TIME Greece

5 Facts About the Greek Elections

Greek Prime Minister and Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras, at the Presidential palace during the swearing in ceremony of the new Greek Government, Athens, Jan. 27, 2015 .
Greek Prime Minister and Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras, at the Presidential palace during the swearing in ceremony of the new Greek Government, Athens, Jan. 27, 2015 . Panayiotis Tzamaros/NurPhoto/Corbis

The results of Sunday's elections in Greece pose major challenges to Europe

On Sunday, Greek elections ushered in a radical left-wing Syriza government in sweeping fashion: the party won 149 seats—two short of an absolute majority—on the back of its anti-establishment, anti-austerity platform. How dissatisfied are Greeks with the status quo? How does that compare with Germany, heading into tense negotiations over the southern European country’s debt? And where can Greece turn for support? Here are five facts that explain the situation.

1. Surging discontent

In 2010, Syriza was polling at 5%. In last weekend’s elections, they captured more than 36% of the vote. Meanwhile, Golden Dawn, an anti-immigration party with neo-Nazi associations, took third place with 6%. Perhaps a different poll best explains this surge in support for anti-establishment parties. In a Pew Research survey measuring economic attitudes, Greece came dead last among all countries polled: just 2% of Greeks think their economic situation is good. (Compare that to the 85% of Germans who are happy with their economy.)

(Eurasia Group, Pew Research)

2. 25%: Greece’s unlucky number

Why so much frustration with the economy? Since the financial crisis struck in 2008, the Greek economy has shrunk by more than 25%. So have wages. The unemployment rate is over 25% too. Youth unemployment is double that, rising to 50.6% in October. (Compare that to 7.4% youth unemployment in Germany.)

(Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the European Magazine, Trading Economics)

3. Under pressure

When Greece inked a historic bailout worth $270 billion dollars, or some $25,000 per Greek citizen from the Troika—the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank—it came with a quid pro quo. The government has undertaken drastic cuts in government spending to try to balance the budget. Education funding has been decimated: over six years of austerity, the Ministry of Education’s budget has been slashed by more than 35%. The pain adds up: the University of Crete endured a budget cut of 75% in 2011, an additional 15% the following year—and a 23% cut is scheduled for this year. Syriza’s argument—that such cuts are a bad bet for Greece’s future and will undermine longer term growth—resonates with the broader Greek population.

(CNBC, European Parliament)

4. Brain drain

With the numbers so bleak, it’s no wonder Greeks are leaving in droves. Migration outflows are up 300% compared to pre-crisis figures; roughly 2% of the population has left, some 200,000 people. Somewhat ironically, over half of these emigrants have headed for Britain—and for Germany. Since 2010, more than 4,000 Greek doctors have left the country for jobs abroad.

(The Guardian, NPR, Deutsche Welle)

5. Pivot to Russia?

Greece has had a little help from a friend outside the EU. In 2013, Russia surpassed Germany to become Greece’s largest trading partner, with trade flows of $12.5 billion. Tourism is a huge part of the Greek economy, contributing over 16% of GDP—and Russia has been the fastest growing source of new visitors. In 2013, tourism revenues from Russia skyrocketed 42%. Of course, recent Western sanctions undermine this budding relationship—a weaker ruble means less tourism, and Russia’s EU food export ban hurts Greek fruit exporters. This could explain why new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met with the Russian ambassador to Greece within hours of taking office—and publicly expressed his disapproval with new EU condemnations of Russia.

(Bloomberg, the OEC, EU Observer)

Foreign-affairs columnist Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His next book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, will be published in May

MONEY Financial Planning

The Most Important Money Mistakes to Avoid

iStock

Smart people do silly things with money all the time, but some mistakes can be much worse than others.

We asked three of our experts what they consider to be the top money mistake to avoid, and here’s what they had to say.

Dan Caplinger
The most pernicious financial trap that millions of Americans fall into is getting into too much debt. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get exposed to debt at an early age, especially as the rise of student loans has made taking on debt a necessity for many students seeking a college education.

Yet it’s important to distinguish between different types of debt. Used responsibly, lower-interest debt like mortgages and subsidized student loans can actually be a good way to get financing, helping you build up a credit history and allowing you to achieve goals that would otherwise be out of reach. Yet even with this “good” debt, it’s important to match up your financing costs with your current or expected income, rather than simply assuming you’ll be able to pay it off when the time comes.

At the other end of the spectrum, high-cost financing like payday loans should be a method of last resort for borrowers, given their high fees. Even credit cards carry double-digit interest rates, making them a gold mine for issuing banks while making them difficult for cardholders to pay off once they start carrying a balance. The best solution is to be mindful of using debt and to save it for when you really need it.

Jason Hall
It may seem like no big deal, but cashing out your 401(k) early has major repercussions and leads you to have less money when you’ll need it most: in retirement.

According to a Fidelity Investments study, more than one-third of workers under 50 have cashed out a 401(k) at some point. Given an average balance of more than $14,000 for those in their 20s through 40s, we’re talking about a lot of retirement money that people are taking out far too early. Even $14,000 may seem like a relatively easy amount of money to “replace” in a retirement account, but the real cost is the lost opportunity to grow the money.

Think about it this way. If you cash out at 40 years old, you aren’t just taking out $14,000 — you’re taking away decades of potential compound growth:

Returns based on 7% annualized rate of return, which is below the 30-year stock market average.

As you can see, the early cash-out costs you dearly in future returns; the earlier you do it, the more ground you’ll have to make up to replace those lost returns. Don’t cash out when you change jobs. Instead, roll those funds over into your new employer’s 401(k) or an IRA to avoid any tax penalties, and let time do the hard work for you. You’ll need that $100,000 in retirement a lot more than you need $14,000 today.

Dan Dzombak
One of the biggest money mistakes you can make is going without health insurance.

While the monthly premiums can seem like a lot, you’re taking a massive risk with your health and finances by forgoing health insurance. Medical bills quickly add up, and if you have a serious injury, it may also mean you have to miss work, lowering your income when you most need it. These two factors, as well as the continuing rise in healthcare costs, are why a 2009 study from Harvard estimated that 62% of all personal bankruptcies stem from medical expenses.

Since then, we’ve seen the rollout of Obamacare, which signed up 10.3 million Americans through the health insurance marketplaces. Gallup estimated last year that Obamacare lowered the percentage of the adult population that’s uninsured to 13.4%. That’s the lowest level in years, yet it still represents a large number of people forgoing health insurance.

Lastly, as of 2014, not having health insurance is a big money mistake. For tax year 2014, if you didn’t have health insurance, there’s a fine of the higher of $95 or 1% of your income. For tax year 2015, the penalty jumps to the higher of $325 or 2% of your income. While there are some exemptions, if you are in a position to do so, get health insurance. Keep in mind that for low-income taxpayers, Obamacare includes subsidies to lower the monthly payments to help afford health insurance.

MONEY Debit Card

What Happens If I Swipe My Debit Card as “Credit”?

person swiping credit card
David Woolley—Getty Images

The answer may surprise you.

It’s a question we’ve all heard when shopping: “Credit or debit?” It seems straightforward, just the cashier asking you what type of payment card you’re using, but there’s actually a lot more history to that question than you might think.

Debit and credit transactions are processed differently: Here’s how MasterCard explained it in an emailed statement to Credit.com: When you use a debit card and your PIN (personal identification number), the transaction is completed in real time, also known as an online transaction — you authorize the purchase with your PIN and the money is immediately transferred from your bank account to the merchant. With a credit card, or using a debit card as credit, it’s an offline transaction.

“The funds for offline transactions are deducted after the merchant settles the purchase with the credit card processor and typically take 2-3 days to be reflected in your account balance,” MasterCard says.

Issuers used to charge merchants different fees for accepting credit cards than for accepting debit card transactions with a PIN. Before the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed, Sen. Dick Durbin added a provision, now called the Durbin Amendment, that restricted interchange fees to 12¢ per transaction. By the time the bill was signed into law, the cap was set at 21¢, much lower than the previous average of 45¢ per transaction. (On Jan. 20, the Supreme Court declined to hear retailers’ challenge to that 21¢ cap.)

With the cap on interchange fees, banks saw their revenue source for things like debit card rewards and free banking dry up, which is why you’re unlikely to find those things these days.

“There’s several thousand community banks and credit unions, what the act refers to as unregulated, who can actually charge greater interchange on transactions,” said Nick Barnes senior vice president of retail banking at ACI Worldwide, a payments system company. The Durbin Amendment only impacted financial service providers with $10 billion or more in assets. “That’s why you go to these tiny banks you’ll still see free banking and debit rewards.”

Should You Choose Debit or Credit?

Credit cards and debit cards are very different products, each with their own advantages and drawbacks that should influence when and how you use them. As for hitting the “credit” button when you’re using a debit card: It doesn’t really matter.

Other than the changes banks may have made as a result changing interchange fees, choosing to use a debit card as credit doesn’t really impact you. You often have the choice to use your debit card with or without the PIN, and how you use it is a matter of personal preference. Running a debit card as an offline transaction still ends up doing the same thing — taking money from your checking account — and it doesn’t help you build credit, like using a credit card does.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

Read next: Why You Need to Get a Credit Card

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MONEY Debt

You’re Going to Spend $280,000 on Interest in Your Lifetime

Sorry.

The typical American consumer will fork over an average of $279,002 in interest payments during the course of his or her lifetime. So says a new report from Credit.com, which analyzed the lifetime cost of debt in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, based on average mortgage balances, credit card debt, and credit scores.

The size of the nut varies dramatically from state to state. Residents of Washington, D.C.—where average new mortgages are $462,000 and the average credit score of 656 falls squarely in the “fair” range—can expect to pay $451,890 in interest, the highest in the nation.

Concerned D.C. residents might want to consider hitching a ride to Iowa, where the average new mortgage is the nation’s lowest, at $120,467. Add in an average credit card debt of $2,935—also the lowest in the country—and a credit score of 689, and residents of the Hawkeye State have a lifetime cost of debt of “only” $129,394.

Along with 30-year fixed-rate mortgages, Credit.com also considered an average auto loan balance of $22,750 (assuming nine cars over a lifetime) and 40 years of revolving credit card debt when calculating its findings.

Here’s a breakdown of the top 10 states with the highest cost of debt:

  1. Washington, D.C. ($451,890)
  2. California ($368,745)
  3. Hawaii ($312,747)
  4. New Jersey ($309,500)
  5. New York ($300,031)
  6. Maryland ($294,720)
  7. Virginia ($280,516)
  8. Washington ($267,964)
  9. Massachusetts ($261,220)
  10. Colorado ($255,232)

And the lowest:

  1. Iowa ($129,394)
  2. Nebraska ($137,174)
  3. Wisconsin ($144,127)
  4. Maine ($154,340)
  5. North Dakota ($157,011)
  6. South Dakota ($157,136)
  7. Montana ($160,849)
  8. Pennsylvania ($163,513)
  9. West Virginia ($166,232)
  10. Vermont ($167,042)

See the full state-by-state list.

MONEY interest rates

4 Smart Moves for Borrowers and Savers in 2015

What rising interest rates could mean to you.

Most experts expect U.S. interest rates to rise in 2015, but no one knows when and by how much.

Rate increases rarely happen with great velocity, though. The last time the Federal Reserve raised the federal funds rate, which banks use to lend money overnight, was in June 2006. It brought the rate to 5.25% — after 17 increases.

By 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, the federal funds rate was down to zero, where it has stayed.

A jump in interest rates in 2015 could have a big financial impact, however, especially if you are looking to buy a home, have credit card debt or own bonds.

Here is what to expect:

Consumer Loans

Rates for consumer loans, which include mortgages and automobiles, are bouncing around 3.75%, a quarter percentage point above historic lows reached in May 2013. Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, expects a series of rate hikes in the year ahead.

“This is going to be a very volatile year,” says McBride.

Overall, however, the net change will probably be within one percentage point.

For a car buyer, a change from 4% to 5% would be almost imperceptible. The average auto loan is $27,000, and borrowing that much over five years would mean a difference of just $12 a month.

Home loans are another story, so plan accordingly. Over 30 years, that one percentage point difference in interest rates on a $100,000 mortgage would mean you would pay about $22,000 more, according to an example provided by Quicken.

Credit Cards

Consumers looking to roll over credit card debt to a zero percent balance transfer should act fast, because offers have never been more generous.

“We don’t expect offers to get better,” says Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive officer of CardHub.com, which rates credit card offers. Duration of deals is at an all-time high, at an average of 11 months, and the average balance transfer fee is only 3%.

These deals could disappear if the Fed raises rates significantly or a tanking economy causes default rates to surge, Papadimitriou adds.

Consumers tend to focus on the length of the balance transfer deal, which can be up to 24 months, but Papadimitriou says you must also consider the monthly payments, annual and transfer fees and the interest rate after the introductory period ends.

To learn how much you will save each month, use an online calculator like Cardhub’s. It will tell you, for instance, that if you have average credit card debt of $7,000 and are paying the average rate of 14%, you would save enough to pay off your debt two months faster if you transferred it to a zero-percent card with no fee.

Most bank’s websites also provide some suggestions. For example, the Citizens Bank Platinum MasterCard offers a zero-percent balance transfer for 15 months with no balance transfer or annual fees.

Savings Rates

If you are a saver looking for higher yields, life is not about to get rosier in 2015.

“Rates are brutal,” says Morgan Quinn, feature writer for GoBankingRates.com. The yield on the typical savings account is less than 1%.

Good news in this category amounts to rates tipping over 1% on some CDs and savings accounts with high balances.

Interest rates on savings accounts probably will not head toward 3% until 2020, according to GoBankingRates latest report.

In the meantime, the highest rate Quinn was able to find was 1.4% at EverBank for “yield-pledge” checking with a $1,500 minimum opening deposit and an ongoing balance of between $50,000 and $100,000.

Bonds

The benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury yield fell to 1.89% on Monday, its lowest since May 2013.

If interest rates go up, “it will be a tough year for bond investors,” Bankrate’s McBride says.

You can mitigate this risk with individual bonds by simply holding them to maturity, he says. But if you invest in bond funds, either directly or through target-date or managed funds in your retirement accounts, the value will probably decline.

That is not all bad news if you just stay the course. McBride’s advice: “Buckle your seat belt and hold on.”

MONEY Love and Money

3 Ways Couples Can Dig Out of Debt After the Holidays

illustration of a couple digging a dollar sign out in the snow
Taylor Callery

Overdid it on spending? Stop pointing fingers at each other and start taking action jointly.

For Michelle Argento and Brendan Diamond, bickering over holiday spending usually kicks off as soon as the Christmas tree goes up and lasts until they pay off their credit card bill in February.

While she’s a self-described “giver,” he doesn’t get her need to buy presents for everyone and his brother. “It’s a culture clash that drives us nuts,” Argento says. And tensions increase when the final tally arrives: Last winter the Chicago couple charged $1,630 over the holidays, more than twice what the average American spends.

Sound familiar? “People put good financial sense on the back burner around the holidays,” says Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. And when couples need to face the music in January and pay down debt, she says, “that ugly finger of blame can come out very easily.” Nurse your holiday hangover as a team with these steps.

Take the blame together. Regardless of who spent what, accept that you’re both responsible. “You might not have swiped the card, but you were likely complicit, either by putting all the gift-giving responsibility on your partner or for not starting a discussion around a holiday budget,” says Brad Klontz, a clinical psychologist in Lihue, Hawaii, and the author of Mind Over Money. What’s passed is past, so move forward and focus on getting out from under.

Design a support system. Keep from getting on each other’s cases by making a payoff plan. Start by moving the debt to a card like Chase Slate, which offers 0% for 15 months with no transfer fee in the first 60 days. Then set up auto-payments to zero out the debt before the no-interest window is up, and use the ReadyForZero app (free) for an occasional nudge to good behavior. If you make a larger-than-normal bank deposit, for example, the app sends a notification suggesting an extra payment.

Cut expenses independently. Rather than try to pare, say, $300 from the family budget, assign each other a goal of $150 from personal expenses. That way you can both reduce spending as you wish—as opposed to how your mate insists.

Along the way, schedule (free) celebrations, like a marathon of your favorite TV show on Netflix when you’ve paid off half. “Having something to look forward to helps you stay on track,” says Kate Northrup, author of Money: A Love Story.

Work it off. Budgeting gives you the blues? The alternative is to raise extra cash. On evenings and weekends last winter, Argento and Diamond picked up jobs running errands via Craigslist and TaskRabbit. Their hustle got them back in the black before spring arrived. Now they plan to make it a tradition—ahead of shopping season. “It’s no longer about me buying gifts for my friends,” says Argento. “It’s about us using our business to pay for gifts together.”

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at MONEY and the author of the book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. More of her columns and videos for MONEY.com:

MONEY Debt

7 Ways to Free Yourself From Debt—for Good!—in 2015

How to pay off debt
PM Images—Getty Images

These smart and easy strategies can get you back in the black before you know it.

If you’re in debt, getting out may seem impossible.

One in eight Americans don’t think they’ll ever pay off what they owe, according to a survey by CreditCards.com.

But it’s a new year and a new balance sheet. And the seven steps here can help you put hundreds more towards your bills every month—while still living the kind of life you want.

Can you taste the freedom?

1) Know What You Owe

It may sound easy, but this can be the hardest part, says Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation of Credit Counseling. “A disturbing number of people come to our offices with grocery bags filled with bills,” she adds.

After you’ve tallied up your total debt, make a “cash-flow calendar” to track how much money is going in and out of your accounts, and when, Cunningham says. When do you get your paycheck, and how much do you get net taxes and benefits? When is each bill due every month, and what is the typical cost? How much do you spend on each of your other expenses, and when?

The more you want to procrastinate on this step, the more you need to do it.

“People resist doing this,” Cunningham says. “I think that’s because they’re afraid of what they’ll find. There’s nothing like seeing your spending staring back at you. That could force a behavioral change.”

2) Follow the 10×10 Rule

If you want to create a debt-repayment plan you can follow, you need to set reasonable and sustainable goals. Curb rather than cut your spending, advises Kevin R. Weeks, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.

“Just like a New Year’s resolution to get in shape, it’s very difficult to go cold turkey and say, ‘I’m going to do all this, this week, or today,'” Weeks says. “People bite off more than they can chew, with good intentions.”

Start slowly by following Cunningham’s 10×10 rule: “If you could shave $10 off 10 disposable spending accounts, you’d never miss it, never feel it, never feel deprived—and you’d have another $100 in your pocket,” she says. “Little money adds up to big money.”

3) Spend Cash

Researchers have found that when people shop with credit cards and gift certificates, they are more likely to make impulse purchases on luxury items because they feel like they’re using “play” money. If that sounds like you, cut up the plastic.

And force yourself to feel the pain associated with spending real money by going on a cash-only diet.

“People who live on a cash basis typically save 20% over their previous spending, without feeling deprived,” Cunningham says. “It’s because using cash creates a heightened sense of awareness. You are more contemplative, and you realize you’re going to have to pay for things with hard-earned cash. Something clicks in that allows you to feel better about not buying the item.”

4) Tackle Christmas First

There are two possible ways you can go when it comes to prioritizing your debts: You can pay off your highest interest-rate balance first to cut your financing charges the most or you can pay off a small debt first to build confidence and momentum.

To decide which path is best, you need to know what drives you, Weeks says.

Whichever way you choose to go, Cunningham recommends beginning with a goal of paying off all your holiday spending debt by the end of the first quarter of 2015.

“That will keep you from dragging that debt along with you all the way through 2015,” Cunningham says. “You’ll be back to where you were debt-wise before the holidays.”

No matter what, expect a series of small steps. “It’s going to take time,” Weeks says. “If you’re looking to lose 50 pounds, you should focus on losing the first five and then you move yourself forward. It’s the same thing on the financial side.”

5) Reduce Your Rates

Don’t do all the work yourself. Get your lender to cut your interest rates.

One way to do that is a balance transfer. Many credit cards offer promotions of 0% interest for a year or more if you transfer your debt from an old card and pay a small fee.

You can save $265.48 on a $5,000 debt with a typical balance transfer, according to a new report from Creditcards.com. That’s assuming a 3% balance transfer fee, a 12-month 0% intro APR, and the debt being paid off within the year.

You could do even better than that if you used Money’s pick for a balance transfer card, the Chase Slate, which currently offers a 0% APR for 15 months, no balance transfer fee in the first 60 days, and standard APR of 12.99% to 22.99% after the promotional period.

If you won’t be able to pay off your debt in the promotional period, however, this might not be the best option. You don’t want to move your debt only to possibly get stuck with a higher APR than the one you already have. A better choice: Move your debt to the Lake Michigan Credit Union Prime Platinum Visa, which has no balance transfer fee and an ongoing APR starting at an ultra-low 6%.

Or, simply call your issuer and request that your APR be reduced. In another report, CreditCards.com found that two-thirds of people who asked for a lower rate got it.

6) Stop lending so much money to the IRS

The average household got a $3,034 tax refund last year. In other words, every month, an extra $253 was taken out of your paycheck and loaned to the IRS interest free!

Sure, you’ll get it back after you file your taxes, but don’t you need it now?

“I don’t want anybody to receive an income tax refund—that $250 a month can make a major, life-changing difference,” Cunningham says.

Rather than paying interest on your debt every month while the government gets your money, you should be funneling that cash toward your balance. On a $5,000 debt at 16%, adding $250 a month to a payment of $200 a month, you’d save $675 in interest and get your debt paid off in just over a year vs. two and a half.

You can put your money back in your pocket by adjusting your withholding on a W-4 tax form.

Of course, you don’t want to owe money at tax time, so use the government’s withholding calculator to figure out exactly how many allowances you should take. File your new W-4 with your human resources department and give yourself a raise.

7) Ask for help

If you can’t stop taking on debt or are really unable to make payments on what you owe, you may need professional help. Credit counseling can be especially useful if you’re struggling with student loan debt or medical debt, not just credit card debt.

Find a nonprofit credit counselor through the National Foundation of Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. Financial counseling should be free, though agencies can charge an enrollment fee for a debt management plan, which will consolidate your debt into one payment with a more reasonable interest rate, Weeks says.

If you don’t need professional help, but you need someone to keep you honest, ask a friend to be your accountability partner, Cunningham suggests. Share your debt repayment plan and check in periodically about how you’re doing. Leverage the positive power of peer pressure.

“People don’t want to let somebody down,” Cunningham says. “They don’t want to have to admit that they weren’t as committed to their plan long-term.”

More on paying off debt:

More on resolutions:

MONEY Ask the Expert

Why You Might Want to Take Student Loans Before Using Up College Savings

Ask the Expert - Family Finance illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “My daughter will be starting college this fall. I’m estimating the tuition will be about $25,000 each year. I’ve got about $45,000 put aside in a 529 for her. When should I tap that money?” —Henry Winkler, Colorado

A: The first thing you and your daughter should do is fill out a FAFSA, the federal financial aid application. Even if you think your household income will be too great to qualify for aid, it’s worth applying just to be certain, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, a website that helps people plan and pay for college. “I have seen many cases where families assume they won’t receive any aid, but actually do qualify based on the number of children they have currently attending college or because the high costs of the tuition resulted in a lower than expected family contribution amount.”

Don’t worry that the savings you currently have in your 529 will hurt her chances for aid either. Federal aid will be reduced by no more than 5.64% of the value of the account and account distributions are not considered income, Kantrowitz says.

Next, she should apply for the most available in federal direct student loans. In her first year, she can borrow $5,500. In her second year, $6,500, and any of the years following up to $7,500. Because you only get to borrow a certain amount in these direct federal student loans—which have much lower interest rates than Parent PLUS loans or private loans—it’s worth borrowing the max each year and accruing that interest rather than waiting and trying to borrow the full cost of college her third or fourth year, says Kantrowitz.

If you have other savings accounts you can draw from, Kantrowitz recommends setting aside $4,000 a year from such an account for your daughter’s college education so that you can take advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

With this credit, you get 100% of the first $2,000 you spend on tuition, fees and course materials paid during the year, plus 25% of the next $2,000. The credit is worth $2,500 off your tax bill. Also, 40% of the credit (up to $1,000) is refundable, which means you can get it even if you owe no tax.

The caveat: You will need to have a modified adjusted gross income of $80,000 or less, or $160,000 or less for married couples, a year to get the full benefit. If you earn more than $90,000 or $180,000 for joint filers, you cannot claim the credit.

You cannot use any of the funds from your 529 to qualify for the tax credit since that plan is already a form of tax-free educational assistance. If you do not have an additional $4,000 a year to put toward her education, you can also qualify for the credit by using the student loan amount she received—but just know that you may not be also able to claim the student loan deduction on that amount since you’ve already received a tax break on it, says Kantrowitz. (Right now you can claim both, but Kantrowitz says that could change in the future.)

After deducting any grant aid, her student loan sum, and the $4,000 from another savings account, pay the remaining education expenses with funds from the 529 plan.

“Under this plan it is likely your 529 will be exhausted after her third year of college, or sooner if you don’t put aside that additional $4,000 for the tax credit each year,” says Kantrowitz.

To make up the difference you’ll need to secure another loan. If you own a home, consider home equity financing before PLUS loans, since the latter currently carry a 7.21% interest rate and come with an “origination” fee of about 4.3% of the principal amount you borrow.

If you must take the PLUS, you might be tempted to try to lock in current interest rates by borrowing to cover the first two years’ worth of expenses. But you’d end up having to borrow more since she’ll be getting less federal loan money those first two years, and you’d have to pay two more year’s worth of interest. Even with possible rate increases, you’re still better off taking the PLUS loans in her last two years.

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