A tiny new baby comes home with a mountain of money issues for its overjoyed, overtired parents. Here are the most common ways parents go wrong, and why these financial flubs can be so costly in the long term.
To most new parents, getting settled with a new baby means figuring out how to function on three hours of sleep and finding what detergent will best minimize spit-up stains.
Financial issues rarely get the time of day, even though numerous important issues crop up once you have a child.
As a result, many new parents put their family's long-term financial security at risk by making rash decisions or avoiding issues altogether.
Here are 10 of the biggest mistakes that new parents make when it comes to their finances:
Skimping on life insurance
While you may have some life insurance coverage through your employer, "that's usually not enough," Ballou says. "Anyone with a kid these days should at least have a $500,000 policy as a bare-bones minimum," she says. What's more, if you are healthy, group policies are rarely any cheaper for you than an individual policy, and they aren't portable. If you get laid off, you lose your life insurance. "Imagine if you got laid off when you were having medical problems. Getting a new policy would be extremely expensive," Ballou says. "It's much smarter to simply get an individual policy."
How much insurance do you need? Generally people need five times their earnings, plus the total amount of their household debt and enough to cover college tuition for their children, says John Ryan, owner of Ryan Insurance Strategy Consultants in Greenwood Village, Colo.
Don't forget to run the same calculation for a stay-at-home spouse, whose premature death may mean having to hire full-time child care, Ballou adds.
For new parents, most planners recommend term insurance. "It meets most people's needs," and it's the simplest and cheapest kind, says Peg Downey, a financial planner in Silver Spring, Md. A 30-year-old healthy man recently could have gotten a $500,000 term policy from First Penn Pacific Co. for $475 a year, says Ryan, the Colorado insurance consultant. Choose a term that lasts until your dependents are through college and no longer in need of your financial support, Ryan says. And then, be sure your policy has the option to convert to a permanent whole life or variable life policy. That way, if you decide later that you want lifelong coverage, it will be cheaper to convert than to buy a new policy.
You can get life insurance quotes on MSN Money, as well as read more about insurance issues and find out if you have enough coverage overall.
Shrugging off disability insurance
Take a realistic look at your family's spending to figure out how much coverage you should have. Get a policy that would enable you to cover expenses and maintain your standard of living if you had to be out of work for a while.
Prices vary dramatically between insurers, but generally, for a 30-year-old male, every $1,000 per month of supplemental coverage would cost about $370 a year, according to Ryan. For a woman the same age, that extra coverage would cost $540 a year. You can read more about disability coverage on MSN money.
Buying life insurance for baby
Some salespeople say a lifetime policy on a child is a smart security measure. If your child develops a medical condition later in life, insurance would be very costly. So if you buy a policy for less now, at least you will know he will always be insured. "But it's unlikely a healthy child will develop a problem that will last into adulthood," Capelli says. "And if he did, by then the coverage would probably be small relative to his needs."
Delaying saving for college
- 529 college savings plans. You can contribute $25 a month or up to $250,000 each year to these state-sponsored plans. Your money grows tax free as long as it is used for college costs.
- All states sponsor one, and each is managed by a brokerage or mutual fund company. The Illinois plan is run by Salomon Smith Barney, and Maryland's is managed by T. Rowe Price. No matter where you live, you can participate in any plan and your child can attend any school she chooses.
- The plans invest your money in a portfolio of stocks and bonds that gets gradually more conservative as your child nears college age.
- For information on the performance data on 529 plans, see SavingForCollege.com. (See link in left margin under Related Resources.) For a listing of all 529 plans, check out The College Savings Plans Network Web site. (Also listed under Related Resources.)
- Coverdell education savings accounts. Formerly called education IRAs, these let you contribute up to $2,000 a year in a tax-free accounts. The earnings build up tax-free. There are some income limits, however: $220,000 for couples filing jointly, and $110,000 for singles. For more on Coverdell accounts and college planning, visit MSN Money's College Planning page.
Forgetting what's most important: retirement savings
Max out on your 401(k), an IRA, or whatever retirement plans are available to you. Stay-at-home spouses should sock cash into an IRA. Of these, look into a Roth IRA. These take after-tax dollars. Earnings inside the account build up tax-free, and, later on, you can withdraw money without incurring taxes. Read more about retirement planning on MSN Money.
Postponing a will
Hire an attorney to draft a will (cost: $500 to $1,000) in which you name an executor, who would pay your debts and distribute your assets, and a guardian for your children. "These may be two different people; sister Jane may be a great mom, but she may not be good with money," Lewin says.
Also, name two backups for both child and money issues, advises Ballou. "What if you want your sister to take care of your kids, but for some reason she's not able?"
If you have specialized concerns, such as lifelong support for a disabled child, you may want to set up a more complex estate plan that includes a custodial account or a trust.
An alternative is to write your own will using computer software. For more information on these programs, read "12 easy steps to preparing your estate plan" on MSN Money. But, as Ginger Applegarth notes in that article, if your estate is at all complex, you're probably better off consulting a lawyer.
Overspending on baby costs
While a lot of this spending is necessary, some of it isn't. Many seasoned parents admit their most irresponsible spending occurred in their children's earliest years and before they were even born. Who really needs a $500 hand-stitched crib bumper? "New parents think they need everything, want everything to be perfect, and don't know what things cost," says Downey, the Maryland planner.
Before you start setting up a nursery, come up with a spending plan. Accept hand-me-downs, and shop at yard sales and consignment and second-hand shops.
Remember that a lot of what you buy will only be used for about a year, sometimes less -- especially baby clothes.
Cheryl Whitehead, a mother of two in Temple, Pa., saved about $10,000 in her kids' early years by buying things used or on discount. For example, she snagged a $1,200 jungle gym for $200 at a yard sale. At a KidsRUs sale, she bought $700 worth of clothes for $100. "You can give a lot to your kids while still being responsible," she says.
If you want to see how wisely you spend, check MSN Money's savvy spender quiz.
Overlooking tax benefits for parents
One that many parents overlook is the ability to sock away up to $5,000 of pre-tax money for child care through an employer-sponsored savings program. Called flexible spending arrangements (FSAs), most medium and large employers offer them.
There is also a child-care tax credit, which you can qualify for if both spouses are working and your child is under age 13. But Uncle Sam doesn't let you double up on the FSA and the credit. "For most people, it's not a tough choice - the flexible-spending plan gives you the biggest break," says Lisa Osofsky, a New York City accountant and financial adviser.
The maximum child-care credit you can claim is $480 if you have one child and $960 if you have two or more children. In contrast, "if you put away $5,000 pretax in the FSA, and you're in the 30% tax bracket, you're getting a $1,500 credit," Osofsky says.
Another big tax perk: The $1,000 annual child tax credit, which applies to children under age 17. Couples filing jointly who have one child and earn no more than $110,000 can claim the full credit.
As MSN Money's tax columnist Jeff Schnepper is fond of pointing out, a tax credit is far more valuable than a deduction because the credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction of your tax bill.
Saving in a child's name
But while this makes sense from a tax standpoint -- earnings and income in the account would be taxed at the child's lower tax rate -- many planners say it's usually not a good idea.
Once your child turns 18 or 21, depending on the state where you live, "that money is irrevocably the child's money," Capelli says. "You may have intended the money to be for college or a first house, but your child may blow it on a trip."
What's more, any money saved in the child's name will reduce the amount of college financial aid she is eligible for, whether the money is intended for college costs or not, says Matt McGrath, a financial planner in Coral Gables, Fla.
If the money is for college, invest in a 529 plan or a Coverdell IRA, McGrath says. "Or, simply keep the money in a separate account," he says. That way there's less of a chance it will get used on home improvements or a new family car.
Oversimplifying the work vs. stay-at-home question
But there are numerous other financial factors to consider. The most commonly overlooked is the costly benefits package provided by your employer. "Benefits are often worth about 35% of your salary," Downey says. Run a comparison of what it will cost to replace the benefits you need if you leave your job. Also, figure in how your other expenses and benefits will change. For example, if you leave your job, you will cut out commuting expenses and the cost of pricey work clothes.
If you continue working, however, you may receive a matching 401(k) contribution from your employer.
To help you make this decision, check out MSN Money's Second Income calculator and read "Second incomes: twice the work, half the return."