Don't miss out! Get Chief Family Officer's free daily roundup:


WHAT'S HOT RIGHT NOW:

  • Take this short reader survey and be entered to win one of two Mystery Boxes of Goodies!
  • Enter to win a $25 GAP Options gift card!
  • Rent over 20,000 videos for $1.99 or less at Amazon.


  • Short Term Savings Alternatives

    Our current financial goals have us balancing debt-reduction with saving for the boys’ education. As I mentioned earlier this year, we’re banking as much money as possible so we can pay off the mortgage (which is our only debt) or have plenty of cash to pay for private school in a few years. College savings is also on our minds as the Forbes list of America’s top colleges shows that tuition at these schools is pretty in the $50,000 range right now (and I hate to think of what it will be in 12 years, when my oldest is heading off to college).

    While it’s hard to say if we’re saving “enough,” I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can maximize the money that we are saving until we need it. Right now, we’re looking at needing the money in about five years – either to pay off the mortgage or to start paying for private school tuition. That’s not long enough for even moderately aggressive investments. We’ll actually have to be fairly conservative.

    The first place I’m going to park more money is the boys’ Coverdell accounts. The annual contribution limit is $2,000 per child and grows tax-free (higher income families should note the contribution limits). As of right now, money from Coverdells can be used for expenses during grades K through 12, so it’s a great option for us with our plans to start paying for private school as early as sixth grade. (Congress will need to extend those K-12 benefits beyond 2012, but I’m confident they will, and if they don’t, the money will be there for college.)

    The next option I’m considering is my Roth IRA. I’ve had it since college, although I haven’t contributed much since I had a 401(k) until I quit my job last year. I’ve been planning to contribute to my Roth anyway since I’m no longer building up retirement savings in other accounts. The nice thing about Roths is that although they are retirement accounts, income tax has already been paid on contributions so they can be withdrawn at any time. Earnings can be withdrawn without being subject to an early withdrawal penalty if the money is used to pay for the kids’ college expenses. So this would really be a long-term savings option, but one we were going to use anyway because of the retirement savings aspect.

    For both the Coverdell and Roth investments, we could pick very conservative options that would have little risk with tax-free growth (though we would likely be more aggressive with the Roth since the money will sit there longer).

    The other option I’m looking into is a money market account – they are earning a bit more than traditional savings accounts, and there are some tax-advantaged accounts that would allow our money to grow tax-free. Money market accounts are not FDIC insured, but are considered to be extremely low-risk investments. I’m just not sure the extra yield is worth the lack of FDIC insurance, given that the difference is so small right now with how low interest rates are (around 1/2 percent).

    CDs (Certificates of Deposit) are also an option, but again, the difference between the return on CDs and the return on traditional savings accounts is so small that I’m not sure it’s worth tying up our money.

    The market just doesn’t seem to be rewarding savers right now, although that’s no reason not to save money. In fact, economic conditions are such that I’m thankful every day that we have savings. I’d just like to make the most of those savings!

    Looking for a Microscope

    We’ve gotten big into science around here, and I want to make the most of the boys’ curiosity while we can since who knows how long this stage will last.

    We’ve grown some alum crystals, colored celery to demonstrate capillary action, and are growing a container garden (we recently added some tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries and parsley to keep our lemon tree company).

    Next on our list of projects are sugar crystals and salt crystals.

    I thought it would be a good experience to compare the crystals’ structures under a microscope, but I haven’t touched a microscope since college. I know nothing about brand names, what to look for, or what’s a good price to pay.

    So before I buy this well-reviewed My First Lab Duo-Scope Microscope from Amazon, I wanted to ask for input. What should I be looking for in a kid’s microscope, and what’s a good price to pay? Thanks so much!

    P.S. And thanks to this review at Baby Toolkit, I’ve added the book Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch . . . and What It Takes to Win to my reading list.

    LAUSD Choices Booklet Comes Out This Month

    I am having a seriously hard time accepting that it’s the beginning of November. I feel like school just started and that summer just ended, but I see Christmas decorations and Black Friday deals everywhere already.

    And, we got notice that the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Choices Brochure should be coming home next week. The Choices brochure contains an application and is the only way to apply for admission to a magnet school. I don’t know if other school districts offer similar choices or mechanisms, but I do know LAUSD’s magnet admissions process is rather confusing.

    At least the application itself is actually pretty straightforward. If your child is already enrolled in an LAUSD school, you should receive a pre-filled application next week. If you don’t get one, or your child isn’t in an LAUSD school, you can get a blank application at all LAUSD schools, LAUSD Local District Offices, Los Angeles City Libraries, and the Student Integration Services office downtown. Fill out the form and send it in.

    Everything else about the magnet admissions process is complicated, at least in my opinion. There are points to worry about, and I’ve written more about the points process here. The one thing really worth pointing out here is that if you have a child who will be entering kindergarten next fall and you think you might want to apply for a magnet school for first grade, you should apply for one of the few kindergarten magnets and hope to be rejected so you can get points for when you apply in 2011.

    Similarly, if you hope to get your child into a magnet later on, you should apply to a highly desirable magnet to build up points before your child is actually eligible to enroll. For example, there are a couple of schools that are Centers for Enriched Studies that start in either fourth or sixth grade and go through twelfth grade. To apply with the maximum number of points, you want to have failed to get into your desired magnet school for the previous three years (you can have a max of 12 wait list points and get 4 points each year you’re rejected). The Choices booklet should indicate the number of applications and the number of students admitted to each school last year, which will give you a good idea of which schools are the hardest to get into.

    Like I said, it’s all terribly confusing, especially when you factor in sibling points, ethnicity, and school status. I found the Choices Information Fair in 2008 very helpful, but they didn’t hold one last year probably because of budget cuts, and it doesn’t look like they’re doing one this year either. However, the Choices web site is useful and includes links to other helpful resources. It’s down for maintenance right now, but does have a list of important dates, and should be back up soon.

    And don’t forget, the Choices application must be postmarked by Friday, December 17.

    Is a law degree worth the cost and risk?

    As a lawyer, I follow the legal industry, and my favorite legal blog, Above the Law, actually bills itself as a “legal tabloid.” One constant theme is how much it sucks to be a lawyer right now, especially an unemployed one. And another recurring theme is how much it sucks to be a law student right now, with worse employment prospects than the fourth-year associate who just got laid off. Here’s a recent example: UCLA School of Law (arguably the most prestigious law school in LA) recently sent around a job listing to students that was for the position of chauffeur to an entertainment lawyer, the pitch being that you could talk to him about his job while you were driving him around to his various appointments. At least when I was a student, the law school tried to help students get hired as law clerks or externs doing real legal work.

    Last week, Above the Law discussed whether a student entering his second year should quit before incurring more loans. (The gender of the student isn’t disclosed so for simplicity, I’m going to assume he’s male.) The student in question goes to a top eight school, has decent but not stellar grades, thinks he would enjoy public interest law, already has $70,000 in student loans, and is convinced he would graduate with $170,000 in debt. The editors gave the pros and cons of staying in school, but I thought what was really interesting was what was missing from the discussion: deciding whether you really want to be a lawyer and if so, how to make it happen.

    For example, if the student really wants to be a prosecutor or legal legislative work, then continuing with law school is the only way to make that happen. Or maybe he really wants to be an entertainment lawyer – he’s still going to need that law degree. The fact that he is at a top law school indicates that he is bright and is likely to pass the bar exam, be considered for interviews, etc. Especially if the student is willing to relocate for his dream job, then I think someone bright enough to go to a top law school would be able to get the position. At the very least, he will be able to get some position in his chosen field.

    That leaves the money question. Crystal at Money Saving Mom often writes about how her husband was able to make it through law school without incurring any debt, but I don’t think that’s realistic for most people. Tuition and fees at the law schools in Los Angeles is about $40,000 per year. I don’t know if it’s even possible to come out completely debt-free if you go to a relatively respectable school and don’t have a whole lot of money coming from somewhere other than loans, such as savings, a spouse, or a job.

    Speaking of a job . . . that’s something most law students don’t have, and understandably so. I didn’t, for the first two years of law school. First year grades in particular are so important that most students don’t want to have distractions from studying. But the student we were discussing is already a second-year, and could conceivably hold down a job if he was serious about limiting the amount of debt he graduates with. Even ten hours a week would bring in some income.

    And of course, there’s the big one – lifestyle. To be honest, back when I was in law school, I didn’t have a full grasp of what it means to live within one’s means. And most of my peers seemed to be the same. But a frugal lifestyle could significantly reduce the total amount of loans at graduation.

    Just as important, a frugal lifestyle after graduation will ensure those loans are paid off relatively quickly. Most loan programs allow for 20 to 25 years to pay off your student loans. But if you follow the proven debt-reduction techniques like the debt snowball, you can cut that time by half or more. These are all things that should be taken into consideration when deciding on a future career path, whether it’s the law or something else.

    LA Times teacher database released

    I’ll probably have more on this later, but for locals, I just wanted to provide a link to the LA Times’ value-added teacher ratings. You can search by teacher or school, and some of the data appears incomplete – for example, the most recent data for a teacher at our local school was from 2006. The database only includes LAUSD teachers for grades 3 through 5.

    class="nolinks"