MONEY College

The Best and Worst Places to Live for a Low-Cost College Education

Classroom with map of United States on chalkboard. Wyoming is shaded pink.
Want to save $50,000 on your kids' college education? Move to Wyoming. Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—John Kuczala/Getty Images (classroom); Tuomas Kujansuu (chalkboard)

With a wide spread in tuition and tax burdens, the cost of sending your children to local public schools can come to just over $40,000 for four years—or more than $130,000—depending where you live. See where your state ranks.

Want to cut your family’s college tuition bills by more than $50,000? Bring up your kids in Wyoming. Or Florida. Or even New York. But not New Hampshire.

Using new College Board data on the average cost of tuition and fees at public colleges in all 50 states and the average amount of state tax dollars that go toward higher education, MONEY calculated where parents would spend the most and least to raise two children and send both to an in-state public university.

Wyoming, which the Tax Foundation reports has the lowest total tax burden in the country, is also the nation’s best bargain in higher education, thanks to the lowest public-college tuition in the U.S. Yet low taxes alone aren’t enough to make a state a good deal. Although New Hampshire has the sixth-lowest tax burden in the nation, Granite State parents face the highest college-related bills.

To estimate the total cost of a public education in each state, MONEY calculated how much a family earning $50,000 a year would likely pay in state taxes earmarked for higher education over 25 years, and added that to four years of in-state tuition for two children. This back-of-the-envelope analysis, of course, assumes no change in prices or taxes, nor any financial aid.

The results, while rough, do a reasonable job of showing the impact of different philosophies toward government services, says Andy Carlson, senior policy analyst at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

You’ll generally pay more if you live in a state where the students who earn the benefits of the degree have to pay the bulk of the costs, Carlson says. And you’ll usually—though not always—face lower overall college costs in states that view access to higher education as a public good, and as a result direct significant tax support to public universities.

The Best Places to Live

For families, how this difference usually plays out is in higher or lower in-state tuition. And you’ll end up paying the most for your kids’ education in states with high in-state tuition, even if those states have comparatively low college-related taxes.

New Hampshire has no tax on earned income. It funds government services with taxes on things like investment income, real estate, and liquor. For a family earning $50,000, the amount of state revenues that support the state’s colleges equates to about $82 this year, or a little more than $2,000 over 25 years. Not surprisingly, New Hampshire has the highest average public college tuition in the country—$14,712 this year—pushing total higher education tuition and tax spending for parents of two children to more than $132,000 over two decades.

Wyoming, which has low direct taxes on its residents, funds much of its government services with taxes on mineral and energy mining. Out of those revenues, it allocates the equivalent of nearly $600 a year per family to higher education, the highest subsidy in the nation. As a result, tuition and fees at the University of Wyoming are just $4,646. The total higher education taxes and tuition costs for a typical Wyoming family adds up to just $42,000—or $90,000 less than New Hampshire families pay.

Some high-tax and high-subsidy states are bad deals for parents, however. Illinois taxpayers, for example, spend 13% more than the national average on higher education support—about $340 a year per middle-class family. And Illinois public colleges charge some of the highest tuition in the U.S. As a result, Illinois has the nation’s fifth-highest combined tax-and-tuition bill for a typical family—$115,000.

In contrast, a middle class household North Carolina contributes about $500 worth of state taxes to higher education annually. That high level of taxpayer support helps keep North Carolina’s in-state tuition, $6,700 this year, below the national average. The total higher education tax and tuition costs for parents with two children comes in at about $60,000.

One last surprising note: You don’t have to travel far to reap big savings. Moving across the river from high-tax New Jersey, for example, to slightly higher-tax New York cuts the public college tuition you’re likely to pay by about $5,000 a year, and a family’s total lifetime higher education bill by more than $50,000.

The 50-State Ranking

Here’s how the math plays out in all 50 states. For more on finding a great college value, check out our Best Colleges rankings, including the 25 Best Public Colleges.

State State higher-ed spending per $1,000 in personal income 25-year total state higher-ed spending for families earning $50,000 Average in-state tuition 2014-15 Estimated total tuition costs for two children Total estimated tuition + taxes
1. Wyoming $11.92 $14,896 $4,646 $37,168 $41,814
2. Alaska $10.48 $13,101 $6,138 $49,105 $55,243
3. Utah $7.63 $9,537 $6,177 $49,416 $55,593
4. New Mexico $11.51 $14,387 $6,190 $49,523 $55,714
5. Montana $5.70 $7,125 $6,279 $50,233 $56,512
6. Florida $4.84 $6,048 $6,351 $50,808 $57,159
7. Nevada $4.49 $5,616 $6,418 $51,341 $57,759
8. Idaho $6.59 $8,236 $6,602 $52,816 $59,418
9. West Virginia $7.80 $9,753 $6,661 $53,292 $59,953
10. North Carolina $9.62 $12,027 $6,677 $53,418 $60,096
11. Mississippi $9.50 $11,877 $6,861 $54,888 $61,749
12. Oklahoma $6.52 $8,145 $6,895 $55,157 $62,052
13. New York $4.91 $6,134 $7,292 $58,338 $65,631
14. Louisiana $5.98 $7,471 $7,314 $58,510 $65,824
15. Nebraska $8.07 $10,093 $7,404 $59,234 $66,638
16. North Dakota $10.02 $12,522 $7,513 $60,106 $67,620
17. Arkansas $8.01 $10,013 $7,567 $60,535 $68,102
18. South Dakota $5.04 $6,303 $7,653 $61,224 $68,877
19. Iowa $5.92 $7,402 $7,857 $62,857 $70,714
20. Kansas $6.06 $7,577 $8,086 $64,684 $72,770
21. Georgia $7.31 $9,139 $8,094 $64,753 $72,847
22. Missouri $4.02 $5,023 $8,383 $67,068 $75,451
23. Tennessee $6.25 $7,810 $8,541 $68,324 $76,865
24. Maryland $5.42 $6,771 $8,724 $69,790 $78,514
25. Wisconsin $4.51 $5,632 $8,781 $70,248 $79,029
26. Texas $5.78 $7,226 $8,830 $70,637 $79,467
27. Oregon $4.01 $5,018 $8,932 $71,453 $80,385
28. Indiana $6.69 $8,363 $9,023 $72,182 $81,205
29. California $5.84 $7,306 $9,173 $73,381 $82,554
30. Kentucky $7.44 $9,301 $9,188 $73,508 $82,696
31. Maine $4.99 $6,243 $9,422 $75,378 $84,800
32. Alabama $8.18 $10,220 $9,470 $75,759 $85,229
33. Colorado $2.78 $3,479 $9,487 $75,897 $85,384
34. Hawaii $8.08 $10,106 $9,740 $77,921 $87,661
35. Ohio $4.42 $5,526 $10,100 $80,799 $90,898
36. Arizona $3.57 $4,468 $10,398 $83,181 $93,578
37. Minnesota $5.42 $6,780 $10,527 $84,217 $94,744
38. Connecticut $4.63 $5,782 $10,620 $84,957 $95,577
39. Washington $4.81 $6,017 $10,846 $86,765 $97,610
40. Virginia $4.40 $5,503 $10,899 $87,192 $98,091
41. Rhode Island $3.45 $4,316 $10,934 $87,469 $98,403
42. Massachusetts $2.88 $3,605 $10,951 $87,608 $98,559
43. Delaware $5.44 $6,798 $11,448 $91,581 $103,029
44. South Carolina $5.38 $6,729 $11,449 $91,594 $103,044
45. Michigan $4.31 $5,386 $11,909 $95,271 $107,180
46. Illinois $6.77 $8,467 $12,770 $102,156 $114,926
47. New Jersey $3.99 $4,993 $13,002 $104,020 $117,022
48. Pennsylvania $3.02 $3,775 $13,246 $105,967 $119,213
49. Vermont $3.21 $4,018 $14,419 $115,353 $129,773
50. New Hampshire $1.64 $2,050 $14,712 $117,698 $132,411

Sources: College Board, MONEY calculations

MONEY retirement income

Retirees Risk Blowing IRA Deadline and Paying Huge Penalties

Egg timer
Esben Emborg—Getty Images

With just seven weeks left in the year, most IRA owners required to pull money out have not yet done so.

Two-thirds of IRA owners required to take money out of their account by Dec. 31 have yet to fulfill the obligation, new research by Fidelity shows. Now, with the year-end in sight, and thoughts pivoting to holiday shopping and get-togethers, legions of senior savers risk getting distracted–and socked with a punishing tax penalty.

IRA owners often wait until late in the year to pull out their required minimum distributions. Especially at a time when interest rates are low and the stock market has been rising, leaving your money in an IRA as long as possible makes sense. Some retirees may also be reluctant to take distributions for fear of spending the money and running short over time.

But blowing the annual deadline can be costly. The IRS sets a schedule of required minimum distributions, or RMDs, to keep savers from deferring taxes indefinitely. After reaching age 70 1/2, IRA owners must begin to take money out of their account each year and pay income tax on the amount. Failure to pull money out triggers a hefty penalty equal to 50% of the amount you were supposed to take out of the account.

Among 750,000 IRA accounts where distributions are required, 68% have yet to take the full amount and 56% have yet to take anything at all, Fidelity found. These IRA owners should begin the process now to avoid end-of-year distractions and potential mistakes like using the wrong form or providing the wrong mailing address, which can take weeks to find and correct.

A report by the Treasury Inspector General estimated that as many as 250,000 IRA owners each year miss the deadline, failing to take required minimum distributions totaling about $350 million. That generates potential tax penalties totaling $175 million. The vast majority of those who fail to take their minimum distributions are thought to do so as part of an honest mistake, and previously the IRS hasn’t always been eager to sock seniors with a penalty. But the IRS began a crackdown on missed distributions a few years ago. Don’t look for leniency if you miss the deadline without a good reason, like protracted illness or a natural disaster.

Early each year, your financial institution should notify you of any required distributions you must take by year-end. If this is the first year you are taking a required distribution, you have until April 1 to do so, but then only until Dec. 31 every subsequent year. Once notified, you still need to initiate a distribution. A lot of people simply do not read their mail and fail to initiate action in time.

Among other reasons IRA owners miss the deadline:

  • Switching their account Institutions that open an account during the year are not required to notify new account holders of required minimum distributions until the following year.
  • Death Often there is confusion about inherited IRAs. The beneficiary must complete the deceased IRA owner’s distributions in the year of death. Non-spousal beneficiaries of any age must begin taking distributions in the year following the year that the IRA owner died—and no notice of this is required.

With the penalties so stiff and the IRS cracking down on missed mandatory distributions, this is a subject that seniors and their adult children should talk about. In general, financial talk between the generations makes seniors feel less anxious and more prepared anyway. Required distributions can be especially confusing, and the penalties may have the effect of taking away money that heirs stand to receive. So it’s in everyone’s interest to get it right. Consider putting mandatory distributions on autopilot with a firm that will make the calculation and send you the money on a schedule you choose.

Related:

How will my IRAs be taxed in retirement?

Are there any exceptions to the traditional IRA withdrawal rules?

When can I take money out of my IRA without penalty?

MONEY Ask the Expert

Here’s a Smart Way To Boost Your Tax-Free Retirement Savings

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am maxing out my 401(k). I understand there’s a new way to make after-tax contributions to a Roth IRA. How does that work?

A: You can thank the IRS for what is essentially a huge tax break for higher-income retirement savers, especially folks like yourself who are already maxing out contributions to tax-sheltered retirement plans.

A recent ruling by the IRS allows eligible workers to easily move after-tax contributions from their 401(k) or 403(b) plan to Roth IRAs when they exit their company plan. “With this new ruling, retirement savers are getting a huge increase in their ability contribute to a Roth IRA,” says Brian Holmes, president and CEO of investment advisory firm Signature Estate and Investment Advisors.

The Roth is a valuable income stream in retirement because contributions are after-tax, which means you don’t owe Uncle Sam anything on the money you withdraw. Unlike traditional IRAs which require you to start withdrawing money once you turn 70 ½, Roths have no mandatory distribution requirements, so your investments can continue to grow tax-free. And if you need to take a chunk out for a sudden big expense, such as medical bills, the withdrawal won’t bump you up into a higher tax bracket.

For high-income earners, the IRS ruling is especially good news. Singles with an adjusted gross income of $129,000 or more can’t directly contribute to a Roth IRA; for married couples, the income cap is $191,000. If you are are eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA, you can’t contribute more than $5,500 this year or next ($6,500 for people over 50). The IRS does allow people to convert traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs but you must pay income tax on your gains.

Now, with this new IRS ruling, you can put a lot more into a Roth by diverting your 401(k) assets into one. The annual limit on pre-tax contributions to 401(k) plans is $17,500 and $23,000 for people over 50; those limits rise to $18,000 and $24,000 next year. Including your pre-tax and post-tax contributions, as well as pre-tax employer matches, the total amount a worker can save in 401(k) and 403(b) plans is $52,000 and $57,500 for those 50 and older. (That amount will rise to $53,000 and $59,000 respectively in 2015.) When you leave your employer, you can separate the after-tax money and send it directly to a Roth, which can boost your tax-free savings by tens of thousands of dollars.

To take advantage of the new rule, your employer plan must allow after-tax contributions to your 401(k). About 53% of 401(k) plans allow both pre-tax and after- tax contributions, according to Rick Meigs, president of the 401(k) Help Center. You must also first max out your pre-tax contributions. The transfer to a Roth must be done at the same time you roll your existing 401(k)’s pre-tax savings into a traditional IRA.

The ability to put away more in a Roth is also good for people who want to leave money to heirs. Inherited Roth IRAs are free of tax, and because they don’t have taxable minimum required distributions, they can give your heirs decades of tax-free growth. “It’s absolutely the best asset to die with if you want to leave money behind,” says Holmes.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

Read next: 4 Disastrous Retirement Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

MONEY capital gains

How the IRS Taxes Stock You Didn’t Buy

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I received some shares of stock some years ago that were given to me as part of an agreement through a class-action lawsuit. Do I have to pay taxes on these shares when I sell? — Bob from Livingston, Tex.

A: In most instances, you would, says Michael Eisenberg, a certified public accountant in Los Angeles.

When you receive stock in lieu of cash for payment for services rendered or, in this case, a settlement, you’ll first owe income tax based on the value of the stock at that time. “Compensation is compensation, whether it’s cash or stock,” says Eisenberg. “It’s considered ordinary income.”

If you later sell the stock for a profit, you’ll also owe capital gains tax. How much you owe is based on the difference in value from the time you received the stock and the time you sold it, after accounting for such things as dividends, stock splits or capital distributions. This is called “basis.”

If you own the stock for less than 366 days – one year plus a day – your capital gains rate will be based on your income tax rate. If you own it longer, you’ll pay a lower rate.

Taxpayers in most brackets are taxed at 15% for long-term gains. Those in the 10% or 15% bracket may owe no long-term capital gains tax, while those in the 39.6% rate will need to pay up at 20%.

Are there any exceptions?

If for some reason this stock was given to you as a result of a class-action related to your retirement account, you may not owe tax. “If the stock settlement was applied to your IRA, it wouldn’t be taxable,” says Eisenberg, though such an example is pretty rare.

What if you receive stock as a gift or an inheritance?

In this case, you won’t owe income tax on that gift. You will, however, still owe capital gains tax when you sell.

If the stock is part of an inheritance, your capital gains rate will be based on the value of the stock at the time the original owner passed away. If your Granny gifts you stock while she’s still alive, however, your basis is based on when she bought the stock.

MONEY Taxes

Amazon, Pepsi, and Other Household Brands Accused of (Another) Huge Tax Dodge

141106_EM_Luxembourg2
Hiroshi Higuchi—Getty Images

A new report accuses Luxembourg of making secret tax deals with hundreds of companies to help them avoid taxes.

Hundreds of international companies, including IKEA, Amazon, Pepsi, and FedEx have been receiving secret deals from Luxembourg, enabling the corporations to cut their tax bill by billions of dollars, according to a report from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The report, which stems from a review of almost 28,000 pages of confidential documents obtained by the ICIJ and journalists from 26 countries, found Luxemburg’s tax authorities granted hundreds of secret tax rulings—known unofficially as comfort letters—that allowed various corporations to reduce their tax rate, often to less 1%. In one instance, according to the report, New York-based Coach funnelled €36.7 million euros through Luxemburg and payed €250,000 in taxes—a rate of just below 0.7%. The ICIJ’s review showed that in 2012, American corporations paid 1.1% in taxes on the $95 billion in profits transferred through the European dutchy.

The documents appear to show how Luxembourg is using a particularly complex tax code to deprive foreign governments of massive amounts of revenue. “This is the first time really that we’ve seen inside the workings of Luxembourg as a tax haven,” Richard Brooks, the author of The Great Tax Robbery, told the ICIJ. “The countries . . . that are losing money, they don’t know about it, don’t know how it operates at all.”

The country’s tax authority is so friendly to international business that thousands of companies have rushed to establish “offices” inside the duchy, many of which contain no visible employees and amount to little more than a mailing address. The ICIJ found 1,600 companies were technically housed in a single Luxembourg City building, and that other properties were also home to a seemingly impossible number of businesses. One-hundred and seventy Fortune 500 companies have a branch in Luxembourg.

Despite hosting branches of so many U.S. corporations and having received $416 billion in U.S. direct investment last year, Luxembourg has only 500,000 citizens and represents about one-tenth of one-percent of all overseas jobs with American companies.

The way that Luxembourg helps companies slash tax expenses is highly technical: One deal involving the Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories is said to consist of 79 different steps and companies in Cyprus and Gibraltar. According to the report, it appears that companies use Luxembourg as a base to pit different nation’s tax rules against one another.

One example offered by the consortium is something called a “hybrid debt instrument.” This procedure apparently lets a company move profits from a European country with a higher tax rate to a Luxembourg subsidiary. These profits are then treated as tax-deductible interest payments in Luxembourg, and dividends, eligible for tax exemption, in the company’s home country. The two country’s tax laws essentially cancel each other out, resulting in a substantially reduced effective tax rate.

The European Union has banned this type of tax evasion, but EU members like Luxembourg don’t have to enforce the law until 2015. But the EU is nevertheless investigating whether Luxembourg’s secret tax rulings for Amazon and Fiat Finance are equivalent to illegal state aid. European Union law forbids any member from giving one company an agreement that isn’t available to all businesses.

Ironically, Luxembourg’s former prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently assumed the presidency of the European Commission, one of the EU’s most important posts. Junker has claimed his country’s tax system is in “full accordance” with the law, but has also vowed to fight tax evasion as the commission’s president.

 

MONEY retirement income

Retirement Withdrawal Strategies That Can Pay Off Big

To figure out the right pace for your retirement withdrawals—and to avoid ending up in higher tax brackets—start planning before you stop working.

Having your own tax-deferred retirement account is a bit like having one of those self-titrating morphine buttons that hospitals use: Press it whenever you need quick relief.

But once you’re retired and able to tap your 401(k) or individual retirement account (IRA), it’s not easy to titrate your own doses of cash. Withdraw too much, and you use up your nest egg too quickly; too little, and you might unnecessarily crimp your retirement lifestyle.

Overlaying the how-much-is-enough question are several finer points of tax planning. Because you can decide how much money to pull out of a 401(k) or individual retirement account, and because those withdrawals are added to your taxable income, there are strategies that can help or hurt your bottom line.

That’s especially true for early retirees trying to decide when to start Social Security, how to pay for health care and more. Here are some money-saving withdrawal tips.

CURB TAXABLE INCOME

If you are buying your own health insurance via the Obamacare exchanges, keep your taxable income low to qualify for big subsidies, advises Neil Krishnaswamy, financial planner with Exencial Wealth Advisors in Plano, Texas.

“It’s a pretty substantial savings on premiums,” said Krishnaswamy.

Here’s an example using national averages from the calculator on the Kaiser Family Foundation web page. Two 62-year-old spouses with annual taxable income of $62,000 would receive a subsidy of $8,677 a year, against a national average premium of $14,567. If they took another $1,000 out of their tax-deferred account and raised their taxable income to $63,000, they would be disqualified from receiving a subsidy.

Not every case may be that dramatic, but it’s worth checking the income limits and available subsidies in your own state.

DELAY BENEFITS

If you retired early, consider taking out extra money to live on and delaying Social Security benefits until you are older. Withdrawing money from retirement savings hurts. You not only lose the savings, you lose future earnings on those savings. And in most cases, you have to pay income taxes on withdrawals from those tax-deferred accounts.

But Social Security benefits go up roughly 8% a year for every year you don’t claim them. And even after you claim them, they rise with the cost of living and are guaranteed for life. When you draw down your own savings to protect a bigger Social Security payment, tell yourself you are buying the cheapest and best annuity you can get.

PLAN IN ADVANCE

Plan ahead for mandatory withdrawals. In the year you turn 70 1/2, you have to begin drawing down your tax-deferred IRAs and 401(k) accounts and paying income taxes on those withdrawals. Unless you expect to be in the lowest tax bracket at the time, it makes sense to start withdrawing at least enough every year before then to “use up” the lower tax brackets.

For single people in 2014, you’re in a 10% or 15% marginal tax bracket until you make more than $36,000 a year. For married people filing jointly, that 15% bracket goes up to $73,800. It’s a lot better to pull out that money in your 60s and use up other savings to live on, than it is to save it all until you are 70 and then withdraw large chunks at higher interest rates.

GET A GOOD ACCOUNTANT

You may want to use early years of retirement to take the tax hit required to move money from a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA that will free you of future taxes on that money and its earnings.

You may pull a lot of money out of your account in one year and spend it over two or three years, to keep yourself qualified for subsidies in most years.

You may titrate your withdrawals to keep your Medicare premiums (also income linked) as low as possible.

The best way to optimize it all? Get an adviser or accountant who is comfortable with a spreadsheet and can pull all of these different considerations together.

Related:

When do I have to take money out of my 401(k)?

How will my IRA withdrawals be taxed in retirement?

Are my Social Security payouts taxed?

MONEY college savings

One Foolproof Way to Earn More on Your College Savings

handing money over
PM Images—Getty Images

Tax breaks, matching grants, and scholarships can effectively boost your investment by an average of 6%.

Savers in many states don’t have to rely solely on the markets to build up a college fund. Grants or tax benefits can effectively boost the value of your investment in a 529 college savings plan by 10%, 20% or even 30%, according to a newly released analysis by Morningstar.

In the 32 states (plus the District of Columbia) that offer subsidies to college savers who contribute to their home state’s 529 plan, the average benefit is a one-time boost worth about 6%.

In New Jersey, parents who seed a NJ BEST 529 account with $1,200 when their kid is about six and kick in at least $300 a year after that will qualify the student for a one-time $1,500 freshman scholarship to an in-state public university. That’s a return of 31.5% on a total investment of $4,800.

Most states simply give parents a tax credit or deduction for a 529 contribution, which translate into a lower state tax bill and thus more money in your checking account. That’s money you can use for anything—including adding to your 529 or offseting the cost of saving for any college.

Residents of Indiana, for example, qualify for a state tax credit worth up to 20% of what they invest in the state’s 529 plan, which can reduce a typical family’s state tax bill by $480. Vermonters get tax breaks typically worth 10% of their investments in their local 529 plan.

Five states offer tax breaks for an investment in any 529, allowing residents to shop for the best plan anywhere. Two of those five states reward both choices: Maine offers a 1.7% tax benefit for any 529 investment, but also provides matching grants for saving in the state’s 529. Pennsylvania’s has tax breaks worth about 3% for any college savings, but it also offers scholarships to hundreds of mostly private colleges across the country for those who invest in-state.

Fifteen states either have no income tax or don’t offer any subsidy to college savers. Check out this 50-state map to see whether to invest in your state, or out of state.

Beware of the Gotchas

The author of the Morningstar report, Kathryn Spica, says you should watch for two big potholes when trying to maximize these freebies.

1. High fees: Some states charge such high fees in their 529 plans that any parent with a child younger than, say, 13 should probably forgo the tax benefit and choose a low-cost, highly-rated direct-sold plan. But for parents of teens close to college, the immediate tax benefits can outweigh only a few years of higher fees.

For example, D.C. offers tax breaks that amount to a one-time 8.5% effective boost to your college savings. But D.C.’s plan charges a high annual fee of 1.35% of assets. Utah’s plan, which gets the highest rating by Morningstar, charges only 0.2%. Within eight years, D.C.’s higher fees would likely eat up your tax benefit.

2. Changing rules: North Carolina cancelled its tax break for 529 savings last year. And Rhode Island has stopped enrolling new parents in its savings match program, Spica says. Parents in states that end or slash tax benefits should take a few minutes to run the numbers and see which investment option best meets their needs.

The Value of the Tax Breaks

The chart below lists the states that offer benefits for investing in the home state 529 as of fall 2014. Morningstar’s estimated value of the subsidy is based on a family earning $50,000 a year and saving $2,400 a year for college. The fees are those charged for an age-based fund for a 7- to 12-year-old that employs a moderate (as opposed to conservative or aggressive) investment strategy.

The final column is Money’s recommendation on whether parents of kids younger than 13 should stick with their state’s best 529 option, or risk giving up the state’s benefit and shop for the best plan nationally.

If your state is not listed here, you won’t be giving up anything if you simply pick the best plan available. Here are Money’s recommendations for the best 529s nationally, based on a combination of the fund’s fees, the state’s tax benefits, and the ratings given the plans by Morningstar and Savingforcollege.com.

State Est. value of state tax benefit on savings of $2,400 a year Effective yield on $2,400 investment Average fee for moderate equity plan for 7- to 12-year-old Should parents of kids under the age of 13 invest in-state or shop?
Indiana $480 20% 0.57% In-state
Vermont $240 10% 0.45% In-state
Oregon $216 9.0% 0.38% In-state
District of Columbia $204 8.5% 1.35% Shop
Idaho $178 7.4% 0.75% In-state
Arkansas $168 7.0% 0.60% In-state
South Carolina $168 7.0% 0.12% In-state
Montana $166 6.9% 0.88% Shop
Iowa $156 6.5% 0.26% In-state
New York $155 6.5% 0.17% In-state
Wisconsin $150 6.3% 0.23% In-state
Georgia $144 6.0% 0.33% In-state
West Virginia $144 6.0% 0.32% In-state
Maine $140 5.8% 0.30% In-state
Virginia $138 5.8% 0.61% In-state
Oklahoma $126 5.3% 0.51% In-state
Alabama $120 5.0% 0.32% In-state
Connecticut $120 5.0% 0.40% In-state
Illinois $120 5.0% 0.19% In-state
Mississippi $120 5.0% 0.65% Shop
Nebraska $120 5.0% 0.48% In-state
Utah $120 5.0% 0.22% In-state
New Mexico $118 4.9% 0.36% In-state
Maryland $114 4.8% 0.88% In-state
Colorado $111 4.6% 0.39% In-state
Michigan $102 4.3% 0.28% In-state
Louisiana $96 4.0% NA In-state
Ohio $90 3.8% 0.23% In-state
North Dakota $68 2.8% 0.85% Shop
Rhode Island $38 1.6% 0.20% In-state
Pennsylvania Variable N.A. 0.38% In-state
New Jersey Up to $1,500 N.A. 0.77% In-state can pay if student definitely will attend a participating college
MONEY Taxes

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MONEY Taxes

How to Never Miss Out On One Valuable Tax Break

Odometer
James F. Dean—Getty Images

Workers who drive a lot for business can write off the costs. These three tools can make tracking those miles on the road easier.

More than 40 million Americans earn money while driving around in their cars, making them eligible for a valuable business mileage deduction from the Internal Revenue Service.

At 56¢ a mile, less than two business miles equals a dollar. So for someone driving 25,000 business miles a year, $14,000 in deductions is at stake.

Keeping an accurate mileage log used to be an arduous task involving a notepad and paper, but most people do not bother with the work. Many recreate their trips after the fact. Some just make it up. Do it wrong and you could get an audit.

“Getting a lot of round numbers means people either aren’t tracking or are rounding,” says P.J. Wallin, 33, a certified public account from Richmond, Virginia.

Bill Nemeth, an enrolled agent who represents clients in IRS audits, says most of his clients tend to exaggerate their business mileage and, when audited, it can be challenge to try to prove they actually drove the miles. Nemeth says he even uses Carfax reports from cars that clients have sold in order to document the actual mileage of the vehicles. In more than 25 years of doing taxes, Nemeth can recall only one client who presented a log that was clearly used daily.

MileIQ, which sells a GPS device that helps track mileage, surveyed about 1,000 of its users and found that only 36% of them had kept a written log previously. Another 18% admitted to making up numbers after the fact, 15% said they did nothing with their mileage, and 11% said they used their calendars to go back and recreate driving distances.

But in today’s highly automated world, apps and standalone GPS devices take the work out of the process, so there are no more excuses. Prices and functions vary, and some personal preference is involved.

Here are three different approaches – all of which are tax-deductible as a work expense.

MileIQ

This iPhone app (scheduled to be out soon for Androids) promises to be more automated than its cousins—always running in the background. It costs $5.99 a month or $59.99 a year. Lighter drivers, however, can use it for free. Users can log 40 drives a month before they would have to take a paid subscription, so you can take it for a test drive.

The idea is that the app does most of the work, although eventually users have to look over the results and eliminate listings that were not for business. Data from the app is regularly uploaded to the cloud, and reports sent automatically via email. Users can also customize the data.

MileIQ co-founder Charles Dietrich says the app actually learns from patterns and increasingly knows when a trip is of the reimbursable sort and when it is not.

Easy Mile Log

This device, which costs $149, is a small GPS tracking device you leave in your car. When you start a drive, press a button to note the trip is either work or personal. It will document the date and time of your travels, where you started, where you went and the distance. You can dump the data from the device onto your computer using a USB cord.

EasyBiz Mileage Tracker

At $2.99, EasyBiz Mileage Tracker is a cheaper app option, but not quite as automated as the others. Instead, it relies on the user to create what is basically a computer-assisted mileage log – starting and stopping each trip, while it notes the location and the distance via GPS.

Mileage Tracker allows users to customize report printing and add other entries – like tolls, for instance – that could come in handy when doing mileage reports.

MONEY Taxes

IRS Bumps Up Retirement Fund Contribution Limits

You can now save more in your tax-deferred retirement accounts.

Good news: The IRS has bumped up retirement account contribution limits for 2015 to reflect cost-of-living increases. So if you’ve been wanting to sock away more in your tax-advantaged accounts, next year is your opportunity.

Today’s announcement raises the annual contribution limit for 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan by $500 to $18,000. The catch-up contribution limit for employees over age 50 also increased from $5,500 to $6,000.

IRA contribution limits and IRA catch-up contributions, however, will remain the same, at $5,500 and $1,000, respectively, meaning older workers can still set aside $6,500 a year in these accounts.

This follows Wednesday’s announcement that retirees will see a 1.7% cost-of-living bump in their Social Security benefits next year.

Contribution limits are reviewed and adjusted annually to reflect inflation and cost-of-living increases. Last year, 401(k) and IRA limits remained unchanged from 2013 levels because the Consumer Price Index had not risen enough to warrant an increase.

For more details about the changes and more information about the new gross adjusted income limits for certain tax deductions, see the table below or the IRS website.

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Read more from the Ultimate Retirement Guide:

 

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