Question: I am weighing a career change into nursing and will need to apply for financial assistance, as I have been unemployed for the past year. Given what nurses make the first few years, how much of a debt load can I afford to take on? I do not have any outstanding debt and have very little in savings. Besides student loans, what other kind of financial assistance could a nursing student get?
--Thien, New York City
Answer from David Alexander, president of Soliant Health, a health care staffing agency: Financial issues are very important to weigh when deciding on a career change. Given that you don't have debt now, and a nurse makes about $50,000 in the first year, you want to be careful to take on just enough to get your degree. As with anything, it pays to check out a variety of schools to see what best suits your needs. Different schools have different tuition rates and many, especially in the medical field, get more than their fair share of scholarship money because health care institutions tend to be notable charitable recipients. Check in directly with the dean's office at each school to dig further into financial aid and scholarships.
Two final thoughts: Nursing schools are very difficult to get into right now. Last year, more than 50,000 qualified applicants were turned down because of the lack of faculty and staff in the colleges and universities. It is very competitive, and you'll want to make sure you are up for the challenge. Second, volunteer in a hospital so you can see the true day-to-day activities a nurse does. It is a physically and emotionally challenging career, so it is important to have insight before taking the debt plunge and trading a couple of years of your life.
Question: Last year, my wife and I got hit with a $20K+ tax bill even though we listed 0 on both of our W-4s. We were hit hard by the AMT thanks to a combined income of $400K. This year, our income will dip down to $250K. But, to avoid a similar tax bill, we've asked that an additional $500 be withheld each month. Is that enough to avoid a tax bill? We just had a baby and would love to free up more cash.
Answer from Barbara Weltman of The J.K Lasser Institute: Fixing wage withholding to cover projected taxes for the year is never easy. You don't want to underwithhold, because you'll have to come up with a large tax payment at filing time and could be subject to underpayment penalties. And you don't want to overwithhold, because this is effectively making an interest-free loan to the government; you have to wait until you file your return to get back your own money. One way to help with withholding is to use the IRS calculator for this purpose. If withholding is insufficient, consider also making quarterly estimated tax payments. And you might want to work with a CPA or other tax adviser to get individualized assistance on your tax payment strategies.
Question: I have a few months left on my COBRA. I know it's important to have health insurance, especially now that I am in my 30s and have a young child. However, the idea of buying insurance on my own is scary, as I've never had to do it before. What can I do? Does anything in the new health care law help me?
--Kathryn, Los Angeles
Answer from Josh King, general counsel for Avvo.com, a free online legal directory: You're doing the right thing in seeking to maintain coverage. The primary element of the new health care law that will help individuals seeking health insurance is the government-mandated state insurance exchanges that will go into effect in 2014. However, even in advance of that date, you should expect to see more options become available for individually purchased policies.
For now, you should take a close look at "catastrophic" plans. These plans feature low premiums and high deductibles. But if you and your child are in good health, these plans can offer significant savings on premiums while still providing comfort that large expenses will be covered. You'll have to pay for routine matters out of pocket, but the premium savings will likely more than make up for it.