Financial Peace University Overview Part 3 – Retirement and College Planning

Financial Peace UniversityPart 3 of the FPU overview covers week 8 of Financial Peace University – Retirement and College Planning. This post will apply to Dave Ramsey’s baby steps #4 and 5. Baby step #4 is: Invest 15% of your income into tax-favored investments (typically Roth IRAs or 401ks). Baby step #5 is : College funding. It is assumed that you won’t start doing either of these steps until you have saved a full emergency fund (3-6 months of expenses) and paid off all your debt except your house.

If you’re joining this series late and want to catch up see the links below for parts 1 and 2:
FPU Overview Part 1
FPU Overview Part 2

Why should I have an emergency fund and no debt before investing for retirement and college?

Dave is very strict about having an emergency fund and paying off debt before investing for retirement. He even says you shouldn’t put money in a 401K with a match (which is when your company matches a portion of what you invest – it’s basically free money). When we attended Financial Peace University we were already contributing to a 401K with a match and decided not to follow his advice on this point. It would have been much more disruptive to stop contributing. We would have lost the match and had to wait until the enrollment period to start up again.

Saving an emergency fund before saving for retirement

I’m aware that many people disagree with Dave’s advice on this point because if you wait to invest, you lose some of the advantages of compound growth. I personally can see it both ways. I tend to agree that you should have an emergency fund first. Otherwise you may have to dip into your retirement savings to cover emergencies and invoke severe tax penalties. If you take funds out of a 401K or IRA before retirement you pay excessively high taxes which would be like kicking you when you’re already down.

Paying off debt before saving for retirement

Having all your debt paid off before saving for retirement is a more tricky argument. Frankly, Dave doesn’t address it much. As far as I can tell, the main reason for doing so is focus. The more you focus ALL available money on paying off debt the more momentum you’ll get. There’s a strong psychological benefit to seeing your debt paid off at an accelerated rate.

From a math perspective, you can argue either way. If the interest rate on your debt is higher than the interest rate you’d get investing (typically about 10-12% if you invest in mutual funds), you’re better off paying down your debt. Otherwise, you’re better off investing. Having said that, even if you think you could earn 10-12% on a mutual fund, you’re not necessarily guaranteed that rate of return whereas you are guaranteed the return by paying off your debt.

In the end, I don’t think it matters much whether you pay off debt first before investing or not. I would do whichever gives you the most motivation and peace.

What investment vehicles should I use to invest for retirement?

During the session, Dave explains many savings vehicles in great detail including IRAs, Roth IRAs, SEPs, 403Bs, 457s, and 401Ks. Rather than explain them all, I’ll hit the highlights. Here is Dave’s basic strategy for investing for retirement:

  1. If your company’s 401K offers a match, invest just enough to take advantage of the full match.
  2. Next invest in Roth IRAs until you reach your maximum contribution.
  3. If you still have money left to invest, go back and invest in company plans (401Ks) or SEPs.

Within IRAs, Roth IRAs and 401Ks, you can choose what stocks, bonds, and mutual funds you want to invest in. For Dave’s advice on how to allocate funds see Financial Peace University Summary Part 1

Now let’s briefly explain the differnt retirement vehicles. Keep in mind that these are the most basic definitions. I’ve included links with more information for those interested.

Types of retirement investment vehicles


IRA stands for Individual Retirement Account (or Arrangement). An IRA allows you to invest money pre-tax and allows your investment to grow tax free. You then only pay taxes when you withdraw the money at retirement. The IRA itself is really a stock, bond, mutual fund, or other investment that is simply designated as an “IRA.” Even real estate can be used for an IRA. As Dave puts it, the IRA is just a “coat” to keep your investment protected from taxes.

To invest in an IRA you have to have a earned income in that year. In 2007 you can invest up to $4,000 per person if you’re 49 or younger or $5,000 if you’re 50 or older.

Wikipedia entry about IRAs

Roth IRA

A Roth IRA is similar to a regular IRA with one huge difference – with a Roth IRA you invest money post-tax but then your investment grows tax free and you can withdraw it at retirement tax free. In very basic terms, you would typically choose a Roth IRA if you think your income at retirement will exceed your current income. Otherwise, a traditional IRA would make more sense.

Wikipedia entry about Roth IRAs


A 401K acts like an IRA in that you invest money pre-tax and your savings grows tax free. You are then taxed when you withdraw the funds. One of the main differences between an IRA and 401K is simply that a 401K is offered specifically through your employer.

With a 401K you are also more limited in your investment options. The company running your 401K usually provides a pre-selected set mutual funds to choose from.

One benefit of 401Ks is that some employers offer a match – they will match a portion of the amount you save. For example, my current employer matches 100% of my contribution up to 4% of my income and then 50% of my contribution from 4 to 6% of my income. Just to make the math simple, if I made $100,000 and saved 6% of my income, rather than ending up with $6,000 invested I’d end up with $11,000 ($6,000 contribution plus a $5,000 match). It’s basically free money and you should definitely take advantage of a matching program if your employer offers one.

Dave points out some people don’t use the 401K if there is not a match. That’s a mistake. Even though they don’t offer a match you still get the great tax benefits and should still contribute.

The maximum contribution to a 401K for 2007 is $15,500.

Wikipedia entry about 401Ks


A 403B is essentially the same as a 401K but is offered by hospitals, schools, and non-profit organizations rather than corporations.

Wikipedia entry about 403Bs


Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plans provide a way for small business owners to provide retirement plans to themselves and their employees. When an employee participates in an SEP, they essentially create an IRA, which in this case is known as an SEP-IRA. SEP-IRAs have the same tax implications as traditional IRAs. Employees can contribute up to 25% of their income. Self employed individuals can contribute up to 18.6% of their net profit.

Wikipedia entry about SEPs


The 457 allows you to defer your compensation. Instead of receiving income now and being taxed on it now, you can receive it and be taxed on it later. Rather than receiving the income, you can invest it. Essentially this acts similarly to a 401K. I’m personally not familiar with 457s and Dave didn’t recommend them. Use your company’s 401K instead.

Standard Thrift Plan for government employees

For federal government employees you have the standard thrift plan. Dave recommends putting 40% in C fund (common stock plan, 17% return over 10 years. Modeled after S&P index), 40% in S fund (small company fund [aggressive growth], modeled after Barclays index, averaged 14% return over 10 years), and 20% in I fund (International, 8-9% return, modeled after the Barclays EAFE index).

Rolling out funds

401Ks, 403Bs, and 457s are all offered by your employer. The good news is, you can transfer or “roll out” these investments when you leave the company. You can also roll over IRA accounts. Dave recommends rolling out funds whenever you have the option because you have more flexibility in a non-employer plan – you can invest the funds exactly how you want rather than being forced to choose from a limited selection. 401Ks and IRAs can typically only be rolled when you leave the company. However, 403Bs can be rolled at any time.

When you roll funds, be sure to do a direct transfer rather than bringing the money home first. If you have them cut you a check they have to hold 20% of the money until you decide where to invest it. Then if you don’t reinvest you have taxes of about 40% on those funds.

When you roll out funds, you need to decide if you want to roll them to an IRA or Roth IRA. Dave recommends you roll them to an IRA unless you meet the criteria below, in which case you should roll them to a Roth IRA:
1. You will have saved $700,000 by the age of 65.
2. You can pay your taxes separately out-of-pocket. For example, if you roll $10,000 to a Roth IRA, you have to pay taxes on the $10,000 immediately. If you don’t have the funds to pay the taxes right now, you can roll funds in chunks as you have money to pay the taxes.
3. You have less than $100,000 in income the year of the roll. Rules state that you can’t roll to a Roth IRA if you have $100,000 or more in income that year.

Borrowing against 401K – DON’T DO IT!

Some people ask about borrowing money against your 401K. On the surface it seems like a good idea – you can pay yourself interest rather than the bank. However, you should never borrow against your 401K because there are severe risks. Here are 3 reasons why you shouldn’t borrow against your 401K.

  1. You unplug yourself from the stock-like returns.
  2. You might leave or be fired. If you leave, that loan is due in full within 60 days or it’s considered an early withdraw.
  3. If you die, you are deemed to have left the company and your spouse has to pay back the loan.

Saving for Education

For the seemingly rare few who already have a full emergency fund, all debt paid off, and are saving 15% of your income for retirement, you can move on to baby step #5: Funding your child’s college education. I think this step is appropriately placed in relation to the other goals. You need to make sure you take care of your own financial situation, including retirement, before worrying about your kids’ educations. If you don’t, they will have to take care of you financially when you retire. Of course, I paid for almost all my college education and therefore am biased towards having children pay their own way and/or get scholarships. Regardless of your stance, Dave’s placement of this baby step is prudent and appropriate.

Use ESAs and UTMA/UGMAs to save for your child’s education

Dave’s advice is pretty straight forward – save for your child’s education first using an ESA, then using an UTMA/UGMA if you max out the ESA.

Education Savings Accounts (ESA)

An ESA is essentially an IRA for education rather than retirement.
A parent sets up an ESA for his/her child and acts as the custodian. Contributions to an ESA grow tax-exempt. If the child uses the funds for qualified educational expenses, those distributions can be used tax free. You can make a maximum of $2,000 in contributions each year. You have have an income under $110,000 if filing as a single or $220,000 for married couples to use an ESA.

Investopedia has a nice overview of ESAs

Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA/UGMA)

If you max out your ESA contributions or you make too much money to contribute to an ESA you can use an UTMA. The Uniform Transfer to Minors Act allows you to open a Mutual Fund account in the name of the child. The parent is custodian of the account until the child is 18. The downside (or upside if you’re the child) is that funds in an UTMA don’t have to be used for education. The child can use funds how they want when they turn 21.

Wikipedia entry about UTMAs

Don’t use 529 plans or use life insurance for college savings

Dave recommends staying away from 529 plans which force you to put the money into pre-defined mutual funds that don’t provide a good enough return. Age-based 529 plans invest the funds more conservatively as the child reaches 18 and give you no control. They are too conservative.

Dave also recommends avoiding the following:

  • Using life insurance policies (such as the Gerber Life Insurance policy) to save for college
  • Use savings bonds or zero-coupon bonds for college investing
  • Using pre-paid college tuition


Please recognize that the above descriptions are not meant to be comprehensive by any means. Dave Ramsey goes into quite a bit more detail in Financial Peace University and even his descriptions are not comprehensive. Hopefully this will give you a base line for understanding your investment options and spur you on to learn more. Stay tuned for part 4.

Other Resources

Retirement Savings or Debt Reduction: Which is the Top Priority? [Get Rich Slowly]
Retirement Savings Or Debt Repayment: Which Is More Important? [The Simple Dollar]
3 Common 401(k) Mistakes [The Consumerist]

Posted in Dave Ramsey, Education, Investing, Retirement, Saving | 5 Comments »

5 Comments to “Financial Peace University Overview Part 3 – Retirement and College Planning”

  1. Zeke Says:

    Great straight forward post to keep the series going. One question – regarding borrowing against 401k – is the payback period after leaving 60 years or 60 days?

  2. sjpeer Says:

    Sorry. It was supposed to say “days.” I’ve fixed it. Thanks for the heads up.

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  4. Philip Says:

    Debt should be paid off before building up savings.
    I had a tenant that had money to invest, and money to help others, but did not have the money to pay his back rent, or current rent. Needless to say, I had to get a court order to get the deadbeat out. He still had not obeyed the court order to pay the 5 months of back rent.
    If you owe money to someone pay it back.
    If you think that you should build wealth while delinquent, you are for all intents and purposes, a thief. You are holding someone else’s money.
    After all debts are paid off, then the wealth that you build up is actually yours.

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