Reader’s Perspective: Question and Answer with Brynne Conroy, Founder of Femme Frugality and Author of The Feminist Financial Handbook

By Paul Curley, CFA | | October 4, 2018

How does this author view ABLE accounts and 529 plans in terms of helping families to save and save efficiently?

This article features an interview with Brynne Conroy, owner, founder and head writer of Femme Frugality and Author of The Feminist Financial Handbook. Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Brynne of Femme Frugality draws in over 10,500 followers on Twitter as of publication of this article in October 2018. Building upon her success and experience in her blog and social media, her new book titled The Feminist Financial Handbook is set for release on October 15, 2018 and pre-ordering is already underway via Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, Mango and IndieBound. You can learn more about Brynne at the website of Last but not least, thank you Brynne for your time, insight and support in working with me on the article. Please read the question and answers to learn about her perspective on ABLE accounts and college financial planning, and hope that the article provides you with an opportunity to learn more from your peers.

Question 1 (Paul Curley, Editor of the 529 Dash): Thank you so much for your time today. How and why did you first get started with the blog Femme Frugality and the book, the Feminist Financial Handbook? I think it’s a timely topic, on both sides of 529s and ABLE.

Answer 1 (Brynne Conroy, Founder of Femme Frugality and Author of The Feminist Financial Handbook): I started Femme Frugality about seven years ago when I was broke. I was always really good at managing money, I just didn’t have enough of it at that point in my life. I was living below the poverty line and I found out I was expecting. I knew that I had to do something to change my circumstances because with a child on the way, you couldn’t be picking between electricity and food like I had been up to that point. So I kicked things into overdrive to find new ways to increase my income and save even more money than I already was. I started telling everyone I knew about the things that I was learning. What I found was that I got met with a lot of blank looks, especially when I started diving into tax credits. But I knew that there had to be other people out there looking for the same information that I was getting together, and so I decided to put it on the Internet. I started a blog and seven years later. Here I am.

As the years went on, I started recognizing all the obstacles oppression had placed in my way, and all the obstacles I did not have to face because of my privilege. I think that’s a big part of the story that we like to leave out when we talk about finances. But intersectional feminism is important if we want to truly understand and address the issues people face. Bootstrapping isn’t always possible. That’s why I was thrilled when Mango came to me wanting me to author a book on women’s finances. Especially in our day and age, this information needs to be disseminated.

Question 2: From my perspective, I really like how you organized and structured the book: How to earn more, how to save more and then there’s bigger topics that go across both of those topics. In the book you cover ABLE accounts thoroughly, which is great. How did you first come to learn about ABLE accounts and why did you see them as an important tool in helping families.

Answer 2: I organized an event here locally in Pittsburgh for female entrepreneurs in Pennsylvania focusing on how to manage business finances and how to manage your personal finances. One of the speakers that I invited was a financial planner. I asked her a question about retirement specifically at one point and how much you actually would need to save. I asked her as the parent of a special needs child about special needs trusts and she was super excited because Pennsylvania had just launched their ABLE program. I asked her many questions, came home and did my own research. They are phenomenal products. They don’t solve the problem of forced poverty completely for the disabled community. You’re still limited on how much you can earn in order to receive benefits like Social Security Income. But they do allow you to at least save money so that your savings is not counted against you in asset tests. This includes things like SNAP benefit–even basic things like getting food on the table. It’s gotten a little bit better in recent years but there’s some states that have tests that essentially say, ‘If you have this much in savings, well then you’re not going to be able to get food.’ And with ABLE accounts, what the Federal government has done, is they’ve said ABLE accounts aren’t allowed to be considered in the asset tests. There’s several other Federal benefits that are like that as well. For instance, your earnings within your ABLE account are not going to be taxed at the Federal level.

Also, savings for disabled people is really important for parents. In particular, they’ve done a lot of studies, and maternal income goes down dramatically whenever you have a disabled child at home. If you’re a grown adult, you can’t save for things that are going to build your wealth like a home or maybe even just some money for some type of specialized equipment that you can’t get Medicaid or Medicare to cover in some of your benefits. So it’s really huge to be able to save money or even just have an emergency fund.

Question 3: I know your book covers the importance of earning more, and so I thought one intriguing question would be: From your perspective, what is the importance of education and training, and how can college financial planning can help families to save and save efficiently?

Answer 3: I work in a field where there’s a lot of praise for outliers. We all know that one guy who built the tech empire and he did it all without a college education, and therefore nobody needs a college education. I think that’s a dangerous assumption that gets floated around. That’s because we know that Americans, whenever they have a college education, make seventeen thousand five hundred dollars more per year on average. Those outlier stories are really inspirational and cool, but we need some type of education or training statistically if you want a higher income. College and vocational schools are really important for that. For the disability community in particular, even with those ABLE accounts, earning a higher income is still a problem because of the income restrictions for benefits like SSI. For most people, 529s are awesome because they will be counted on the FAFSA so minimally and that money is going to be really important and especially with the rising cost of education and especially when a lot of income-based grants are not available to you.

Question 4: How can ABLE and 529 product providers and state agencies improve from your perspective?

Answer 4: As far as I’m aware, the Department of Education still hasn’t issued any guidelines for how ABLE accounts should be treated by way of FAFSA. That would be super helpful for people especially as they’re planning for their kid’s college education. As far as the state agency level, making sure that gains are not taxable for ABLE accounts. Another thing to look at is whether the assets within an ABLE account counts during an asset test for state benefits, and specifically where there are no federal guidelines. I also believe HUD is another agency that hasn’t issued any guidelines, and so taking care of that at the State and Federal Level would be helpful for those that may need affordable housing. And for the product partners, I would really like to see more socially responsible investing (SRI) options in there. Also, I’d like to see index funds available as an easy and potentially cheaper way to diversify your investments.

Question 5: Where can our readers go to learn more? Follow you on social media, read your new book and anything else?

Answer 5: Definitely on social media and my book. Also, my blog includes links and posts on ABLE accounts based on feedback from the community.

Editor’s Final Note: Thank you Brynne Conroy for your time and insight in working with me on the article, and much appreciated. Also, I would like to provide a special thank you to the readers of the article for learning from your peers, for your support and your engagement. Have the special needs planning and college financial planning discussion with your clients today.

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