College Merit Scholarships: What They Are and How to Get Them

merit scholarships, denver financial advisor

This week I am happy to offer an article by guest blogger Sara Zessar, an expert in the field of finding the college fit for students and money to help pay the tuition.  Read more about Sara at the end of this piece.


What is a merit scholarship?


In essence, it’s a scholarship that is awarded based on one or a number of factors, such as academic achievement (often as indicated by GPA and test scores), leadership, community service, extracurricular activities, and talents.  Merit scholarships are not based on athletics or financial need, which is why they may be a great option for students who don’t qualify for need-based aid.


Many colleges offer merit scholarships, ranging from a few thousand dollars a year to full tuition.  Just as the amounts of scholarships vary considerably, so do the qualifications and methods for applying.  As you are researching colleges, it’s important to find out what (if any) merit scholarships are available, what they’re based on, and how to apply or be considered for them.


Here are examples


The University of Colorado, Boulder awards scholarships to Colorado residents through its Esteemed Scholars Program.  Students are automatically considered for these scholarships when they apply for admission to the university.  The scholarships, which range from $2,500 to $5,000 per year, are based on students’ GPAs and SAT or ACT scores, so it’s easy to determine the amount of money you’ll be offered.


In contrast, the University of Southern California’s merit scholarships are “based on academic excellence, leadership, service and talent.”  USC uses a holistic review process to evaluate students for scholarships, so there’s no way of knowing if you’ll receive a scholarship or how much money it will be.  In order to be considered for merit scholarships at USC, students must apply to the university by December 1.


At Tulane University, students are automatically considered for partial-tuition merit scholarships.  The university also offers full-tuition merit scholarships, but these require a separate application, and some require students to apply for admission by the Early Action or Early Decision deadlines.


The Danforth Scholars Program at Washington University in St. Louis awards merit scholarships to students who have been nominated by their high schools.  Once students are nominated, they have to complete an application for the scholarship.


I use these examples to illustrate differences in the types of merit scholarships colleges offer and the processes by which they are awarded.  As you research colleges, be sure to investigate the requirements for applying for scholarships.  Do you need to apply by an earlier deadline to be considered for a scholarship?  Are you automatically considered when you apply for admission, or is there an additional essay you have to write or a separate application you have to fill out?  Do you have to be nominated, and if so, who can nominate you?


Getting answers to these questions can mean the difference between receiving thousands of dollars and not getting a dime, so make sure you take the time to do your research.


sara zessar, college


Sara Zessar, the founder of Discovery College Consulting, LLC, has assisted hundreds of students with the college search and admissions process. With an M.Ed. in counseling, Sara worked for six years as a high school counselor in private, public, and charter schools. Because of her counseling background, she is able to help students and families with the emotional aspects of the process in addition to the academic and procedural ones. She also assists students with the scholarship process, and Discovery College Consulting’s students have received up to $33,000/year in college merit scholarships.  To learn more, visit

WTF (What the Finance) is Life Expectancy?

life expectancy, denver financial planner

Life expectancy is a concept that seems basic but is not well understood.  If we all knew the exact date of our death, the whole financial advice industry could cease to exist.  After all, if you know exactly how many more days you need your money to last, all planning can be done with an abacus.


It’s the uncertainty of lifespans (and investment markets) that allow me to have a job.


What does “life expectancy” mean?


Technically, life expectancy is that age at which half of a population (generally defined by country) born in the same year are dead and half are still alive.  It’s not an accurate predictor of your age of death because it’s an average including children who died very young in freak ice fishing accidents or from small pox and those who died very old repeating the same story for the thousandth time to their great-grandkids.


Therefore, Life Expectancy is not a number that is very helpful in your spending plan during retirement.


What do financial planners worry about?


My colleagues and I worry about Longevity Risk. What is the risk that you will run out of money if you live to age 95 or 100?  Truly, the healthy retiree is a nightmare for a financial advisor.  We’d prefer you take up smoking and heavy drinking, so we don’t have to worry about stretching your asset pool for 40 years.


If you have some sort of medical condition that will likely shorten your life, tell your financial advisor so he or she can adjust those expectations.  You will be able to spend more money each year if you know your life expectancy is shorter.


Conversely, if you are a woman who is healthy and has a history of old women in the family, you may be more comfortable planning for your assets to last 40 years in retirement.  Yikes!  This means less spending now to support that nonagenarian of the future.  You may be a candidate for certain types of longevity annuities, long-term care insurance, or to take a lifetime pension instead of the lump sum option.


I hope this little statistics lesson hasn’t been too boring and gives you a peek behind the curtains of one of the many aspects of retirement income planning.

Top Summer Jobs for Teenagers

summer jobs, denver financial planner

I can’t believe it.  My niece, who was just an infant yesterday, is now lifeguarding at the neighborhood pool where I grew up!  The family is promising her lots of visits in our string bikinis to support her and she is thrilled at the prospect.


What else are kids doing for money this summer?  While many employers only want to hire year-round workers, there are plenty of seasonal opportunities out there.

Here are some ideas


  • Amusement Parks hire for ticket sellers, food prep, and ride monitors.
  • Summer Camps! A great way to play around for a job and not spend any money because you are too tired (or tucked away from civilization) to blow your paycheck at the mall.
  • Farms will hire younger folks for weeding, watering, and working local produce stands.
  • Sports venues need people to sell food, take tickets, answer questions, and clean up.
  • Jobs at resorts, such as housekeeping, gift shop clerk, bellman/woman, and kid camp helpers.
  • Start your own business mowing lawns, tutoring, washing cars, or babysitting.
  • Work for your town. Denver has a Summer Youth Employment Program ( and a quick Google search will probably yield results in your town, too.
  • IT consultant. You know those annoying questions your parents are always asking about how to use their phones?  People without teenagers need help, too!  Make up some flyers and advertise around your neighborhood to offer phone and computer help to hapless middle-agers.


What to do with all that hard-earned cash?  Spend a little, save some for college, and ask your parents about helping you set up your first Roth IRA!

The Myth of Working Until You Die

working, denver financial planner

There is no doubt that I am getting crabby in my middle age, and one thing that gets my goat is when people tell me that saving is too hard, and they are just going to keep working until they die.  Physically, I am giving the speaker a bland smile and nodding, but inside I’m thinking, “You should be so lucky, pal!”


Let’s get real.


It’s true, people are staying in the workforce longer.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017 that 32% of people ages 65 to 69 were working, and 19% of people ages 70 to 74 were employed.  The projection for 2024 is that 36% of people ages 65 to 69 will be in the labor force, compared to 22% working in 1994.*


The reasons for this shift range are many:


  • Longer life expectancies
  • Better education leading to less physically laborious work
  • Not enough retirement savings
  • Just plain love of work


However, there are those who are forced to leave the workforce before they are ready.  Ageism is alive and well, and if you don’t believe me, read this article in Forbes detailing 11 sneaky ways companies get rid of older workers.


And then there’s the unexpected.


There is also the unexpected health change that can appear at anytime during our lives.  A 2014 Employee Benefit Research Institute survey found that 33% of workers expect to retire after age 65, but only 16% of retirees report staying on the job that long. The median retirement age in the survey was 62.  Forty nine percent of respondents said they left the workforce earlier than planned because of health reasons.


Why do I bother telling you all this sad news?


My takeaway, as usual, is that it’s never too early or never too late to start saving!  Your willingness to work until death may be there, but your body or boss may have other plans.  Reduce expenses and sock money away now.  Your older self will thank you!






WTF (What the Finance) is…Impact Investing?

impact investing, denver financial advisor

Impact investing has been around for a while.  The idea is to direct your money to causes that are important to you and away from companies with products you dislike.


In a December 2017 I gave examples of mutual funds and ETFs that focus on the environment, certain religious beliefs, and gender equality.  I also gave examples of the opposite of impact investing – ETFs and mutual funds that focus on guns, gambling, alcohol, and tobacco sales.  We like to be fair and balanced here at Sullivan Financial Planning.


Those December blogs may have been putting the cart before the horse. Here are some definitions of various kinds of impact investing.*


Socially Responsible Investing

Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) is the avoidance of harm in your investments.  Harm to whom?  The environment, employees, public health are some examples.


Impact Investing

Impact Investing is a subset of SRI, requires investors to consider a company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR), or the sense of duty to positively serve society as a whole.  Some examples include giving back to the community by helping the less fortunate or investing in sustainable energy practices.

Gender Lens Investing

Gender Lens Investing has investors concentrate on finding companies whose policies benefit women and girls. Often, there are scores given to companies based on hiring practices, promotions, and the executive presence of women in the organization.


In the old days when I first started in the investment business, Socially Responsible Investing was considered a nice concept, but one in which returns were compromised by the philosophy.  These days, SRI is gaining steam both from a philosophical standpoint and a good showing for risk and return.  The idea is that by doing good, these companies can be sustainable and profitable for the long haul.  For example, a company that isn’t polluting the oceans is less likely to face government fines or class action lawsuits.  Same for companies where the products don’t cause cancer or other public health problems.


There are more options than ever in the realm of Socially Responsible Investing.  However, it may be tough to create a complete diversified portfolio using only these funds.  Small and Mid-Cap funds, bond funds, and international funds are not too plentiful yet.  Stay tuned, though.  There is bound to be growth in this area.



Divorcing? Run away from home!

divorcing, denver financial advisor

Frequently when I’m talking to a new client, he or she will start of by saying “I’m sorry, I don’t have more saved.  Or, “I’m sorry, I made these mistakes in the past.”  Believe me, we all, even financial planners, have made money moves we regret.


One that came up recently in a phone consultation was a woman who had to file for bankruptcy because she kept her family home after her divorce.  She was beating herself up for that decision, but I have seen it so often.


So, for those of you contemplating divorce, and this goes for men and women equally, let me just lay it out there:  DON”T fight to keep the marital home.


Top five reasons


  1. It’s possible you barely could afford the mortgage and upkeep together. You certainly won’t be able to living off one income.


  1. The upkeep is a pain as a single person. You don’t have a spouse to stay home from work or help coordinate plumber visits.  Unexpected repairs could derail your fragile new single-person budget.


  1. Bad memories – this is the scene of your marriage ending.  Move on to a fresh environment while you heal from this trauma.


  1. You are staying put to not disrupt the kids or force them to move into a smaller house. Guess what?  The kids are disrupted already.  Just get them used to the new situation, housing and all, at one time.  They kids will recover, and you won’t be broke.


  1. The better asset to get in divorce is something liquid and that doesn’t have a huge mortgage on it. Think IRAs, investment accounts, pensions, etc.


Renting for the first year after divorce is a good idea.  It lets you get your feet under you financially without the pressure of financing a new mortgage and home repairs/improvements.


The lesson here – if you are getting divorced, run away from the home!

I LOVE a good yard sale!

yard sale, denver financial planner

I hate clutter.  And most anything that doesn’t have immediate use to me is clutter.  My mom once said about me, “Don’t stand still in Kristi’s house for more than two minutes or she’ll donate you to Goodwill.”  Some people might be insulted by that statement, but it made me proud.


Now it’s summer and time for my favorite activity: A yard sale!  Getting rid of stuff makes me feel like I’ve lost weight.  So light and happy!


Once I’ve decided to do a yard sale, I start looking at everything in my house with a critical eye.  WHY do I have two manual potato smashers?  Really, why do I even have one?  There has got to be a point were my kids have too many Legos.  That point is now.  Is anyone going to read those two 500-page volumes of Henry Kissinger’s autobiography?  Doubtful.  What about those margarita glasses that have the cactus shaped stems?  Haven’t been used in 12 years?  Gone!


Here are my top five reasons for giving a yard sale:


  1. You can get rid of big stuff and not have to worry about how to transport it to Goodwill. People bring their own trucks!


  1. A yard sale is a fun social event where you make money. You get to meet new neighbors and chat with old ones.


  1. It’s a great way to get your kids involved. They can see the value of used goods, work on their sales skills, do some manual labor by helping set up, and make a little cash.


  1. You just can’t believe the stuff people will buy from you. When in doubt, put it out there with a $.25 sticker on it.


  1. Christmas in summer. Meaning, you can get rid of all those Christmas decorations that never get displayed and use the cash to go buy yourself some presents.


Happy selling, everyone!

Retirees who don’t have built in caregivers

caregivers, denver financial planner

Not that long ago, words like “retirement” and “caregivers” weren’t part of our vocabulary.  People worked until they could no longer physically do so and then died shortly after.   Generations of families lived together, so Grandma took care of the grandkids while parents worked (no exorbitant day care costs!).  When Grandma got sick, the kids and grandkids took care of her.  It’s just what everyone did.


Aging today.


Fast forward 100 years and old age looks much different.  People stop working (if they have the finances to do so) just to have fun.  They live just having fun for 20-30 years.  If they need help as they age, an adult child (let’s face it, usually a daughter) will step in to supervise or provide care.  These people are called caregivers because in many cases they had to give up other jobs (accountant, teacher, nurse) to take care of Mom and Dad.  So, basically, it’s a career change and careers need names.

What happens if you’re on your own?


What happens to older folks who don’t have relatives close by, or at all, to help them with doctor appointments, living independently, and other decisions that come with aging?  There is a name for that, too.  It’s called being an “elder orphan” and there are a lot of them.

“Twenty three percent of boomers will eventually be without family caretakers, according to Maria Torroella Carney, who has studied the issue and is chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at Northwell Health of Great Neck, N.Y.”*


Here are some ideas for elder orphans to put in place before a crisis happens:*

Consider where you live

Is it walkable, close to medical care, and close to friends who you can rely on?

Get organized

Get your legal documents in order and accessible to those who will be making decisions for you if you become incapacitated.

Consider communal living with other seniors.

Pool some money monthly for a caregiver or service who can help all of you in one spot.


Develop your social network so that friends can stop by with a meal or help with decisions as you age.

Know your benefits

Be sure you are using the governmental programs available for seniors if you qualify. These include Medicare, Medicaid, Supplemental Nursing Assistance Program (SNAP), and Administration for Communal Living (see the website for programs and grants




Hoping someone will care for you is not a plan.  Taking a few prudent steps before retirement will help elders without family caregivers with peace of mind and control over their aging process.

Can Change Change Your Life?

change, denver financial planner

No, the title isn’t a typo!  Recently two concepts have been in the news that make me ponder how much small change can change your future.  The first is a poll conducted by YouGov Omnibus in January of 2018 which found that 89% of Americans would stop to pick up a coin off the ground.


Of course, everyone has their price. 56% would pick up a penny, 11% a nickel, 6% a dime, and 14% need at least a quarter to bother bending down. 6% wouldn’t pick up a coin at all – germaphobes!  5% don’t know.  How hard is it to answer that question?


Next, I keep reading articles featuring apps that round up your purchases to the nearest dollar and deposit to your savings accounts.  I admit, I find this a little ridiculous.  I’ve always been a saver, even as a kid, and sometimes get frustrated that every 23-year-old doesn’t sign up for the maximum percentage allowed in their 401(k) like I did. Now is the time!  It’s not like you have kids bleeding your bank account dry yet.


But, hey, those were different days.  I didn’t have student debt (thanks, Mom and Dad!) and housing was much less expensive when I was starting out.  So, maybe I shouldn’t be so self-righteous at the thought of building a nest egg with small change, either on the street or through your phone.


The question is, does it work?

Any chance to break out my financial calculator gets me all giddy, so let’s run some numbers, shall we?


Let’s say Esther, 23-years old, earns $40,000/year.   She has two options to save:  One is to pick up loose change from the ground and round up all of her purchases to the next dollar and have it deposited to a savings account.  The other is to sign up for automatic deductions from her checking account to her Roth IRA.


Option 1:

Esther makes on average 5 purchases per day and rounds up her purchases to the nearest dollar.  Say the round-up averages 50 cents per purchase.  She also is very observant and picks up an average of 5 cents per day from the street.  This adds up to $2.55 per day that is deposited in Esther’s savings account earning 1% per year.  Through the magic of the HP 12-C calculator I can tell you that age 65, Esther would have $35,100.


Option 2:

Esther arranges for $229 per paycheck to be deposited in her Roth IRA, reaching the maximum of $5,500/year for contributions.  The Roth IRA is held in an investment account.  With a diversified mix of mutual funds (that she doesn’t mess around with and trade at the wrong times), Esther averages 6.5%/year on her Roth IRA investments until age 65.  Esther’s nest egg would be $550,000.


Yep, my way is $514,900 better, but it requires more sacrifice from Esther up front.  Fewer dinners out, more years with a roommate, driving an older car.  All those pesky grown up decisions.  I promise this $229 per paycheck habit will get easier over time as Esther’s earning power grows.


Esther’s older self will be so grateful for this early habit of being serious about saving and not just treating it like a rounding error.


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