No matter how old your children are, it’s always a good idea to start saving for college as soon as possible. (Yes, even when they’re still in diapers.) This might sound overwhelming, especially if you haven’t started, but take heart, it’s never too late. Here are a few things to do before you start saving, as well as smart ways to gather the resources you’ll need.
Figure Out How Much College Will Cost
Is your child interested in a state school? A small private university? Or a trade school? Create a list of schools, do the math and figure out a ballpark number of how much you’ll need. When you do this, you can calculate how much per month or year you need to set aside. The truth is that state schools are generally a lot less expensive. However, because private universities rely heavily on private donations, they also have a healthy number of scholarships available. If your child is more interested in a trade school, these can be even more affordable, depending on what they want to study.
Create a Long-Term Spreadsheet for All Your Expenses
You may want your children to go to college, but that’s not the only goal for a family. There’s saving for your own retirement, paying your mortgage and covering credit card bills. You’ll also want to save for emergencies. A good rule of thumb is to save up for three to six months of expenses. All of this might sound tough, but if you create a priority list, it’s absolutely possible.
Start an Education Savings Account (ESA)
Also known as an Education IRA, this fund allows you to save $2,000 (after taxes) per child, per year. And here’s the best part: it grows tax-free! You’ll also most likely earn a higher rate of return than you would with a regular savings account. But know this: you must be within the income limit to qualify; contributions are limited to $2,000 a year; and the money must be used by the time your child is 30.
Consider a 529 Plan
If the ESA sounds too limiting or you don’t meet the income limits, then a 529 Plan is a great option. Generally you can contribute up to $300,000, but this varies by state. What’s more, in most situations there aren’t any income limits or restrictions based on age. And again, the cherry on top: it grows tax-free. But something to be mindful of when you’re shopping for a plan is whether you want to choose the funds you invest in through the account. Some 529s offer preselected funds or automatically change your investments based on the age of your child. Also, restrictions may apply if you choose to transfer your 529 Plan to another child.
Look into a UTMA or UGMA
Otherwise known as Uniform Transfer/Gift to Minors Act, this option is different because it is not created just for college savings. The account will be set up in your child’s name, but it will be controlled by a custodian, which is usually a parent or grandparent. When your child turns 21, the control of the account transfers to the child. While there are tax advantages for you, a significant downside is that your child can use the funds any way she wants. (College or trip to Vegas?)
Saving for college, especially these days, might seem daunting. But it’s not impossible. In fact, if you chart a course and stick to it, you’ll be in good shape when those little ones of yours become all grown up.