MONEY alternative assets

Finding Bargains in Cheap Oil

With oil plunging, these energy investments no longer look as expensive as they did last year.

This is the fourth in a series of five articles looking at the most popular bond alternatives and the safest ways to use them to improve your income prospects when rates are low. Adapted from “Reaching for Yield” in the January/February issue of MONEY magazine.

Like the real estate investment trusts we mentioned previously, master limited partnerships pass on to investors most of the income they generate from their core business, typically storing or transporting oil, natural gas, and other energy resources. And like REITs, MLPs spent much of 2014 looking frothy. In the 10 years through September, these shares nearly doubled the gains of the S&P 500. As a result, by fall MLPs were yielding only 2.7 points more than 10-year Treasuries, vs. their typical premium of 3.2 percentage points.

Since then, the partnerships have suffered a sharp reversal. As fears of a global slowdown grew, oil prices slid by more than half to $46 a barrel, and skittish investors started dumping MLP shares. That has pushed the average MLP yield up to 6.2%, which means they’re now paying more, relative to Treasuries, than they have historically.

Many analysts believe the panic has been overdone. While a minority of MLPs are involved in drilling and oil production, most are pipeline companies that simply collect transmission fees, with much of their revenues set by long-term contracts.

Still, these complex investments aren’t for everyone. As a result of the partnership structure, payouts from MLPs are considered a return of capital, on which taxes are ­deferred until you sell. That tax ­benefit can create a paperwork nightmare, since you may have to file separate tax returns in states the company operates in so there is a government record of the income you’ve received, notes Tom Roseen, head of research services at Lipper. You can invest via a fund that will eliminate the need to file, but that is likely to reduce your returns.

Your best strategy: Since these are still rocky times in the energy sector, your best bet is to go with a fund that gives you exposure to a diversified collection of MLPs. Stick with a fund that focuses on pipeline companies and that won’t tie you up in tax knots. That means investing via an ETF that’s set up as a corporation, not as a partnership.

One fund that meets all the criteria, says Kinney: the Alerian MLP ETF ALPS ETF TRUST ALERIAN MLP ETF AMLP -0.4035% , which tracks an index of pipeline MLPs. It paid out 6.25% last year. But thanks to the pullback in share prices and a 4% hike in its distributions in 2014, buyers are likely to collect a yield of almost 7% in 2015. Because it is a corporation, not a partnership, Alerian can’t defer taxes on its payouts; that gets rid of the hassle of filing multiple state returns every year. But convenience comes at a price: The tax bite dampens Alerian’s total return relative to other MLPs. If you’re focused on income, though, that 6% to 7% yield may be ample compensation.

More in this series:
The Smart Way to Invest in Dividend Stocks
High-Yield Bonds: Where to Look for Quality Junk
How to Boost Returns When Interest Rates Totally Stink

MONEY alternative assets

How Real Estate Can Boost Your Income in Retirement

REITs have been hot for a while. But there's still a corner of the market that has room for growth.

This is the third in a series of five articles looking at the most popular bond alternatives and the safest ways to use them to improve your income prospects when rates are low. Adapted from “Reaching for Yield” in the January/February issue of MONEY magazine.

High demand over the past year for the traditionally lofty yields on ­real estate investment trusts—the trusts are required to pay out 90% of their profits—has led to spectacular returns. Among the most popular REIT funds, for example, iShares Real Estate Fifty ETF and longtime MONEY 50 member Cohen & Steers Realty both gained more than 27% in 2014.

The rally has resulted in skimpy payouts for new investors: REIT index funds were yielding about 3% by year-end, far below their 7.5% historical average.

That’s led many analysts, such as Brad Thomas, editor of The Intelligent REIT Investor newsletter, to urge investors to be very picky about where they put new money. One pocket of opportunity now, he says, can be found in health care REITs, which specialize in leasing space to nursing homes, hospitals, and other medical facilities and will profit from the aging of the population. While their high P/Es may be off-putting—some are selling at more than 40 times earnings—a better way to assess REITs is to look at their funds from operations, or FFO. Whereas reported earnings treat depreciation on real estate holdings as an expense that lowers results, FFO adds depreciation back, which more accurately reflects the value of a trust’s property. Using that metric, health care ­REITs look relatively inexpensive, trading at 14.5 times FFO, compared with the industry’s average of 15.5.

Your best strategy: While you’re usually better off investing via mutual funds and ETFs, there are none now that substantially overweight health care trusts. That’s why ­Thomas and Morningstar senior REIT analyst Todd Lukasik instead favor individual health care REITs.

Both, for example, are fans of Ventas VENTAS VTR 0.1364% , which owns about 1,500 senior housing communities, skilled nursing facilities, and similar properties in the U.S. and Britain and was recently selling for 15 times FFO. Ventas raised its dividend 9% in December, giving it a yield around 4%. They also like HCP Inc. HCP, INC. HCP -0.2703% , which owns $22 billion worth of medical-related property. It is selling for 12 times FFO and yields 4.5%.

More in this series:
The Smart Way to Invest in Dividend Stocks
High-Yield Bonds: Where to Look for Quality Junk
How to Boost Returns When Interest Rates Totally Stink

MONEY alternative assets

High-Yield Bonds: Where to Look for Quality Junk

High-yield bonds are paying more than they did a year ago, but investors still need to stay away from the junkiest junk.

This is the second in a series of five articles looking at the most popular bond alternatives and the safest ways to use them to improve your income prospects when rates are low. Adapted from “Reaching for Yield” in the January/February issue of MONEY magazine.

Falling oil prices have really pummeled the high-yield bond universe, where energy issues make up 15% of the market. Worried that these developments raise the risk of defaults for junk—issues rated BB+ or ­lower —investors have been selling their bonds. That has driven yields up sharply as new buyers demand higher payments to offset greater risk.

That’s a big change from last year, when you might as well have called these securities the “bonds formerly known as high yield.” Halfway through 2014, amid high demand, junk was paying just 3.4 percentage points more than Treasury securities of similar duration—well below the long-term average premium of 5.8 points and a world away from the yawning 20-point gap during the financial crisis in late 2008.

Now the yield gap is back near the norm. “The spreads are close to fair value,” says Marty Fridson, chief investment officer at Lehmann Livian Fridson Advisors. Fridson believes the fall in oil will turn out to be a positive for junk investors: “Eventually the economy will benefit from lower oil prices, which will help the 85% of high-yield bonds not in the energy sector.”

Stay away from the junkiest junk, though, where yields aren’t good enough to justify the higher default risk, says Gershon Distenfeld, director of high yield at AllianceBernstein. According to Standard & Poor’s, 65% of issues rated CCC to C historically have defaulted within five years, compared with 3.4% for BB-rated bonds. Sure, the C’s yield a lot more—11.3%, vs. 5% for BB’s—but that won’t matter if the issuer stops making payments.

Your best strategy: Focus on funds that overweight bonds rated BB+ through B, which are still paying roughly twice as much as Treasuries. Jeff Tjornehoj, head of Lipper Americas Research, calls USAA High Income Fund USAA HIGH-YLD OPPORTUNITIES FD USHYX -0.1181% “a stellar performer” because of its ability to manage risk while still providing high returns. The fund was recently yielding about 6% and has only 8% of its holdings in C-rated bonds. Morningstar analyst Sarah Bush also praises the conservatism of Vanguard High-Yield Corporate VANGUARD HIGH-YIELD CORPORATE INV VWEHX 0.1678% , yielding 6%. The fund has 93% of its portfolio in bonds rated B or better and a ­razor-thin expense ratio of 0.23%.

More in this series:
The Smart Way to Invest in Dividend Stocks

MONEY 529 plans

Why Obama Wants to Tax College Savings

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 20, 2015.
Mandel Ngan—Reuters

In this week's State of the Union address, the president proposed ending a popular tax break on 529 plans. Here's what's behind that pitch.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama promised to make college more affordable for low- and middle-income families. But one way he would pay for that would be to make college more expensive for millions of upper-income Americans.

The president proposed ending a key tax break on state 529 college savings plans. Today, the money you invest in a 529 plan isn’t deductible on your federal taxes (34 states and the District of Columbia give you a break on state taxes), but your savings grow tax-deferred, and you won’t owe any taxes on your earnings when you withdraw that money to pay for higher education expenses, including tuition, room and board, and books. Under Obama’s plan, those investment profits would be taxable, even if the money went toward college.

President Obama says he’d use the estimated $2 billion in additional tax revenues to raise the American Opportunity tax credit, which is a $2,500 write-off targeted at low- and middle-income families paying tuition bills. The administration points out that 529 plans disproportionately benefit higher-income households.

In essence, Obama is proposing making college more expensive for an estimated 2 million mostly upper-income families to ease the tuition burden for more than 8.5 million low- and middle-income families.

A Question of Fairness

This proposal—which is already facing Republican opposition in Congress—is based on concerns about the fairness of the 529 tax breaks that have been widely discussed among education-related think tanks and experts of all political leanings for years.

In all, federal taxpayers spend more on educational tax breaks than they do on popular financial aid programs such as Pell grants, noted a 2013 report by the Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery (RADD) Consortium for Higher Education Tax Reform. Not only are all the education tax breaks confusing and hard to collect, “students from families with the least financial need receive the most tax-based aid,” the report noted.

In theory, 529 plans aren’t just for the rich. Anybody can open one of these tax-protected colleges savings account for a child or for themselves. You can choose either a prepaid tuition plan, which lets you buy tuition credits ahead of time, or a college savings plan, which lets you set money aside for a future college student.

That tax break that the president wants to eliminate has been a key to 529 plans’ popularity. Since President George W. Bush signed the 529 tax exemption into law in 2001, families have opened nearly 12 million new 529 accounts and have socked away almost $250 billion for college.

And states have been marketing the savings programs. In 2012, the GAO found that 14 states offered matching grants to encourage low-income families to save. Some states even offered 529 brochures to new parents leaving the hospital.

Despite these efforts, very few low- or middle-income families have managed to save very much in 529s. In 2012, more than 97% of families had no special college savings account, according to a Government Accountability Office report. (The large number of accounts may be due to some families opening separate accounts for each child and parent.)

One reason for the low participation: Many still don’t know about 529s. Of parents who say they’re planning to send their kids to college, 49% don’t even know what a 529 plan is, Sallie Mae found in its annual “How America Pays For College” report.

Another factor: Low and middle-income families pay comparatively low taxes, so the tax break is not much of a lure to lock up money for one purpose. Families can take money out of 529s to spend on non-college expenses, but they’ll have to pay regular income taxes, plus an extra 10% penalty, on any earnings.

As a result, 529 investors tend to be wealthy. Families with 529s earned a median annual income of $142,400 and reported a median of $413,500 in financial assets, according to the GAO. About half of families with 529s (or similar Coverdell accounts) had an income above $150,000 in 2010.

And, in part because high earners typically owe higher taxes, the wealthy reaped large tax breaks from using 529s. In 2012, the GAO found that Americans who made less than $100,000 withdrew a median $7,491 from their 529s, saving just $561 on their taxes. But Americans who earned more than $150,000 withdrew a median $18,039, saving $3,132 in taxes.

In place of the tax break at withdrawal, Obama wants to expand the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which is currently phased out for families earning more than $180,000 a year.

The administration would like to expand the write-off to more students, such as those who attend college part-time. “It’s targeted in such a way that it will be most impactful to the students who need the assistance the most,” says Cecilia Muñoz, White House domestic policy director.

What Changes You’ll Really See

What does this all mean for you: Not much, at least for the near term.

If you’ve already got money in a 529, don’t worry. The president’s plan wouldn’t be retroactive. It would repeal the tax break on earnings only for future contributions.

And if you’re planning to start saving for college, there’s probably not much to worry about either. Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, have come out in opposition to the proposal. “You don’t produce a healthy economy and an educated workforce by raising taxes on college savings,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told the Wall Street Journal.

That means there probably won’t be extra money in the budget for much additional financial aid for low- and middle-income families. So you may as well start saving for tuition bills. Here’s how to find the best 529 plan for you.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the proportion of new tax revenues that would come from families earning above $250,000 if Obama’s proposal was enacted. The reference has been removed.

 

MONEY alternative assets

How to Boost Returns When Interest Rates Totally Stink

People climbing over wall to greener yard
Mark Smith

With bond rates looking bare, income investors are eager to grab greener options. Higher payouts are out there, but watch your step: Some are riskier than others.

This is the first in a series of five articles looking at the most popular bond alternatives and the safest ways to use them to improve your income prospects when rates are low. Adapted from “Reaching for Yield” in the January/February issue of MONEY magazine.

Falling oil prices have sent shudders through the financial markets lately, but if you’re investing for income, this development could actually spell opportunity. Over the past few years, as rates shriveled on traditional bonds, yield-starved investors poured billions into higher-yielding alternatives, including dividend stocks, real estate investment trusts, energy partnerships, and new “go-anywhere” bond funds. That paid off handsomely if you got in early enough but has been problematic lately: All that money flooding in caused prices to rise sharply on bond alternatives, which sent yields plummeting. As a result, many of these securities by late last fall were paying out half as much as they usually do—or less.

That is, until recently. Jitters over what sharply declining energy prices might mean for the economy have ­prompted a rush back into government bonds and other “safe” securities. As a result, yields on some alternative assets are rising—and you can once again find payouts ranging from 4% to more than 6%, compared with the measly 1.9% rate on 10-year Treasuries.

To get to greener payouts, though, you have to climb a wall of risk. Historically, when market conditions turn sour, alternative assets lose more money, sometimes a lot more, than traditional fixed-income investments. That’s why financial advisers such as Mitch Reiner, chief operating officer of Capital ­Investment Advisers in Atlanta, recommend limiting the amount you invest in them to 5% to 25% of your portfolio, depending on how much income you need and whether you could let losses ride during market setbacks.

Also recognize that while these alternative assets can help boost your yield, the strategy isn’t a cure-all. Shifting 20% of a portfolio split fifty-fifty between stocks and traditional bonds into a mix of higher-paying alternatives might raise your yield from about 2% to 2.6% with little additional risk, says Geoff Considine, who runs the portfolio modeling firm Quantex. If you’re retired, that means you’ll still probably have to rely on principal and capital gains to fund at least some of your living expenses.

What follows is the first in a series of five articles looking at the most popular bond alternatives—in this case dividend stocks—and the safest ways to use them to improve your income prospects.

Dividend stocks: Go global and preferred

High-quality stocks that return a hefty portion of profits to shareholders via dividends are a favorite of income investors when bond yields are low. That’s been especially true over the past few years, when many blue-chip and even some tech companies were yielding as much as or more than Treasury bonds. The same payouts with real growth potential—slam dunk, right?

Not so much anymore. Yield-hungry investors have been bidding up prices on dividend payers since the financial crisis, and despite the market’s recent slide, they still look expensive relative to their earnings. For instance, the average stock in the SPDR S&P Dividend ETF, which tracks an index of companies that have boosted payouts consistently over the past 20 years, was recently selling at more than 18.6 times projected earnings. The price/earnings ratio for the Standard & Poor’s 500, which historically has commanded a higher multiple than slower-growth dividend stocks: about 16.

The more stock prices race ahead of earnings, the more likely they are to fall, warns James Stack, president of InvesTech Research of Whitefish, Mont.  “We are in the sixth year of a bull market,” he warns, adding: “A retirement portfolio can be destroyed reaching for yield.” And while high-dividend shares typically drop less than the average stock during downturns, their losses are still substantially more on average than you could expect with bonds.

Your best strategy: Rather than seeking out the highest yields, zero in on companies that consistently raise dividends. And don’t overpay. To avoid that, look for dividend payers overseas, where stocks have been less inflated than in the U.S.  A good option: PowerShares International Dividend Achievers ETF POWERSHARES INTERNATIONAL DIVIDEND ACHIEVERS PORTFOLIO PID 0.2261% , a MONEY 50 pick that invests in foreign companies that have hiked dividends for at least five years straight. It paid out 3.9% over the last year yet has a modest average portfolio P/E of 14.

Preferred stocks offer even higher yields, recently averaging 6%. These shares can be traded like regular stocks but have more in common structurally with bonds: Their payments tend to be fixed over time, and their shareholders are ahead of common stock owners in the pecking order of whom companies must pay first. What you give up in exchange for that reliable income: a shot at much appreciation, because preferred shares, like bonds, have set redemption prices. And like bonds, preferreds are also sensitive to interest rates. If rates jumped, your shares could lose value, as they did in 2013.

Preferreds also lack diversification; almost 90% of them are issued by financial institutions. To reduce your exposure to banks, James Kinney, an adviser in central New Jersey, suggests splitting your preferred stake between iShares U.S. Preferred Stock ETF ISHARES TRUST U.S. PREFERRED STOCK ETF PFF 0.0751% and Market Vectors Preferred Securities ex-Financials MARKET VECTORS ETF PFD SECS EX FINLS ETF PFXF -0.0428% , which counts blue chips like United Technologies and Tyson Foods among its top holdings.

More in this series:
High-Yield Bonds: Where to Look for Quality Junk

MONEY College

Ducks vs. Buckeyes: Bettors Favor Oregon, Employers Prefer Ohio State

Jalin Marshall #17, Corey Smith #84 and Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes during Media Day for the College Football Playoff National Championship at Dallas Convention Center on January 10, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.
Jalin Marshall #17, Corey Smith #84 and Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes during Media Day for the College Football Playoff National Championship at Dallas Convention Center on January 10, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. Ronald Martinez—Getty Images

Sports fans think Oregon has the better football team, but Ohio state students are more likely to graduate and earn higher salaries.

Bettors are predicting the University of Oregon Ducks will win tonight’s first-ever college football championship against the Ohio State Buckeyes. But according to our research, Buckeyes are more likely to have an edge in life.

A MONEY analysis of the performance of the two colleges indicates that Ohio State students are more likely to graduate, and more likely to find higher-paying jobs, than University of Oregon undergrads:

School MONEY ranking MONEY value-added grade Graduation rate Payscale.com earnings within 5 years
University of Oregon 429 B- 67% $41,000
Ohio State University 144 B+ 83% $46,200

Of course, there are tradeoffs: Buckeyes have to spend their winters in Columbus, Ohio, where the average high temperature in January is just 36 degrees, and they can expect almost 10 inches of rain or snow.

To compare how your favorite teams match up academically, see MONEY’s full Best Colleges list, which ranked the nation’s 665 top schools on educational quality, affordability, and future earnings potential.

More from MONEY’s Best Colleges:
The 25 Best Colleges You Can Actually Get Into
The 20 Best Colleges for Merit Aid
Best 100 Best Colleges If You Need a Student Loan

 

MONEY College

5 Ways to Get Free College Education Even If (When?) Obama’s Plan Dies

Congress probably won't approve the free community college plan, but there are lots of ways you can get free or affordable college courses.

Almost as soon as President Obama floated his proposal for free community college on Thursday night, experts began explaining the political, economic, and practical reasons it was unlikely ever to become a reality.

Chances are slim, it was pointed out, that he can persuade a Republican-controlled Congress to approve and fund the expensive plan

And community college leaders worried about their ability to handle a big influx of students attracted by free courses, some noting that insufficient revenues and high demand have forced some community colleges to turn away students in recent years.

But don’t despair: Many other programs are already making college free for thousands of students. And there are other proposals to eliminate up-front tuition that could open the college gates to more students in the future.

Here are five ways you can find free or very affordable college courses right now:

1) Some states and cities already have free or low-cost community college tuition. The Tennessee Promise, which is the model for President Obama’s plan, waives tuition not covered by other aid programs for students who file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), donate eight hours of community service each semester, and earn a C grade point average. Similar programs are being debated in Oregon, Texas, Mississippi, and Chicago. Community colleges in California, the most affordable in the country, charge less than $1,500 a year in tuition and fees.

2) Financial aid and tax benefits already cover most community college tuition. The average community college charges about $3,350 a year in tuition and fees. By taking advantage of the $2,500 federal tuition tax credits, as well as financial aid such as the federal Pell Grant, the average community college student gets enough aid to cover tuition and the approximately $1,000 book bill, according to research by the College Board.

3) Alternative free college proposals. Several states are considering “Pay It Forward” proposals that would allow students to attend college without paying any tuition right away and instead repaying a percentage of their income over time. And other “free college” plans have also gained traction.

4) Established free college programs: The military, work colleges, and many generous colleges offer ways to get free college educations.

5) Free online courses: There are hundreds of free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Many, for a nominal fee, will award you college credits.

MONEY financial aid

7 Legal Ways to Squeeze More College Aid From the FAFSA

vice squeezing dollar bill
Steven Puetzer—Getty Images

Smart timing, cash management and college application strategies can mean thousands of dollars in extra financial aid.

Correction appended: January 8

Filling out the 10 eye-crossing pages of the 2015-16 Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the most important application for need-based college financial aid, may not seem like a fun adventure in Super Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom. But hidden among its 103 questions are hints that, if followed correctly, can dramatically increase your need-based aid and possibly rescue your dreams of an affordable college education.

Before you spend a lot of time on this, though, use a few college Net Price Calculators, the federal government’s FAFSA Forecaster, or the College Board’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) calculator to see whether you’re likely to receive any need-based aid. If you’re planning to attend an in-state public college, and your family has an Expected Family Contribution (or EFC) above about $25,000 (which general means the family income is above $125,000) the odds of getting need-based grants are very low, says Paula Bishop, an independent financial aid counselor in Bellevue, Wash. For students planning on private colleges, the need-based aid EFC cutoff is generally about $65,000, she says (which typically means the family has an income greater than $200,000).

If you’re above those cutoffs, it still pays to fill out the FAFSA to qualify yourself for low-cost student loans, and merit programs that require the form, but your focus should be on maximizing merit aid – which is money awarded based on the student’s grades or other accomplishments without regard to family income.

If you’re below those cutoffs, use this “not-cheating” (since all these strategies are legal) FAFSA cheat sheet:

1. Go online. You can print out a PDF and fill out the FAFSA on paper. But the online version uses skip logic, which makes it easier and faster. Also, for later filers, the online version will import your tax information, which speeds things up even more.

2. Time it right. Fill out the 2015-16 form right now if you live in one of the nine states with “first-come, first-served” financial aid programs: Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington. These states often run out of money quickly, so act fast, even if you don’t have your 2014 tax information. You can fill out the 2015-16 form using estimates based on your 2013 tax forms. Then, when you do your taxes, you can go back into your FAFSA and make any updates or corrections.

Everybody else has more time—but not a lot. Those who file the FAFSA by March 30 receive, on average, twice the grant money as later filers, calculates Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the financial aid website Edvisors.com. Many colleges and states have early deadlines for state aid: The deadline for filing for state financial aid in Connecticut is Feb. 15; Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and West Virginia cut off their state aid after March 1. California’s deadline is March 2. You can check your state’s aid deadline here, but you’ll have to call, or check the websites of, the colleges you’re applying to for their aid deadlines.

Don’t despair if you still haven’t filled out last year’s FAFSA. You can still qualify for federal aid for the 2014-15 academic year by filling out last year’s FAFSA, even as late as June 30 of this year

3. Clarify your relationships. Questions 16 and 59 ask about the students’ and parents’ marital status as of the day you file the form, to see if both parents’ income should be counted as financial resources for the student. Rules adopted in 2014 eliminated a loophole that allowed parents who were cohabiting but didn’t happen to be married to report only one parent’s income (which usually increased the student’s eligibility for need-based aid). Divorced or separated parents may report one parent’s income (the parent with whom the student spends the most time) only if the other parent does not live in the same house. In other words, if you’re in the process of getting divorced or separated anyway, one spouse should move out before you finish the FAFSA.

4. Parents: Don’t brag. Some states and colleges offer extra aid to children of parents who haven’t earned college degrees. Questions 24 and 25 ask about the highest level of education your parents completed. So if one or both of your parents, attended community college, or even are just one credit away from a bachelor’s degree, make sure to fill in the dot only for “high school,” Bishop advises.

5. Pay your bills first. Questions 41 and 90 ask about how much cash students and parents have in savings and checking accounts at the moment you are filling out the FAFSA. But notice that there are no questions on the FAFSA about your debts or bills. So if you’ve got a sufficient emergency cash reserve, use any extra cash to pay down credit card, car loan, or other bills before you finish filling out the form, and report the newly lower cash amount on the FAFSA.

6. Shield your investments. Questions 42, 43, 91 and 92 ask about the student’s and the parents’ investments. But many filers don’t realize that the value of any retirement accounts, as well as the home you live in, should not be included in these boxes. So if you’ve got a lot of money in non-retirement accounts, prepay your mortgage or plow some into Roth IRAs. One big advantage of Roth IRAs: You can take out your contributions (but not any earnings) tax-free to pay college bills.

7. Strategize your college list. A growing number of colleges are analyzing the order in which students list colleges on FAFSA question #103 to determine how likely the student is to attend. Colleges assume that students list colleges in their order of preference, and some will award more aid to those who list their college second or third, say, in an effort to woo students away from their first choice. So make sure the top three colleges in your list are schools you really want to attend, and, if possible, are schools that compete with one another, in the hopes of encouraging them to raise your aid offer.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the scenario in tip No. 6. The time to take these steps is when you have a lot of money in non-retirement accounts.

Read next: Best Colleges You Can Still Apply To For Fall 2015

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MONEY best of 2014

The 3 Best New Breaks for College Students in 2014

Some good news for students of all ages this year.

Every year, there are innovators who come up with fresh solutions to nagging problems. Companies roll out new products or services, or improve on old ones. Researchers propose better theories to explain the world. Or stuff that’s been flying under the radar finally captivates a wide audience. For MONEY’s annual Best New Ideas list, our writers searched the world of money for the most compelling products, strategies, and insights of 2014. To make the list, these ideas—which cover the world of investing, retirement, health care, tech, college, and more—have to be more than novel. They have to help you save money, make money, or improve the way you spend it, like these three higher-ed innovations.

Best Help For College Grads

More borrowers can now cap their student loan payments, so that the bills eat up no more than 10% to 15% of income. Although these programs first got going a few years ago, they became a lot easier to access in 2014—enrollment doubled to 1.9 million in the 12 months before June 30.

One reason: The StudentLoans.gov site introduced a handy new calculator to quickly compare repayment options, as well as a one-stop application that allows borrowers to choose the plan with the lowest monthly payments.

Best Fast Path to a Degree

If you know the material in, say, Econ 101, should it matter whether you learned it sitting in a lecture, by taking a free online course, or by reading the books? More well-regarded schools are saying it shouldn’t—and that could help bring down the cost of getting a degree. The University of Wisconsin system now makes it possible to earn a bachelor’s by taking tests or submitting portfolios of your work.

The University of Michigan, the University of Texas system, and Purdue are also launching “competency-based” degrees. In the first year of UW’s program, one ambitious student aced enough tests to earn 33 credits in three months, at a cost of only $2,250.

Best New (and Returning) Free Courses

The number and quality of free online courses kept improving in 2014, offering everything from guitar lessons to “no-pay MBAs.” These are three of the most proven of the “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs.

A popular newbie in 2014: If Interstellar inspired you to learn about the cosmos, check out CalTech’s The Science of the Solar System, which has gotten five-star reviews on Coursetalk.com. As you would expect from a CalTech course, it’s challenging, according to the 2014 students. It’s being offered again through Coursera starting March 30, 2015.

Two favorites of the year: As computers become ever more essential to our jobs, programming has become a crucial career skill. But which language should you learn? And how can you learn it quickly and cheaply? MITx’s “Introduction to Computer Science and Programming using Python” teaches what has become the most popular programming language at colleges. Most MOOCs are plagued by high dropout rates. But among all the free courses offered by EdX, the MOOC platform for Harvard, MIT, and many other elite colleges, this three-year-old class is in the top five for number of students who have completed all assignments. The class is being offered again starting Jan. 7, 2015.

Even if you don’t plan to start a business yourself, odds are that you’re working for someone who is trying to be more entrepreneurial. And one of the most popular entrepreneurial gurus of the moment is Steve Blank, a tech entrepreneur who is one of the founders of the “lean startup” movement. Blank’s learn-at-your-own pace “How to Build a Startup” course has been sampled by about a quarter of a million students already, making it one of Udacity’s most popular.

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MONEY best of 2014

5 Trends That Changed the Face of Real Estate in 2014

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MONEY (photo illustration)

Cheaper solar power (finally), what millennials really want in a home, and a better shot at a mortgage (for some).

Every year, there are innovators who come up with fresh solutions to nagging problems. Companies roll out new products or services, or improve on old ones. Researchers propose better theories to explain the world. Or stuff that’s been flying under the radar finally captivates a wide audience. For MONEY’s annual Best New Ideas list, our writers searched the world of money for the most compelling products, strategies, and insights of 2014. To make the list, these ideas—which cover the world of investing, retirement, health care, tech, college, and more—have to be more than novel. They have to help you save money, make money, or improve the way you spend it, like these five real estate trends.

Best Trend for Energy Efficiency

Thanks to better manufacturing methods, the cost of residential solar panels has fallen about 7% per year since 2000, says the Department of Energy. And that’s not the only thing making solar look like a brighter choice.

Better financing options: Low-interest, no-­money-down solar loans are now offered by lenders such as Admiral Bank, credit unions, and through major solar-panel sellers like SolarCity. (Energysage.com/solar lists the options.) David Feldman, senior financial analyst for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, ran the numbers to compare loans to leasing, long the most popular way of going solar. He says a typical system, which might lease for $168 a month over 20 years, would cost $136 or less per month with a loan.

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Improved resale value: A study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that homes with owned, not leased, solar panels could sell for almost $25,000 more than comparable non-solar homes.

Best Price Cut to Root For

Home prices rise, home prices fall, but the commission you pay to sell has barely budged from 5% or so. (That’s split between listing and buyer’s agents.) A few years ago it looked like new competitors might change the status quo, but the housing crash seemed to slow progress down. Now price-cutting may be picking up again: In October the brokerage Redfin cut its already low 1.5% fee to list a home to just 1% in the D.C. area. Let’s hope this move is a sign of more competition to come.

Best New Reason You May Finally Qualify for a Mortgage

That all-important three-digit score that determines how much you’ll pay to borrow money got an overhaul in 2014, which should mean a higher score for some consumers. Fair Isaac, which computes the most commonly used credit score, the FICO score, announced it would no longer ding borrowers who had a bill sent to collections if the balance was later paid or settled. Previously, even those paid accounts had remained a blemish for up to seven years.

The new formula will also give less weight to unpaid medical bills that end up in collections, in part because that can happen by accident when a patient believes the insurer covered the cost. More than one in five Americans will be contacted by a collection agency for medical bills this year, according to NerdWallet. If you have a single medical bill in collections, and no other blemishes, you can expect to see a 25-point jump in your score.

Best Tip for Advertising Your Home Sale

“One of the things younger buyers say is important to them is that the house has great cell coverage,” says Richard Davidson, CEO of Century 21 Real Estate.

Most Shocking True Confession

“I recently tried to refinance my mortgage, and I was unsuccessful in doing so … I’m not making that up,” said Ben Bernanke, former chair of the Federal Reserve, on how banks may be making it too hard to get a mortgage.

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