Aid, or those local rotary and foundation scholarships. On the latter, if they were sent to the college or made co-payable, then the college is including them in Box 5 of 1098T. If not, that is up to you.
  • And the IRS has started a project to attempt to review and collect information about how people use these forms. While not an “audit”, it does mean that they will ask some people to validate the numbers they used. The IRS is using Form 1098T as the start of these reviews. That does not mean you should only use Form 1098T. Ultimately you are responsible for what’s in your tax return. As long as you have the support (checks and account statements) to support what you reported, you will be fine.

For some this process can be frustrating, but I still believe that effort is worth it. For some, this may mean using a tax preparer. But paying $100 or even more for tax return preparation to save $1,000 still sounds like a good deal. Good luck.

This information is provided for general reference. None of the above should be considered as offering specific tax advice. Many individuals will have unique circumstances that require different treatment. You should examine your situation and consult a tax advisor if necessary.

References and other reading:

About the Author:

Today’s guest article comes from Philip Laube. He is a CPA in Ohio and the Assistant Vice President for Business & Finance at Muskingum University. He presents and writes about personal finance issues for college students. He can be followed at twitter and on his web site

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