With the ever-increasing costs of college, starting to save for a child’s college expenses can feel like a daunting endeavor. Not to mention balancing saving for college with the myriad of other financial priorities you or your family may be working towards such as your own long-term financial security. However, as with any financial goal, it begins by prioritizing and having a well documented and outlined goal that you’re working towards. For example, simply saying you want to help with your child’s college expenses is great, but how you save, how much to save, and where you save, are all important factors to consider. This article will explain money saving tips for college that are easily implemented!
1. Determine how much to Save
If you’re in the early stages of saving for college, it can be hard to determine exactly how much you’d like to save for your child. The costs can vary wildly from in-state public tuitions to out of state private schools. Is it important that your child have a choice in where they choose to go? Or will you dictate the school based on what’s affordable and what you’re able to save?
Once these questions have been addressed, a potential number to shoot for in terms of how much to save for college is around 50% of estimated costs. For example, if you’re shooting to save for 50% of the cost within a tax-advantaged account such as a 529 plan, you’re likely able to adequately save for college while also not forfeiting saving/investing for other goals. Not to mention, once funds are in a 529 and designated for school expenses, those funds cannot be used for anything unless you’re prepared to pay a hefty 10% penalty on the withdrawals.
Any additional savings above the 50% target could be saved in a taxable account earmarked for college, which doesn’t have the tax benefits of a 529, but would have more flexibility in being able to still use towards college expenses OR other goals. This can be beneficial especially if your child ends up receiving scholarships, financial aid, or decides to attend a college on the cheaper end of the spectrum, in which case the entirety of the 529 funds may not be needed.
Because college expenses will likely continue to change over the course of the next decade(s), there isn’t a magic number as to what parents should begin saving for their child’s college expenses. The key is actually starting to save and having a baseline target to start working towards based on projections without sacrificing your ability to works towards other financial goals as well.
2. Where to Save
As mentioned previously, a 529 is a great way to save for college expenses in a tax-advantaged way. If your state has it’s own 529 plan you may also receive a deduction on contributions to the plan. If not, you’re still able to benefit from tax-free growth within the account. Meaning, as your investments in the 529 grow, you’re not paying taxes every year on investment gains or dividends and interest. Rather, you’re allowing the totality of those gains, dividends, and interest to remain invested and continue to compound. Resulting in a much larger overall return than what would otherwise be earned in a “taxable” account.
Keep in mind that 529’s MUST be used for eligible expenses or a hefty 10% penalty is charged on top of any income taxes on earnings in the account. Therefore, ensuring whats contributed to a 529 is specifically used for schooling expenses is key. If you’re worried that your potentially overfunding, it can be a good idea to instead invest outside the 529 as discussed earlier. This would provide more flexibility in what you can eventually use the funds for, whether that’s for college expenses or other financial goals.
Other options for saving for college expenses are UTMA/UGMA accounts or Roth IRA’s. However, they each have their downsides when compared to 529’s.
UTMA/UGMA accounts are custodial accounts that pass to the child once they reach the age of majority (typically 18 or 21 in most states) at which point in time the account becomes theirs. This is advantageous if wanting to gift funds to the child for expenses outside of college such as purchasing a car, home, etc. However, because the fund is the child’s once they reach the age of majority they can use the funds for whatever they please which could go against your wishes. Secondly, the funds are counted as an asset on the child’s balance sheet when applying for financial aid which could negatively impact the aid they receive.
Roth IRA’s can be used for college savings since the contributions of the account can always be tapped into tax and penalty free. However, the argument to save in this way is small, since in an ideal situation you’re not using funds from a Roth IRA to pay for college expenses, you’re using them for your own long-term financial security.
In most cases, the 529 and its tax benefits outweigh the other options when it comes to saving for college expenses.
3. How to Save
As with most financial goals, automating finances can ensure you’re making meaningful, tangible progress over time while reducing the stress of having to manage it on a week to week or month to month basis. Setting up automatic contributions to a 529 that aligns with when you get paid, is an easy way to ensure you’re prioritizing saving for college. Over time, as your pay increases, consider allocating more of your savings towards the 529.
If you receive a large cash infusion whether from bonus pay, exercising stock options, vesting RSU’s, or whatever it might be, consider using a lump sum contribution to the 529. The more you’re able to contribute to a 529 early on, the more time you have to benefit from the tax-free compounding of investments. The same principle rings true in retirement savings. Rather than waiting until you’re 50 to start saving for retirement, it’s smart to start early because the funds have more TIME to benefit from compounding. For example, if you’re able to contribute a lump sum of $15,000 at the start of saving for college expenses with another 15 years until your child will use the funds, the $15,000 contribution is likely going to result in a larger balance at the end of the 15 years than if you were to contribute $83.33 every month for 15 years since the entirety of the $15,000 will benefit from being invested at the onset as oppose to small portions over the long period of time. Of course, there’s also the factors of market performance and asset allocation within the 529 itself that predicate the long-term investment success.
529’s are also unique in the sense you’re able to front-load up to 5 years of the gift-tax amount towards contributions. In 2019, the gift-tax free amount any individual can gift to another without reducing their lifetime exemption is $15,000. If you gift $16,000 it starts reducing your lifetime exemption amount. Without getting into the weeds about gifting and estate taxes, ideally, you want to avoid reducing the lifetime exemption if able, since we don’t know what gift and estate taxes will look like down the road. In this case, if you or a family member (potentially grandparents looking to gift to grandchildren) can contribute up to $75,000 upfront to the 529 and the account can then benefit from compounding for longer! This also won’t impact the individual’s gift/estate tax exemption while also allowing them to gift the cash for “free”.
The Bottom Line
The earlier you’re able to develop a college savings strategy the more likely you’ll be able to successfully integrate it into your holistic financial picture. It can be difficult to balance the myriad of financial priorities as a young family. The key is to have conversations, prioritize goals, and automate finances when able. Over time, implementing these money saving tips for college helps simplify decisions, personal finances, and the ability to achieve financial goals.
If you’re ready to start saving for college, have questions about 529’s, or need help figuring out how to balance the variety of different financial goals young families are looking to accomplish, schedule a free consultation today!
Levi Sanchez is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, BEHAVIORAL FINANCIAL ADVISOR™ and Founder of Millennial Wealth, a fee-only financial planning firm for young professionals and tech industry employees. Levi’s been quoted in the New York Times, Business Insider, Forbes, and is a frequent contributor to Investopedia. He is an avid sports fan, personal finance and investing geek, and enjoys a great TV show or movie. His mission is to help educate his generation about better money habits and provide financial planning services to those who want to start planning for their future today!