I've been thinking a lot about personal finance lately and trying to get my financial house in order. Four years ago, this was a little hobby of mine - I spent all my free time obsessively reading "Secrets of Six Figure Women," "Investing for Dummies" and the like, avidly studied finance blogs, and had subscriptions to Money magazine, Smart Money, etc. At the time, I meticulously distributed my 401(k) and Roth IRA amongst mutual funds that I felt were the best blend of small/mid/large cap, growth/value, etc etc.
This was before I got engaged and decided to plan a wedding in five months. All the money stuff went out the window, and since then I've been hoping that my fund allocations of '07 weren't too horribly crappy in the wake of the financial meltdown.
I've always been a frugal person, although I prefer just using the word CHEAP. Don't get me wrong - I don't cheap out on OTHER people. I like to think that I give nice gifts and whatnot - I just live a fairly streamlined existence, buying only what I need (sidenote: this explains the sorry state of my wardrobe. I am not a shopper - spending money on myself makes me very anxious. My husband - a shopper - is always encouraging me to spend more, and has instead resorted to just shopping FOR me, bringing home stacks of clothes from Banana Republic for a personal fashion show. From me, an almost-seven-months pregnant person. LOML, I adore you, but you're a little insane).
My mother calls me a miser and likens me to Scrooge McDuck, and she has a point. Can I help it if she let me read one too many Disney comics as a kid? The image of Uncle Scrooge swimming in his vast piles of money has stuck with me all these years...ahhhh.
I learned the value of money at a very early age. My parents never talked about money, and our lives were comfortable but not excessive. I'm not sure when my frugality began, but I do clearly remember my father ominously saying "It's going to be a tight Christmas this year, kids" and then becoming utterly terrified that we were all headed for the poorhouse. Considering that my father is a physician and my mother only worked part-time, I realize now that my fears were probably unfounded, but at least it instilled an appreciation of cold hard cash in my little self. I never got an allowance per se, but somehow managed to save money (gifts from grandma? birthday checks? I have no idea) to buy the things I wanted.
I remember the two biggest purchases of my young life. The first was a light-up teddy bear wearing a Santa hat. You squeezed his paws and he glowed and played Christmas carols. I saw him sitting on a shelf in the local Radio Shack and instantly adored him, so I saved up my dollars and FINALLY he was mine. I think he cost $17, although that seems pricey for a stuffed animal in 1987. I carried that little sucker around until his hat fell off and his tunes were warbly and jumbled, and he's still sitting in my closet at home.
My second big splurge as a kid was my Mickey Mouse varsity jacket from the Disney store. I was 14, and it cost $80 - a FORTUNE at the time. But by damn, I loved it, and eventually I scraped together my meagre earnings (again, not quite sure what I did to earn anything - dishes? sweeping floors? hoarding little checks from various birthdays and holidays?) and it was MINE. And I wore that sucker for the majority of Freshman year, and got many a compliment. It also still hangs in my old closet at home.
It wasn't until I quit substitute teaching and was hired by my current company that my finance fixation kicked into overdrive. Suddenly I had some magical thing called a 401(k) - what the hell was that all about? And lo and behold, there was a small Roth IRA that my parents opened long ago and never told me about. For the first time in my life, I had money to spare, and by DAMN, I would invest it well!
And so I did, until the engagement/wedding/newlywed thing came along, swept me off my feet, and put personal finance on the backburner.
THUS, here I am now. Mom to a 21-month-old, with Baby #2 on the way soon, saving for a house (a whole other post unto itself). I MUST get our financial house in order!
This brings me to my current fixation: almost a year ago, my father-in-law opened a 529 college savings plan for Carter, and has committed to investing $85 a month in it for him. Recently, I've spent a lot of time obsessing about 529s, comparing the best plans and trying to determine if we should switch. Carter's plan is currently open in the Michigan Education Savings Program - it's ranked among the better plans, though it's considered fairly conservative, while I am a fairly agressive investor. Still, the index ratio is pretty low and there is no annual fee, both of which are good things. Unlike many other states, there is no income tax break for CA residents who invest in their own state's plan, so I am free to consider options from any state. In my research, I've discovered that some of the best plans include those from Alaska, Nevada, Utah, Nebraska, Virginia, Ohio and Illinois. Our Michigan plan was ranked as one of the best plans as of two years ago, so I'm not sure why it's fallen off the list (more research to do...). Happily, you can switch plans once a year with NO penalty, so I have plenty of time to decide if we'd like to make a change.
Now down to the nitty-gritty: I've been doing 529 calculators online to determine how much we'll need to pay for Carter's education in 16 years. According to Vanguard's awesome calculator (click on "college savings planner - how much do you need to save?"), UCLA tuition will be approximately $284K in 2029, and we have to invest about $450 a month into our 529 (assuming a standard 6% return) to get there. I've started a $250 automatic monthly deduction from my savings straight into his 529. My father-in-law puts in $85, and I have entreated my mother and mother-in-law to each contribute $50, for a monthly total of $435.
BAM! HUZZAH! I'm finally feeling a little set in the college savings department, and I have time to compare other plans to determine what works best for us. Now I simply have to conquer the matter of the TOTALLY CRAPPY mutual fund in which half my Roth is invested. But I'm back in the game, people! I'm back in the game!!!